Steve Janes looks back over 10 years of a label that gave us Ian Dury & The Blockheads, The Damned, Elvis Costello And The Attractions, Kirsty MacColl, The Pogues and Madness to name but a few…
“You are holding the first release from Stiff Records, a new independent record company, dedicated to releasing limited edition collectors recordings and chart smashes. Stiff favours sound over technique and feeling over style. ”
So read the opening paragraph of Stiff Records’ first press release for Nick Lowe’s ‘So It Goes/Heart Of The City’. Not only did it signal “the world’s most flexible record label” it also heralded the start of the great British Indie label boom. Stiff records, it could be argued, 30 plus years since it began, that it was the most adventurous, humorous and dynamic independent label, ever.
It’s London, summer 1976. The streets are about to rumble to the sounds of The Sex Pistols and The Clash. A musical revolution is in the air, but these young punks are not going to have it all their own way. Across town there’s another tribe of restless souls looking to shake up what they view as an increasingly complacent record biz.
Andrew ‘Jake’ Jackman (soon to be reborn as Jake Riviera), manager of former Brinsley Schwarz front man Nick Lowe, is angry. The major labels have fallen asleep and ignored Lowe’s star potential. Jackman must take the independent route. Armed with a clutch of demos and a portfolio of humorous slogans, he hooks up with Graham Parker’s manager, Dave Robinson. On a wing and a prayer, and a £400 loan from Dr Feelgood’s Lee Brilleaux, they launch Stiff Records. Both Dave Robinson and Jake Riviera are manic creative forces, the f ormer with a clear focus and drive, more geared to getting things done; the latter a marketing maestro, with never ending plans and schemes. Both are passionate, fiery individuals, working out of a tiny basement at 32 Alexander Street, in London’s Notting Hill.
On August 24th N ick Lowe’s ‘So It Goes/Heart of The City’, an urgent slab of modern pop, is Stiff’s first release. The original pressing, aided by positive press, rapidly sold out.
One of the first to know on Stiff’s door was former Flip City front man Declan Patrick MacManus, aka D.P.Costello. At the time Costello worked in North Acton operating an IBM 360 computer, “printing out invoices for the moustache waxes of the occasional Duchess, who visited the company’s West End salon. Some of the work was more tedious”. After reading about the formation of Stiff and the release of ‘So It Goes’ in Melody Maker, Costello took a ‘sick day’ from work and travelled on the tube a few stops to the Stiff Records office to find half the crew not there – Stiff after all had only been ‘open’ for two days. He continues, “A charming girl [Suzanne Spiro] opened the door and politely received my handwritten tape box, and that was that. No big interview, no audition, no cigar-chomping mogul”.
After purchasing a copy of Lowe’s ‘So It Goes’ and delivering his ‘Mystery Dance’ demo. Costello was heading for home via Westbourne Grove tube station, when he walked straight into Nick Lowe. “It all sounds like the most romantic coincidence of all,” Costello remembers, in Will Birch’s ‘No Sleep ‘Till Canvey Island’. “But, as I was going down the stairs, Nick was coming up and I said to him, ‘Here’s your new record …’ He asked me whether I was still with Flip City. I had my guitar over my shoulder because I’d been prepared to do an audition at Stiff there and then.” In October, D.P.Costello received a call from the Stiff office, where he met Jake Riviera for the first time. After their first meeting Costello could be found at the office after or at the expense of his day job. Within a few weeks Riviera remodelled the new signing, the D.P. was dropped, larger Buddy Holly-style glasses replaced his usual spectacles, the new look was completed with a tight-fitting suit, with skinny tie. And thus, Elvis Costello was born. Of his memories of the early days spent in the Stiff office at Alexander Street, Costello said: “It was, to say the least, a volatile place. Filing cabinets took a terrible hammering from winkle-picker shoes and the glazier had to be called when a fraught telephone negotiation concluded with a full bottle of strong cider being hurled through the plate glass front door.”
It’s hand-to-mouth for the next 12 months. Distribution is not Stiff’s strong point, the early singles are sold mainly via mail order, from the back of a truck or through a few independent outlets they could find. Every weekday, Lowe (Nick) was despatched to Pathway, a tiny studio in North London. There, as house producer, he’d await the arrival of Stiff’s newest signing, from whom he is expected to extract a work of art, something Lowe achieved more often than not.
The Damned are signed to Stiff after playing the French label Skydog’s Mont de Marsan Festival. In September, Nick Lowe links up with the Damned at Pathway Studios to record ‘New Rose’. “A classic then, a classic now,” front man Dave Vanian humbly offers. “It was a lot of fun, working with Nick Lowe as he bashed down the essence of the band very quickly. Hence his nickname ‘Basher’. He was a gentleman to work with.” The ‘New Rose’ release is the first British punk rock single beating the Sex Pistols’ ‘Anarchy’ debut single by three weeks. Stiff didn’t hang around. Even with less than satisfactory distribution, it make number 73 in the charts on its original release.
