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3.1 Stiff Records From SEX & DRUGS & ROCK ‘N’ ROLL: The Life of Ian Dury, by Richard Balls, 2000 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 industry. “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 formed Stiff. 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 bandwagon climber.” “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.
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