When it comes to music biographies, Richard Balls doesn’t go for easy options, and his latest subject matter couldn’t have been the easiest to research.
He’s managed to pull it off though, as you might expect from the author of 1999’s acclaimed Sex & Drugs & Rock’n’Roll: The Life of Ian Dury.
You probably know the rough plot, involving two unlikely maverick music entrepreneurs – Jake Riviera and Dave Robinson – who tore up the rule-book and effectively changed the sonic landscape in 1976.
Rumblings from that resultant record industry shake-up and wake-up call continue to this day, as contemporary artists look to fresh ways to get their product out there. And there’s so much to learn from the Stiff story, one of wily marketing, in-your-face sloganeering, gimmicks by the truck-load, and – thankfully – raw talent too.
As it was Riviera left within the year, yet Robinson took the label on to greater things and new heights as well as a few lows in an increasingly-savage marketplace.
It was Robbo’s vision that ensured we got to enjoy a wealth of fine bands from there, not least Madness and The Pogues. But Balls’ Stiff story is about much more.
The company balance sheet was enough to give the finest accountants palpitations from the start, and eventually – somewhat inevitably – the wheels spectacularly fell off. But the legacy of that journey – nicely chronicled in this weighty paperback – was something else, and Stiff remains with us, albeit in another guise.
It’s an epic tale, so it’s understandable if there are omissions in this 342-page tome, a must-buy not only for fans of Stiff’s many acts but anyone out there looking for inspiration for their own assault on today’s industry. Read and learn.
While Balls didn’t manage to nail down the co-founders, their stories are told in great detail by many of those who shared key parts of their journey.
It’s an impressive list of contributors too – from Graham Parker, Jona Lewie, Lene Lovich and Wreckless Eric through to Ed Tudor-Pole and Shane MacGowan.
The bit-part players add another dimension, not least The Attractions’ Pete Thomas, The Damned’s Rat Scabies, Madness’ Mark Bedford, early signing Larry Wallis and a number of leading Blockhead lights.
And all help recall the public and behind-the-scenes ups and downs of this revolutionary label, from its modest, haphazard beginnings onwards.
I struggled at times, particularly early on, wanting to hold the copy back and get Balls to explain a few of those moments in greater detail or ask his interviewees a little more. But it’s a monumental work all the same, with a lot of hard graft involved.
Besides, a fair amount of the full story is here as far as I can tell, not least the background of the key players – from Riviera and Robinson to Nick Lowe, Graham Parker and beyond.
We also see how The Attractions and The Rumour helped guide Elvis Costello and Parker accordingly, how Lowe played a telling part in that early success, and how Robbo’s first dealings with Costello and Ian Dury came way before Stiff surfaced.
Factor into that, Balls’ investigations into Lee Brilleaux’s supposed sponsorship of the whole venture – a Feelgood factor for sure – and how Riviera got one over on Malcolm McLaren as The Damned’s New Rose beat The Sex Pistols’ Anarchy in the UK to the kill, repeating that as Damned Damned Damned beat Never Mind The Bollocks out of the blocks, so to speak.
Where the book works best are the first-hand recollections of life at 32 Alexander Street and out on the road with the Stiff artistes, and how I’d have loved to have been a fly on the beer-soaked wall at that historic public debut for Costello with The Attractions in Penzance in July ’77, supporting Wayne County and The Electric Chairs, with Captain Sensible among those getting excitable in the audience.
Then there are reminiscences from Pete Thomas’ sister Philippa’s days at Alexander Street, having left behind the sunny canyons of LA, remembering the dilapidated furniture, visitors waiting on knackered aircraft seats, and Riviera smashing a hole in his desk with a hammer during some typically-fiery moment.
The portrait of legendary designer Barney Bubbles working on a shelf next to the sink, and an unsavory recollection of Riviera or Robinson mis-aiming in the loo above – the resultant dripping through the floorboards reaching his artwork – also leaves an indelible impression.
Add to that a vivid description of The Damned, straight from a gig and all-night drive, taking over Philippa’s front-desk shift, and how ‘apart from Dave Vanian, the others were covered in tomato ketchup’. Nice.
A further memorable moment is told by Wreckless Eric, the unlikely pop star having stopped for a few pints of Dutch courage before apologetically handing over his demo tape on his first visit to Stiff.
As it turned out, the American who took it from him was Huey Lewis, and within a few minutes both Lowe and Riviera had played Whole Wide World and loved it, taking to the streets to try and find the artist, who was already on his way home.
The tales from that first showcase tour are similarly colourful, not least concerning the battles between headliners Costello and Dury from day one at High Wycombe Town Hall.
As I write this, I’m looking at my cherished copy of the Live Stiffs cassette featuring that tour’s highlights, the 10 tracks from Lowe, Wreckless Eric, Wallis, Costello and Dury a great indicator of that big moment in time.
Here we get further illustrations of that epic undertaking, from the underlying tensions to the marathon drinking sessions involving Lowe, Wallis, Dave Edmunds, Pete Thomas, Kosmo Vinyl and Terry Williams. One such incident inspired Lowe’s post-Stiff hit I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass. You may know that one, but there will be other stories new to you.
By the time that tour was over, Costello, Lowe and Riviera had gone, but we then see Robbo pilot the Stiff ship to further success, sales of Dury’s New Boots and Panties! keeping the boat afloat.
