New Wave and the Stiff Label
The Stiff label was the home of the largest stable of New Wave artists in Britain. It was a small independent label set up by Jake Riviera and Dave Robinson in 1976 with a £400 loan from Lee Brilleaux of Dr Feelgood. Its premise was to sign up the reservoir of talent neglected by the major labels, give them a good production inspired by the Punk bands, and try to make a success out of it. They claimed they were ‘Undertakers to the industry – if they’re dead – we’ll sign ‘em’.
They became famous and successful for two reasons. Firstly there was the reputation they got for discovering great talent – Ian Dury, Elvis Costello, Wreckless Eric and Madness etc. Secondly there were the brilliant publicity campaigns including the notorious ‘If it ain’t Stiff it ain’t worth a Fuck!’ buttons.
By the end of 1980 they had a £3,500,000 turnover.
The idea for the label was almost entirely Jakes. He had thought it up in 1975 when he was tour manager for Dr Feelgood on their big US Tour. He had noticed that each town seemed to have its own independent label that promoted local talent and got it aired on local radio. If an act was successful locally it then got picked up by the big national companies. By the end of his tour he had formed his own idea of a similar independent label in Britain. He had worked out the logistics and already thought up a number of the publicity stunts that were to capture the public’s attention. All he required was someone with a little experience and money to get it off the ground. He found that man in Dave Robinson.
Dave Robinson had started out as tour manager for Jimi Hendrix in the 1960s. He went on to form the ill-fated Fame pushers promotion company who crashed after their over-hype of Brinsley Swartz. After the collapse of this venture Dave set about creating a studio and recording local talent from the London club scene. He discovered Graham Parker & the Rumour and became so impressed with them that he took over their management. By the time Jake happened upon him he had built up a vast knowledge of local talent and was in a good position, having already recorded most of them, to advise Jake on who was available, what they were like, what their potential was and who to contact.
At the time the London Pub scene was thundering along with the Pub Rock groups – Brinsley Swartz, Dr Feelgood, Chilli-Willi, Graham Parker & Rumours, Eddie & Hotrods and Kilburn & the Highroad. They were exciting and talented but almost completely passed over by the major companies.
Dave and Jake got together and compiled a list of artists that they considered neglected and set about forming a label to promote them. They aptly called it the Stiff label.
Their aim was laudable.
They set out with the intention of treating people as people and not products; to try to show a profit on each release; to avoid paying huge advances that could not be recouped; to promote their artists, give them favourable production, and record them when they were at their peak, It was to pay off. In six years they had released 150 singles and 30% of them had made the charts.
The early work of the label featured a range of work and artists including old-timers like the Pink Fairies and Dave Edmunds, heavy sounds like New Wave Hard Rockers Motorhead, pub rockers recycled such as Ian Dury from Kilburn & the Highroads, Graham Parker & the Rumour, Wreckless Eric, Two-Tone Ska with Madness and newcomers like Elvis Costello, Wreckless Eric, Kirsty McColl and Lene Lovitch, along with a lot of old-timers such as Larry Wallis, Magic Michael, Nick Lowe, Jona Lewie and Mickey Jupp, and US imports such as Rachel Sweet.
At first the label was a small concern with the first singles being released by mail order or off the back of Lorries with only a few independent outlets. But their wise choice of acts soon brought them to attention and they handed over their distribution to Island Records in 1977. It had hit just right – emerging with the rise of Punk. Although none of the acts were strictly Punk they all fed off the energy that was generated by it. It reflected in their production techniques. A good New Wave sound was produced that was more than acceptable to the kids despite the age of some of the artists.
An essential part of the Stiff promotion, apart from the slogans, buttons and T-shirts, was the tremendous Stiff Tours. These ran along the lines of the old package tours of the 1960s. They put all the artists on a bus and set off round the country. The 1977 tour had the amazing line-up of Ian Dury, Elvis Costello, Wreckless Eric, Nick Lowe and Larry Wallis. Apart from the sheer strength of the acts was the importance of the family feeling generated between the bands. It was a feeling that manifested itself to the audiences. There was a great camaraderie between the groups, not only did they travel on the same bus, but stayed in the same hotels, shared the P.A.s, had the same length sets, alternated the billing from night to night and ended the night by jamming together. It was to prove incredibly successful catapulting Ian Dury and Elvis Costello to super-stardom and establishing all the others. It was followed in 1978 with another successful tour featuring Lene Lovitch, Wreckless Eric, Rachel Sweet, Jona Lewie and Mickey Jupp. However a similar type of tour in 1980 – called the Son of Stiff Tour – failed to achieve the same standard of acts or degree of success.
