At the 229 Club in London’s West End, the brotherly love between Matt Deighton (Mother Earth, The Family Silver) and Chris Difford (Squeeze) was palpable, as was the outpouring of affection for them from an audience who knew only too well of the serendipity of this live collaboration.
And yet songwriting heavyweights such as Deighton and Difford don’t play the swaggering braggart game often played by others whose stars have waned. Matt and Chris – like their own particular brand of songwriting – have endured and wisely, they let the songs do the talking, their sensibilities still imbued with the humour and social insight of yesterday and today.
But this wasn’t an evening of nostalgia because they’re a duo still able to write with power and panache. On this rare May night, steel strings were balanced and cradled as they dipped teasingly into a collective back catalogue that still glitters from the remove of four decades.
“Difford is an inspiring, positive person to work with,” Deighton told me. “He’s very natural and this album, Kids Steal Feelings, was written by Chris when he was going through a break up. I was too, and I did the music. But instead of being dark, it’s full of positivity and light.”
Playing a collection of old songs and tunes from KSF – recently issued on Monks Road Records – Deighton And Difford served up gems such as ‘Sometimes There’s Lightning, Water and the Will’, ‘Take Me I’m Yours’, ‘Cowboys Are My Weakness ‘(written, it was said, for KD Lang), ‘Up The Junction’ and ‘Cool for Cats’. In the audience were Steve White (The Style Council, Paul Weller, The Family Silver), the ageless Rhoda Dakar and Alexei Sayle, perhaps the last of an almost extinct species of comedian. Needless to say, they’d come for the songs.
There was even an impromptu Q&A mid way as Difford threw open the floor for a rambunctious Question Time, the answers proffered sometimes surreal, occasionally unbelievable but always funny. This ensued for 10 minutes before the songs began again, Deighton’s acoustic lead playing a beautifully understated accompaniment to Difford’s voice that came alive as he sang lyrics written more years ago than he cared to remember.
And if this paring had not been enough, the evening had been kicked off by an acoustic set by Dr Robert of The Blow Monkeys. After the gig, I asked Rob why he still writes songs from the heart. “Because I have to,” he said. “I’ve been writing since I was 15. You’re not going to live forever. I mean, songwriters are dropping like flies, let’s be honest. I would hate to stop writing because the best part of it all is hearing something come alive. And I think I’m getting better at it.”
Rob bookended his set with the pop classics ‘Diggin’ Your Scene’ and ‘It Doesn’t Have To Be This Way’, filling the central segment with recently penned songs like ‘Lost In Rasa’ and ‘Bottomless Pit’ that are testament to his desire to stay engaged with the roots of his music. “I sang songs tonight that I’m comfortable with and the older ones I sang I feel are still relevant. I was 24 when The Blow Monkeys became well known. I knew I had something then but I knew I needed at some point in my life to go away and dig deep archaeologically into some form of roots. Because I, we all, had a lot of front and a lot of luck when we were young.”
He cites people like Bowie and Bolan as stars who were able to create a lot of drama and characterisation around which they could wrap their music and, consequently, were responsible for the look and feel of the 1980s pop scene. “But I realised I needed to educate myself. And I still am. I read, I listen to music as much as possible. I was never particularly social at the height of The Blow Monkeys’ fame, so even then I was actually just living in a little flat above a record shop in Brixton and reading lots of books. I was trying to better myself.”
But what currently links these three songwriters is a new venture called Monks Road Records. Founded by Richard Clarke, it’s doing something novel. “Monks Road was set up primarily as a reaction to what I saw as an archaic music business model – intent on creaming off slices of vital income from unsuspecting, great artists,” says Richard. “The world had moved on and artists weren’t getting the value from what they were paying. Monks Road was my way of giving back. Whether you’re a successful businessman or a factory worker – we all have one constant in our lives – music. We wanted to help make music which didn’t cut corners. Something that is artistically true to the vision of the bands.”
Rob agrees: “With Monks Road Records, Rich Clarke has become our enabler. He’s a fan of what we do. The budgets are not unlimited, but he’s a businessman and leaves us alone to create. I like the idea he’s bringing in video makers and artists. It’s a creative hub. It’s not about getting big, it’s about connecting with an audience of intelligent, like-minded people.”
With Difford, Deighton and Dr Robert being joined on Monks Road by The Family Silver, Pat Dam Smyth and graphic designers Swifty and Christophe Gowans and a compellingly diverse clutch of artisans, Clarke has plans: “Going forward, we aim to make a sustainable business model for musicians. So expect a constant stream of free music emanating from Monks Road artists to our subscribers. Then, once in a while, the beautiful, official platter will drop and we hope our discerning music lovers will be there to pick it up and say thanks to the fantastic artists who bring so much.”
Photo (l-r: Matt Deighton & Chris Difford) by Iain Munn