As half of one of Britain’s most cherished songwriting duos, Squeeze founder Chris Difford’s place in the music hall of fame is assured. Your East Sussex caught up with the Cool for Cats singer in the rural splendour of his adopted East Sussex home village.
He never thought it would happen, with him and the girl from Clapham. Four decades after reaching the upper reaches of the charts with hits such as Up the Junction, Squeeze founder Chris Difford has long since swapped the grimy streets of south London for rural East Sussex. “The people here are lovely – everyone looks out for everybody else,” he says, perching on a bench beside a cricket field in leafy Firle, near Lewes, to a bucolic soundtrack of songbirds and bleating lambs. “There’s a spiritual vein which runs through the landscape here and that’s really important to me. The changing of the seasons make you think more about the passing of time. It’s just a great place to be.” Difford, now 63, and Squeeze-cofounder Glenn Tilbrook first crossed paths 46 years ago when the former employed an old-fashioned method to entice the latter to join his imaginary ‘band’.
“I put an ad in a sweet shop window because I was looking for mates,” he says. “It was a bit like Tinder before there was Tinder.
“Like most relationships, we’ve had our ups and downs but from then on, the rest of my life has been joined with his.” Rising to prominence in the New Wave scene of the late 70s, Squeeze, whose original line-up included future TV star Jools Holland on keyboards, found a winning formula fusing Difford’s kitchen-sink lyrics with Tilbrook’s catchy melodies.
Debut single Take Me, I’m Yours scraped the top 20 in 1978 and the following year, Cool for Cats and the aforementioned Up the Junction each reached the dizzy heights of number two, earning the band a string of appearances on the UK’s top-rating TV chart show. “People were in awe of the fact we went on Top of the Pops but for us it was just a giggle,” says Difford. “It was something I’d always wanted to do, but by the time we’d been on three or four times, it was just like going to the swimming baths.”
Appearing on stage didn’t come easily to Difford, who took to the bottle, sparking a battle with alcoholism which would contribute to the band’s first break-up in 1984. “When you’re young and you’re given the opportunity to be on stage and you don’t know how to deal with it, the drink numbs your emotions so you don’t have to feel it,” he says. “It’s like wearing a diving suit – you feel safe within it and protected from your surroundings, but ultimately it’s the most dangerous thing you can possibly do.” The band split when Difford went into rehab – happily he’s been teetotal for 26 years – but have since twice reformed.
Today, he tours as a solo performer and alongside Tilbrook in the current incarnation of Squeeze – sans their original keyboardist, who has other commitments. “It was no surprise when Jools became a big star,” says Difford. “The first day I met him and saw him play piano and his character, I thought: ‘Whatever happens to Squeeze, he’s going to have a career of his own’.” Difford and his writing partner were once dubbed ‘the new Lennon and McCartney’ and he passes on his craft to others through songwriting workshops at Tilton House, on the Charleston estate near his home. While a fan of lyricists such as Lily Allen, Arctic Monkeys frontman Alex Turner and young south London rapper Dave, Difford feels young people growing up in the internet age lack the ambition and the obsession with music which fuelled his rise to the top.
“My parents had fought in the war and had to work for themselves to make ends meet,” he says. “They had nothing and I was horrified by that and wanted to escape, to be someone else.
“Today, you’ve got a generation of kids who can get out of bed in the morning and have everything on tap, for free – music, television, books, fi lms – without having to stretch their hand out.” Now an adopted East Sussex local, having previously lived for 15 years in Peasmarsh, near Rye, Difford cemented his local links when, in 2015, Squeeze became shirt sponsor for Lewes Football Club. “I was coaxed into it with a promise of tea and cake at half time,” he says. “I was quite taken by the people who run it – they do a great job keeping the club going. But I never got any tea or cake.”
After 46 years in the game – chart singles, Top of the Pops appearances and all – Difford says he only finally felt he’d ‘made it’ two years ago, in a muddy field in Somerset. “We were playing at Glastonbury when the penny finally dropped, after all these years,” he says. “It was incredible – so emotional – and I thought: ‘Wow, this is it – we’ve really turned a corner’. “When I was 16, this was all I ever wanted to do and I’m much more up for it now than I ever was in the past, but I have to work twice as hard now.”
By Tim Fletcher