The label survived its first crisis in 1978 when Jake left to form his own Radar Record Label taking Elvis Costello, Yachts and record producer and artist Nick Lowe with him. The label bounced back with Madness, Ian Dury and the Belle Stars and the hits continued.
Stiff will be remembered for the adventurous music it has produced with novel arrangements on numbers such as ‘Lucky Number’ by Lene Lovitch and ‘Sex and Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll’ by Ian Dury.
Ian Dury had been crippled by polio at the age of seven and ended up in an institution for severely handicapped children, an experience that was to traumatise him. His personality carried him through art school and teaching as well as performing with Kilburn & the Highroad. The Kilburns went on to become one of the top Pub Rock bands. They broke up in 1976 and Ian and Chas Jankel took a year off to work on ideas. They signed to Stiff in 1977 and their first release was ‘Sex and Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll’ which set the pace. It was a step up from anything with the Kilburns and the production was in a different class. It would have been a hit, despite lack of airplay, except that the fact that Stiff had not pressed enough copies. Success came following the first Stiff tour where audiences were won over to his highly original stage act. He used a lot of theatrical props, producing lots of scarves from various pockets like a conjuror, chains, jujus and assorted clothing and paraphernalia. He had shaved his head and used manic stares and gestures. It was a Chaplinesque routine tinged with vaudeville, clowning and theatre, all backed up with a highly proficient funky Rock band. His songs and lyrics were unique. The single ‘Sweet Gene Vincent’, a homage to his idol Gene Vincent who also had a gammy leg, just failed to take off but ‘What a waste’ hit the charts and ‘Hit me with your rhythm stick’ got to number one. The album ‘New Boots and Panties’ was one of the classic albums of that era. Many of his songs were cockney based sex ditties but others were perceptive insights and idealistic wishes. Together they created a lexicon of quality and originality both in lyric and sound.
Elvis Costello was the other major new talent discovered by the label. His real name was Declan Patrick Macmanus. He holds the distinction of being one of the very first acts to be signed by the label in 1976. That came about when he turned up at the label’s office with a demo and his talents were instantly recognised. His strengths lay in the novel arrangements of his songs coupled with his distinctive vocals and imaginative lyrics. He released a number of singles ‘Less than zero’, ‘Alison’ and ‘The angels want to wear my red shoes’ without success. Then he scored with the album ‘My aim is true’. Following the success of that album and the media attention lavished on the Stiff tour he hit the charts with ‘Watching the detectives’. His diminutive size and Buddy Holly looks became a household fixture. He left Stiff with Jake Riviera and proceeded to have a number of big hits with ‘(I don’t want to go to) Chelsea’, ‘Pump it up’ and ‘Oliver’s Army’. He tried his hand at production with the Specials first album. Since then he has broken America, set up his own label and recorded albums in a range of styles including Country.
Of the other Stiff artists many of them had successful singles and albums but none were as unlucky as Wreckless Eric. Despite a string of brilliantly original songs – ‘Whole wide world’, ‘Pop song’, ‘Semaphore message from the graveyard’, and ‘Reconnez Cherie’ – failed to establish himself and take off into a long term success. Even so his nasally tinged Hull accent and crazy stage act has made him a cult figure with a big following. Besides it is impossible to imagine anyone like Eric becoming a super-star.
Mickey Jupp came out of the Southend Rock scene in 1963 in the Orioles and then Legend before emerging on Stiff for a short run with a ten piece band and then disappearing again.
Jona Lewie, who has a Bsc in Sociology, went out to the USA in the 1960s and played with many of the old Blues singers such as Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup. On returning to England he played with Brett Marvin and the Thunderbolts and then had a minor hit with ‘Seaside Shuffle’ under the name Terry Dactyl & the Dinosaurs. He joined Stiff in 1978 and immediately had hits with ‘In the Kitchen at parties’ and ‘Stop the cavalry’.
