It was just 50p that set Chris Difford up for the rest of his life. And it wasn’t even his 50p. It paid for an advert looking for a guitarist to join a band that didn’t actually exist. Glenn Tilbrook responded (well, more accurately, Tilbrook’s girlfriend Maxine did), and a bond is forged that connects Difford and Tilbrook for the next 44 years and still counting.
If Chris has had any help writing this, it’s been done with the lightest of touches. Chris’s voice is very much in evidence, his turn of phrase on every turn of page. It’s a candid, unflinching assessment of his work, his upbringing, his marriages and his addictions.
Throughout the book Chris paints himself as an outsider. The third of three boys, his brothers are grown men when he is born, making him almost an only child. His affection for his parents shines through but his home life full of silence and distance. Therapy later in life entails searches for explanations for his demons but Chris feels it revealed little memory of conflict or unhappiness.
Describing his childhood there are suspicions of infidelity, acts of jealous anger and feelings going unsaid – the latter something that precisely encapsulates his depiction of his relationship with Tilbrook.
Nicknamed “Mo” at school, an epithet I recall from my school years, lobbed at anyone who wasn’t “hard”, he’s not alpha enough to fit in through sport. Put in goal for football, “batting like a little girl and in running I walked”. His academic achievements are also limited, struggling with unrecognised dyslexia and to his father’s dismay inept at maths – “I was nice but dim”.
Withdrawing into a rich fantasy life with imaginary friends (which later became fantasy bands) he seems never to fit in, no matter where he is. From hippy to a skinhead who can’t stomach the casual violence it’s music that becomes his first and most abiding passion.
Chris is hard on himself, rarely giving himself any credit beyond a song or two. Even before the advent of Squeeze he feels he will never be as talented or intelligent as Keith Emerson or Robert Wyatt – something he says he is still coming to terms with. And yet he forms Porky’s Falling Spikes where he bluffs his way on bass, getting support slots with Brinsley Schwarz, Ducks Deluxe and The Flaming Groovies. He brushes off his contribution as his ability to score drugs and load the truck whilst loaded himself. Not for the first time he dismisses his musical value – “the bluff was total”.
His dad tells him “If you join a rock n roll band son you’ll end up an alcoholic, a drug addict and skint”. According to Chris “it turns out he was absolutely right”. But rock and roll is the path he chooses and a stolen 50p earns him his introduction to Glenn Tilbrook. On meeting Glenn and his girlfriend Maxine Chris recalls “They were like Mary and Joseph. I may have been the donkey”. So not Jesus then.
Chris has spent four decades of being in awe of Tilbrook. Glenn teaches him new chords, and how to tune his guitar, Glenn’s voice Paul McCartney to his Lou Reed. A band is formed – briefly called “Cum” but in turn Squeeze. Chris the pens words, leaves them on the stairs and Glenn takes them away and turns them into songs. According to Chris, Glenn is “a born leader – something I’ve fought against from the start for no reason. After all, I could never do it myself”.
The ascent to stardom arrives at a gallop, possibly because the way drink and drugs have scrubbed holes in memories. Jools Holland joins the band – a real man’s man, “dangerous”, and in 1976 they sign on the line for £15 a week with Miles Copeland.
Initial record company indifference is matched only by the bands growing capacity for drink and drugs. Indifferent to the arrival of punk – “I was always looking for the lyric and I felt there was no depth to it” – Copeland spots an opportunity and with the addition of a few safety pins and some hair dye the recently new wave Squeeze sign to A&M and record an album despite star producer John Cale not because of him. “Take Me I’m Yours” (recorded when Cale was off ill) becomes a chart hit. “Rebels without any real cause” and no image to speak of they are off and running.
Many albums and tours follow, each seemingly invoking joy and anxiety in Difford, who takes refuge in drink. Difford depicts Tilbrook as the one with the vision and drive, whilst Difford finds himself resentful but unable to articulate his ideas and needs, sulky whilst fearful of Glenn’s reaction if he expresses any adverse comments. The parallel with his parent’s marriage is both obvious and unremarked upon.
Band members, managers and wives come and go but the bond that ties Chris and Glenn together has results in several incarnations of Squeeze and withstands an 8-year period where they barely spoke, reuniting for weddings and funerals. Chris frequently reflects on his discomfort with change whilst acknowledging Glenn’s ability to see the need and make it happen. It’s only when Chris finally accepts his addictions and goes into rehab – “I had become stuffed with sadness, but at last I was being unpacked” – that he finds a way to start working with others musicians as well “let go of all of my fear around my relationship with Glenn”.
Given the stark nature of the way he lays out his life and his failings it’s heartening to see the book close with Chris describing how he now enjoys performing both with Glenn as well as in his own right, and how he now has 25 years of sobriety behind him – a sobriety he touchingly dedicates to Glenn’s ex-girlfriend Maxine who reached out to Chris not long before she died to and opened his eyes to just how much he needed to get on the wagon.
Although familiar with Squeeze’s work, this book covers Chris’s other exploits as a manager and a slol artist – it’s fascinating stuff. There’s also mention of occasional AW’er Chris Topham, – he of the record label “Plane Groovy” (who released Chris’s “I Didn’t Get Where I Am” album) and erstwhile jumbo jet pilot.
Chris seems to finally be at home with himself;” I still want to be that guy who sings “Cool For Cats, and I still want to be a little but famous. All the big cash is sadly gone but I still have socks in my shoes”
In recent years Glenn and Chris have toured an acoustic show with just the two of them – the “At Odds Couple” who start the show in bed Eric & Ernie style. Here’s hoping this odd couple keep going for many more years.
Length of Read:Medium
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