Snowman secret revealed

20 Dec

‘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?’.



Baggy Trousers

26 Sep

‘Baggy Trousers’ sold more than 600,000 copies, making it the 12th best selling single in the UK in 1980. The massive popularity of the song, and the video – filmed largely at Islip Street School in Kentish Town, north London – sent it to number three and it stayed in the chart for four months.

Guitarist Chrissy Boy Foreman on the unforgettable video: “The one that really cemented us as ‘Baggy Trousers’. Dave [Robinson] did that and we just went down there and Lee wanted to fly through the air. He wanted to have these dummies that were us and he would kick our heads off. We thought that was a bit strong and so the dummies ended up in the pub. That video was like, ’This is it’. When we got the film back and Dave and us all sat down and looked at it, you couldn’t see the wires, and that made us video legends.”

Mystery of Costello’s Cornish studio solved

19 Sep
Roche's Studio1

Roche’s Studio in 1976 (

It was a small, converted farmhouse in the Cornish countryside near St Austell, used mainly by local bands. But in the summer of 1977, its recording desk was busy capturing the oncoming new wave – and now the mystery location can be revealed.

Stiff Records had sent Elvis Costello, its red-hot property, on a mission: to rehearse and bond with his newly-assembled group and perform some low-key gigs. A friend of co-label-owner Jake Riviera’s offered to put them up in Camelford and permission was acquired for them to practice at the parish hall in nearby Davidstow [see previous blog]. The foursome would also perform two shows. On Thursday 14 July they supported US trash punk band Wayne County & The Electric Chairs at The Gardens in Penzance, and the following night they played at Woods Leisure Centre in Plymouth, described by one journalist who was there as a “bizarre meat market of a club”.

Costello’s sojourn to Cornwall only weeks after giving up his job as a computer operator at the Elizabeth Arden “vanity factory” has been well documented. One or two journalists witnessed the shows and their reviews provide a fascinating insight into these nascent appearances by the band. Original adverts for the shows have also survived. However, little or nothing is known about the recording session that also took place that week – including the location of the studio. Until now.

The studio in question was Roche’s at Bawdens Far, Tremodrett, near St Austell. Gerry Gill, a DJ, MC and songwriter who had been a face on the underground scene in London in the late Sixties, established it in early 1975 and, very quickly, bands from Devon and Cornwall flocked to it.

Roche's Studio, Cornwall

Inside Roche’s Studio (

By 1977, Gill had expanded the facilities and through his connections with Hawkwind, whose lightshow he had run, he brought in band member Martin Griffin to help run things. As Griffin own contacts in London included Jake Riviera, it was for that reason that Stiff’s great white hope was booked in to record at this most rustic of studios.

“Jake had sent us down a copy of the first EP with Alison on it,” says Griffin. “My mate Simon Fraser was very impressed by the songs and knew this guy could write good songs.”

Costello’s official website states that on 16 July – the day after the gig in Plymouth – they went into a small studio to “re-record My Aim Is True”. Dave Robinson and Jake Riviera’s plan was to substitute the Attractions’ fresh recording of the album once copies of the original Costello had made with American bar band Clover had sold out. The record was never officially released, although at the time a British paper reported it was due to be issued in America.

Griffin doesn’t recall what songs were recorded, but he well remembers that summer session taking place. An advance party which was sent to the studio had a “strong Graham Parker factor” and it transpired that the band had “had some aggro with the locals, so they were slightly less keen on Cornwall than when they came down first.”

As for the session, he was not only impressed with Costello’s songs, but the technical abilities of his group. “Pete Thomas was an engineer’s dream,” says Griffin. “His drums are so perfectly in tune with each other. Bruce [Thomas] had been in Quiver.”

Many of the recording sessions made at Roche’s were later buried in the ground after they became water-damaged. However, he says the tapes containing the Costello session were never kept by the studio and instead “went back to Jake”.

Bassist Bruce Thomas cannot remember precisely what tracks were recorded that day, although he believes Crawling To The USA might have been one of them. Entertainingly, he did recall something of the the local trouble the band had during their stay.

Thomas says: “I think there was a bit of a run-in with a guy who worked at a chicken farm. The guy had spent so long slitting the throats of chickens he compensated by walking around with a peculiar pecking movement of the head. It was hard not to take the piss.”
So the question remains, has this historic studio recording of Elvis Costello & The Attractions survived and will it ever be released? Costello fans around the world would surely love to hear it.
You can read more about Roche’s Studio at
My thanks to Martin Griffin and Bruce Thomas for their assistance.

