Be Stiff: The Stiff Records Story is due for release on 30 October. To whet your appetites, here are 10 of my favourite Stiff singles and the reasons why.
Ian Dury & The Blockheads – Hit Me Wit 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.