Here it is…the brand new edition released to mark the 40th anniversary of the label and featuring a foreword penned by Jona Lewie. If you would like a signed copy, you can BUY 1 here http://tinyurl.com/j2f3zxz
On 14 August 1976, Nick Lowe’s ‘So It Goes/Heart Of The City’ was released by a brand new label which had just set up in a small shop in the Bayswater district of west London. Both sides had been bashed out for £45 at Pathway, more of a glorified broom cupboard than a recording studio. Steve Goulding from Graham Parker’s band The Rumour sat in on drums, while Nick ‘Basher’ Lowe played everything else and co-produced it with Jake Riviera, who had set up Stiff with fellow pub rock promoter Dave Robinson.
‘If It Means Everything To Everyone..It Must Be A Stiff’ read the bubbly white lettering on the black paper sleeve, while the centre of the disc announced Stiff as ‘The world’s most flexible record label’. Buy 1 was sold via mail order from 32 Alexander Street, so those who read their music papers from cover to cover and were ‘in the know’ had to send off for its inaugural release.
The record was to live up to the company’s name (‘stiff’ was slang for an industry flop), although phone orders from small record shops stocking the single led to its initial pressing of 2,000 being increased to 3,000. For all its raw immediacy and Riviera’s unshakable faith in Lowe and his songs, it went largely unnoticed by the record-buying public. But the maverick company behind it would go on to tear up the rule book and celebrate the record as artefect, making the product itself as exciting as the music within.
The seeds of this thorn in the industry’s side had been sewn on 1 July 1976 when Elcotgrange Ltd was registered with Companies House as a haulage company, only for its purpose to be changed at an extraordinary meeeting less than three weeks later. It would manufacture and sell records and publish music, and operate as “managers, promoters, agents, proprietors of all types of business allied to the entertainment industry”. In a nod to its forward-thinking directors, it would also carry on the business of “motion picture exhibitors and distributors”.
Share capital was increased from £100 to £100,000 through the creation of £99,900 shares of £1 each. Riviera and Robinson, the two directors, were listed as artistes managers, and directors of Advancedale Ltd. Riviera gave his address as 48 Queensgate Terrace, SW7, while beside Robinson’s name was written 32 Alexander Street, London W1.
Legend has always had it that a £400 loan from Dr Feelgood’s harmonica-wielding frontman Lee Brilleaux had provided the vital start-up cash. However, as reported in Melody Maker, Stiff’s other sponsors were Wilko Johnson, Nick Lowe and photographer Keith Morris, and Riviera had “sold a lot of things” to raise the rest of the money. A list of shareholders in the company submitted in 1977 showed Lowe, Brilleaux, Chris Fenwick (not Wilko) and Morris as having one share each.
Robinson has dismissed the £400 Brilleaux story as a myth, insisting the money came from Advancedale, the artist management company had and Riviera had set up. Graham Parker, an an interview for the book, supported this version of events.
“Even Dave has said, ‘That thing about the Doctor Feelgood cheque, I don’t think we cashed it, we hung it on the wall. I was getting money from people I was managing’. Who was he managing? Me. I had Ellis Clan, that was my company. Dave had Advancedale and he was getting money from me into Advancedale. He shared a bank account with me. It was a lovely legend, but to Jake and Dave, I was the most successful thing on two legs for that brief period until Stiff did take off.”
Read more in Be Stiff: The Stiff Records Story.
Lene Lovich’s second album Flex was released by Stiff in 1979, the successor to Stateless. It was produced by Lene and her partner Les Chappell, and additional production was again provided by Roger Bechirian and Alan Winstanley. An enthralling set of songs, it opened chillingly with the shrill warbling and baritone undercurrent of Bird Song and included a surprise interpretation of The Four Seasons’ The Night, issued by Stiff as a single in the US. The cover featured Lene crawling on the floor of a steel cylinder in a dress and veil that recalled Miss Haversham and holding two yo-yo-like discs. The suggestion to use the Guinness Factory in London’s Park Royal for the photo shoot was an inspired one, and pictures from it were also used for the sleeves of the single releases of Bird Song and Angels.
“Brian Griffin, the photographer, had recently done some work at the Guinness Factory in London, and I think he got permission to film there because he was going to do our album cover,” sais Lene. “We actually shot it in one of the fermentation tanks, which is why we’ve got this big propeller, totally stainless steel. We were inside the tank and it was massive. It was really funny because you couldn’t speak to each other because as soon as you uttered a word, the voice just went into a weird echo thing, so you had to get right up next to each other and whisper in your ear. Actually, Brian and I never spoke much. It was just the most amazing photographic experience.”
Flex charted and reached number 19, but its stay of just five weeks was a disappointment after the success of Stateless, which had managed three months. The singles from it also failed to make the impact of Lucky Number and Say When, with Bird Song, just scraping inside the Top 40, and Angels and the four-track EP What Will I Do Without You? making even less impact. The momentum had been lost.
On this day in 1977, Elvis Costello’s audacious debut My Aim Is True was released by Stiff Records and if the music was ahead of its time, so was the design and marketing.
