Tag Archives: Dave Robinson

Stiff is 40 today

14 Aug

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.

Nick Lowe - So It Goes

‘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.

Are we not men? Inside the strange world of Devo

28 Feb

Taken from my interview with Bob Lewis, founder member and former manager of Devo.

Bob Lewis - 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)

Devo - Satisfaction

“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.”

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 (www.kernowbeat.co.uk)

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 (www.kernowbeat.co.uk)

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 www.kernowbeat.co.uk/roche.html
My thanks to Martin Griffin and Bruce Thomas for their assistance.

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…”

Can’t Start Dancin’

14 Apr


Stiff Sounds – Can’t Start Dancin’

‘This exciting LP is not available on cassette 8 track or anywhere else’. So triumphed the sleeve of Can’t Start Dancin’, a compilation album produced by the music paper Sounds as part of Stiff’s lavish promotion of the train tour in 1978.

Even by its own standards, Stiff really went to town when it came to the publicity in the run-up to what was an ambitious venture and a risky financial gamble by Dave Robinson. Sponsorship money had been prised out of Polygram, the Bron Agency, Ensign Records and the NME by the label in order to keep costs to a minimum. Sounds meanwhile had invested £35,000 on a 10-week promotional campaign that included national press advertising, commercial radio spots, specialist press ads, fly- posting and promotion at festivals and college campuses.

Sounds also produced an album of tracks by the five artists on the tour – Mickey Jupp, Jona Lewie, Lene Lovich, Rachel Sweet and Wreckless Eric. There were two songs by each of them, as well as from label-mates Ian Dury and The Rumour, making it a 14-track affair. The record was advertised heavily in the press and on radio.

The rear of the sleeve showcased the five covers of the albums Stiff was releasing on the same day to coincide with the start of the tour. Each was on a different coloured vinyl and picture disc. ‘If you require any information regarding Stiff Records and its heinous activities,’ it advised, ‘write to The Stiff Secret Service, 32 Alexander Street, London W2’.

Clever bastard

27 Mar

Ian Dury – 12 May 1942 – 27 March 2000

Ian Dury 02

We can probably guess what Ian Dury would make of the X-Factor and The Voice. Blubbing wannabes, some still in their teens, who reckon their lives will be wrecked if they are sent home after performing someone else’s song.

Dury was the antithesis of today’s fame-fixated culture. He was 35 by the time he made his debut in the UK charts and had spent years tramping the beer-sodden back rooms of the pub rock circuit with a troupe so weird only he could have pulled it together. As a child he had been struck down with polio, leaving him with a visibly wasted arm and a calliper clamped around one leg. The complaints received by the BBC after Robert Wyatt appeared on Top Of The Pops in his wheelchair in 1974 underlined a distinct public unease around disability.

As the leader of the pigeonhole-defying Kilburn & The High Roads, Dury was the ultimate square peg. His voice coarse, sandpapery vocals and spiky persona were in stark contrast to the light entertainment acts gracing the charts at the time – 10CC, The Three Degrees, Hot Chocolate. He also cut a sinister figure, clenching his mic with a black leather glove and singing about a making a young girl cry in a lonely bus shelter. The ever present glint in the eye, razorblade earring and sharpened sideburns only added to the air of menace. In 1976, Dury’s extraordinary lyrics and crafted stage persona seemed destined to be enjoyed by the handfuls of music fans who liked their live music up close and personal and with a beer in their hand.

Predictably, the increasingly corporate major labels of gave an unanimous thumbs down to New Boots And Panties when Dury’s managers Peter Jenner and Andrew King peddled it around their plush offices. Frustrated that such a melting pot of original of songs should be left gathering dust, they took it downstairs to the small independent label which rented the space below them, ironically named Stiff – the industry term for a flop. They recognised it for what it was, one of the most unique rock ‘n’ roll records ever made, and signed him up. And when Dury overheard Stiff’s owners Dave Robinson and Jake Riviera plotting a nationwide outing for some of its acts, he knew his chance had come and he grabbed it with both hands.

On the opening night at High Wycombe Town Hall, Dury emerged in a bowler hat and with a range of props, putting on a show that was as evocative of Tommy Cooper as Gene Vincent. Off-stage, he was a music journalist’s dream, helping to ensure that, despite the tough competition posed by Elvis Costello, he stole the headlines. New Boots began a 90-week stay in the album chart and What A Waste gave him his first hit single and Stiff a giant shot in the arm after Riviera exited stage left with Costello and Lowe. When Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick climbed to the summit of the UK charts in 1979, the Essex geezer’s transformation from rank outsider to household name was complete.

To say fame didn’t agree with him would be an understatement. It amplified his worst traits and he became the rock ‘n’ roll stereotype, boorishly holding court in a country pad with a swimming pool. He became difficult to be around and in the studio he could be a nightmare. His third and final album for Stiff was called Laughter, but making it was no pleasure for those involved.

Polydor paid out a huge advance for his signature, but by then Dury had decided he no longer needed The Blockheads and could make do with younger and cheaper session musicians. Many of his fans would contend that his next great album was Mr Love Pants, the one he recorded after reuniting with The Blockheads in 1997. That record raised his profile and proved that although his profile had waned in the intervening period, public affection for him had not.

The way in which he responded to the news of his terminal cancer spoke volumes about the man. He became an advocate and fundraiser for Cancer Bacup, the charity which had treated him, and he continued performing live. Poignantly, his final show on 6 February 2000 was at The London Palladium, the venue his mother had taken him to as a child. He left the stage knowing this was his final stand and waving his goodbyes.

At 57, cancer cruelly cheated Ian Dury of the chance to see his young sons grow up and to grow old with his wife Sophy. Artistically, he had been back on form and clearly there was much more he wanted to give as a songwriter and performer with his still electrifying group. As for us, his death robbed us of one of the most gifted songwriters of his generation and an artist who didn’t see himself as a pop singer, but an old-style entertainer. ‘Performer’, read his passport.

‘There ain’t have been some clever bastards,’ he famously observed on the B-side of his number one hit single. Ian Dury was all of that, and so much more. We’ll never see his like again.

Less Than Zero

25 Feb


[Excerpt from Be Stiff: The Stiff Records Story]

‘Less Than Zero’ was released on 18 March 1977 as Stiff BUY 11, with ‘Radio Sweetheart’ on side two. Its monochrome sleeve was as sparse asthe record’s three-chord intro. The name of Stiff’s new prodigy was written in large block capitals, above a photo of a rake-thin bloke, with his hands self-consciously stuffed into the pockets of his corduroys and one foot pointing towards the other. Staring out awkwardly through his specs, Costello looked more like a supply teacher than a pop-star-in-waiting. An image makeover was in order. On the other side of the sleeve, the forceful marketing of the label was maintained, with Stiff’s logo and full address featured, along with the slogan ‘Reversing Into Tomorrow’. Riviera and Robinson’s management company also got a mention, with those who bought the record being informed that Elvis Costello was ‘an Advancedale Artist’. And the initiated, who knew to scour the run-off grooves carefully, found the words ‘Elvis Is King’ etched by Porky Peckham. And on the reverse? ‘Elvis Is King On This Side Too.’ The cover may not have been wildly exciting, but it was 100 per cent Stiff.