Former lead singer of The Adverts, TV Smith remembers working on their only release with the label fondly. “Stiff booked us into Pathway studio for the day to do ‘One Chord Wonders’ and ‘Quickstep’. Larry Wallis from the Pink Fairies produced – curiously he was an old hippy brought into record one of the first pun records – but was got on really well with him, he was one of us.
After the success of ‘One Chord Wonders’, the Adverts supported label mates The Damned for a UK Tour, promoted with the unforgettable “The Damned can play three chords, The Adverts can play one. Hear all four at …” campaign. “It was a great combination, going around in this banged up mini-bus together. Nick Lowe would often get on the bus with us and come down to the gig. It was a lot of fun.”
In its first year, Stiff releases such memorable near misses as Elvis Costello’s delicate ‘Alison’, one of Wreckless Eric’s finest moments, ‘Whole Wide World’ and Ian Dury’s instant anthem, ‘Sex & Drugs & Rock ‘n’ Roll’ which Stiff deleted after 19,000 sales, to the public’s anguished cries, which received the reply, “We’re a record company – not a museum!”. All these singles are issued in picture bags and dotted with witty messages the records have been, it says, ‘Electrically Recorded’! Some are in ‘Mono-Enhanced Stereo’ and one early single is in an ‘Artistic Breakthrough – Double B_side’!
In the heat of the Punk Rock/New Wave era the media spotlight falls on your snappily-attired street urchin who can ‘say it’ in under three minutes. Stiff has all the action, but the charts don’t want to know. Armed with a new distribution deal signed with Island in the summer, it’s time to go nationwide. ‘Stiff’s Greatest Stiff’s Live’ hits the front pages. “Five Stiff acts – Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, Ian Dury, Wreckless Eric and Larry Wallis – in 24 UK concerts., commencing 3 October … Each act will play a 30-minute set, with the running order changing nightly … A barrage of new releases, including Costello’s ‘Watching The Detectives’, Dury’s ‘New Boots and Panties’ and ‘Wireless World’, the debut LP from Lowe. A live album of the tour will recorded on the opening night at High Wycombe, and appear in the shops four days later!
A major advertising campaign is launched. Greater London Radio DJ and Lene Lovich’s manager, Charlie Gillett remembers the impact of Stiff’s advertising. “Stiff, unfortunately by showing the power of marketing, totally fucked the whole industry up forever afterwards. Taking out four page ads in NME and the Melody Maker for the first Stiff tour. I mean a major label company would take out a little box saying Rory Gallagher is on tour and fit it in as small an ad as possible. That would be Rory’s marketing. That would be the norm. Dave was so determined to show the majors how to do it You do not just sit on your hands and wait for things to happen, you make things happen/ Stiff did that with a whole load of people.” Things were looking good.
But a different headline followed the announcement, nine days before the tour was due to begin, on Saturday, September 24, when Riviera had a severe falling out. Paul Conroy, label manager, witnessed the aftermath of broken glass and strewn cider bottles in front of Stiff’s main office that Riviera had hurled from the window during a fierce argument with fellow label boss Dave Robinson. It was almost inevitable that Dave and Jake would fall out. Working in such cramped conditions in Alexander Street was bound to spell disaster – the two of Stiff wasn’t big enough for both Robinson and Riviera to co-exist. Melody Maker duly broke the news to reveal ‘Stiff’s Riviera in mystery split’. Had it been a publicity stunt the timing would have been perfect. However, on the eve of Stiff’s big tour, a deal was hammered out – Lowe and Costello and The Yachts would follow Riviera to a new label, Radar Records, at the end of the tour.
On October 3, 1977, the tour bus collects the Stiff entourage, 18 musicians and assorted Stiff personnel. The first date of the ‘Stiff’s Greatest Stiff’s Live’ UK tour starts later that day at High Wycombe. The revolving bill concept had been a gimmick to help promote the show and give all of the artists an equal opportunity, but after a few dates it was not working out. Robinson and Riviera worked out a new approach Wreckless Eric and Nick Lowe would alternate in the first half of the show, Ian Dury and Elvis Costello would alternate the second half. It’s competitive; Costello and Dury try t
o out perform each other making it hard for either of them to follow the other on stage, but it did result in some blistering sets. The tour makes a star out of Ian Dury. His ‘New Boots And Panties’ LP will ride the charts for the next two years. Elvis Costello is already a big name. His debut ‘My Aim Is True’ entered the charts two weeks after its release and stayed there for most of the year. Both albums peaked in the Top Ten. Costello’s ‘Watching The Detectives’, also becomes Stiff’s first hit 45, spending 11 weeks in the chart (reaching a high of No.15) – all of which bought Dave Robinson much needed time on the financial front. Despite the success of the tour, Jake Riviera quits. Stiff’s future is in doubt; there are rumours that Stiff won’t survive but Dave Robinson foresees no problems.
