3.1 Stiff Records
From SEX & DRUGS & ROCK ‘N’ ROLL: The Life of Ian Dury, by Richard
Out of the searing summer heat of 1976, Stiff Records emerged to launch an
assault on what had become a complacent and yawningly predictable record
industry. Impeccably timed, coinciding as it did with the detonation of the
incendiary device which punk placed under the British popular music scene, it
defied all the rules and would change the face of the singles market through
imaginative sales devices and gimmicks. Stiff would also become a launch
pad for dozens of artists and bands who might otherwise have remained on
the margins or simply never cashed in their 15 minutes of fame. Executives
at the major record companies looked on open-mouthed as Stiff launched
itself amid a barrage of self-deprecating slogans such as “If They‟re Dead
We‟ll Sign „Em” and “If It Ain‟t Stiff, It Ain‟t Worth a F***.” A “stiff” in music
industry slang was a flop, a dud, a turkey, yet here was a label promoting
itself as the very opposite of how other people did things in the record
“I was aware that something would have to happen because the record
business was in a middle-of-the-road kind of trough and I think that it had
been like that for about two or three years,” said Dave Robinson. “It was like
a real kind of „business music‟ era and it was a bit boring; it was certainly
boring to be young. It was a time when the labels were releasing music your
mother actually did like, with all the Elton Johns and such like.”
The seeds of Stiff Records were sown in the United States in 1974 while Jake
was on tour with Dr Feelgood, the Canvey Island pub rock band he was then
managing. He had discovered a number of small indigenous labels featuring
local bands – Flat Out and Berserkly Records in San Francisco being prime
examples – as he travelled around the country. This enterprising climate
meant that aspiring groups were being played on local radio stations and then
being picked up for nationwide distribution by larger record labels. By the
time Jake and Dr Feelgood returned to England, he was buzzing with ideas
for his own label and had even started dreaming up logos.
A former advertising executive from Pinner, west London, with a sharp line in
cowboy boots and a vicious temper, Jake was an arrogant operator with
aspirations to become an A&R man.
Their game plan was simple: to create an outlet for the groups on the pub
scene who had long been overlooked and to give some of the industry‟s
misfits a chance.
“I was very frustrated being a manager in those days,” Dave Robinson told me
in an interview for Hot Press magazine in 1996. The major labels were very
pedantic, like they are now, and convinced that they were running the record
business. So if you wanted any special marketing deal, or to do something off
the beaten track, they didn‟t want to do it and it was going to cost money.
Parker was at Phonogram and we were having enormous live acceptance of
him and his band. The records were good and we were doing okay, but we
couldn‟t get onto first base in America, and nobody wanted to know Ian Dury.
The major record companies just thought it was pub music – old R&B.”
He continued: “The idea of Stiff was to be a conduit for people who could not
find the music business any other way. My theory was that there‟s an Elvis
Presley out there, but he‟s working in a factory in Coventry and he doesn‟t
know how to get in touch with me. The best artists are out there, but they
don‟t know how to connect with the music business, because it doesn‟t tell
you that. If you go to a couple of majors, they‟ll put you off for life. You will sit
in reception, nobody will see you, eventually some junior will come down and
take a tape off you and you‟ll never hear from them again. How does
anybody know what‟s going to be the next anything that‟s great simply by the
clothing you wear?”
“I spent years shouting at people over desks in record company offices. They
turned down virtually every idea I had,” Jake later told Melody Maker’s Allan
Jones. The only route left was to set up his own label and in the summer of
1976 Jake borrowed £400 from Dr Feelgood and he and Dave Robinson
Undeterred by repeated failed attempts to get Nick Lowe a record deal, Jake
and Dave despatched Nick to a recording studio with only £45 to spend. The
shoestring budget didn‟t affect the quality. Jake and Dave rushed to a
pressing plant and on 14 August 1976, a single was released as Stiff Buy 1.
