“This year was supposed to be our busiest ever year for touring,” says Chris Difford, with a resigned shrug of his shoulders. “A load of dates in the US and Europe. For a band like Squeeze, that’s a big chunk of income to lose in one go and it has a real impact on your life.
“It’s the same for so many songwriters, musicians, the people that run venues, promoters, technicians, people who work behind the bar. We’re effectively being made redundant.”
We spoke to the Squeeze lyricist and occasional frontman just as the second Covid peak was beginning to hit the headlines, and he was understandably worried about what the next six months might have in store.
“I don’t live in London anymore, but I was up in Soho recently and it was like Christmas morning. Not a soul. No cars, nothing. This is midweek, in the rush hour. Theatres boarded up, a lot of the restaurants and shops had gone, Berwick Street market had gone. And, to be honest, I can’t see things getting back to normal anytime soon. My suitcase has always lived by the front door, ready for the next gig, but it’s been put in the loft for the first time in its life.”
Initially, when it became clear that Squeeze weren’t going to be touring, Difford admits that he felt totally separated from his music. “I didn’t want to write songs. I didn’t even want to pick up my guitar. Wasn’t really that bothered about listening to stuff on the radio. It was a strange feeling.”
Inspiration eventually came via Hannah Grace Deller, a photographer and paediatric nurse whose haunting images of NHS frontline workers were featured on Grayson Perry’s lockdown TV series, Art Club.
“As soon as I saw them, I felt that I needed to write something,” says Difford. “This extraordinary period in our lives needed documenting. What the world was going through, but also what we were going through as songwriters.”
Difford immediately jumped on a Zoom call with some of his mates and came up with the idea for a collection of songs that would provide a poignant soundtrack to Deller’s images and the pandemic crisis.
The resultant album, Song Club, features tracks from some of the business’s most respected songwriters, including Judie Tzuke, 10cc’s Graham Gouldman, Nick Heyward, Beth Nielsen Chapman and, of course, Chris Difford.
“We aren’t trying to create an album that explains what’s going on or how we can solve it,” says Difford. “To be honest, I don’t think we’re qualified to answer those questions. I just said, ‘Look at the photos and come at it from your own angle’. For instance, Judie Tzuke actually had the virus, and she writes about that from a first-hand perspective. It’s extraordinary to hear that in a song.”
Difford was 15 when he discovered ‘songwriting’ but reckons that things didn’t start bolting themselves together until he met Glenn Tilbrook and formed an early version of Squeeze in 1974.
“That was always my ambition, to be a songwriter,” he says. “I didn’t care what kind of songwriter - Brill Building, Tin Pan Alley, pop stuff - I just wanted to tell stories.
“Some people see songwriting as a technical process, constructing a song like an Airfix model. That doesn’t really interest me. If I hear a song that I like, I don’t sit there studying how it works. I’m not the least bit interested in the structure or the time-signature. Or whether the lyrics rhyme.
“This is only my opinion, but songwriting isn’t a science. When I write a song, it exists on a purely emotional level. All the other stuff doesn’t really matter.”
What of other people’s songs, though - and their albums, for that matter? Here are the 10 long-players that changed Chris Difford’s life.
Chris Difford… 10 albums that changed my life
1. David Bowie - Hunky Dory (1971)
“I could have gone for any Bowie album, but this one reminds me of a certain time in my life when the warmth of a record meant everything. The songs work as a cohesive whole; they’re beautifully written, played and sung. All round, it’s a terrific album. Try as you might, you cannot fault it.”
2. Allman Brothers Band - At Filmore East (1971)
“I’ve got a lot of live albums and, out of them all, I think this is the best-recorded. It perfectly captures the feeling of being there. The atmosphere of a great venue like the Filmore.
“Whenever I listen to it, it fills me with joy and a love for music. Is it the greatest ever live album? Possibly. I think it’d be a toss-up between this and Sinatra at the Sands with the Count Basie Orchestra.”
3. Chris Wood - So Much To Defend (2017)
“I suppose you’d call Chris Wood a folk singer from Kent and he’s someone I admire greatly. The first time I heard him was at the Folk Awards in 2009 and his music immediately hit me. I went out and bought everything he’d done, which doesn’t happen very often.
“He has a fantastic wit and a wonderful arc when he’s telling his stories. This is what Charles Dickens would sound like if he was writing songs.”
4. The Beatles - With the Beatles (1963)
“Again, this was one where I could have picked any of their albums. I went for this one because it was the first Beatles music I heard… my older brother had it in his collection. It was also the first time I’d really taken any notice of music and I automatically thought that all music was going to be this good. Ha ha! I soon found out it wasn’t!
“They were the band that gave music a sense of humour. They made it OK to enjoy music in the same way you’d enjoy life.”
5. Bob Dylan - Rough and Rowdy Ways (2020)
“Like a lot of people, I thought, ‘Oh, God. Another Dylan album’. What a surprise! As soon as I put it on, I couldn’t stop listening to it. Just the way he views life; that peculiar slant he has when he looks at the world. Great production, too. So warm. It feels like you’re listening to it in a remote log cabin, with a lovely roaring fire.
“A wickedly inspirational album that gives a mountain of hope to me as a songwriter who’s growing older. It is still possible to deliver the goods.”
6. Dave - Psychodrama (2019)
“I picked this one because I think it’s amazing that someone can come out of South London and write such a lyrically brilliant record. Regardless of whether you like the style of music, he’s done an incredible job of explaining what his world is like. There’s no way I could ever write an album like that.”
7. Laura Marling - Song for our Daughter (2020)
“Someone who is in a class of her own… in the same way that Joni Mitchell was at Laura’s age.
“There are hundreds of female singer-songwriters out there and you could argue that it makes it difficult to find the good stuff. I’m not sure that’s true. The good stuff will always find its audience.”
8. Carole King – Tapestry (1971)
“Another one of those records that felt so warm and honest as soon as you put it on. A very romantic album. She adds a lovely sense of humour to some of the songs, as well.
“I took my kids to see her when she played the show in Hyde Park and we were all crying our eyes out… singing along to every word. Not bad for an album that was almost 50 years old.”
9. Joni Mitchell – Travelogue (2002)
“This is Joni revisiting some of the earlier songs with a mature voice. You can almost hear her getting stuck into 20 fags between each take!
“The arrangements feature a full orchestra, but there is a lovely simplicity to some of the songs.
“I’m not what you’d call an avid Joni Mitchell fan, and I don’t get sidetracked by all the stories that keep appearing. It’s just a case of listening to her albums and enjoying them.”
10. The Who - Tommy (1969)
“It was either going to be Quadrophenia or this one. I went for Tommy because it was the first time I’d ever heard a ‘rock opera’.
“The story is genius, the lyrics are fantastic and the singing is exceptional. C’mon… who wouldn’t want to be in a band like The Who? Four amazing musicians, creating amazing music. Pete Townshend is one of the best songwriters this country has ever produced. And this is him at his peak.”