From crap jobs to Top of the Pops

1 Sep|Chris Difford

Squeeze backstage at the Marquee Club in London

For a few years now we at the Idler have been working with Chris Difford, the fantastically talented lyricist from Squeeze. He’s done talks at festivals and dinners, and runs our online songwriting course. So we’re delighted to publish a few chunks from his new autobiography, Some Fantastic Place (W&N).

For a while I worked as an office clerk for a local solicitor’s office run by a tall, scary-looking lady called Miss Griffiths and a thin, tired-looking man with glasses called Mr James. They seemed to never speak to one another: I was working for my parents, it seemed. There was a staff of about twenty spread over two offices – one in Tranquil Vale in Blackheath, the other in Charlton. My job was to fetch files from here and there, and take them up to London to the law courts. On the train from Blackheath to Charing Cross, I would write poems that I had started to fall in love with in my notebook and dream of better days ahead. I enjoyed the work as it took me to a wonderful part of town where history loomed down on me everywhere I walked.

They liked me there and my £15 a week was soon raised to £18, plus travel and notebooks by the score. My parents were happy. I looked smart and I had a job; I was on the road to great things as far as they were concerned. One day I might even be a lawyer. After ten months of being a good boy and arriving on time I was given the keys to the office. I was such a nice lad. One of my jobs was to close up at night and tidy the desks. But after a year in a suit and tie, I decided that life was too precious to waste on studying law at night school, and going up and down to London on the train in clean underpants. My social life seemed a better alternative to the working one, so one Thursday night I emptied the safe of the entire wages tray – all neatly collected and counted in brown envelopes. I was loaded and it felt fantastic. It simply didn’t occur to me that I wouldn’t get away with it. All I had to do was cover my tracks, come up with some story and it would all go away. It didn’t bother me at all.

That night I went to the pub, The Three Tuns in Blackheath, and scored some speed. I bought some albums and still had enough left over for the deposit on a rented fl at of my own. I was off sick for three weeks, spending my way around London, then my dad got a letter asking where I was. I was busted. No more carrying briefs for barristers in chambers; no more arse-licking Miss Griffiths in the office; no more job. My dad promised to pay them back the money so long as the police weren’t called in.

I was a chancer and I was stupid and naive to even try to rob people of their wages, but at the time I was dipping in and out of reality, in and out of drugs and in and out of the pub. I was not thinking logically. Dad was losing the plot with me; Mum was drinking too much and generally losing the plot, but not the same one as Dad. It was time to move out. School was done, skinheads were done, but the bug for music was just getting under my skin. I was in the very small world of experimentation and song. I was writing three lyrics a day, I was in another place. Mum and Dad got the raw end of the deal. I remember standing in the kitchen at Combe Avenue with my dad, and him saying, ‘If you join a rock and roll band, son, you’ll end up an alcoholic, a drug addict and skint.’ And, as it turned out, he was absolutely right. I was tripping, though, and in no mood to listen. I was more amazed by the fact that I was able to put my hand right through his chest and watch it come out the other side.

‘What are you doing?’ he asked.
‘That was amazing,’ I said.
‘Have you been drinking that cider again?’
They asked me to move out the next day.

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Blackheath was where I first met Glenn Tilbrook, back in April 1973. I put an advert in a shop window for a guitarist to join a band. I had no band. It said I had a pending record deal and a tour lined up. I had neither deal nor tour. The advert cost me 50p – I took the money from my mum’s purse. That 50p got me to where I am today, which is some journey. I was looking for a friend. I was a lonely young man, fresh from being a skinhead and now, with long hair, slipping into flared jeans and leaning gently toward the hippy. From beating people up in Dr Marten boots to loving people in bare feet. A change of clothes, a change of music and now a change of friends.

Maxine, Glenn’s girlfriend, talked him into calling the number on the ad. At home my mum had a phone table by the front door, and when the phone rang she would take her time perching on the velvet chair next to it before lifting the large green plastic receiver. It was like she was pretending to be royal. ‘Christopher,’ she called. ‘It’s for you.’ I raced downstairs and spoke for the first time to Maxine – Glenn was too shy – the only person to call in two weeks of the ad being in the window. I was thrilled.

We met a few weeks later at The Three Tuns. Through the frosted window I could see two young hippies standing around outside, one in pink trousers with no shoes, the other in an angel-like white dress and sandals. They both had long hair and looked like brother and sister. I recognised the boy as being that annoying hippy who played mandolin by the zebra crossing in the middle of Blackheath Village. At other times he would sit in the fl ower beds playing guitar and looking like he floated rather than walked. I also remembered seeing them together at the Osmosis Club in Kidbrooke, idiot-dancing to ‘All Right Now’ by Free on the dance floor; he looked like a deer caught in the headlights as he leapt around the hall. I didn’t know what to do. But as fate would have it I strolled outside and introduced myself.

When Glenn and I first met that day outside The Three Tuns in 1973, I was wearing a psychedelic coat made of paisley tinsel, which I’d found in the local Oxfam shop. At least that’s how Glenn remembers it. I seem to recall I was wearing a donkey jacket of the highest order. Either version will do – they’re both sides of the same coin. Glenn and Maxine were dressed in silks and cotton, cheesecloth and beads. Shoeless Glenn looked like Jesus without a beard; Maxine like an angel – beautiful and glowing with life. Glenn I knew from the long hair falling over his pretty face, and Maxine because she was always by his side, looking so calm and beautiful. They were like Mary and Joseph. I may have been the donkey.