The record, produced jointly by Nick and Dave, was sold mainly via mail-order
from Alexander Street. But in contrast to the tatty décor at base camp, the
record‟s packaging was slick and featured the kind of sharp-witted one-liners
that would become Stiff‟s hallmark. Curious messages, “Earthlings Awake”
and “Three Chord Trick, Yeh,” were scratched into the matrix (the smooth bit
of black vinyl between the groove and the centre of the record). A distinctive
black record bag carried the phrases “If It Means Everything To Everyone … It
Must Be A Stiff” and “Today‟s Sound Today.” The record itself carried the
messages “Mono-enhanced STEREO, play loud” and “The world‟s most
flexible record label.” This was a whole new approach.
Nick told Melody Maker’s Caroline Coon: “It‟s a sound that‟s happening now.
Clever words over a simple rhythm. Basically, I‟ll do anything. I can write in
any style, but all my friends have become punks overnight and I‟m a great
“So It Goes” didn‟t get near the Top 40, but the music press gave it and its
flip-side a warm reception and Jake and Dave found it impossible to keep it in
pressings as demand grew. Suddenly, they had found a hole in the market
and Stiff‟s cramped office was alive with activity as they drew up a list of
exciting artists to fill it. As word of the maverick label got around, there was
no shortage of hopefuls calling at its door and Stiff had an open-house policy.
Stiff‟s sixth single was The Damned‟s “New Rose” – the first British punk
record. – the first British punk record. Dave Vanian, Captain Sensible, Brian
James and Rat Scabies had recorded their raucous anthem in a drunken
state at Pathway along with a shambolic rendition of The Beatles‟ 1965 hit
“Help!” as a B-side. “New Rose” didn‟t make the Top 40, but it was an
underground success and Stiff had to get United Artists to help out with the
distribution. Not only was Stiff shaking the singles market into life with their
picture covers, coloured vinyl and other novelties. It was also at the forefront
of the biggest revolution in popular music for years.
Adding to the label‟s anti-establishment credibility, Jake verbally abused
journalists, once famously yelling down the phone, “I‟m not interested that
you‟re interested” and Stiff‟s equally arrogant approach to distribution left
some radio presenters aghast.
“I remember reading this massive article in New Musical Express about Stiff
Records and I thought where are these records, I‟m getting 60 records a week
through the mail, why haven‟t I got these?” DJ Johnnie Walker recalled. “So I
rang up NME and asked how I could get hold of Jake Riviera and they gave
me the number. So I rang him up and he said: „Oh, you want the records,
can you come down for „em, this is where we are.‟ I was on Radio One at the
time and I thought this is great, this is a really different way of doing things,
because most of the record companies beat a path to your door and here was
somebody saying, „Well, if you want these you‟re gonna have to come and get
„em.‟ Jake‟s idea was right – „I‟ll make these records for £30 each, I won‟t
sign these blokes up, we‟ll just make the records, stick them in the back of the
car, drive round a few record shops and sell them out the back of the car‟.”
Stiff had by now launched a plethora of new acts and was the power house
behind an energised singles market. Punk band The Damned, Television
bassist and vocalist Richard Hell and heavy metal band Motorhead were
among those it had given a leg-up.
Dave and Jake‟s willingness to give idiosyncratic, but nevertheless talented,
song-writers, a start was best exemplified by the issue of “Less Than Zero,”
the record which first introduced Britain to Elvis Costello.
Born Declan Patrick McManus, the gangly, bespectacled singer had first
played his own songs live in 1972 as a long-haired teenager in Rusty, a folk
rock group based in his native Merseyside.
In a west London bar, Jack christened him “Elvis Costello,” a move which
caused some offence when, on August 16, 1977, Elvis Presley died at his
Graceland mansion aged 42. This was just weeks after the release of the
English Elvis‟s debut My Aim Is True on which the words “Elvis Is King” were
written onto the chequered sleeve pattern. The timing of Costello‟s debut
simply aggravated the controversy, but the storm passed and the record went
on to be a hit.
Meanwhile, attempts to find a home for Ian Dury‟s now completed album New
Boots and Panties had initially been frustrated and the project looked
doomed. Armed with the 10 breathtaking tracks recorded at The Workhouse,
managers Andrew King and Pete Jenner tramped around the offices of all the
major record labels, only to be shown the door on every occasion. Ian‟s
unnerving physical appearance and the explicit nature of his lyrics made him
a virtual outcast in the eyes of record company big shots. [A note from Ja –
when he was a child, Ian Dury had the disease polio. As a result he had a
deformed left leg and arm, and an unnaturally large head. He did not look like
anybody's idea of a pop star. His lyrics are hilarious, and he was the man
who actually invented the phrase "Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll" – it's the
title of one of his hits.]