WHEN YOU KILL TIME YOU MURDER SUCCESS
It’s 1978, Robinson launches a major Ian Dury campaign, resulting in the hits ‘What A Waste’ (No.9) and ‘Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick’ which sold over a million copies on its way to No.1. After seven years of struggling and being over looked finally Dury achieved the success he deserved. Although, as Charlie Gillett remembers, Dury was “an extremely difficult guy to work with. The time that he surfaced and made really, really great records was the 18 months that Dave Robinson took him on and just didn’t take his bullshit.”
Stiff is now “the shape of things that win” and announced the Be Stiff Tour, which will travel the UK by specially chartered train. The tour featured Lene Lovich, Jona Lewie, Rachel Sweet, Mickey Jupp and a veteran of the first Stiff tour Wreckless Eric. There is also to be an album and single releases by each of the five artists. “The train was amazingly boring once the novelty of stealing porters hats wore off, “ Wreckless Eric laughs. “This time the people in the train were, for the most part , a little more bright-eyed and busy-tailed because they were clean living people with gleaming teeth and careers to get on with – apart from me and Mickey Jupp. In comparison to the first tour
there was a lot less drinking, and hardly any drugs or sex, though I did join the 60mph club in a far flung compartment with a lady friend and the blinds pulled down.”
“The Lyceum gig was good. Lene topped the bill but we were the best that night. I threw Chinese fake money into the audience during ‘Take The Cash’. The audience thought it was real. By the end of the show the mirror ball was going, and there were streamers and balloons falling out of the balloon net – it looked like Come Dancing!”
The ‘Be Stiff’ tour did bring Rachel Sweet and Lene Lovich to the public ear. They soon hit with ‘B-A-B-Y’ and ‘Lucky Number’ respectively.
The following year Stiff discovers Madness, nutty purveyors of street ska pop. After completing their lone single deal with 2 Tone, with ‘The Prince’ single, the band were keen to record an album. After their debut found its way into the charts and the Top 20, record executives made their way to the band’s gigs , all looking for the next big thing.
At the start of October, Dave Robinson booked them, along with the Stiff All Stars for his wedding celebrations at Clarendon Ballroom. “They came to take the piss,” Robinson said afterwards, “But I thought they were wonderful. They even got Elvis Costello to dance, which is a thing you don’t do too often. They literally dragged him on to the floor!” Madness signed to Stiff the next day because as Suggs recall in Will Birch’s ‘No Sleep ‘Till Canvey Island’ “Dave [Robinson] had a very direct idea about what could be done , whereas EMI didn’t have a clue …” They will become one of the most successful singles acts in pop history, kicking off, 28 days after they were signed, with the release of single and album, titled ‘One Step Beyond’, which both went Top 10. The nutty boys, courtesy of Stiff were well and truly on their way to the big time, An uninterrupted run of UK Top 10 hits followed over the next two years, including ‘My Girl’, ‘Work Rest and Play EP’, ‘Baggy Trousers’, ‘Embarrassment’, ‘The Return Of The Los Palmas Seven’, ‘Grey Day’, ‘Shut Up’ and their Labi Siffre composition, ‘It Must Be Love’. Their success was credited to their exuberance – on record and in performance – giving them a broad-based appeal, rivalled only by The Jam in terms of popularity.
1980 is a year of consolidation with further hits form Madness. Jona Lewie, a veteran of the Be Stiff Tour, charts with the quirky ‘You’ll Always Find Me In Kitchen At Parties’ and ‘Stop The Cavalry’ – a smash across Europe. By the early Eighties, Stiff’s recording budgets have been upped considerably, but so has the strike rate. In 1981, Stiff’s peak year, the label racks up an astonishing 10 hit singles from 30 releases. Company turnover exceeds £3m, Big sellers include Dave Stewart and Colin Blunstone’s ‘What Becomes Of The Brokenhearted’, Tenpole Tudor’s ‘Swords Of A Thousand Men’, Dave Stewart and Barbara Gaskin’s ‘It’s My Party’, and Theatre Of Hate’s ‘Westworld’.