As Balls reminds us, the focus shifted to the US, Robinson soon reeling in Devo – from under Richard Branson’s nose – plus Lene Lovich and 16-year-old Rachel Sweet.
Jona Lewie was another signing, and joined Wreckless Eric, Lovich, Sweet and Mickey Jupp for Be Stiff Route 78, new albums from each released to coincide with the tour, a finale at London’s Lyceum followed a month later by four nights at New York’s The Bottom Line.
Yet only Sweet charted, her B-A-B-Y cover hardly compensating for a 33-date tour involving a BR InterCity train (even if Robbo opted for the cheaper option and rickety old carriages). As the author puts it, ‘Financially, Robinson was effectively betting Stiff’s entire future on five oddities who wouldn’t have got past the reception desk at any other label’.
Thankfully, Dury was still shifting plenty of units, Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick topping the charts in early 1979 and second LP Do It Yourself then Reasons to be Cheerful Pt.3 doing their bit, while Lovich enjoyed moderate chart success too.
That leads Balls on to those Nutty Boys from North London, Madness’ audition of sorts a live set at Robbo’s wedding reception at the Hammersmith Clarendon, bassist Mark Bedford suggesting the clincher for the groom signing them was that this was a band that could even inspire wedding guest Elvis Costello to dance.
As it turned out, 1979 was Stiff’s biggest year, but for every Dury and Madness hit there were plenty of misses, and Robbo’s return to the US for guidance and flirtations with the likes of The Plasmatics came to little beyond the hype, The Go-Go’s just one of the bands that got away after one single.
Graham Parker finally recorded an album for the man who discovered him, with Bruce Springsteen among his guests, but it was still Madness keeping things ticking over as Balls moves us on to Son of Stiff, the third showcase revue.
That five-act bill was even less star-studded, a package summed up by the author as ‘eclectic and rather disparate’, the tour making its way to America but to no great effect. In fact, Stiff saw more success back home via Jona Lewie’s You’ll Always Find Me in the Kitchen at Parties and later festive smash Stop the Cavalry.
Madness and Parker continued to sell well, but there were further financial losses – despite hits for Son of Stiff act Tenpole Tudor, then Dave Stewart and Barbara Gaskin and The Belle Stars. And Dury’s third LP Laughter proved to be his last for Stiff.
Suggs and co. remained chief breadwinners and were soon bolstered by Tracey Ullman’s arrival, the actress another natural in a video-friendly age, her hits including a cover of further Stiff talent Kirsty MacColl’s They Don’t Know.
But Mike Barson’s departure from Madness proved a forerunner to a turn in fortunes, one exacerbated by Robbo’s ill-advised deal with ailing Island, one that ultimately saved that label but arguably finished Stiff off.
Balls goes into plenty of detail on that perilous state of affairs and the story behind it, via the rise of ZTT and Frankie Goes to Hollywood plus a Bob Marley retrospective that became reggae’s bestseller. But it seems that the co-founder had taken his eye off the ball with Stiff.
Enter The Pogues, just in the nick of time to at least postpone the worst, their rise tied in with Costello through his recording expertise, a prestigious support role and an ensuing relationship with bassist Cait O’Riordan.
Shane MacGowan tells Balls here about the background to those first three wondrous albums.
But behind the scenes, dark clouds were gathering, the new base at 22 St Peter’s Square seemingly not a happy one.
Within 18 months of the hook-up, Stiff were set adrift from Island, and as the author puts it, ‘of 14 singles issued in 1985, only Billy Connolly’s Super Gran graced the top 40′. Winding-up proceedings followed in September ’86, with Stiff sold for £305,000 to innovative Buggle-eyed producer Trevor Horn’s wife Jill Sinclair, its staff pared down to 11 and various bands having jumped ship.
Dr Feelgood finally arrived but were hardly on a creative high, The Pogues now the sole success thanks to hits like late ’87 classic Fairytale of New York with MacColl. And pretty soon the party was over.
But as Balls concludes: “Stiff achieved what Riviera and Robinson set out to do. It had taken industry rejects and no-hopers and proved there was a mainstream audience for them”.
Furthermore, he reminds us, “Stiff was never grey. For almost 12 years it blazed a trail across the industry, always doing things its way and proving beyond any doubt, ‘If it ain’t Stiff, it ain’t worth a f*ck'”.
That wasn’t the end as it turned out, his epilogue detailing the eventual resurrection and how in 2006 Horn took the label by his namesake, his ZTT offshoot of Island ensuring Stiff continues to this day. What started as a back-catalogue concern became so much more.
Memorable new releases from the likes of Squeeze’s Chris Difford and the returning Wreckless Eric – this time alongside wife and songwriting partner Amy Rigby – followed, while 30 years after House of Fun scored Stiff’s last No.1, Sam and The Womps’ Bom Bom topped the charts in 2012, Stiff refusing to lie down.
And in a similar fashion, Balls’ re-telling of this tale of Goliath sticking two fingers up at the big boys also holds the interest, justifying Be Stiff: The Stiff Records Story‘s steep cover charge.
Richard Balls’ Be Stiff: The Stiff Records Story (Soundcheck Books) is available in a Kindle edition as well as paperback – in five different limited edition covers, in the colours of the albums released to coincide with the Be Stiff Route 78 tour – from all good bookshops and online.
For the writewyattuk interview with Richard Balls, published on November 28th, 2014, head here.
And to find out more about Stiff today, visit the label’s website here.
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