Subculture Unsung: Stiff Records

The pioneering UK label formed in 1976

Thursday 15th February 2018

In January 1977, Sex Pistols were famously dropped by EMI following their infamous appearance on ITV’s Today Programme. Much was made of the punk spat with TV establishment’s Bill Grundy. As undoubtedly valid and pivotal the contribution of Sex Pistols was to the punk movement and the transformation of Britain’s youth counterculture in the late 1970s, they were not directly associated with what was arguably the keystone record label of the period, Stiff Records.

In 1976 Dave Robinson and Jake Riviera (real name Andrew Jakeman) formed a company that would prove to be one of the most influential and creative British record labels of all time. Stiff provided a platform for a roster of bands that would include such notable artists as Elvis Costello, Ian Dury, The Damned and The Pogues. 

Robinson and Riviera had backgrounds in music, managing pub rock bands in the mid-'70s and organising small venue tours of bands such as Chilli Willi and the Red Hot Peppers and Dr Feelgood. Legend has it that it was a £400 loan from Dr Feelgood's singer that the pair used to kickstart their label in 1976. Other accounts of the events dispute the fanciful tale, instead attributing the finances to a mixture of sources including contributions from Wilko Johnson, musician Nick Lowe (who was also managed by Riviera) and photographer Keith Morris.

Dave Robinson explained in Richard Balls' book 'Get Stiff: The Stiff Records Story': “It was Jake that had the idea for an independent record label. At the time I was managing Graham Parker, Ian Dury and various other people and getting frustrated trying to deal with the major record label. Then Jake came back from America, having looked at a lot of indie record labels over there, and also I had a lot of tapes from the Hope & Anchor and earlier managing situations with all those kinds of bands from the dreadfully named “pub rock” scene. I had a lot of ideas to sign and everything. I was going to blend into a record company/management company.

So, our two ideas came together. I was very frustrated at being a manager in those days. The majors were very pedantic like they are now; they are always convinced they are running the record business. So, if you wanted a special marketing deal, or to do something off the beaten track, they didn’t want to do it because it was going to cost money.”

The name Stiff Records was initially a joke, 'stiff' being the music industry's then favoured derogatory term for a record that had flopped. Luckily the label's first release, Nick Lowe's single 'So It Goes' was not a flop selling 10,000 copies upon release in August 1976.

It was their later release in October of that year though that is now generally credited as being the UK's first punk single, 'New Rose' by The Damned (released five weeks before Sex Pistols' 'Anarchy In The UK'). The debut album 'Damned Damned Damned' followed in February, produced by label-mate Nick Lowe. The formation of The Damned is dotted with fascinating sub-chapters, early line-ups including Chrissy Hynde and musician's who would become members of Sex Pistols and The Clash famously missing auditions for the role of lead singer. Eventually the familiar line up of Dave Vanian, Captain Sensible, Rat Scabies et al. was set. In the true spirit of the time, The Damned made their first public live appearance at The 100 Club on 6th July 1976, supporting fellow punks Sex Pistols, returning to the iconic venue on 20th September, for The 100 Club Punk Festival.

Stiff earned themselves a reputation for hiding Easter-egg-like in-jokes and stunts among their catalogue and 'Damned Damned Damned' was no exception. The the first 2000 pressings showed a picture of Island Records' band Eddie & The Hot Rods on the back of the cover (designed by acclaimed sleeve visionary Barney Bubbles), with an artificial sticker apologising 'for any convenience caused'. The very sort of crazy idea Robinson knew wouldn't be entertained by a major label; Riviera was certain that the deliberate mistake would become a much talked about and sought-after item.

The start of 1977 also saw Stiff sign two more crucial artists to their roster, Elvis Costello and Ian Dury.

Robinson was famously quoted as saying “…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”. Elvis Costello had in fact been working under his real name Declan Patrick MacManus as a roadie for Brinsley Schwarz, the pub rock band that had boasted Stiff's own Nick Lowe as lead singer. His debut album 'My Aim Is True' followed later that year, naturally produced by Nick Lowe. According to The Damned's Captain Sensible, Costello's album was recorded over the 'Damned Damned Damned' masters reusing the tapes in the interest of frugality. Barney Bubbles added another stroke of thrifty genius by pointing out that every print run of the cover could be printed in a different colour at no extra cost, thus creating a plethora of possibilities for future collectors.

Ian Dury was already known to the stiff duo from his time as a member of pub rock band Kilburn and the High Roads. By 1977 Ian Dury and The Blockheads had recorded an album's worth of material and had built a reputation as one of the best new wave bands on the circuit. By happy coincidence, Dury's manager's office was next door to Stiff's W2 Alexander Street offices, and The Blockheads ended up in the Stiff stable. Like Elvis Costello and The Damned, the results were anything but flops. 'Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll' was the debut single, followed by debut album 'New Boots and Panties!!' and significantly Stiff's first UK number 1 in the form of 'Hit Me with Your Rhythm Stick'.

Riviera left Stiff in early 1978 to form a new label in the form of Radar Records, taking Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe with him. Costello was arguably the most successful artist on Radar although other highlights on their discography include releases by Iggy Pop and Richard Hell and The Voidoids. Radar made its last release in 1981.

Robinson continued to steer Stiff in a viable direction, with the success of The Blockheads' output and crucially his signing of Madness who had released their successful debut single through 2-Tone but went on to release their first LP 'One Step Beyond' through Stiff. Madness followed the debut with an EP and five more albums throughout the early '80s. The welcome commercial and artistic success of Madness made Stiff a real contender on the label landscape. 

Island Records bought 50 percent of Stiff in 1983 with Robinson becoming responsible for the running of both labels. Unfortunately for Stiff, Island was struggling financially and had to borrow heavily from its newly acquired sibling's pockets. Robinson made a success of the situation initially giving Island one of the best years in its history, but Madness left Stiff in 1984 following a change of line-up and choosing to set up their own Zarjazz label (a sub-label of Virgin). Madness represented a good deal of Stiff's commercial viability, and the Stiff/Island union fell apart, but Robinson and Stiff ventured on with artists that included The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl, whose success kept the business afloat until finally the burden of the failed Island deal took its toll. Stiff was eventually acquired by rival UK label ZTT Records.

As well as those mentioned above, the list of artists who released via Stiff remains a who's who of British punk and new wave. The Adverts, Richard Hell and The Voidoids, King Kurt, Motörhead, The Dubliners, Tenpole Tudor and Wreckless Eric. There were more unconventionally alternative signings too in the form of recordings by Tracey Ullman, Max Wall and Yello. Just a few of the names who benefited from the artistic freedoms extended by the label through its active decade.

Among the many slogans that Stiff used throughout its heydey, there are two that perhaps tell the Stiff story in a nutshell: "The World's Most Flexible Record Label" and"We came. We saw. We left". 

Listen to our playlist with Stiff eyewitness and founding member of The Damned, Captain Sensible here.

To find out more about Stiff, check out Richard Balls’ book ‘Be Stiff: The Stiff Records Story’.

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