The Stiff record label was founded in 1976, it was at the heart of punk and new wave scene, bringing the world artists as diverse as Elvis Costello, Motorhead, Ian Dury and what is generally regarded as the first ever punk single, New Rose by The Damned. In his occasional blog looking at punk, Hassan Mahamdallie uncovers the magic of Stiff Records.
I was a Stiff groupie – Back in 1977 I would regularly spend my Saturdays at the Stiff Records shopfront HQ at 32 Alexander Street, off Westbourne Park Road. I would hang around, sometimes for hours, pretending to browse the record racks in the hope that one of the label’s roster of bands would pile into the shop on the way back from a gig or pub, so I could get an autograph and a chance to tell them I was a fan. Sometimes a staff member would notice me and gift me with a poster or an advance pressing of one of their new singles (no doubt hoping I would then piss off), and thus satisfied I would trek off back home.
The success of Stiff Records demonstrated that underneath the suffocating blanket of 1970s superbands, and despite the powerful big record labels and their lazy A&R men, something more plebeian, subversive, rough-edged and musically innovative had been (not so quietly) bubbling away.
If the US punk scene was a loose class alliance between the blue-collar urban agitators of MC5 and Iggy Pop and New York radical scene around Andy Warhol, the UK scene had its equivalent in the coming together of the grimy pub rockers and the central London art school saloons. Stiff represented the public-bar side of the equation.
Stiff Record’s do-it-yourself message combined with sharp business practices was pivotal in making the case that the pub-rockers should be regarded as legitimate partners to the younger punk rock scene.
As Nick Lowe, Stiff’s first in-house producer put it:
The pop business was full of these dreadful groups, Genesis and Journey and REO Speedwagon and people like that. And it was all safe and run by these bean counters and know-nothings. That’s why, over here, the pub rock thing started up.
When punk came along a few years later, that was the thing that it really needed, but I would say that pub rock was spawned for the same reasons — dissatisfaction that it was all rubbish and needed to be pulled down. Because it had gotten to a point where you just couldn’t have another concept album or triple bullshit thing.
So Stiff could have The Damned on their books along with Elvis Costello and the Attractions and Ian Dury and the Blockheads. The last two were as hardcore as the punks, but in different ways. Costello was angry, bitter and political, while Dury studied old music-hall performers such as Max Wall (with his nonsensical speech and silly walks routines), and gave voice to unlikely characters like Clever Trevor:
Just cos I ain’t never ‘ad, no, nothing worth having,
Never ever, never ever,
You ain’t got no call not to think
I wouldn’t fall into thinking that I ain’t too clever.
The label’s other signings at various times included Madness, The Adverts, Dave Stewart, Devo, Jane Aire and the Belvederes, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, Lew Lewis, Lene Lovitch, Kirsty MacColl, The Members, The Pogues and Motorhead. Others of note include the legendary iconoclast Magic Michael and neglected Irish northern soul singer Jill Read (aka Gillian ‘Tawny’ Reed), who totally nailed The Chantelle’s classic Maybe on her sole recording for Stiff.
I was initially drawn to Stiff through my allegiance to The Damned, whose debut New Rose was the label’s sixth 7” single – BUY 6 according to their catalogue system. I warmed to the label’s piss-taking slogans: “If It Ain’t Stiff, It Ain’t Worth a Fuck”, “If they’re dead, we’ll sign them” and “Undertakers to the Industry”. Stiff artists were kind of marketed as a bunch of musical and societal rejects; a label that Ian Dury emphatically revelled in and embraced, and one which I wholeheartedly related to.
The real delight of Stiff’s output was its eclectic nature – every single was a unique little gem. To give you an idea, here are their first four singles, all released in 1976.
BUY 1 Nick Lowe: So It Goes/Heart of the City. Two beautifully crafted numbers by the master of the perfect two-minute pop song and catchy hook-line.
Buy 2 Pink Fairies: Between The Lines/Spoiling for a Fight. Led by legendary ’68 generation rocker Larry Wallis, known for his gravelly bar-room voice (He was also a founding member of Motorhead). His later Stiff single Police Car (BUY 22) is an all-time favourite of mine.
BUY 3 Roogalator: Cincinnati-Fatback/All Aboard. Fronted by Ohio-born Danny Adler, Cincinnati-Fatback is a glorious early funk rollercoaster of a song. Nick Lowe:
“I really liked a band called Roogalator. It was an American guitar player, a bassist, and a drummer. Danny Adler was the guitar player, and he was really something. He was much better than any of us were. We’d always get him to show us how to do stuff”.
