Right now, the chief organ-grinder at writewyattuk is tackling Richard Balls’ Be Stiff: The Stiff Records Story, a compelling biography of the legendary and ground-breaking indie label.
A review will follow on these pages, but until then here’s an interview with the author himself, previously known for 2000’s mighty fine Sex & Drugs & Rock ‘N’ Roll: The Life of Ian Dury.
And so it goes, as Nick Lowe would say (with my questions in bold):
What’s the early reaction been to Be Stiff – The Stiff Records Story?
“There’s been a really positive response to the book. I think the label still strikes a chord with people, especially those old enough to remember the records and slogans. I find that as soon as you mention Stiff, it puts a smile on people’s faces.”
I thought Sex & Drugs & Rock ‘N’ Roll: The Life of Ian Dury was pretty ambitious. But this seems to go even further. There’s a lot of hard work in there, Richard.
“Writing any book is a huge undertaking and you never completely switch off from it. It took me about three years to contact people, do the interviews and write this one.”
What kind of numbers did you get to, sales-wise, with the Dury biography? And can you build on that again with Be Stiff?
“The Ian Dury book has sold around 40,000 copies and is still in print, more than 14 years after it came out. It was an incredibly strong subject and there was a huge amount of interest in Ian, especially after his death. I wouldn’t expect the Stiff book to replicate those kind of sales, but acts like Madness, Elvis Costello and The Pogues have huge fanbases, and books and TV programmes about the 1970s and 1980s seem to be very popular. Retro is cool!”
Three years researching, interviewing, writing, around 50 interviewees … That’s some going, isn’t it?
“Contacting people and setting up interviews has been made much easier by the internet, which was a pretty barren place when I was doing my previous book. I did a lot of the interviews via Skype, which was incredibly useful where people were living abroad. I have a chronic back condition and there were periods when I was in a great deal of pain. So being able to chat to people without having to make long trips was a godsend.
“I tended to do face-to-face interviews with key figures in the story and people I particularly wanted to meet up with, such as Shane MacGowan, Graham Parker, Lene Lovich, Wreckless Eric and Jona Lewie.”
If it was a novel, I think your publisher would have told you to cut down on the characters and just concentrate on a select few. Does that sum up why Stiff has endured so much – that strength of character?
“One of the reasons for the enduring appeal of Stiff is the eccentricity and originality of its artists. The records were amazing, but so were the acts performing them. People like Elvis Costello, Ian Dury and Lene Lovich were unique and continue to influence performers to this day. Off stage, Stiff had some colourful characters, from Barney Bubbles at the drawing board to Dave Robinson at the helm.”
Were there times when you got so wrapped up in this project that you wondered what the hell you had taken on?
“As I had done a book before, I knew the size of the task ahead of me. One of the hardest things is knowing when to stop interviewing people and gathering information and complete the job. There is always someone else you can speak to and more information to throw in, but you have to draw the line.”
There must have been some fantastic moments en route too, and you mention in your intro about some of those one-to-one interviews. That’s every fan’s dream, surely?
“That’s the most enjoyable part of the book and the least like work. Lene lives in Norfolk, so she called round and spent an evening chatting with me. I got to know Eric when I did the Dury book and he also came round while he was visiting the area. Meeting Shane MacGowan was as memorable as you might expect, and a definite highlight.”
Were there any notable interviewees who didn’t get back to you, or ones that proved particularly elusive?
“Obviously I approached both Dave Robinson and Jake Riviera, but both declined to take part. Rachel Sweet hasn’t spoken about her past with Stiff for many years and I was very keen for her to contribute. She did email me saying she would answer some questions, but that was the last I heard from her, so that was a real disappointment.”
“One of the things people remember most about Stiff is its marketing. My Aim Is True came in a range of different colours and for the cover of Ian Dury’s second album Do It Yourself, Stiff used dozens of different Crown wallpaper patterns. I wanted the book to somehow emulate that kind of imagination and flexibility, so we came up with the idea of having a limited run of different coloured covers. For the Be Stiff tour, albums by each of the five artists were released on the same day and all on coloured vinyl and picture disc. Those colours – red, blue, green, yellow and white – are the ones we chose for the book. After this limited run, all books will have a black cover.”
Was it that which ensured Stiff’s success, in your eyes? Having great artists and knowing what might make a musical impact is one thing, but …
“The marketing was powerful and made up for the fact that Stiff didn’t have the massive budgets of the major labels. But ultimately it was the sheer talent of the artists that made it so successful. Elvis Costello and Ian Dury weren’t average artists who were brilliantly packaged – they were lyrical geniuses.”
Did your research make you think differently about any of the people involved?
“Writing the book has made me appreciate some of the music more than before. I’ve been buying up Devo stuff and listening heavily to albums like Lene’s Flex.
Through your Ian Dury biography I got a better understanding of that very complex character, and it seems that’s the case with a few artists and background figures here too.
“Ian was a very complex character and his mood could swing quite violently. When he went out on the Stiff tour he was utterly focused and on great form, and the book provides an insight into what went on behind the scenes. However, fame didn’t agree with Ian and by the time of Laughter, his third album for Stiff, he was unhappy and sometimes downright unpleasant to be around. The book has some stories which illustrate that change of personality.”
What was the first Stiff Records release that made you sit up and take notice? And how old were you at the time?
“My guess would be seeing Madness doing My Girl on Top Of The Pops when I was just 12. I went on to become a huge fan of Elvis Costello and Ian Dury, but that was later on and it was through Madness I made the connection with Stiff.”
I’m guessing your answer might have something to do with that Madness / Belle Stars gig mentioned at the back of the book, when you were 14. What year was that, and where? Was it a game-changer for you?
