Stiff and nonsense

The story of inspirational independent Stiff Records has been MALCOLM WYATT’s music book of 2014. He spoke to author Richard Balls about this legendarily chaotic yet influential label.

Saturday, 3rd January 2015, 11:00 am
Influential: Stiff Records Story
Influential: Stiff Records Story

Do you remember Stiff Records, the label that brought us The Damned, Elvis Costello, Ian Dury & The Blockheads, Kirsty MacColl, Madness and The Pogues?

Well, biographer and journalist Richard Balls has been working hard these last few years piecing together the story of this treasured indie record company.

And while initially it covers the tale of London’s punk and new wave scene, there’s plenty to interest us in the North West too.

Did you recall for example that Elvis Costello’s TV debut was on Tony Wilson’s Granada show What’s On in the summer of 1977?

Or maybe you were there when the first two Stiff package tours called at Lancaster University in November 1977 and October 1978, with many a raucous tale to relate.

Either way, the label’s legacy remains with us, and could also provide the spark any band looking to stand out from the crowd in 2014 might need.

And with Madness having just visited Manchester Arena, The Damned at North West Calling next May, and The Blockheads going down a storm last time they visited Preston, there’s clearly good reason to celebrate Stiff Records’ influence to this day.

With all that in mind, I asked Richard Balls what the early reaction’s been to Be Stiff – The Stiff Records Story.

“There’s been a really positive response. I think the label still strikes a chord with people, especially those old enough to remember the records and slogans.

“I find that as soon as you mention Stiff, it puts a smile on people’s faces.”

It’s not Richard’s first music biography to make waves, his 2000 title, Sex & Drugs & Rock ‘N’ Roll: The Life of Ian Dury, was also a huge hit – selling around 40,000 copies – and part of the catalyst for the 2010 film of that name, starring ex-Lancaster Uni student Andy Serkis. And again it’s proved ambitious, involving a lot of hard work.

“Writing any book is a huge undertaking and you never completely switch off from it. It took me about three years to contact people, do the interviews and write this one.

“The Ian Dury book was an incredibly strong subject and there was a huge amount of interest in Ian, especially after his death.

“I wouldn’t expect the Stiff book to replicate those kind of sales, but acts like Madness, Elvis Costello and The Pogues have huge fan bases, and books and TV programmes about the 1970s and 1980s seem to be very popular. Retro is cool!”

Despite that nostalgic feel, Richard admitted he had been helped by more modern developments in his research.

“This time, contacting people and setting up interviews has been made much easier by the internet, which was a pretty barren place when I was doing my previous book.

“I did a lot of the interviews via Skype, which was incredibly useful where people were living abroad.

“I have a chronic back condition and there were periods when I was in a great deal of pain. So being able to chat to people without having to make long trips was a godsend.

“But I tended to do face-to-face interviews with key figures in the story and people I particularly wanted to meet up with.”

So why has Stiff endured while so many of its former rivals – more or less all bigger organisations – fell away?

“One of the reasons for the enduring appeal of Stiff is the eccentricity and originality of its artists. The records were amazing, but so were the acts performing them.

“People like Elvis Costello, Ian Dury and Lene Lovich were unique and they continue to influence performers to this day.

“Off stage, Stiff had some colourful characters, from Barney Bubbles at the drawing board to Dave Robinson at the helm.”

And there were a lot of characters too, surely making it difficult to link the whole story together.

“I knew the size of the task ahead of me. One of the hardest things is knowing when to stop interviewing people and gathering information and complete the job.

“There is always someone else you can speak to and more information to throw in, but you have to draw the line.”

There must have been some fantastic moments en route, and you mention one-to-ones with the likes of Shane MacGowan, Graham Parker, Rat Scabies, Ed Tudor-Pole, Jona Lewie, Lene Lovich, Wreckless Eric.

“That’s the most enjoyable part of the book and the least like work.

“Lene lives in Norfolk, so she called round and spent an evening chatting with me. I got to know Eric when I did the Dury book and he also came round while visiting the area.

“And meeting Shane MacGowan was as memorable as you might expect and a definite highlight.”

Not everyone returned your calls though, including the label’s two enigmatic founders.

“Obviously I approached both Dave Robinson and Jake Riviera, but both declined to take part.

“Rachel Sweet hasn’t spoken about her past with Stiff for many years and I was very keen for her to contribute. She did email me saying she would answer some questions, but that was the last I heard from her.”

Richard’s latest work has been published in a choice of five different colourful covers, which seems apt for a story involving a label so big on gimmicks and marketing.

