Formed in July 1976 by Jake Riviera and Dave Robinson, two entrepreneurial scamps from the London pub-rock scene, Stiff Records became the blueprint for almost every indie label that followed.
The idea was to offer an alternative to 70s pomp rock. The pair took a £400 loan from Dr Feelgood singer Lee Brilleaux and set up a makeshift office in West London. It was a simple ethos: record the best new talent and get it out. Fast. A whole raft of slogans – ‘Today’s Music Today’, ‘The World’s Most Flexible Record Label’, ‘If It Ain’t Stiff It Ain’t Worth A Fuck’ – reinforced Stiff’s impish reputation as the rough-and-ready tyke who dared take on the majors.
Stiff’s first release was Nick Lowe’s So It Goes in August ’76, reportedly made for just £45. Lowe became the label’s in-house producer, earning the nickname Basher (“I just bash it down and tart it up later,” was his studio philosophy). The roster was soon bolstered by such disparate talents as The Damned, Ian Dury, Wreckless Eric and, for one single only, Motörhead.
But perhaps Stiff’s greatest early coup was discovering 22-year-old Declan MacManus, a young Londoner who wrote songs while holding down various office jobs. Riviera signed him on the strength of a demo tape and gave him a new identity: Elvis Costello. His 1977 single Watching The Detectives became Stiff’s first Top 20 hit.
Riviera quit Stiff in late 77 for Radar Records, taking with him both Lowe and Costello. Undaunted, Robinson pressed on. Ian Dury & The Blockheads repayed his faith in January 1979 by giving the label their first No.1 with Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick. Soon after, Robinson signed Madness, who almost single-handedly kept Stiff upright throughout the early 80s, scoring 18 hits in five years. By 1986, though, Stiff collapsed with reported debts of around £3m.
The intervening years saw an influx of Stiff-inspired indies, among them Creation, Go! Discs, Food, Domino and XL. Then, in 2007, came the revival. ZTT and parent company SPZ Group, who had bought the rights in the 80s, relaunched the label, breaking new acts like The Enemy and reviving old ones like Wreckless Eric. Some people, it seemed, just couldn’t stay away. Here, we look back through the label's best offerings.
Ian Dury - New Boots And Panties!! (1977)
At 35, Dury was a relative veteran by the time he became the Razzle in Stiff’s pocket, having briefly worked as a teacher before forming pub-rockers Kilburn & The High Roads in the early 70s.
The music on this debut was startlingly singular – seedy music-hall parodies set to taut, funked-up backings. Dury’s phlegmy voice and razor wit were perfect for lewd ditties like Wake Up And Make Love With Me and Billericay Dickie (‘I bought a lot of brandy/When I was courting Sandy/Took eight to make her randy’). Sweet Gene Vincent was a tender tribute to his early hero and fellow polio sufferer.
The Pogues - Rum Sodomy & The Lash (1985)
Elvis Costello produced the second album from London-Irish upstarts the Pogues, although he attributes this piece of punk (opens in new tab) aggro and folk traditionalism to the band themselves. His role, he said later, was to record them “in their dilapidated glory, before some more professional producer fucked them up”.
Whatever the working method, it was a great success. Leader Shane MacGowan emerged as a poet of uncommon touch. There were gorgeous, wistful ballads – A Pair Of Brown Eyes, Dirty Old Town – alongside ragged new roustabouts like Sally MacLennane and The Sick Bed Of Cuchulainn.
The Damned - Damned Damned Damned (1977)
Nobody epitomised Stiff’s up-and-at-‘em approach like The Damned. Mugging at bloated 70s rock, in ’76 they issued what is widely acknowledged as the first ever UK punk single: New Rose. Their debut album was an amphetamine-driven blast, tearing through a dozen three-chord wonders in just over half an hour. The music press tended to dismiss them as oafish cartoon punks, but there’s no denying the force of tunes like Neat Neat Neat, Stab Your Back and Feel The Pain. In a deliberate act of marketing sabotage, Stiff put a picture of Eddie And The Hot Rods on the back sleeve.
The Feelies - Crazy Rhythms (1980)
New Jersey’s The Feelies were mavericks even by Stiff standards, playing gigs only on US public holidays and invariably dressed in nerdy school kid clobber. Had they the inclination to tour more (they were known to go two years between shows), they could have been real contenders.