Pathway Studios

6 Sep

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Pathway Studio

Excerpt from Be Stiff: The Stiff Records Story

Pathway had emerged from the embers of Fire, the Crazy World of Arthur Brown’s smouldering hit, which blazed away at the number one spot of the UK chart in August 1968. Mike Finesilver and Peter Ker helped write the red-hot hit and with the royalties they set up a studio in 2a Grosvenor Avenue, in Islington. Dave Robinson had first used it when he burned out one of the heads on his tape machine at the nearby Hope & Anchor, making it an obvious choice for the label‘s first recording session. Accessed via an alleyway between an end-terrace house and a garage, it was a cramped space that perfectly encapsulated Stiff‘s DIY spirit.

Barry Farmer, credited as Bazza on Stiff releases, was one of Pathway’s first engineers and his memories are still vivid: “It was a genuine shit-hole. You’d be confronted by the smell. It had a problem with damp and it smelled like an autumn woodland or an old toilet. It would cling to your clothes. Two days later you would still smell Pathway. Nick Lowe and I had a long discussion about it once. A few years ago I was getting out some old meters I still had kicking around and hadn’t done anything with, and they were in a box that was sealed up. I opened the box and smelled Pathway Studio. I don’t know what it was – such a strong, all-pervading smell.”

Some Stiff records recorded at Pathway:

Nick Lowe: So It Goes (BUY 1)

Pink Fairies: Between The Lines (BUY 2)

The Damned: New Rose (BUY 6)

Plummet Airlines: Silver Shirt (BUY 8)

The Damned: Neat Neat Neat (BUY 10)

The Adverts: One Chord Wonders (BUY 13)

Elvis Costello: Alison (BUY 14)

Elvis Costello: Red Shoes (BUY 15)

Wreckless Eric: Whole Wide World (BUY 16)

Yachts: Suffice To Say (BUY 19)

Larry Wallis: Police Car (BUY 22)

Wreckless Eric: Reconnez Cherie (BUY 25)

The Damned: Damned Damned Damned (SEEZ 1)

Elvis Costello: My Aim Is True (SEEZ 3)

Wreckless Eric: Wreckless Eric (SEEZ 6)

Lene Lovich: Stateless (SEEZ 7)

A Cornish tidal wave

11 Aug

Above: Now disused, the former parish hall in the Cornish village of Davidstow.

A sleepy Cornish village was rudely awoken in the summer of 1977 when the sound of the oncoming new wave came booming from the parish hall.

‘Pump It Up’ Had yet to be written and Elvis Costello and his newly-assembled musicians were still getting to know each other when they decamped to north Cornwall to rehearse and do a couple of low-key gigs, including a wedding. A girlfriend of co-Stiff owner Jake Riviera’s had a place in Camelford where Elvis, keyboard player Steve Nieve, bass player Bruce Thomas and drummer Pete Thomas could stay. Arrangements had also been put in place for them to rehearse, probably for free, at the parish hall in nearby Davidstow, situated beside a former RAF base.

Attractions drummer Pete Thomas recalled: “It was Jake’s girlfriend’s country house. Sue Barber, I think was her name. It was great because no one would think like that now. You know, ‘We’ll go to this town in Cornwall and then we’ll find this village hall, which was on an old Second World War airfield. It had a stage and we went in there and rehearsed and that is where we got ’Lipstick Vogue’ together, and we had scrumpy and we all got tanked up.”

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A raucous party including staff from Stiff’s offices at 32 Alexander Street in west London made the long road trip to see this smouldering new group perform at the parish hall. Their reward was to see a red-hot group led by one of the most eloquent songwriters of his generation – before they became one of the hottest tickets around.*

“I got to Alexander Street and they loaded the office furniture in the back, which was the seating on the way down there,” said Paul ‘Bassman’ Riley, who had played with Pete Thomas in pub rock band Chilli Willi And The Red Hot Peppers. “The swivel chair on wheels was probably not such a good idea. There was probably the odd couch and odd thing that was slung in there.

“The next thing I remember is Nick thought it would be a good idea to stop at a cider farm. They had a Quasimodo kind of character with a leer and a drunken stoop. He had a half pint measure for everybody who came in and he encouraged them to drink as much of whatever they liked. Cider was the drink of choice at Alexander Street, so everybody did.”

Elvis Costello & The Attractions’ landmark live debut at The Garden in Penzance on Thursday 14 July, with the band providing the support for American trash punk outfit Wayne County & The Electric Chairs. On the Friday night, they performed at Plymouth Woods Leisure Centre and despite the distance of the venue from the London-based music press, Record Mirror sent Chris Rushton to review the show.

While in Cornwall, according to Costello’s own website, they also went into a small studio and re-recorded ‘My Aim Is True’, the debut album he had made with US country group Clover. Jake and Dave Robinson wanted to release this version of the record once copies of the original version had sold out, although this plan was later abandoned, possibly because by the close of 1977 Elvis had followed Jake to Radar. To this day, this recording has never been released, and few beside those involved have heard it.

*According to the Elvis Costello Wiki site, the group performed at the parish hall on 16 July 1977.

