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Classic Labels – Stiff Records

StiffIn the latest in our occasional series, E-Streeter looks at the classic label which gave the world Elvis (Costello), Kirsty MacColl and the best Christmas song ever. In June.

If it ain’t Stiff, it ain’t worth a fuck.

Stiff Records began in 1975 around the Camden pub rock scene, where Dr Feelgood, Graham Parker and the Rumour and Eddie and The Hot Rods formed part of the minor backlash against the overblown pomp of ELP, Tangerine Dream and Yes. Kick-started by Dave Robinson, a former tour manager for Jimi Hendrix, the label’s name was an ironic prediction of how it would do, ‘stiff’ being US slang for failure, At the time, big record labels such as CBS and Polydor dominated and Stiff’s first signing was an obscure singer/songwriter who, oddly enough, went on to be Johnny Cash’s son in law; Nick Lowe. The Stiff zeitgeist was captured by Lowe in a 1976 double A side, ‘So It Goes’ at 2.29 half a minute longer than ‘Heat of The City’ at 1.59. ‘Echoes’ it wasn’t. As ever when 70s and 80s underground scenes are discussed, John Peel is never far away and Peel championed Stiff artists, particularly Elvis Costello (signed by Robinson as a writer), and Wreckless Eric whose ‘Whole Wide World’ got decent airplay on Peel’s show.
Then punk took off, almost by accident, with Stiff at the vanguard with The Damned. I defy anyone to listen to ‘New Rose’ and not pay homage to the pub rock on speed which epitomised Stiff’s early artist roster and is only a step on from Dr Feelgood’s seminal live record ‘Stupidity’. At the time, a spotty Estreeter was listening to ‘Street Sounds‘ at 8pm Wednesdays on Radio Clyde as well as Tommy Vance’s Rock Show at 10pm on Fridays, leaving me with a hybrid punk/heavy rock legacy which still draws odd looks to this day…….. So watching a programme of Stiff artists on the BBC last night prompted this article and seeing a young snarling Elvis Costello on TOTP with ‘Red Shoes’ in March 1977 was a joy which can’t be put into words for the YouTube generation. Then came the sublime, haunting rhythms of ‘Watching The Detectives’ and the angst of ‘Alison’ from ‘My Aim Is True’. Happy days……..

Enter the lead singer of obscure pub band Kilburn and the High Roads, with a phrase destined to define the era: ‘Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll, are all my brain and body needs.’ What is forgotten about Ian Dury’s emergence was that at the time, Stiff Records had wandered off the trail, with costly multi-headline tours and what could kindly be described as experimental acts together on the college circuit – I mean, would you pay to see Jona Lewie, Lena Lovic, Wreckless Eric and the Belle Stars on the same bill? Add in a crazy dabble with US acts from Devo’s home town and you’ve got De Lorean, HBOS and Enron rolled into one.

However, riding – or rather, hobbling – to the rescue was the unlikely figure of Ian Dury. The fever of ‘Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick’ and street poetry of ‘What A Waste’ giving Stiff a major breakthrough into the top 20 and financial salvation rolled into one. In passing, anyone interested in how a bass guitar should be played should check Chas Jankel’s bass lines on Hit Me… a slice of musical genius hidden in plain sight.

You will know Lewie’s classic anthems ‘You’ll Always Find Me In the Kitchen at Parties’ and the classic World War I story ‘Stop the Cavalry’. Although now a classic staple of Christmas, it was released in June. They appeared on Top of the pops dressed as elves though. Respect.

Anyway, along came Thatcherism, institutionalised greed, yuppies and against the grain a 7 piece collective of ska enthusiasts called Madness. As well as pioneering the explosion of music videos which sold songs, something Dave Robinson basically invented, the Nutty Boys on Stiff exceeded all expectations with 20 consecutive top 20 hits – and that doesn’t happen without real heart and substance to an artist’s work. Their unique sound, described by Robinson as ‘real folk music’, followed The Who, Small Faces, The Kinks and contemporaries The Jam in unapologetic celebration of their London roots.

Sadly, the Stiff story ends in 1984 with assimilation by Island Records, preceded with flashes of interest provided by Kirsty MacColl, Tracy Ullman and a drunken hurrah from the youthful Pogues, before a collapse under £3m of debt. (That’s Stiff I’m talking about, not Shane McGowan).

Those nine glorious years of Stiff Records helped birth punk rock with the Damned, spawned many prolific songwriting talents including Elvis Costello, made a small guy with polio rock’s unlikeliest front man and delivered Madness, one of the most UK’s successful pop bands. Not bad for a pub rock label started in someone’s flat……..


One Response

  1. Great article. I also was a fan of Chiswick records, who mined a similar seam of gold nuggets. They did, however inflict us with nazi bastards Skrewdriver, who to be fair to the label, started out as a bunch of Sham 69-a-likes without the seig heils.

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