I got the sense he was more nervous than I was as we stood there outside the pub. We talked for about ten minutes, then they said I should come to Maxine’s house, a short walk away, to hear Glenn play and hang out for the afternoon. I was still very nervous and unsure. One side of Tonto’s Expanding Head Band later and we were joined at the hip. The house was on four floors; it was the first posh home I had ever been to. It was like a palace to me – I’d been living on a council estate made of breeze blocks. In Maxine’s bedroom, Glenn played along with Jimi Hendrix, and I sat and watched as he effortlessly ran up and down the guitar fretboard. She made jasmine tea, which I’d never heard of. I was in love with them both from that moment and I went home that night lost in the idea of being part of this new world. They were the opposite of anyone I’d ever met before.

Glenn was locally famous for being kicked out of school for refusing to cut his hair, and had been in the local paper. Oddly, it was the same school Boy George attended. A rebel at an early age. He seemed similar to me in some ways. I think we were both a bit lost – musical, but with deep distant dreams of stardom at whatever level. Glenn had a small band of friends at the time who all seemed soft-natured and very gentle. I had not had people around me like this ever; it was quite a wake-up call. I felt like a leaf that had fallen from a tree onto a bed of flowers.

Shortly after we first met, I called and invited them both over to my house in Combe Avenue. We sat on my single bed and I played some of my songs. They seemed impressed, and before long we were seeing each other from time to time as we built up our friendship. Within a few weeks they were inviting friends around to hear my songs too. I would sit cross-legged on my single bed as I treated people to ‘Welcome to Mars’, an earnest song about space travel that was inspired by the lyrics of Peter Hamill from Van der Graaf Generator; or ‘To Catch a Girl’s Eyes’, taken from the paws of Neil Sedaka, a mixture of light and shade, minor and major keys. My small audience filled my bedroom. I was an indifferent guitarist but managed to make my way through the chords I had written for what were mostly naive lyrics. Glenn played me some of his songs too; it was as if we were courting each other. My parents, who were sitting downstairs watching Some Mothers Do ’Ave ’Em, had no idea a partnership had just been born. Neither did I.

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Top of the Pops wasn’t at all as I’d expected. It was like being back at school, complete with a headmasterly producer and DJ Peter Powell, who played the role of head boy. I remember heading downstairs to the dressing rooms and walking along a corridor seeing the names of all these famous acts – Thin Lizzy, Tubeway Army, Gerry Rafferty, etc. Jools and I headed immediately to the door marked ‘Legs & Co.’ to introduce ourselves and try to convince them we were the band that were going places, but when I opened the door we were met with the sight of Bucks Fizz’s David Van Day swanning around in a polo-neck jumper and way-too-tight trousers, chatting to the girls. Every time I go to Brighton and pass his hot-dog stand by the Churchill Centre, I look back at that moment and wonder which of us had the better journey.

I bumped into Gary Numan in the corridor and the first thing that struck me was how bad his make-up was – I wondered why he’d bothered with it. I was never a big fan of his, especially when his record kept ‘Up the Junction’ off the number 1 slot. We also met Thin Lizzy, who we got on well with. My ‘in’ with Phil Lynott was being able to tell him we’d recently stayed at his mum’s Manchester B&B while we were touring, and that I’d had to sleep in the bath due to Gilson’s snoring. Downstairs in the bar, the scene was like something from O Lucky Man!, with Manchester United footballers, CID officers, the local mayor and some scantily clad women surrounding Phil’s mum, who held court all night long. I remember being served beans on toast at four in the morning. It was bliss.

I’d expected Top of the Pops to feel inclusive and open, a community of artists coming together in mutual support, but it actually felt like the opposite. Everybody seemed surprisingly guarded and distant during the recording, but things opened up a little once we all headed up to the BBC rooftop bar. Here, the record company plied us with drinks – making sure they also got a few in for the producer – and we hung out with the other acts, while casting glances at various newsreaders and the Two Ronnies. I think we were at a crossover point, where the poppier bands from the Seventies became arseholes because they couldn’t quite cope with the youth who were coming up, so they didn’t really know how to react. We’d be in a little circle with the record company, who’d be buying us drinks, and we’d just be avoiding everyone else on the other side. DJs at that point had an ego because they were on TV a lot, which was far above their station, so in other words if you weren’t nice to them they wouldn’t play you on Radio 1. And I found that a trap really – because I didn’t want to get to know them but I did want to be on Radio 1. Being on telly lifted the step. I was walking into the pub just waiting for people to recognise me. The feeling of being on TV was a feeling of having arrived, but where? My parents loved it and rushed all the neighbours into the house to watch the programme with them. Being on the radio was now commonplace. John Peel gave us a few sessions live in the BBC Maida Vale studios. Fags were lit and smoked on one side of the mouth as I waltzed along the high street in my blue jacket with a black velvet collar, tripping up on thin air. My dreams of being in a band and taking off were taxiing to the runway. We were now vaguely famous. Storm Thorgerson filmed the band on Deptford High Street (though I’ve never actually seen the footage) and we were photographed by Jill Furmanovsky, who was Miles’s squeeze at the time. It was wonderful. We were being filmed and photographed locally, which made me feel important. We had arrived, albeit on Deptford Broadway in south London.

Copyright Chris Difford.
To buy the book, go to Chris’s website: http://chrisdifford.com/merch-2/