“It was 30th October, 1981, at the University of East Anglia in Norwich and I was 14. That was my first live gig and I never really looked back. I’ve been going to gigs ever since and last month I saw The Specials at the same venue.”
No doubt you’ve listened and re-listened to a lot of Stiff output over those three years. Tell us about a hidden gem of an album or something you’ve come to appreciate more (first or) second time around.
Be Stiff by Devo is a record I knew about and liked, but it made a massive impact on me when I went back and listened to it for the book. The song is about uptight Americans, not the label, but Stiff adopted it as an anthem, and I decided to use it for the title of the book. The guitar riff is totally addictive and I love the whole nervous energy of it. Social Fools – the flip side – is also amazing. I’ve also come to discover more about Rachel Sweet’s album Fool Around, which is surprisingly varied in style. Just My Style is so endearing, and Stay Awhile should have been a single.
Sometimes it’s odd couples that make creative partnerships special. Who would have thought that Robinson and Riviera would work as a unit?
“They were similar in that they were both driven and convinced of their own central position in the universe. But in other ways they were chalk and cheese and it was a relationship no one thought would last. They were the ideal people to start a label that would challenge the status quo, because they hated the way major labels operated and they wanted to give them a problem to deal with.”
There was Barney Bubbles’ visual impact too, of course.
“The influence of Barney Bubbles cannot be overstated. He was a genius who managed to embed the label’s irreverence and unapologetically-direct approach in the look and feel of its product, and created some of the most iconic sleeves in pop.”
Losing Jake Riviera might have been the end in retrospect, but then came the Madness signing and The Pogues for starters. Did that prove Robinson’s worth?
“Ian Dury came to Stiff’s rescue after Jake left and it was Robinson, his ex-manager, who had brought him into the fold. The signing of Madness after getting them to audition at his wedding was a masterstroke and their string of hit records helped keep Stiff out of financial trouble for several years. Dave Robinson also saw the value of the pop video long before the arrival of MTV and in that way was one step ahead of many of the bigger labels.”
I believe Jake still manages Nick Lowe. What’s Robbo up to these days?
“He manages the Lee Thompson Ska Orchestra among other things.”
It appears that there remain a few question marks, such as the initial funding of the label and the Dr. Feelgood link.
“Yes, it’s always been said that Stiff was started up with a £400 cheque that Lee Brilleaux handed Jake Riviera. But Dave Robinson said the cheque was never cashed and it was money from their management company Advancedale which got Stiff up and running. In an interview for the book, Graham Parker supports this version of events and describes the Brilleaux story as ‘a lovely legend’.”
There were some dark old days for Stiff and Robinson by the mid-80s. Was it hard work getting that part of the story together?
“Not really. I managed to speak to people who worked at Stiff after its move to Island, including Sonnie Rae and Alan Cowderoy, and also Nick Stewart, a key figure at Island. So they were able to given first-hand accounts of that difficult period.”
That should have been the end of the story, but … well, this is Stiff, after all. Then came 2006 – and the label’s still doing alright for itself, isn’t it?
“It was really good news when the label was reactivated and artists like Wreckless Eric and Henry Priestman returned to release new records. Stiff is still going and new generations are buying T-shirts and discovering its back catalogue.”
In this era of crowd-funding, pledging, and a return to the true independent spirit to survive for new and old artists alike, we can learn a lot from the Stiff story, can’t we?
“Record companies are constantly having to find new ways to sell their products, something Stiff was brilliant at. Music fans have shown they will pay serious money for ‘deluxe’ box-sets and expanded anniversary releases if they contain tracks that have not previously been made available or extensive booklets with never before seen pictures.
“Stiff was the only label at that time which appreciated the importance of creating products that were visually appealing and collectable. Coloured vinyl, picture discs, 10-inches, scratch ‘n’ sniff sleeves were just some of the gimmicks employed by Stiff.”
I guess all this might lead to new material and a revised edition at some stage (albeit in a black jacket in keeping with the theme, of course).
“Stiff marks its 40th anniversary in 2016, so you never know.”
So what’s next for you (apart from a long lie down)?
“Writing a book is extremely time-consuming and impacts on family life, so I’ll take a rest from book writing for a while.”
What else do you get up to, to ensure the mortgage payments are made?
“I work full-time in communications for Norwich City Council.”
Where did you work as a journalist over the years?
“I grew up in Norwich but moved away to study journalism. Initially I worked for a series of weekly newspapers in north London, before moving to Dublin where I worked for national newspapers for nine years.
“Around the time I began working on the Ian Dury book, I moved back to Norwich to work for the Eastern Daily Press as a public affairs and then a crime correspondent. I was then appointed news editor of the Norwich Evening News before joining Norwich City Council as communications manager in 2007.”
I’m sure a supportive partner and family has helped you with this project too.
“My wife Anne and my two daughters have been incredibly supportive and understanding and I couldn’t have done it without them.”
Do you need to reintroduce yourself to the family now, or are you good at turning off and spending time away from it all? Only I’m guessing that if Suggs calls in the middle of the night, you’re not likely to say, ‘Piss off, McPherson, I’m busy!’
Finally, I asked Richard to pick his favourites of all the Stiff singles, with this Norwich City supporter’s answer turning into an all-time Stiff XI, with special mentions for:
Ian Dury – What A Waste
Devo – Be Stiff
The Damned – New Rose
Lene Lovich – Bird Song
The Pogues – Sally MacLennane
Larry Wallis – Police Car
Kirsty MacColl – They Don’t Know
Richard Hell – Blank Generation
Elvis Costello – Watching The Detectives
But that only makes nine, because out in front were these gems, pop-pickers:
“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.”
“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 Spector-esque 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.”
Be Stiff: The Stiff Records Story (Soundcheck Books) by Richard Balls is available in a Kindle edition as well as in paperback from all good bookshops and online.