Some Fantastic Place by Chris Difford review – Squeeze v David Cameron

The co-writer of Up the Junction and other pop classics recounts his career from working-class roots to stardom

Good rock music is all about good timing, and in this quirky memoir by one of the founding members of new-wave band Squeeze, guitarist and lyricist Chris Difford shows that it’s equally important for anyone who wants to write about it. Take the occasion in January 2016 when Squeeze were invited to play the title track from their latest album, Cradle to the Grave, on BBC1’s The Andrew Marr Show. Noticing that the other guests included David Cameron, who was keen to justify his government’s decision to knock down old council estates, singer Glenn Tilbrook improvised some sharp new lyrics: “I grew up in council housing,” he sang, “Part of what made Britain great / There are some here who are hell bent / On the destruction of the welfare state.” Difford observes drily that Cameron sat on the sofa clapping along, and “came over to us at the end of the show and said, ‘You know I think that song is going to be a hit!’ Wanker.” As a putdown it’s not exactly Dorothy Parker, but the timing is impeccable.

That emphasis on ordinary life is hardly an accident, because few bands have a clearer sense of their working-class roots than Squeeze. This memoir reveals that, as far as Difford is concerned, the most fantastic place of all was the area where he grew up in the 1950s and 60s: a close-knit community of terraced houses and prefabs near Greenwich Park, south-east London, with three pubs, one school, a church and a telephone box that was the communications hub of the whole street, so that “when it rang everyone came out to see who it was for”.

As anyone who has listened to “Cool for Cats” or “Up the Junction” will know, Difford’s lyrics are superb at noticing the unconscious poetry of everyday life, and the early chapters of this book are tightly packed with the sights, the sounds and especially the smells of his childhood: the “sweetest smell of peat burning on the fire” in his Irish aunt’s house, “the dry crusty odour of socks in football boots” at school, or the heady teenage scent of “Brut and spray-on deodorant”.

‘Phrases that read like fragmentary song lyrics’ … Chris Difford at Latitude festival, 2016.
‘Phrases that read like fragmentary song lyrics’ … Chris Difford at Latitude festival, 2016. Photograph: James Gourley/Rex/Shutterstock

The turning point in his life came in 1973. At first it was just a typical piece of teenage swagger, as he took 50p from his mum’s purse to place an advert in a shop window calling for a guitarist to join his band. (There was no band.) The only person to reply was Tilbrook, a shyly talented guitarist and singer who would go on to become Difford’s closest musical collaborator, and sometimes his most awkward frenemy, for the next 40-plus years. They got drunk together, worked on new songs in a smoky haze, and after a few years of rattling up and down the motorways, moving from one sticky-floored venue to another, eventually found themselves performing at Lou Reed’s birthday party and appearing on Top of the Pops. “I had made it,” Difford reports, “whatever making it was.”

Most pop autobiographies aren’t really autobiographies at all: in almost every case, what we are given is actually a book of interviews that a ghostwriter has hastily cobbled together. Probably Difford had some assistance along the way too, even if it was only an editor quietly shuffling a few things around – a literary poltergeist rather than a ghost. But unusually, this book does appear to be written entirely in Difford’s voice: raw and occasionally repetitive (twice we are told that he has won two Ivor Novello awards), but full of phrases that read like fragmentary song lyrics, as he recalls how “fame trickled in slowly in those days”, or disagreements with Tilbrook were “often left hanging like underpants on a washing-line”.

The early years of Squeeze, in particular, when Jools Holland was on keyboards and they were trying to avoid turning into another punk band (“Their music sounded like it was falling down stairs”) are evoked with a joyous intensity. By contrast, the chapters that describe their years of hit records are something of a disappointment. We are told about living in a flat above Dire Straits (“They seemed like nice lads”) and Squeeze’s ever-changing lineup, with “keyboard players coming and going like wasps”, but we learn very little about what it is actually like to be in a successful band.

Squeeze in 1979: from left to right, Chris Difford, Glenn Tilbrook, Jools Holland, Gilson Lavis, and John Bentley.
Squeeze in 1979: from left to right, Chris Difford, Glenn Tilbrook, Jools Holland, Gilson Lavis, and John Bentley. Photograph: Fin Costello/Redferns

No doubt that’s partly down to the fact that it isn’t very interesting. Once they reach a certain level of fame, it turns out that most musicians are caught up in a seemingly endless loop of recording and touring. (This isn’t helpful for Difford, who develops a nagging phobia about flying, and at one point has to be talked on to his plane by the pilot.) Families are neglected and life shrinks to the dimensions of a tour bus. And then it’s on to the next album. Repeat to fade.

In Difford’s case, however, the gaps in the record may also be because he doesn’t remember everything terribly well. After a few years on the road, he has to face up to the fact that he has become addicted to pretty much everything that has the potential to damage him. He is an alcoholic who swigs vodka for breakfast. He buys supercars he can’t afford. He keeps moving house (in Brighton he manages an impressive six flats in six years) but never really moves on.

If all this sounds horribly familiar, like a real-life version of Pink Floyd’s The Wall, the final chapters suggest that at least Difford’s story has a happy ending. He sobers up, moves to the country with his second wife and embarks on a new career managing young pop group the Strypes, while continuing to perform with the latest incarnation of Squeeze. This section contains some stories that are the equivalent of an access-all-areas backstage pass to the music industry. Difford finds himself working for his boyhood idol Bryan Ferry, a perfectionist who agonises over whether “martini” in some lyrics should have a capital M, and likes all his pencils to be sharpened to the same height. He also meets Elton John, who helps him fight his addictions and does his own washing up in a pair of Marigolds.

These are good anecdotes, and Difford tells them well, though it’s hard to escape the feeling that he’s told them before. In fact some of them sound suspiciously like a raconteur’s compilation of greatest hits. Add to this some toe-curling bursts of praise for his own recent work (“a typically great Squeeze song”, “another great record”), and some patchy writing – from the title onwards he is addicted to the word “place”, repeatedly finding himself in an “empty place” or seeking a “happy place” – and the book rather staggers to a close.

That won’t prevent serious Squeeze fans from lapping up every word. For everyone else, it’s the earlier parts of the book that really sing, as Difford recalls his teenage self inventing a group of imaginary friends, and then spending hours sitting in his bedroom “where we imitated every record that hit my turntable”. It could be a description of anyone who’s ever mimed with a hairbrush while secretly imagining the roar of Wembley Arena.

• Some Fantastic Place: My Life In and Out of Squeeze is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson. To order a copy for £17 (RRP £20) go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.


Robert Douglas-Fairhurst

The GuardianTramp

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