Welcome to our guide to a scatter brained collection of ten artists from the Stiff Records era, for your enjoyment. Throughout the ten years of Stiff Records from 1976 there were some great signings…
The lanky tunesmith from pub rock perennials Brinsley Schwarz was there at Year Zero for Stiff. His double A-side single ‘So It Goes’/’Heart Of The City’ being the labels first release back in 1976. Although he only ever put out a handful of his own tunes on Stiff ( a four-track EP and one more single), he was a pretty much producer-in-residence during the early days, fashioning gems by the likes of Elvis Costello, Wreckless Eric and The Damned. Indeed, legend has it that it was while working with the latter punks that he earned the nickname Basher, his production style being, “Let’s bash it down now and tart it up later”.
When the Stiff duo of Jake Riviera and Dave Robinson went their separate ways, it was inevitable that Lowe would follow the former, his manager, to the fledgling Radar Records, where he enjoyed his biggest solo success with the hits ‘I Love The Sound Of Breaking Glass’ and ‘Cruel To be Kind’. Still very much involved in the biz, Lowe recently released his first album in three-and-a-half years.
Elvis Costello And The Attractions
The big glasses, weedy record sleeve poses and comedy name were pretty much the essence of Stiff, but anyone dismissing Declan MacManus as a joke artist back in 1977 would feel slightly stupid now. Although his output for the label was limited to the debut album ‘My Aim Is True’ and the fantastic ‘Watching The Detectives’ single, Costello went on to become the most important act ever to be “discovered “ by Stiff. Initially bombarding the label with bedroom demos, Costello was asked to come up with songs for Dave Edwards, but his initial forays into an eight-track studio with producer Nick Lowe proved so successful that he was soon signed up as an artist in his own right. The Elvis image and the lucidity of the man himself were a God send to the label, and Costello became as much a media star as he as a musician. Although considered New Wave, much of ‘My Aim Is True’ has a traditional ‘70s Americana feel, while ‘Alison’ is arguably one of the most beautiful ballads ever written. However, after unveiling his backing band The Attractions on the Live Stiffs package tour in late ’77, Elvis was off with manager Jake Riviera to Radar Records. Costello continues to swap musical hats, releasing a variety of stylised albums over the last quarter of a century, and has just made available a new edition of that Stiff debut, including a bonus disc festooned with all manner of demo extras.
The star that never was, Eric Goulden featured on the first two Stiff package tours, released some wonderful singles (‘Whole Wide World’, ‘Reconnez Cherie’) and some passable albums. Perhaps the gin-sodden raspiness of his voice put many off, but Eric was a true original and one of the label’s nicest geezers. Ill health dogged him for many years, but he was never far from a tiny stage, a Fender guitar and a battered amp. Some may recall him performing under the name Len Brigh Combo in the late ‘80s, and he also turned up as a special guest to Ian Dury on the singer’s last dates. Wreckless Eric playing the London Palladium? Who’d-a thought, eh?
Ian Dury & The Blockheads
Oi! Oi! Upminster himself, former art teacher Ian Dury was arguably Stiff’s biggest and best personality. Certainly, his fabulous ‘New Boots And Panties’ album was the label’s first gold disc, the single ‘What A Waste’ their first Top Ten hit, and its follow-up ‘Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick’ their first Number One. And we haven’t even mentioned the unofficial stiff anthem, ‘Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll!’ yet! But even people who’d never heard his music knew the name.
Initially frontman of pub rockers (or even pub jazzers?) Kilburn & The High Roads, Dury’s Cockney odes were irresistible, a glorious blend of Charles Dickens and Gene Vincent. A childhood victim of polio, Dury came relatively late to the music game, but was immediately singled out as one of the most individual talents in Britain. But would he have got as far as he did without the formidable Blockhead, the loosest limbed back-up band in history, a posse who could turn their hand to almost any musical style – indeed, during a court battle between Holly Johnson and his paymasters in the late ‘80s, it was revealed that The Blockheads played most of the instruments on Frankie Goes To Hollywood records.
The hits may have dried up, but Dury continued to crop up with a new record every now and then, not to mention scores of TV and movie appearances/ He also hosted a short-lived ITV chat show at one point. Reunited with The Blockheads in 1999, the resulting album ‘ Mr Love Pants’ was an assured return to the form of his early days, but sadly he succumbed to cancer in March of last year.
Cartoon punks to many, but there’s no denying the power and thrill of The Damned’s early days. ‘New Rose’ and ‘Neat Neat Neat’ (both produced by Nick Lowe) were among Stiff’s first 10 releases, and although neither troubled the charts they are now considered pioneering punk classics. In true legend fashion, the band were formed when Chris Millar (aka drummer Rat Scabies) and Ray Burns (aka guitarist/bassist Captain Sensible) were working as toilet cleaners at Croydon Fairfield Halls, but it was the addition of Gothic figurehead Dave Vanian and relatively normal guitarist Brian James that completed the picture.
Curiously, it was the solo Captain who first tasted chart greatness, hitting No.1 in 1982 with his version of ‘Happy Talk’ from the Rogers & Hammerstein musical ‘South Pacific’. He left the fold, only to return, leave, return, leave and return again over the years. Still plodding on today, the most recent incarnation of The Damned features former Sisters of Mercy starlet Patricia Morrison.