Lene Lovitch was born in the USA with the name of Mariene Premilovich. They moved to Hull and she grew up in Hull where she had the distinction of going to school with Sue Goodall. At eighteen she moved to London and tried to get involved with the theatre but ended up busking and Go-Go Dancing. She joined Stiff in 1977 following an introduction from Charlie Gillet and hit with ‘Lucky Number’ and ‘Say when’. On tour she impressed with her elaborate costumes, weird hairstyles, theatrical movements and distinctive vocal style. She then toured on the continent and returned to find the weird theatrical niche she had occupied taken over by the likes of Toyah, Hazel O’Connor and Kate Bush.
Kirsty MacColl was the daughter of the Folk singer Ewan. She left a couple of times and returned and had a number of hits as well as writing songs for Tracey Ullman and doing a lot of backing vocals. She went on to have more success with Polydor. She was tragically killed in a boating accident in Mexico.
Rachel Sweet was born in Akron Ohio and entered Show-Biz at the age of eight when she starred in a commercial. She went on to record a minor Country hit when she was twelve and while she was still a young girl, dragging her Mum round as chaperone, she signed to Stiff and straight away set off on the British tour following that up with the hit ‘B-A-B-Y’.
Nick Lowe started out in the 1960s with Kippington Lodge and then Brinsley Schwartz, which although it failed as a Progressive Rock Band did well as a Pub Rock band. He split from them in 1975 and joined Stiff as both a recording producer and artist. He has the distinction of recording Stiff’s first single ‘So it goes’. Nick also produced records by non-Stiff artists such as Dr Feelgood and Graham Parker & the Rumour. He left Stiff with Jake in 1977 to set up Radar Records and had success with ‘Breaking Glass’.
Stiff records had an exuberance and energy about them. It was a rougher sound with more artistic licence and clear sound production. Like most independent labels it allowed a more radical approach to music and a greater degree of individuality through not censoring or restricting extremes. At times this approach can come across as amateurish but this is compensated for by the energy and commitment of the performance. The ‘feel’ of the label comes across on the ‘Be Stiff’ album. Every artist produced their own version of the Devo number ‘Be Stiff’ in their own individual style.
Whenever there is a boom in independent labels there is a burst of creativity as the undiscovered grassroots find expression and their ideas are allowed to develop rather than being stifled in the middle-of-the-road, ultra-safe policies of the major record labels that prevents individuality and ends up with a bland product.
Stiff were not the only source of British New Wave music but they dominated the market.
The retrospective box set of Stiff records was very interesting. The first disc is vibrant and as you progress you can almost feel the energy drain away. You don’t play the fourth disc.
Artist Stand out tracks
Elvis Costello Alison
The angels want to wear my red shoes
Welcome to the working week
Blame it on Cain
I’m not angry
Waiting for the end of the world
Pump it up
(I don’t want to go to) Chelsea
You belong to me
This years girls
Accidents will happen
Watching the detectives
Two little Hitlers
I can’t stand up for falling down
Men called uncle
5ive gears in reverse
Beaten to the punch
I stand accused
Black and white world
A good year for the roses
Ian Dury Sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll
What a waste
Sweet Gene Vincent
Wake up and make love to me
Hit me with your rhythm stick
Reasons to be cheerful pt 3
I’m partial to your abracadabra
My old man
Don’t ask me
This is what we find
There aint half been some clever bastards
Lullaby for Francis
Common as muck
I want to be straight
Sueperman’s big sister
Delusions of grandeur
Yes and no (Paula)
Hey, Hey Take me away
Oh Mr Peanut
That’s not all
You’ll see glimpses
Really glad you came
Wreckless Eric (I’d go the) whole wide world
Take the cash
I wish it would rain
Mickey Jupp Old Rock and Roller
Lene Lovich Lucky number
I think we’re alone now
Rachel Sweet B-A-B-Y
Kirsty Kirsty MacColl There’s a guy works down the chip shop swears he’s Elvis
They don’t know
A new England
Miss Otis Regrets
What do pretty girls do
Don’t come the cowboy with me sonny Jim
Fairy tale of New York
Jona Lewie You’ll always find me in the kitchen at parties
Stop the cavalry
Other New Wave acts
Artist Stand out tracks
Squeeze Up the junction
Cool for cats
Labelled with love
Pulling Mussels (from the shell)
Black coffee in bed
Take me I’m yours
Slap & tickle
Flying Lizards Money
Pretenders Brass in pocket
Tattooed love boys
Stop your sobbing
I go to sleep
XTC Making plans for Nigel
Senses working overtime
Generals & Majors
Eurythmics Sweet dreams
Love is a stranger