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Tome On The Range

Be Stiff: The Stiff Records Story
The Quietus , November 16th, 2014 01:33

Alongside an extract from his new book - Be Stiff: The Stiff Records Story, an intimate history of the eponymous label - Richard Balls offers up his opinion on ten of the best Stiff Records released and a buyer's guide to the stiffest rarities

Chapter Three

When photographer Peter Gravelle arranged a session with the band, it was not with the intention of producing shots for their album cover. James was going out with Judy Nylon at the time and her best friend Patti Palladin was married to Gravelle. However, the slapstick antics which left the band and the studio dripping with whipped cream were pre-planned. “They concocted this little surprise for us to happen during the photo session,” recalls James. “So out comes the whipped cream and they started getting into this stuff and chucking it. Judy in particular, because I was going out with her. She had a ball, she loved it, although she didn’t get me that much. When Barney Bubbles saw the contact sheet he said, ‘That’s the album cover. That has got to be the album cover.’ And we couldn’t agree with him more. It was just too bizarre - no one had ever done that.”

The first 2,000 copies of Damned Damned Damned also featured something that would have been anathema to any other record label. A picture of Island Records act Eddie & The Hot Rods appeared on the back cover with an artificial sticker apologising ’for any convenience caused’. Riviera was testing Island’s sense of fun and also knew that by creating a deliberate mistake, copies from this limited run would be highly sought-after. By engaging in humorous, but shrewd stunts like this, Stiff was doing something unique in the industry: it was building a fan club of the label itself.

Many of those that signed to the label also saw the passion Riviera and Robinson had for music and knew they were championing bans they genuinely liked. In contrast to most record labels, where the top brass would never even meet many of their acts, there was a mutual respect between label and artists at Stiff.

The Damned’s affinity with Riviera was a case in point.

“I thought he was great,” says Scabies. “He was fucking brilliantly horrible. He was funny, but the thing with Jake was he knew who the MC5 and The Stooges were and you talked to him about music. He loved music and he knew good music from bad and that was what set him apart from everyone else that we kind of met. Actually, saying that, that’s a little bit unfair on Roger Armstrong and Ted Carroll, because they were good on music as well. But there was something about Jake that had much more fire in his veins. What Ace and Roger and Ted were doing was kind of sedate by comparison and they were kind of doing it for bands they loved, whereas Jake was determined to overturn the industry and to be noticed.

“So that was where he was coming from and he was a much more exciting prospect. When he wanted to do it, he sat us down, and he‘d say, ‘Listen, don’t fuck about with this lot. You come with me and I’ll fucking make you happen‘. And he was always, ‘I will. I’m gonna do this. That’s what’s gonna happen‘, and it did. But at the same time, he always let me doss on his couch, he’d buy you a pint, you could talk to him about music, you could go and hang out. So in a funny way he was a bit like a sort of big brother. He was somebody who was a bit older with a little more experience than we had, so it was quite easy to be confident in him.”

Riviera would make his menacing presence felt on his frequent visits to the offices of United Artists. Before the label had begun distributing for Stiff, industry practice was to press singles in standard slip sleeves bearing the company’s logo. Only albums had customised sleeves. Fran Burgess was in charge of product manufacturing for UA at the time, an area bound by rules and procedures. “If ever the rules out oughts and shoulds were challenged,” she said [20] “it was by Jake”.

She recalled one occasion when she explained to Riviera that he couldn‘t have the picture bag he wanted: “Who says?” asks Jake. “It’s the rule.” “So what’ll happen?” “John T_ (the production manager) won’t like it,” was my feeble reply. Even I knew that wasn’t a good enough answer for a client. Jake was the first to have ‘proper’ sleeves for singles.”

Be Stiff: The Stiff Records Story is out now, published by Soundcheck Books


Ian Dury & The Blockheads – ‘Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick’

The self-styled diamond geezer wore a tuxedo and held a silver-topped cane on Top Of The Pops to toast the unlikeliest of number one hits. And both lyrically and musically, 'Rhythm Stick' certainly saw Dury Puttin' on the Ritz. Charlie Gillett, his friend and former manager, astutely called it the "first British jazz funk record", it's irresistible rhythm owing much to the influences of his songwriting sidekick Chaz Jankel. But it was the singer's passions for Music Hall and jazz and his delicious rhymes that made the song truly unique, and the first chart hit to rhyme 'Eskimo' and 'Arapaho'.

The Damned – ‘New Rose’

You could almost hear the hippies running for cover as punk made its vinyl debut in Britain and Jake Riviera got one over on his rival Malcolm McLaren. No one was entirely sure what 'New Rose' was all about - a blossoming romance or the arrival of punk itself? - but no one would have heard the answer over the din. Rat Scabies sounds like he is using rolling pins as he batters out the intro before Brian James joins in with a four-chord riff that burns straight into the memory. In just three frenetic minutes, The Damned bottled the bubbling insurgency of punk and probably made their finest record.

Elvis Costello – ‘Watching The Detectives’

Ian Dury might have come out on top against his bespectacled rival on the Stiffs Greatest Stiffs tour of 1977. But with this edgy tale of domestic tension, Costello held audiences transfixed and supplied Stiff with its first Top 40 hit. A reggae rhythm underwrote the beguiling record which showed that the computer operator was learning how to press the right buttons as a songwriter. "She's filing her nails, while they're dragging he lake," he sang menacingly. Costello would go on to write better songs, but perhaps none so atmospheric.