IF IT AINT STIFF, IT AINT WORTH A FUCK
The success continues through 1982 and 1983. The Belle Stars produce several hits including ‘Sign Of The Times’, and TV comedienne Tracey Ullman charts with ‘Breakaway’. Further hits such as ‘Grey Day’ and the No.1 hit ‘Our House’ showed Madness’s ability to write about working class family life that was piercingly accurate, yet never patronising. The band was gold-dust to Stiff.
More UK hits followed, including ‘Wings Of A Dove’ and ‘The Sun And The Rain’, but in late 1983 the band suffered a serious setback when founding member Barson quit. They continued to release some exceptional work in 1984 ‘Michael Caine’ and ‘One Better Day’ both making it to No.11, not exactly failure, but weak compared to their other releases which had all made No.5 with ease.
The final Stiff release, ‘One Better Day’ clambered to No.17 and shortly after the band fulfilled their ambition to form their own label, Zarjazz (before signing to Virgin records in 1985). 1984 also sees Kirsty MacColl (writer of Tracey Ullman’s next hit ‘They Don’t Know’) score with ‘A New England’. It has been a spectacular run of success for a label that started on a guitar-string budget, but Stiff is beginning to look like a novelty shop. Much of the early style has evaporated.
In 1985, with the deflection of Madness to Virgin, Stiff’s chart entries start to dry up, as does the cash flow. Keen to find a viable replacement for “Great Britain’s favourite band”, Robinson hit the clubs in search of the next big thing. What he found was Pogue Mahone.
“The buzz around the business was, ‘How can anyone sign this group?’ “ Robinson later confirmed, “They were so out of it, they couldn’t even perform a gig from beginning to end. They were just the opposite of safe, but that was part of their appeal. They were fantastically exciting – whipped up a football crowd-type fervour in an audience. I remember watching them playing in a pub, and after three numbers they fell from the stage and never reappeared. I thought, if this could be bottled, if this band could be coerced into performing a full gig, people would love it.”
Stiff Records would Pogue Mahone a contract, but only if they changed their name. “Just before we signed to Stiff,” Shane later remembered, “they found out what the name mean, and that really fucked us. “ After several heated exchanges, a compromise was reached. Pogue Mahone became The Pogues. Robinson had his men, and woman, but sadly, too late in the day.
Eleventh hour hits include Furniture’s ‘Brilliant Mind’ and The Pogues ultimate Christmas song ‘Fairytale Of New York’, but this is not enough to save the label. At a creditors’ meeting in London on August 18, 1986, almost 10 years to the day after the release of Stiff BUY 1, the painful winding up process of coming apart. After nearly a decade of success as one of England’s leading independent labels, the late Eighties had seen a sharp decline in Stiff’s fortunes, leaving a company that was once hoe to household names, on the brink of bankruptcy. A shadow of its former self, Stiff’s artistic roster at the end of 1987 comprised just two acts. While both bands surely had their merits, neither could be expected to turn the tides surrounding the rapidly sinking ship.
It came as no surprise then, when news was announced of Stiff Records impending amalgamation with another more financially secure independent label: ZTT. Like Stiff, ZTT had enjoyed a rapid ascent to major player status in the early Eighties, mainly due to the unparalleled success of their first signing Frankie Goes To Hollywood. Though Frankie’s appeal had dimmed by the time of Stiff’s absorption into ZTT (ex-lead singer Holly Johnson was busy suing his former employers for unpaid royalties in October 1987), the company was still sufficiently cash-rich to offer a lifeline to their former competitor. ZTT boss, Jill Sinclair was optimistic over the new alliance: “I want to expand my companies in many different ways,” she said, “Stiff will be part of that – a very small, but very active part. I want all the creditor to know that Stiff is an ongoing concern.” Unfortunately, Stiff boss Dave Robinson wasn’t part of ZTT’s future. Soon after concluding negotiations with Sinclair, he resigned from “all duties” connected to the label that he and Jake Riviera set up some 10 years before, Jill Sinclair stated Robinson’s decision to move on was “by mutual agreement”.
The pop world is now a different place. The major record labels have woken up. Marketing and promotion campaigns are more colourful and strive to be witty. Performers are generally more image conscious. Songs are back in vogue as the public have become accustomed to seeking out alternatives to the mainstream. Most of the recent indie labels owe some of their existence to Stiff Records if only in spirit. All of these developments are due in no small part to Stiff’s pioneering work and influence. Stiff proved it could happen.
‘No Sleep ‘Till Canvey Island – The Great Pub Rock Revolution’, Will Birch, Virgin Books.
Stiff – The Story Of A Record Label 1976 – 1982’, Bert Muirhead, Blandford Press.
‘Total Madness’, George Marshall, S.T.Publishing.