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.
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 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’.
Image by Nigel Dick
An excerpt from Be Stiff: The Stiff Records Story
Lene Lovich had been the surprise package of the station-to-station trip. An intriguing sight, her dark hair in plaits and her head adorned with an array of scarves and ribbons, she gave off an aura of mystique. Her music had a dark, Germanic feel that nodded more towards Bertolt Brecht than the Motown groups of her childhood, ‘Writing On The Wall’ being a case in point. What also made her music so removed from the norm was the way she used her voice, from short punctuated yells to Hammer House screams. It was this unorthodox vocal style that would shoot her to stardom.
Stiff hadn’t released a single by Lovich at the time of the Be Stiff tour, although Stateless had been one of the five albums issued on the same day. But ‘Lucky ‘Number‘, the track she and Chappell had hastily written when a B-side for her debut single had been needed, had proved a hit with audiences and Stiff moved to promote it to an A-side.
“Stiff was small and able to react very quickly and make decisions quickly,” says Lovich. “I think that’s why, once the tour had got started and our album was out there, the next single for me was ‘Lucky Number’. I think that was because it went down well on stage. They didn’t really know it was going to be a hit record and Dave Robinson told me several times it wasn’t a proper song because there was no chorus. I have spoken to him since and he denies it and tries to make it appear he was the mastermind behind it all, but no. It had its own chorus, ‘Ah Oh! Ah Oh!’. It’s a new kind of chorus, but there it is.”
Fans of Ian Dury – and many other highly original acts from the same era – may be interested in my second book, which I’ve just finished writing.
Be Stiff: The Story of Stiff Records is due to be published by Soundcheck Books in October. For the very first time, it tells the extraordinary story of how against all odds a small record label formed by two industry mavericks backed rank insiders other labels had sent packing and propelled them to mainstream success.
Shane MacGowan, Wreckless Eric, Jona Lewie, Lene Lovich and Ed Tudor Pole are just some of the artists to give first-hand accounts of their time at Stiff. Former employees from pluggers and press officers to graphic designers also reveal the inside story behind the irreverent label that ripped up the rulebook and declared, ‘If it ain’t Stiff, it ain’t worth a fuck’.
Stiff fans, start spreading the word…