Except from Be Stiff:
If one record perfectly encapsulated the ethos of Stiff Records, it is My Aim Is True. Combining Barney Bubbles’ iconic designs, Riviera’s ingenious marketing slogans, Stiff’s irreverence and a unique artist, it did what the major labels had failed to do for years. It acknowledged that music fans deserved better and tapped into Britain’s deep-rooted culture of buying and collecting records. The Stiff template had been created and the bar set high.
Photographer Chris Gabrin had produced the black and white shots that had adorned the sleeves of ‘Less Than Zero’ and ‘Alison‘. However, it was Keith Morris who was invited to do the shoot for the album under Barney Bubbles’ direction. Bubbles reportedly threw Elvis Presley-like shapes around the room as the other Elvis struck a variety of poses against a pale backdrop. A picture of awkwardness in a jacket, open-neck shirt and tie, turned-up jeans, and National Health glasses, Costello was a geek years before it was chic. A vibrant yellow screen was placed over him for the initial run of 10,000, ensuring it would stand out in the racks and window displays of record shops. Then, when the album began to catch fire, Stiff made a discovery that would result in a collector’s dream. Riviera had gone with Bubbles to oversee the first run and found out that using different coloured inks wouldn’t cost more. He then demanded that every run of 5,000 copies be printed in a different colour.
From an interview with Brian James for Be Stiff: The Stiff Records Story
“We didn’t do it for an album cover, we just did a session with this guy called Peter Gravelle, who was married to a girl called Patti Palladin, and Patti was best mates with my girlfriend at the time, Judy Nylon. Unbeknown to me, because I work up next to the girl in the morning, and I had a discussion in the afternoon, but they concocted this little surprise for us to happen during the photo session. So out comes the whipped cream and they started getting into this stuff and chucking it, and 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 iconic terrace in west London which featured in the video for Madness’s ‘Our House’ has been sold for £565,000. Read the full story here.
Taken from my interview with Bob Lewis, founder member and former manager of Devo.
“Once we came up with the joking theory of de-volution – it was a joke at the time, subsequent events have proved it was not such a joke after all – we applied it to a number of the arts; not just music, but poetry and literature. I did some Devo journalism that was trying to have the same playful, mocking spirit and to try, in a kind of reverse psychology, to elevate the human and warn people about the perils of technology. Without being Luddites, you can still be aware of the danger. Once we had that, applying that to music was not that difficult, especially because at the time we were doing it, and this was closer to the early Seventies, there were bands like Yes and Emerson, Lake and Palmer, where every song had to have a 15-minute jam and it was kind of dinosaur rock. So we said, ‘Well let’s try to make things almost childishly simple in how we arrange the music and how we craft the song’. At first our attempts to play locally were not necessarily that well received because that was not at all what people were expecting to hear. Then by 1976 to 1979 because of punk and new wave, but more punk rock – and Devo wasn’t punk rock, by any means – there was a live music audience for simpler songs. So even though we didn’t quite fit, we at least weren’t a square peg in the round hole, we were a little obloid maybe. There was room for us.”
Kent State University
“People talk about Devo being an Akron band, but it really happened at Kent State [University]. There was this place called the Commuters Cafeteria, and people tell me it’s not like this at universities any more, but you’d go in there and there’d be people from the art department and literature department, and sciences, and sitting there, drinking coffee and shooting the shit all day long. And there was a guy named Terry Hynde, who was in the art department. He plays saxophone in 15 60 75 [the Numbers Band] and they’re been together for forty five years. Two years after he showed up at Kent, his little sister Chrissie showed up. Gerry [Casale] played bass for a while in the Numbers Band, and so did Chris Butler, who went on to be in the Waitresses and Tin Huey. Mark [Mothersbaugh] was in a band for a brief period of time with Chrissie before she went over to England, so she was around.”
“If it hadn’t been for the shootings, I don’t know the band would ever have happened. Gerry was on his way in a master in fine arts and I think he would most likely have gone into graphic arts, and I was going to go be an anthropologist and dig up stuff. So May 4, 1970 was the last time I was a college student because I was out of it at that point.”
Devo get Stiff
“There was a guy there called Paul [Conroy] who seemed to be a really nice guy and he was attending to the nuts and bolts. I think he called me and I would imagine by that time, and it was, of course, much easier to do this now with the internet, there was an independent record store in London, one in France on the Rue Saint-Suplice, and ones in the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany that we were selling our single to. They [Stiff] had my phone number, because I was calling, and I think that’s how Paul got my contact information…
““I think they heard the single. This was before we had recorded in Europe and I think they were interested in trying to get an act in New York. We only played CBGBs once, but we went back and played Max’s Kansas City two or three times, so it’s possible somebody saw us there…
“We were going to play Max’s Kansas City, so we loaded our van with a bunch of singles and they actually bought some singles from us which they sold because we gave them the wholesale price. Mark and I went to a little office they had in New York City and we met with Dave Robinson, dropped the records off, spent the afternoon talking to him. I don’t know if we sketched out exactly what the parameters of our relationship were going to be, but we knew that we didn’t want to sign with them exclusively because we had bigger fish on the line. But we didn’t know how long that process, so I think we sold them five thousand copies of Jocko Homo and then we also made the deal for Be Stiff and Satisfaction. We got cash-flow now out of it and the warning shot to who was interested was that you’re interested, you’d better speak up because we’re not going to just sit by the phone waiting for the call for the date. We’re out to do other things too’.