Rum Sodomy And The Lash

5 Aug


On this day in 1985, The Pogues’ Rum Sodomy And The Lash was released by Stiff. The group’s second album was produced by Elvis Costello, by now dating bass player and his future wife Cait O’Riordan. To promote it, A Pair Of Brown Eyes, Sally McLennane and Dirty Old Town were issued as singles, although they failed to darken the Top 40. But the album was a different matter. It reached no 13 and remained in the UK album chart for 14 weeks – a welcome boost for Stiff’s ailing accounts.

Be Stiff Route 78

2 Aug

Here’s some great footage taken on 10 October 1978 at Olympia station in London as the Be Stiff train tour headed to Bristol for the opening night. Wreckless Eric, Lene Lovich, Rachel Sweet, Jona Lewie and Mickey Jupp were on the bill for what proved an ambitious and costly venture and which took in such outposts as Wick in Scotland. The 33-date itinerary came to a close at London’s Lyceum Ballroom on 19 November and the artists – minus Mickey Jupp – flew to New York for four shows at The Bottom Line. Anne Nightingale was presenting Old Grey Whistle Test at the time and is doing the voiceover.

Stiff’s Greatest Stiffs

31 Jul

Stiff tour scheduleStiff rehearsals

Dumping Music On The People…In Your Town!

Stiff’s Greatest Stiffs was unleashed on the great British public on Monday 3 October at High Wycombe Town Hall and winding up on Saturday 5 November at the University Of Lancaster. The line-up was Elvis Costello, Ian Dury, Nick Lowe, Larry Wallis and Wreckless Eric. Interestingly, it was Costello who was handed the final slot at the two run-throughs, which took place at Manticore Studios in Fulham’s North End Road over the previous weekend. A surviving schedule for the tour shows Wreckless going first and Dury and Lowe alternating. Larry Wallis played on stage with Lowe and performed a few of his own songs, including his single Police Car, during his set.

[Excerpt from Be Stiff]

The concept of a rotating bill was novel, but it almost instantly became the cause of resentment. At the centre of it was a power struggle between the artists with the biggest egos – Costello and Dury. Both saw themselves as the most important act on the bill and openly coveted the headline slot. Practical considerations also played a part in the nightly schedule being reviewed just a few dates into the expedition. Dury argued that he needed a rest between drumming for Wreckless and his own set. Likewise, Pete Thomas wanted a decent break between playing with Lowe and Costello.

Lowe was more interested in finishing his set and getting to the nearest pub than topping the bill, as was Edmunds. Wreckless was too drink-addled to be competitive. It also became clear early on that of the five acts, Costello and Dury were best equipped to bring the shows to a climax and send the punters away buzzing. So with the help of Dave Robinson, a compromise had to be hammered out involving two running orders. The first was Lowe/Wallis, Wreckless, Costello and Dury; the second Wreckless, Lowe/Wallis, Dury and Costello.

“That tour caused a lot of friction,” says Paul Conroy, “because as soon as you put artists on stage, it’s all very well with this, ‘You’re on next’, but it didn’t work that way and you could see that Jake was floating more off to the Elvis side. Then, of course, you had Ian Dury with Peter Jenner and Andrew King coming in and Kosmo [Vinyl], and it all started to fracture. And, of course, Eric didn’t really have a manager as such. It goes on in the film and people have said, it became serious. It wasn’t just, ‘We’re all having a laugh and we’ll have a few beers with the late-night, 24-Hour Club.’ Elvis was certainly taking it very seriously and so was Ian. Those two were extremely competitive with each other and Nick was along for the ride…”

Landmark gig for Elvis

15 Jul

extras pics

Elvis Costello and his newly-assembled group decamped from London to Cornwall in the summer of 1977 to rehearse and play a few low-key gigs. Their first public appearance came at The Garden in Penzance on Thursday 14 July, supporting US trash punk outfit Wayne County & The Electric Chairs. Admission for what would prove a landmark occasion was £1. The following night they played at Woods Leisure Centre in Plymouth, a gig which was reviewed by Record Mirror, and they also played a set at Davidstow Village Hall, a former Nissen hut.  During their week-long sojourn to the west country, they also spent a day in a small studio and re-recorded My Aim Is True. Stiff’s plan was to release this version after the initial pressing recorded with Clover had sold out, although this idea was eventually abandoned.

BLO 1 – Wilko Johnson – Oh Lonesome Me

13 Jul


Wilko Johnson had a solo record released by Stiff in 1980 during his stint as a Blockhead. The A-side was a cover of a song originally recorded by Don Gibson and which topped the US country charts in 1958. The flip meanwhile was Beauty, a no-nonsense slab of 12-bar blues co-written by Dury and Russell Hardy, and which dated back to their days in Kilburn & The High Roads. The single wasn’t given a BUY prefix, instead being issued on the Blockhead label set up by Stiff for releases by members of Dury’s group. However, this and Davey Payne’s Saxophone Man (HORN 1) were the only records to appear on this label.