Lene Lovich – ‘Lucky Number’

When Lene Lovich appeared on Top Of The Pops to perform 'Lucky Number', jaws in British households must have dropped in unison. Visually and sonically, there were pretty much no reference points and certainly not for a chorus which consisted of 'Ah! Oh! Ah! Oh!'. Now, just as in 1979, it is those noises for which Lovich's biggest hit is remembered. But far from being an oddity, the song she threw together in a hurry when a B-side was needed had a spell-like pop rhythm and an air of mystique that some artists would struggle to create over a whole career.

Larry Wallis – ‘Police Car’

He was off his head on speed and watching Angie Dickinson in the TV series Police Woman when the idea for the song came to him. A plethora of punk bands rushed to cover the song and it was one of the highlights of the first Stiff tour on which the former Pink Fairy and member of Motorhead was one of five acts. A grungy guitar riff was its arresting hook and while it was his only single for Stiff, its popularity would continue long after the panda car lights went out.

Jona Lewie – ‘Stop The Cavalry’

Lewie was sent back to the drawing by Dave a Robinson after he played him the rough demo. Originally penned as an anti-war song and not Christmas one, it was played on a piano and there wasn't a tuba or trombone in sight. The version Lewie came back with was a resounding triumph that combined old fashioned storytelling with a glorious melody, and has become as much part of Christmas in Britain as the Queen's Speech.

Wreckless Eric – ‘Whole Wide World’

Two chords is all it took for singer songwriter and industry square peg Eric Goulden to forge his greatest ever composition. That it failed to trouble the charts on its release in 1977 but remains a favourite among Stiff records fans to this day, speaks volumes about its universal appeal. If just one record best reflects the early ethos of Stiff, a haven for artists who couldn't get a deal elsewhere, this is probably it.

Nick Lowe – ‘So It Goes’

Three major guitar chords, thundering drums and the opening line...'I remember the night the kid cut off his right arm'. Nick Lowe’s ‘So It Goes’ was a Spectoresque burst of energy and the musical embodiment of what Stiff reckoned was needed in an industry gone stale. Lowe’s voice was given plenty of space amid the Fifties’-style guitars and the result was the perfect good-time, rock ‘n’ roll record to announce the arrival of Stiff.

Kirsty MacColl – ‘They Don't Know’

When Stiff asked a still teenage Kirsty MacColl if she had any songs, she said ‘Oh yeah, loads!’. That was a fib and so before her next meeting she dashed off ‘They Don’t Know’. Although she had fronted a punk band, MacColl, like Chrissie Hynde, opened her vinyl account with a sublime piece of pop. Only a distribution strike prevented it from being the chart hit it for her that it later became for her friend Tracey Ullman. Her cry of “babee“ - which she also provided on Ullman’s cover - remains a real goosebumps moment.

Madness – ‘Embarrassment’

Lee Thompson wrote 'Embarrassment' about the reaction in his family to the news his teenage sister was carrying the child of a black man. Their fifth single for Stiff showed the Nutty Boys had a more serious side and the video was shot in a darkened club. But the song was no bleak affair and had all the usual Madness ingredients: an attention-seizing intro, a searing sax solo and a stomping beat guaranteed to restock any depleted dancefloor.

Compiled by Tony Judge

Artist: Motorhead
Title: White Line Fever
Format: 7" vinyl
Cat No.: Buy 9
Released: 1976
Comments: Only in black boxset

Artist: Nick Lowe
Title: Bowi
Format: 12" vinyl
Cat No.: Last 1
Released: 1977
Comments: Only 50 pressed
Artist: Ian Dury & The Blockheads
Title: What A Waste
Format: 12" vinyl
Cat No.: Buy 27-12
Released: 1978
Comments: Extremely hard to find
Artist: Various
Title: Kongratulationz
Format: 7" vinyl
Cat No.: MAX 1
Released: 1980
Comments: Most copies taken back by Dave Robinson
Artist: Madness
Title: Don't Quote Me On That
Format: 12" vinyl
Cat No.: Mad 1
Released: 1980
Comments: Extremely hard to find
Artist: The Dancing Did
Title: The Lost Platoon
Format: 7" vinyl
Cat No.: Buy 136
Released: 1981
Comments: Alternative sleeve (features soldiers and fighter planes)
Artist: The Enemy
Title: 40 Days & 40 Nights
Format: 7" vinyl
Cat No.: Buy 265
Released: 2006
Comments: Only 1,000 pressed
Artist: Jay Jay Pistolet
Title: Happy Birthday You
Format: CD EP
Cat No.: CDBuy 280
Released: 2008
Comments: Only 1,000 pressed (Pistolet now lead singer with The Vaccines)
Artist: Kirsty MacColl
Title: New England
Format: 7" blue vinyl
Cat No.: Buy 287
Released: 2013
Comments: Record Store Day 2013 only 500 pressed
Artist: Tenpole Tudor
Title: Swords Of A Thousand Men
Format: 7" picture disc
Cat No.: PBuy 290
Released: 2014
Comments: Record Store Day 2014 only 1,000 pressed