by Richard Balls
(Soundcheck Books – ISBN-13: 978-0957570061)
Independent record labels are so much a part of the landscape today that it scarcely seems even comment worthy when another rises… or falls, for that matter. Indeed, such sway do they hold over great swathes of the market that one can almost say that it’s the majors who are the insignificant part-timers, staring at their bland, branded product on a nine-to five schedule, while the real movers and shakers operate 24/7, and actually care about the music they release.
Forty years ago, it was a very different picture. Back then, the monoliths did rule the earth, and the handful of rebel enterprises that gnawed at their feet were little more than bug bites. In the US, Ork, Bomp, Booji Boy, Mer… tiny operations whose output you’d barely even know about if you strayed out of their immediate zipcode. And, in the UK, Stiff (launched in 1976… so thirty-nine years ago. Pedant) and Chiswick, chiseling away at the wall of indifference with which the majors regarded the then-vibrant Pub Rock scene.
Releases… actually, they weren’t “releases.” They were events. If you cared, and collected these upstart nonentities, you bought their singles and EPs unheard, and trusted the label to do you right. The Count Bishops… Little Bob Story… the Gorillas… Nick Lowe… Sean Tyla… Roogalator. Plummet Airlines would have plummeted unrecorded if it wasn’t for Stiff. Who would remember Rocky Sharpe and his pre-Replays Razors if it wasn’t for Chiswick? Together, these two labels not only blueprinted the concept of the modern indy label for all time. They also established its raison d’etre. If a record’s worth releasing, it had better be good.
Richard Balls’ study of the Stiff Records story is an exhaustive, exacting, analysis of that phenomenon, told through the eyes of the Stiff crew, true, but embracing the overall picture, too. His take of the Pub Rock scene that inspired both labels is spot-on; his eye for both musical and business detail can’t be faulted.
Stiff, after all, either launched, ignited or reinvented perhaps two dozen careers that still mean something today. Nick Lowe, who was responsible for the label’s first 45; the Damned, who cut its sixth. Elvis Costello, TV Smith (via the Adverts), Wreckless Eric, Ian Dury… can you think of any other label in history whose first seventeen singles (upto and incluidng Dury’s “Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll”) offered the future so much? And which then continued to offer more of the same for much of the next ten years?
Lene Lovich, Devo, Jona Lewie, Rachel Sweet, the Yachts, Madness, the Belle Stars, Alvin Stardust, Graham Parker, Tracy Ullman, Kirsty MacColl, Dr Feelgood, Department S, Ten Pole Tudor – some were destined to remain one hit wonders; others wandered into other arenas altogether. But all remained integral to the story of rock in general and Stiff in particular, and author Balls tracked down a lot of them, to tell stories that raise this book far, far above the mere annotated discography it could have been, and into the realms of legitimate biography.
There’s triumph and tragedy on every page. Even if, like many collectors, your interest in the label perished long before Stiff itself went flaccid, you keep reading, simply because the adventure was such fun. Financial misfortunes, industry envy, in-house bickering and out-sized advances all play their part in the tale. So does mismanagement, mess and misery. But so does an art department that genuinely deserved that title, and an advertising genius that conjured some of the most remarkable campaigns in music industry history.
And that’s before you recall their most notorious slogan, the legendary “If it ain’t Stiff, it ain’t worth a f**k.” You can still buy that on a button today.
There’s a happy ending, too. Stiff folded in financial disarray in 1987, but rather than be sold off to some careless accountancy firm, it wound up in the same hands that operated ZTT… perhaps the only other label throughout Stiff’s own lifetime whose eye for opportunity matched theirs’.
Cue a slow but sure trickle of reissues and collections; and cue, in recent times, the rebirth of Stiff, both as a working museum (to borrow a recent album title from one of the greatest Stiffs of all, Wreckless Eric) and a going concern for new talent too.
Two Stiff box sets have rattled past; one in the 1990s, which catered for the crazy fans; one more recently, that was more conservatively historical. A third, reveals Balls, is on its way, and probably everyone who ever pressed Stiffness to their soul will have their own dreams of what could be on it.
We must wait and see. But, in the meantime, we can read Be Stiff and be certain that somewhere, the cavalry is stopping, the whole wide world’s still going, the city’s heart’s still pounding, the detectives are still worth watching, and our house is still in the middle of our street.
And someone, some place, has just heard the opening six words to Ian Dury’s “Plaistow Patricia,” and is wondering what kind of record company could ever, ever have countenanced releasing a song that starts like that?
Be stiff, my little vinyl hounds. Be very, very stiff.