Chris Difford, co-founder of chart-toppers Squeeze, is on his way to Cork and other Irish venues to play acoustic shows and to reminisce, says Ed Power
SQUEEZE were never really a successful band, says Chris Difford. He has a point — if you discount hit singles, such as ‘Cool For Cats’, ‘Up the Junction’, and ‘Slap and Tickle’, sell-out tours both sides of the Atlantic, and critics who lauded Difford and songwriting partner Glenn Tilbrook as the new Lennon and McCartney.
“I think of U2 as a successful band,” says the singer. “I don’t see Squeeze in that way. We’re professional and have done some great things. I don’t know what ‘success’ is — maybe that’s the problem.”
With acoustic shows in Cork, Dublin, Galway, and elsewhere, Difford will delve into the Squeeze catalogue and also share anecdotes from his 40-year career as a chart-topping outsider.
He has a lot to talk about — from Squeeze’s unlikely emergence at the height of British punk, to the contribution of their early keyboardist, Jools Holland, to a temporary split in the 1990s.
Difford embarked on an unlikely second career, as manager of Bryan Ferry and consultant to Elton John, who, Difford confirmed in his riveting autobiography, Some Fantastic Place, dons marigold gloves and does his own dishes.
“I’m going to be talking about my journey,” he says. “How I got where I am today. Writing the biography was very rewarding, though that’s not why I did it. It just seemed like a good idea at the time. I did wonder: ‘why am I doing this’? But I’ve got really good feedback, so I’m pleased at how it’s turned out.”
Difford has a phlegmatic manner and exudes little of the traditional rock-star lustre. A cool head has doubtless proved useful, considering he’s been on a rollercoaster ever since he borrowed 50p from his mother to put an ad in the window of a sweetshop in Deptford, south London.
In it, he claimed to be the representative of a band that needed new members. There was no band, just him — as he would have to explain to Tilbrook, the only one to respond. But they were soon up-and-running, taking their name from an obscure Velvet Underground track and talking that group’s John Cale into producing their debut LP (“He was an inspirational guy to work with, but I felt that it was almost like we were writing for what he wanted, rather than what the band itself was,” Tilbrook would comment).
“I was very lucky that someone picked up the phone and called,” Difford says of meeting Tilbrook. “Then, Jools Holland came along. It didn’t take long to put it together. If I hadn’t put that ad in the shop window, we’d never have existed. You don’t appreciate the madness of it all, until you’ve had time to reflect. When you look back, you think, ‘well, now I can see the madness’. I always wanted to be in a band and have music around. Now, I’m 63 and in a position where I can gaze back and take it all in.”
Squeeze broke up in 1999 and he and Tilbrook became distant. He didn’t know there would be a reconciliation. There could very easily not have been. “We didn’t speak for seven years. It didn’t really bother me, because I’d made the decision, and once you make a decision you’ve got to commit.”
He got sidetracked for several years, working with Bryan Ferry. In the most bizarre chapter of Some Fantastic Place, he recalls toiling as a cross between personal assistant and mentor to the demanding, former Roxy Music man.
“I would often drive Bryan to Sotheby’s and Christie’s, where he’d dive out to look at the paintings, while I would sit in the car, at the kerb, with the radio on,” he writes in the book. “All I needed was the chauffeur’s hat. I mentioned this in passing to Bryan, and he went to Jermyn Street and bought me one. The gesture would have been funny, if it weren’t so loaded… I got used to accompanying him about the place, dining with gold-toothed Russian billionaires on Park Lane, or at the Groucho Club, with his former Roxy Music bandmate, Brian Eno, and REM singer, Michael Stipe, whose band had recently signed an $80m record contract. Michael and I talked about the past and how REM had opened for Squeeze years before. I was in a very different place now.”
Having moved on from Ferry, he later became a mentor to Marti Pellow, of Wet Wet Wet, who shared a house with Difford for two years. “Marti was self-obsessed,” he writes in Some Fantastic Place. “Not necessarily a disadvantage for a frontman, but very trying for those around him, when the hits dried up. We all had to live with his mood swings and eternal disappointment that he was no longer No 1 in the charts.
“He had his sights set on being the next Robbie Williams, and talked constantly about getting film work, or appearing on stage. He wanted nothing less than James Bond as his first role. In Marti’s mind, he was a superstar.”
Squeeze reformed in the 2000s and continue to tour and record, releasing a new album, The Knowledge, last October. Difford also maintains an interest in the business side of the industry and has advised Cavan retro rock group, The Strypes.
“I’m not a manger — it’s more like being a friend to somebody. If they have a question to ask about contracts or publishing, I can assist with that, because I’ve been there and done it. The Strypes are a great bunch. They’re touring with Paul Weller, at the moment. They write brilliant songs. I’m very proud to be their friend.”
He has fond memories of Ireland, from the days when a young Dublin band got in touch, wondering if they could support Squeeze in London.
“When I met Bono for the first time, at one of our gigs, I was struck that he had an incredible personality and, for someone so young, such ambition. I knew they were going to be big. Much later, they were very
gracious and asked us to support them at Croke Park. It’s a wonderful memory.”
The Some Fantastic Place tour starts Friday in Castlebar; and visits Whelan’s, Dublin, next Tuesday; Ballyhane Studio, Birdhill, Co Tipperary, March 8; Monroe’s Galway, March 9; and Ballymaloe Grainstore, Saturday, March 10.