Tag Archives: Elvis Costello

My Aim Is True

22 Jul

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.

Elvis Costello dartboard (pic credit Dick Wingate)

A dartboard produced by CBS to promote the album in the US

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.

Costello poster

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…”

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.

Elvis and his band go live!

1 Jun
With Gregg Geller and EC - 12.77 end of tour party NYC

End of tour party at Ukrainian Ballroom, New York. L-R: Eileen Schneider (Columbia press), Gregg Geller (A&R) Columbia Records, Hope Antman (head of Columbia press), Elvis, Dick Wingate (EC’s product/marketing manager at Columbia). Pic courtesy of Dick Wingate.

Excerpt from Be Stiff: The Stiff Records Story

The raw power of this new group was unleashed for the first time on Thursday 14 July at The Garden, ‘The South West’s Top Rock Centre’, in Penzance. For just £1, those who were there got to see the historic first public performance by Elvis Costello and his new band. Headlining was sometime cross-dressing American punk Wayne County (later Jayne County) and The Electric Chairs, who were just months away from releasing their fabulously trashy 45 (If You Don’t Want To Fuck Me Baby) Fuck Off. Staff from Alexander Street had made the long trek to catch the showcase gig, crammed into a van and sitting on furniture they had brought from the office. Some of them had to restrain holidaymaker Captain Sensible from leaping on the stage mid-set to jam with Costello and crew. “The whole idea was ‘destroy’,” comments Pete Thomas. “It was all about going on stage and flattening people. Costello was Mr Angry. I don’t think he was really. I think it was sort of expected. In retrospect, he is a really clever bloke and he’d dropped it. ‘Right, we’ve got The Jam, we’ve got the Sex Pistols, we’ve got The Clash. We can fit into this.” Adds Bruce Thomas: “He [Wayne County] was going, ‘Who are you guys?’ and we said, ‘This is our first gig’, and he said, ‘Fuck!’.”

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.


Fairytale Of New York

15 Feb

[Excerpt from Be Stiff: The Stiff Records Story]

Frank Murray suggested the group finance the record themselves and they managed to set up their own label Pogue Mahone Records under Warner Music Ltd. Steve Lilywhite was recruited to produce it thanks to Murray’s acquaintance with his wife Kirsty MacColl. The band, having extricated themselves from their obligations to Stiff, adjourned to RAK Studios to record what would be If I Should Fall from Grace With God. In a cruel twist, one of the songs that would appear on the record might well have been Stiff’s saviour had it come sooner. But it was too late.

‘Fairytale Of New York’, a MacGowan composition, had been recorded as part of the sessions for Rum, Sodomy And The Lash with MacGowan and Cait O’Riordan singing the duet and producer Elvis Costello accompanying them on the piano. However, it wasn’t included on the album and Costello had decided against its release as a singe.

MacGowan explains: “We had left Stiff by the time we did that. But we were touring with it before we left Stiff, so we had got a better sound and we didn’t have to deal with Elvis Costello! I don’t know why Elvis Costello decided not to put it out as a single, but as a producer that was his shout. Cait did a great version of it.”

Two years later, with the Christmas song being dusted down and Lilywhite in the producer’s chair, it was decided that MacColl sing the female parts of the drunken ballad. MacGowan says MacColl “went off and did her bit on her own; she produced herself”. Still favouring a studio over a stage, the self-conscious singer had continued to be apprehensive about performing in public. ’Fairytale Of New York’ not only gave her a share in a huge hit record, but playing with The Pogues bolstered her confidence.

MacGowan says: “She didn’t like playing live, so Frank put her on a tour of Ireland, which is abut the fucking worst thing you can do to somebody with stage fright, you know what I mean? You have to get used to it and she got used to it. She was very comfortable by the time she was working with us. We’d known her for a while. She was really confident; she used to smack me round the place, ’You’re out of it again, aren’t you? It’s disgusting’.”

‘Fairytale Of New York’ reached number 2 in the UK in December 1987 and stayed on the chart for nine weeks. But for the label that had launched them, there would be no merry Christmas or happy ending. Time was about to be called on Stiff Records.


Be Stiff: The Stiff Records Story

31 Aug