BUY 4 Tyla Gang: Styrofoam/Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Styrofoam is a swaggering fuck-you bluesy classic. You just have to hear it.
Stiff had been founded by band managers Dave Robinson and Jake Riviera, funded through a £400 loan from Dr Feelgood’s Lee Brilleaux, for whom Riviera had been manager. It was modelled on the US independent record labels and was conceived as an ambitious venture. Robinson later explained:
All the raw material from Stiff came from the pub circuit and the studio at the Hope & Anchor [pub venue]. I did have a bit of a masterplan and a list of people we wanted to sign: Ian Dury, Elvis Costello, or rather Declan McManus as he was then, Mickey Jupp, who we eventually signed, and Nick Lowe kind of came with Jake. We were putting together what I consider to be the best songwriters of the period.
Nick Lowe’s role as the label’s in-house producer was crucial. He was the only one who knew what he was doing in a recording studio and, so it’s said, keep the bands to task with his public-school aura of authority (which must have been an advantage when handling crazies like The Damned). Much of Stiff’s initial success was down to Lowe’s genius. He was nicknamed ‘Basher’ Lowe due to his aesthetic approach in the studio: “Bash it down and tart it up”.
He produced The Damned’s work including New Rose, Costello’s classic early singles including Less Than Zero (BUY 11) Alison (BUY 15), Watching the Detectives (BUY 20) and Costello’s first five albums. Lowe also produced The Pretenders hit Stop Your Sobbing, and Dr Feelgood’s work, including their hit single Milk and Alcohol, which he also co-wrote. As well as talented producer, Lowe was (and is) a superb songwriter – his credits include Cruel to be Kind, (I Love the Sound of) Breaking Glass, What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding (a hit for Elvis Costello), I Knew the Bride (When She Used to Rock ’n’ Roll) (a hit for Dave Edmunds), The Beast in Me – famously covered by his father-in-law Johnny Cash (and much admired by Artic Monkey’s Alex Turner).
Another great aspect of the label’s operation was the anarchic “Stiff Family” package tours they put on to showcase their artists and keep them in front of their audience. A 42-seater coach would pull up at Stiff’s offices, 20 or so musicians, plus roadies and assistants would climb aboard, and they would be off on a one month 24 gig tour, trailing tales of drunkenness, bust-ups and bad behaviour behind them.
I remember seeing the ‘Stiffs Greatest Stiffs Live’ tour when the charabanc rolled back into London on 28th October 1977 to play a sold-out gig at the Mecca Lyceum ballroom in the Strand. What a treat: Elvis Costello and the Attractions performing their newly-released single Watching the Detectives, Nick Lowe backed by rock’n’roll legend Dave Edmunds on guitar, Larry ‘I’m a police-car’ Wallis, ‘the runt of the litter’ Wreckless Eric and then a set by Ian Dury, with his new band The Blockheads. And then all the musicians back on stage for a group jam of the final song of the night– Dury’s naughty anthem Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll. (If you want to get a feel of the tour you can listen to the live album Live Stiffs (GET 1) or have a look at the film clip on YouTube taken from Nick Abson’s documentary If It Ain’t Stiff, It Ain’t Worth A F**k!).
So, who was my pick of the bunch? Much as I was a big fan of Elvis, Dury and others, such as Canvey Island blues harmonica-man Lew Lewis, I will always have a little place in my punk heart for singer/songwriter Wreckless Eric (aka Eric Goulden). He was a terrible drunk at the time, on and off-stage, which made his live performances rather unpredictable, and I recently read that he has rejected his Stiff past, nevertheless…
Buy 16 Wreckless Eric Whole Wide World I consider his 1977 debut single to be a total diamond of a tune. It starts with a lonesome little guitar riff, and then this strange voice, half croon, half whine comes in. The opening lyrics stuck in my head the first time I heard them, and are still there nearly 40 years later:
When I was a young boy,
My mama said to me:
‘There’s probably only one girl in the world
And she probably lives in Tahiti.
I’d go the whole wide world, I’d go the whole wide world
Just to find her.
Or maybe she’s in the Bahamas
Where the Caribbean Sea is blue.
Weeping in a tropical moonlit night
Because nobody’s told her about you.
I’d go the whole wide world, I’d go the whole wide world
Just to find her’.
Who needs Shakespeare’s fucking sonnets when you’ve got ‘Whole Wide World’. And it’s only three minutes and two seconds long. As you can tell, I remain a Stiff groupie, even after all these years.
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