“We produced it, we mastered it and we actually wound up selling 18,000 copies, which was great for the time, and considering half the sales were probably in Europe and Japan where we’d have to call someone at an independent record store at weird hours. I used to go over to my parents’ house and use their phone. It also embedded our first international presence.”
Jocko Homo video
“We wanted something to be able to send to record companies that was video that said, ’This is what you get if you get us’. So Chuck [Statler] came out to Akron and by favours and committing a bit of harmless fraud, we talked various institutions into opening up their premises and allowing us to film there, including a McDonalds restaurant, across from the hospital in Akron, where we blew out all of their power with our lights. When we left, the fryers weren’t running.”
(I Can’t Get Me No) Satisfaction (Stiff Boy 1)
“That was really one of those serendipities where Mark Mothersbaugh had been in some cover bands that played a lot of Rolling Stones songs and he really liked Keith Richards’ rhythm guitar playing. So he just started playing the riff and the one thing he could do was to take normal music and mutate it. So we made it robotic rather than sensual, if that makes sense. I do agree that it’s a cover that’s up there. Actually, I think the two greatest covers of all time are Joe Cocker doing With A Little Help From My Friends and Jimi Hendrix doing All Along The Watchtower because they took those songs some place that they’d never been before and once you heard them, the originals kind of paled. I wouldn’t say that Devo’s quite makes the Stones’ original pale because I can still remember driving around in my car in ‘65 that summer and hearing that on the radio all the time. But it did take the song some place it had not been before.”
Motorhead were one of the acts picked up by the embryonic Stiff and Lemmy was a frequent visitor to its offices at 32 Alexander Street. He would quietly disappear into the basement to speak to the accounts department and politely enquire about any royalties he was due. Generally, he left empty-handed.
At the fag end of 1976, the group headed to Worthing on the south coast to record a single at Pebble Beach studios. The A-side, a cover of the Holland Dozier Holland song ‘Leaving Here’, was backed by the incendiary ‘White Line Fever’. But BUY 9 ever reaching the shops due to contractual issues and Stiff aficionados only got hold of a copy when the first 10 singles were issued in a box-set. Leaving Here was also included on the compilations Hits Greatest Stiffs (FIST 10 and Heroes & Cowards (SEWL 1000) and appeared on the self-titled Motorhead album released on Chiswick in 1977.
In common with bands like The Pink Fairies and Plummet Airlines, that passed through Stiff’s revolving doors in its year in operation, Motorhead’s spell with Stiff was fleeting. But it was sufficient to earn them a place in the label’s colourful history.
[Excerpt from Be Stiff: The Stiff Records Story]
Ian Dury & The Blockheads made a number of appearances on Top Of The Pops to perform their surprise hit, opting for a different look each time. For one, Dury and the drummer sported matching donkey jackets. Except it wasn’t Charley Charles behind the kit – he’d gone missing.
“I don’t know where he was to this day – he just went missing,” says Sonnie Rae [Stiff plugger]. “Robin Nash, affectionately known as Knob Rash, was running Top Of The Pops in those days, and he was calling and calling and I got summonsed and asked, ‘Where is he?’ and I said, ‘Oh, just coming’. We dragged Spider [Fred Rowe, Ian’s minder] into make-up, blacked him up, stuck a wig on him and stuck him on the drum kit. But they forgot to do his hands, which was really funny!”
‘You put your left leg in, left leg out’…growled a snowman who sounded like he’s puffed on too many pipes. Sure the Hokey Cokey was familiar to millions, a staple of the drunken office party and wedding reception. But whose was that deep voice on the single released by Stiff in 1981 in an attempt to second consecutive Christmas hit in a row after Jona Lewie’s success with Stop The Cavalry?
Ian Dury had departed Stiff for Polydor that year and many were convinced it was his gravelly tones they were hearing – something that did the record no harm. Sonnie Rae, who was tasked with plugging the record for Stiff, recalls: “I just played that and people went, ‘That’s ian Dury, isn’t it?’, and I would go, ‘Ooh, I couldn’t possibly say because it’s a big secret. I don’t know who it is’. I think they all thought it was Ian Dury, so I think that’s why it got all the airplay it did.”
Dury’s former Stiff stablemate Jona Lewie was also among the names put forward as the record company remained tightlipped about the real identities of Frosty, Blob, Lump and Norman.
But it wasn’t a household name with chart hits to their name, but session guitarist and singer Martin Kershaw who led The Snowmen through the party favourite. Meanwhile, it was staff from the Stiff office, including publicist Nigel Dick, who were inside the costumes for the video and Top Of The Pops recordings.
Sadly for Stiff, any hope of a Christmas chart-topper melted away when the record stalled at No 18, leaving The Human League to enjoy the top spot with ‘Don’t You Want Me?’.