Chris Difford: I was terrified of going on stage... shyness and addictions go hand in hand
Ahead of a gig in Belfast on March 7, Squeeze lyricist Chris Difford tells Una Brankin about childhood visits to his Northern Ireland relatives and how he beat the demons of drugs, drink and wild spending
In his colourful 2017 memoir, the celebrated lyricist Chris Difford - with his typically keen sense of detail - recalls the various whiffs that can still transport him straight back to his youth in the Sixties and early Seventies.
Brut aftershave and spray-on deodorant intermingle with "the dry crusty odour of socks in football boots", but it's the "sweetest smell of peat burning on the fire", from his aunt's house outside Coleraine, that remains the most evocative for him.
From a council estate in south-east London, the Squeeze songwriter also witnessed a less benign conflagration on one of his visits to his Northern Ireland relatives, on his mother Isabel Hamilton's side.
"I remember staying with my cousin in Belfast, in an estate just outside the city. I was lying in bed and this huge explosion went off," he says.
"I could see all these flames burning away outside the window, and I remember the soldiers on the streets constantly.
"It was quite terrifying for a young boy, but we used to go over on delightful holidays to the Antrim coast. I close my eyes and still get that incredibly beautiful smell of the countryside."
Now 63 and living near Brighton with his second wife, Louise, Chris is back in Belfast next week for a music-and-storytelling show based on his entertaining autobiography, Some Fantastic Place: My Life In And Out Of Squeeze, which charts his working-class upbringing in 1960s Greenwich and his rise to fame in one of the biggest British bands of the 1970s and 1980s.
Along with co-founder and singer Glen Tilbrook, Chris produced a string of distinctively catchy hits with stand-out, kitchen sink drama-style lyrics.
There are few from that generation who could forget Cool For Cats, Up The Junction, Labelled With Love, Tempted, Pulling Mussels (From The Shell), Black Coffee in Bed, and Annie Get Your Gunn, to name the most famous Squeeze tunes.
But the success of the band came with its fair share of problems for Chris, a reserved person by nature. He has battled addictions to alcohol, drugs and spending in his time, all of which he details candidly in his book.
"I was shy - terrified - going on stage, but I got used to it," he recalls, down the line from his publicist's office. Shyness and addictions go hand in hand. Being reserved and kind of quiet, you can be attracted to that way of life.
"The over-spending (cars, houses, clothes) was manic, I suppose. It comes in waves. It doesn't really fill the hole in the doughnut. It just gets you by temporarily. In the past, it could be very disruptive to be like that. I can manage it better now. Medication helps."
After the break-up of Squeeze in 1983, Chris continued writing songs, this time with Elvis Costello, Jools Holland, Elton John, Wet Wet Wet, Marti Pellow and others.
As a lyricist, he was much in-demand and won an Ivor Novello award for his work on the film The Flame Still Burns.
Then, to the delight of their long-time fans, Squeeze reunited in 1985, having a hit in the US with a song called Hourglass, while constantly touring from coast to coast.
Afterwards, Chris decided to leave the group in 1999 to launch a solo career and released an album called I Didn't Get Where I Am, in 2003.
But it's the classic Squeeze hits from the Seventies and Eighties that have endured.
Music journalists dubbed Difford and Tilbrook the new Lennon and McCartney, and the likes of Lily Allen, Mark Ronson, Kasabian and The Feeling have all recognised the debt they owe to Squeeze's music and to Chris's way with words.
When it comes to fellow lyricists, the writer admires a couple of legendary ones from these shores, as well as some famous English songwriters with Irish blood.
"I grew up with the Beatles, Jim Reeves and The Batchelors," he laughs. "Mixed collection - lot of Irish. I discovered Van Morrison when he did the live album with the string section and orchestra. I played it constantly. And the new album recently was great. He just gets better, he doesn't seem to stop.
"Shane MacGowan is incredibly talented, without a doubt. "I did a show with him in Dublin 20 years ago. He's difficult to get on with - he kept falling asleep, which was a bit odd, but put him behind a mic and he's transformed.
"Morrissey, he has slightly escaped me. He and Lennon and Oasis, they all write in a conversational, rhythmic way. Catchy."
Chris last played Belfast two years ago with the reformed Squeeze. This time, he's coming with singer-songwriter Boo Hewerdine (from the band The Bible) on his Some Fantastic Acoustic Book Tour, which heads to America in May.
He will regale the audience about some of the key events in his life in music from his autobiography and perform some of his biggest hits acoustically, alongside tracks from Pants, a best-of album featuring songs from a stage play created by Chris and Boo a couple of years ago.
Those attending the Empire gig can look forward to some amusing anecdotes from the artist's life, featuring music icons such as Elton John, who helped Chris fight his addictions and "does his own washing up in a pair of rubber gloves", and his boyhood idol Bryan Ferry, a perfectionist who likes all his pencils to be sharpened to the same height.
A one-time manager of Ferry, Chris has more recently turned his attention to The Strypes, the critically acclaimed young Irish band from Cavan. He was approached to produce some tracks for the baby-faced group before becoming their manager.
"They do remind me of myself at that age in some ways," he reflects. "The cockiness you have at that age. But they're really delightful and very receptive, and their musicianship is stunning.
"I went to meet their parents five or six years ago. I've never been to somewhere like that before, a small town in the middle of Ireland. Difficult for kids to find jobs there, and these guys gravitated towards learning instruments so they could leave town and find their fortune in the world.
"From the first time I put their tape on, it all made sense."
As a solo artist, Chris has performed in Londonderry, Belfast and his aunt's hometown of Coleraine, and always found the audiences "lovely". He has no intentions of retiring from the road, as long as he's able for it.
"I'm in good health - I got up this morning," he quips. "I do miss home when I'm touring. There's all the getting to and from gigs, and a lot of hanging around on tour. But then you have the reward of people coming to see you play and that makes up for it.
"I do songwriting workshops, too, and I'd love to do a one in Ireland if I could find the right venue - a small hotel or an empty house where the host wouldn't mind 14 or 15 songwriters hanging out in their living room."
In the meantime, he promises lots of funny stories between the songs at the Empire.
"I'm teetotal, so I'll give the Guinness a miss when I'm over," he concludes. "I'll just look at a pint and pine."
Chris Difford brings his Some Fantastic Acoustic Book Tour to the Belfast Empire on Wednesday, March 7, 7.30pm. For more information go to www.thebelfastempire.com
A working-class childhood filled with wonder
A short extract from Some Fantastic Place: My Life In And Out Of Squeeze, by Chris Difford.
Published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (RRP £20).
"King George Street in Charlton, south London, was my first home. Six prefabs, three pubs, a school, a church and a yard where the electricity board kept cables. Two long rows of terraced houses faced each other at one end of the street; and, at the other, big houses with big doors and even bigger windows.
"There was a phone box next to one of the pubs, and when it rang everyone came out to see who it was for. It was a tiny road - at one end of which there was Greenwich Park. It was heaven being there, its beauty always shone on me from the trees at sunsets and from the bushes in the rain.
"I was there in all weathers. It was 1964, I was 10 years old and this is when my memory really begins. The previous decade is built up from vague recollections that lean heavily on the imagination."