Debut Crazy Rhythms is a breathless rush, swept along by nervy guitars, and song structures that pay lip service to conventional rock’n’roll. Factor in Bill Million’s indecipherable vocals and you have the bridge between The Modern Lovers and R.E.M. (Peter Buck produced follow-up Good Earth).
Various Artists - Live Stiffs Live (1978)
Recorded during Stiff’s inaugural package tour of late ’77, this album served as a showroom for the label’s major players (Elvis Costello, Ian Dury & The Blockheads, Nick Lowe) alongside its more eccentric (Wreckless Eric, Lew Lewis, Larry Wallis). Each night’s climax was usually a drunken ensemble chorus of Sex And Drugs And Rock And Roll (opens in new tab) And Chaos. Costello gave an early sign of collaborations to come with a soulful cover of Burt Bacharach’s I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself, alongside a pair of rare Nick Lowe stormers in Let’s Eat and I Knew The Bride (When She Used To Rock & Roll).
Dr Feelgood - Brilleaux (1986)
With Stiff having been founded on a loan from frontman Lee Brilleaux, it seemed only fitting that Dr Feelgood should one day sign to the label. Times had changed by 1986, though, with Madness’s recent departure exacerbating its decline.
The Feelgoods, too, were in transition, Brilleaux now augmented by a relatively new line-up. Sharp togs and teddy-boy quiffs were the order of the day as the band roared through a set of mainly of head-buckling covers of John Hiatt, the Undertones and Johnny Cash. It wasn’t the Dr Feelgood of Down By The Jetty or Stupidity, but it was still a bombastic old racket.
Elvis Costello - My Aim Is True (1977)
Costello recorded this debut album with producer Nick Lowe, and members of US country-rockers Clover who went uncredited on the sleeve due to contractual wrangles.
Tart, smart and venomous, the record chimed with the punk times, although the songs themselves owed more to the chug of The Band and the rollicking rock’n’roll of Lowe’s old outfit Brinsley Schwarz. Costello is scathing on Less Than Zero (an attack on Oswald Mosley and British fascists), while I’m Not Angry and Alison are kiss-offs to ex-lovers. Within weeks he was adorning the covers of the music weeklies, an ‘overnight success’ after seven years.
Wreckless Eric - Big Smash! (1980)
In 1976, after reading an ad in Melody Maker, Eric Goulden quit his job at the Corona Lemonade factory, made an audition tape and drunkenly headed for Stiff HQ. His opening gambit (“I’m one of those cunts that brings tapes into record companies”) has since gone down in indie folklore, but it did the trick.
Debut 45 Whole Wide World summed up Eric: artless, poetic, raw, full of melodic invention. Big Smash!, his third album, is mostly recommended for its bonus compilation of killer tunes: Reconnez Cherie, Semaphore Signals, Hit & Miss Judy. One of the new songs, Broken Doll, was even covered by Cliff Richard on Wired For Sound.
Lene Lovich - Stateless... Plus (1979)
Stiff were keen to promote female talent – Rachel Sweet, Kirsty MacColl, The Belle Stars, Tracey Ullman – as much as they were lairy new punks and pub-rock reprobates. Lili-Marlene Premilovich (born in Detroit, raised in Hull) was nearly 30 by the time DJ Charlie Gillett championed her version of Tommy James And The Shondells’ I Think We’re Alone Now in 1978. It led to a deal with Stiff, for whom Lovich had a monster novelty hit a year later with Lucky Number. Don’t be put off, though. Its parent album was dazzlingly original, her shrieking vocals, mad sax riffs and frenetic energy suggesting a freaky-sinister lost cousin of Kate Bush (opens in new tab).
Graham Parker - The Up Escalator (1980)
Graham Parker was another to emerge from the London pub-rock scene, originally backed by The Rumour.
Parker’s first albums, despite him having recorded some early demos for Dave Robinson, came out on the Vertigo label (opens in new tab). He eventually signed to Stiff at the turn of the 80s, and brought in pianist Nicky Hopkins and E Street Band organist Danny Federici for the rousing R&B of The Up Escalator. Springsteen himself made a guest appearance, on Endless Night. The album contained acerbic songs like Empty Lives and Stupefaction. It also signalled the end of Parker’s association with The Rumour.