“They all said, „Oh, we really love his stuff, but it‟s not quite what we‟re looking
for,‟ ” says Andrew. “ „It doesn‟t really have any commercial potential and it‟s
a shame he‟s not better looking.‟ I used to have a file with all the notes of all
the people who passed on Ian who are now the biggest moguls of the lot, all
of whom would happily deny that they passed on Ian, but they did.”
But the solution was right under their feet. Downstairs they went to Dave and
Jake and played them the songs which had been spurned by the major labels.
Astonished by what they heard, they agreed to sign him straight away.
Andrew, who now works at Mute Records, explains: “We licensed the album
to Stiff which was a very good thing, because we owned the tapes and there
was never any trouble about ownership of the masters later on. If Stiff went
under, all the rights automatically reverted to us. Down the line, Ian didn‟t get
into half as much grief as some of the other bands on Stiff.”
Of Stiff‟s strategy, Andrew observes: “‟Stiff wasn‟t the first independent label,
but it was the first independent which had the bottle to take on the majors at
their own game. It was something which Daniel Miller did at Mute Records a
few years later, although fortunately he had his head screwed on rather better
than Jake and Dave because he is still here. The other independents were
quite willing to put out groovy records, but they weren‟t really going to break
acts and be a major player. Stiff never had any shyness about what their
position in the industry should be. As far as they were concerned, they were
just as much a major player as CBS, Polygram, EMI or Island.”
Commenting on the label‟s unorthodox policy and on the record industry in the
late seventies, Ian Dury said, “Stiff was aimed at people whose arses were
hanging out in the industry and couldn‟t get a look in. We were the
unemployables really. We didn‟t fit into any of their stupid categories, since
the record industry is run by shoe salesmen and drug dealers. We took New
Boots and Panties to every single label, but they were just f***ing stupid –
they still are.”
Postscript – from Mojo magazine, November 2007.
Last Train to Chartsville
Stiff in 78 was a label in transition. Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe manager
Jake Riviera had eloped with his charges, leaving Stiff boss Dave Robinson in
a tight spot. "I found drawers full of unpaid invoices," he recalls. "We owed
about ₤150,000. We were not in very good nick, if you'll excuse the pun."
Robinson's ace in the hole was Ian Dury (fated to end the year with the label's
first Number 1, "Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick"). For his less-established
artists, Robinson organised a headline-catching tour: "We knew we needed to
make it special, and I loved those old trains with the first-class carriages that
had the little compartments. So we hired one."
Entitled "Be Stiff," after Devo's third and final Stiff single, the tour choogled
between Brighton and Wick, the logo-emblazoned train often shunted into
sidings as scheduled expresses hurtled past. The artists . . . played in two-
and-a-half hour revue-style shows and five of them enjoyed the dubious
benefit of having their albums released mid-tour on the same day. "What
caring label does a thing like that?" wondered [recording artist] Wreckless
Eric. "The gimmick got those records into the shops," shrugs Robinson,
before adding "Eric was always a little whinger."
Akron-born [country-pop] singer Rachel Sweet, who was still only 16 during
the tour, had an on-tour tutor, a device which Robinson milked for all it was
worth: "Every day as a train pulled into a new town we would have all the local
media queuing up."
Robinson had [looked at what was happening to music after punk rock], and
had seen that there was a demand for old-fashioned pop novelty to return,
along with a new affection for quirky outsiders. Head-turning publicity stunts
and aggressive radio plugging did the rest, and within 18 months even Jona
Lewie and Lene Lovich had enjoyed big chart hits.
"The train tour was typical Stiff," concludes Robinson. "We liked to have fun
and we liked to keep our bands busy. 'A tired band is a happy band' – that
was our motto."
1. Give two ways in which this label is like Flying Nun. Back up what you say
with examples or facts from the articles.
2. Give two ways in which it is different from Flying Nun. Again, back up
what you say with facts from the articles.