First coming to the attention of the record buying public with ‘Who Killed Bambi?’, the B-side of The Sex Pistols’ single ‘Silly Thing’ from the soundtrack to The Great Rock ‘N’ Roll Swindle, Tenpole Tudor were typical of the bizarre and comic ne’er-do-wells that Stiff had a fondness for. Fronted by the maniacal Edward Tudorpole, the band hit pay dirt with the rousing ‘Swords Of A Thousand Men’, but after a couple of spirited, and somewhat less successful, follow-ups, it seemed to end as quickly as it had begun.
Eddie himself went on to brighter things, re-teaming with Swindle director Julien Temple for a role in ‘Absolute Beginners’, and also appearing in more highbrow fare like Peter Greenaway’s ‘Drowning By Numbers’. He also co-starred with Rex Harrison in two separate West End runs and later turned up on Channel 4 hosting The Crystal Maze.
The early days of Stiff were dogged by distribution problems, often meaning the label had difficulties getting their product into the shops. What other possible explanation could there be for Kirsty’s classic 1979 debut ‘They Don’t Know’ failing to dent even the lower reaches of the chart – especially when it was second only to Abba in terms of national radio play? This beautiful pastiche of the ‘560s girl group sound perfectly exposed MacColl’s genius for writing catchy tunes, not to mention the beautifully layered multi-track harmony vocals that would become her trademark – a far cry from her first band, teenage suburban punks The Addix.
Daughter of folk legend Ewan McColl, Kirsty had to wait another two years before hitting the charts with ‘There’s A Guy Works Down The Chipshop Swears He’s Elvis’ on the Polydor label. But she returned to Stiff in the mid-‘80s for her next chart appearance, a cover of Billy Bragg’s ‘A New England’, produced by her then husband Steve Lillywhite and featuring an extra verse specially written for her by Bragg, for whom she would later return the favour by singing on his own hit ‘Sexuality’.
Arguably best remembered for another Stiff single, The Pogues’ ‘Fairytale Of New York’, in which she exchanged punch-drunk epithets with Shane MacGown, MacColl went on producing thoughtful and inspired music right up to her tragic death in December 2000 when she was hit by a speedboat while swimming on holiday in Mexico. A true maverick, an enormous talent, and a wonderful bright and warm human being, sorely missed by all.
Actually the first artist from the Stiff stable to experience the dizzy heights of chart stardom, Lewie was the man behind the 1972 Top Five hit ‘Seaside Shuffle’ by the wonderfully moniker Terry Dactyl and The Dinosaurs.
Cruelly dismissed as a cut-price Mungo Jerry, the band disappeared but Jona wailed on under his own name. A star on the second Stiff package tour, Lewie was back on Top Of The Pops declaring ‘You’ll Always Find Me In The Kitchen At Parties’ in 1980, and then moved on to release what has become a Christmas classic, the mournful brass band lament ‘Stop The Cavalry’.
But the hits only tell part of the story, and readers are urged to hunt out his album ‘On The Other Hand There’s A Fist’, and the superb single, ‘God Bless Whoever Made You’, considered by many to be the finest piece of music ever to bear the Stiff name.
Not only were the Camden Nutty Boys the most successful of Stiff’s myriad of signings, they were without question one of the great singles bands of all time. Yet, their first release was via another fondly remembered label of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s – Coventry’s multi-racial Ska emporium 2-Tone.
Their second single, the knees-up signature tune ‘One Step Beyond’, was the start of an unprecedented run of 18 consecutive Top 20 hits for the label, although just one record, ‘House Of Fun, ever headed the chart.
The group’s bluebeat dance roots gave way to brilliantly crafted pop soap operas, not unlike their south London contemporaries Squeeze, but unlike the dynamic Deptford duo of Difford &Tilbrook, Madness were blessed with seven members who could all pen radio-friendly tunes. Also in common with Squeeze, the Madness formula of sniggering seaside postcard humour (‘Baggy Trousers’ etc) gave way to much more thoughtful material, such as their ode to the homeless of NW1 ‘One Better Day’ and the oh so sophisticated kitchen sink symphony ‘Our House’, the latter a surprise hit in America for this most English of bands.
Madness were also the stars of the best series of videos ever to grace the small screen, several directed by Stiff co-founder Dave Robinson. Fans would eagerly await the band’s latest promo clip to find out just how outlandish sax player Lee Thompson’s particular costume would be. As he once told NME: “I’d turn up on the set as if ever there was a bumble bee suit or high wire and harness to send someone flying through the air, I knew it was mine.”
TV funny woman Ullman was surprisingly successful in the music world, notching up three Top Ten hits in 1983, starting with her carbon copy cover of Kirsty MacColl’s ‘They Don’t Know’. Our Tracey’s wit and personality shone through on the album ‘You Broke My Heart In 17 Places’, and loved nothing more than to drag famous chums like Paul McCartney and Neil Kinnock along for cameo spots in her videos.
Ullman continued to sing during her highly successful US TV series (which also spawned The Simpsons), and her film work has included a couple of brilliant performances in Woody Allen movies.
Mad, bad and dangerous to know, the roguish Pogues cut a drunken swathe through the pub circuit of mid-‘80s London as the figureheads of the short-lived cowpunk scene, but the sheer wealth of musical talent on display and the formidable writing prowess of Shane MacGowan marked them out as something special.
It was MacGowan’s ability to merge traditional Irish sensibilities with modern day urban experiences that particularly attracted interest, most notably on ‘A Pair Of Brown Eyes’, and ‘Fairytale Of New York’, but the group’s six albums include a good couple of dozen songs which could be called classics. The Pogues were also a fabulous live experience, as many may witness again during their reunion tour later this year.
And we could not leave you without…
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Our Stiff Records History www.withguitars.com/stiff-records-a-present-for-the-future/