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.