“Elvis Costello’s My Aim Is True came in a range of different colours and for the cover of Ian Dury’s second album Do It Yourself, Stiff used dozens of different Crown wallpaper patterns.

“I wanted the book to somehow emulate that kind of imagination and flexibility.

“For the Be Stiff tour in 1978, albums by each of the five artists were released on the same day and all on coloured vinyl and picture disc. Those colours – red, blue, green, yellow and white – are the ones we chose for the book.

“The marketing was powerful and made up for the fact that Stiff didn’t have the massive budgets of the major labels.

“But ultimately it was the sheer talent of the artists that made it so successful. Elvis Costello and Ian Dury were lyrical geniuses.”

Through your Ian Dury biography I got a better understanding of a very complex character, and it seems like that’s the case here too for many more gifted artists.

“Ian was a very complex character and his mood could swing quite violently. When he went out on the Stiff tour he was utterly focused and on great form, and the book provides an insight into what went on behind the scenes.

“However, fame didn’t agree with Ian and, by the time of Laughter, his third album for Stiff, he was unhappy and sometimes downright unpleasant to be around.”

Have you a favourite of all the Stiff singles?

“Wreckless Eric’s Whole Wide World, for which two chords is all it took for this singer-songwriter and industry square peg to forge his greatest ever composition.

“That it failed to trouble the charts on its release in 1977 but remains a favourite among Stiff Records fans to this day, speaks volumes about its universal appeal.

“Or perhaps Nick Lowe’s So It Goes, a Phil Spector-esque burst of energy and the musical embodiment of what Stiff reckoned was needed in an industry gone stale.”

What was the first Stiff Records release that made you sit up and take notice?

“Seeing Madness doing My Girl on Top Of The Pops when I was 12. I went on to become a huge fan of Elvis Costello and Ian Dury, but that was later on. It was through Madness I made the connection with Stiff.”

You also mention a memorable Madness/Belle Stars gig when you were 14.

“That was on October 30, 1981, at the University of East Anglia in Norwich – my first live gig. I never really looked back.”

Sometimes it’s odd couples that make creative partnerships special. Who would have thought that label founders Dave Robinson and Jake Riviera would work as a unit?

“They were similar in that they were both driven and convinced of their own central position in the universe.

“But in other ways they were chalk and cheese.

“It was a relationship no one thought would last. They were the ideal people to start a label that would challenge the status quo because they hated the way major labels operated and they wanted to give them a problem to deal with.”

There was record cover designer Barney Bubbles’ visual impact too, of course.

“The influence of Barney cannot be overstated. He was a genius who managed to embed the label’s irreverence and unapologetically direct approach in the look and feel of its product, creating some of pop’s most iconic sleeves.”

Losing Riviera to Radar Records might have been the end of this plucky indie label, but then came the Madness signing and later The Pogues’ arrival, and that’s just for starters.

“Ian Dury came to Stiff’s rescue after Jake left and it was Robinson, his ex-manager, who had brought him into the fold.

“The signing of Madness, after getting them to audition at his wedding, was a master-stroke and their string of hit records helped keep Stiff out of financial trouble for several years.

“Dave Robinson also saw the value of the pop video long before the arrival of MTV and in that way was one step ahead of many of the bigger labels.”

It appears that there remain a few question marks, such as the label’s initial funding, which was possibly through members of Dr. Feelgood.

“It’s always been said that Stiff was started with a £400 cheque Lee Brilleaux handed Jake Riviera. But Dave Robinson said the cheque was never cashed and it was money from their management company Advancedale which got Stiff up and running.

“In an interview for the book, Graham Parker supports this version of events and describes the Brilleaux story as ‘a lovely legend’.”

And the label’s still doing alright for itself all these years on, isn’t it?

“It was really good news when the label was reactivated and artists like Wreckless Eric and Henry Priestman returned to release new records.

“Stiff is still going and new generations are buying T-shirts and discovering its back catalogue.”

Finally, in this era of crowd-funding, pledging, and a return to a true independent spirit for new and old artists alike, bands looking to make it today can learn a lot from Stiff, can’t they?

“Record companies are constantly having to find new ways to sell their products, something Stiff was brilliant at.

“Stiff was the only label at that time which appreciated the importance of creating products that were visually appealing and collectable.

“Coloured vinyl, picture discs, 10-inches, scratch ‘n’ sniff sleeves were just some of the gimmicks employed.”

Be Stiff: The Stiff Records Story (Soundcheck Books) by Richard Balls is available in a Kindle edition, as well as in paperback from all good bookshops and online.