Stiff Records: If it ain't Stiff, it ain't worth a debt

It's 30 years since the creation of the iconic label that gave us Elvis Costello, Ian Dury, Madness and more. Pierre Perrone takes a fond look back at a remarkable roster of artists, and a label whose financial troubles couldn't stifle its sound

Don't get me wrong, you'll enjoy the Stiff Weekend on BBC4, and especially the two-part documentary If it Ain't Stiff..., which attempts to tell the story of the label that gave us The Damned, Elvis Costello, Ian Dury, Madness, the Belle Stars and The Pogues, but it doesn't tell the whole story.

Dave Robinson, the pub-rock-manager-turned-entrepreneur who started the original British indie label in August 1976 with his business partner Jake Riviera and a £400 loan from the Dr Feelgood singer Lee Brilleaux, only to see it collapse all around him with huge debts 11 years later, has already seen the documentary. "It was good but, at the end, they got their figures wrong. They mention this very large figure - £3.5m - and they said it came from a newspaper article, but the figure we owed was more like £1.4m. And I was the biggest creditor," claims the buccaneering Robinson, who always kept a baseball bat by his desk, and not just for show.

"Anyway, that's just a small thing. I thought I got treated pretty good. It's always a pain in the arse when somebody's doing a documentary about work you did," he adds. At least Robinson was a consultant on the project, and agreed to be filmed either at the race track or at the helm of a boat on the Thames. "It was the BBC's idea but I thought it was better than sitting in the pub," he explains.

Of course, pub-rock is where it all came from for Robinson, a former tour manager for Jimi Hendrix and for the Animals who went on to look after Brinsley Schwarz in the early Seventies. "All the raw material from Stiff came from the pub circuit and the studio at the Hope & Anchor," he recalls. "I did have a bit of a masterplan and a list of people we wanted to sign: Ian Dury, Elvis Costello, or rather Declan McManus as he was then, Mickey Jupp, who we eventually signed, and Nick Lowe kind of came with Jake. We were putting together what I consider to be the best songwriters of the period."

Starting with "So it Goes" by Nick Lowe, issued in August 1976, the world's most flexible label issued singles by pub-rock acts Roogalator, Lew Lewis, and The Tyla Gang (featuring Sean Tyla of Ducks Deluxe fame) before hitting its stride and signing The Damned, who swiftly became the first English punk band to release a single, "New Rose", in October 1976 - an album, Damned Damned Damned, in March 1977, and to tour the US, beating The Sex Pistols, Clash and Stranglers on all three fronts. "It was a bit more by luck than judgement, but the first Damned album still stands up today. It was a memorable record. 'New Rose' was, and still is, a great riff," says Robinson of the track that was covered by Guns N'Roses on The Spaghetti Incident, their punk homage album, in 1993.

He's also fond of Richard Hell's Blank Generation EP, another defining Stiff punk release of 1976, by the New York musician who came up with the spiky hair and torn-T-shirt-and-safety-pins look.

All the while, Robinson and Riviera had Costello's debut album - recorded in the UK with the US West Coast band Clover - ready for release, but the singer's first two singles - "Less than Zero" and "Alison" - stiffed, though a Top of the Pops appearance for "Red Shoes", his third 45, eventually helped to launch My Aim is True in August 1977. "We had a great plugger called Sonnie Rae. She was phenomenal. John Peel really backed the label and it gradually filtered through to daytime Radio 1," says Robinson.

Costello had also just been arrested after busking outside the London Hilton, where CBS was holding its sales conference, but this stunt was small beer compared to the ambitious Live Stiffs tour in the autumn of 1977. With a line-up of Costello - with his new backing band The Attractions - Ian Dury and the Blockheads, Nick Lowe, the Pink Fairies guitarist Larry Wallis and the newcomer Wreckless Eric, the tour played universities and polytechnics up and down the country. The venture was obviously inspired by the Motown and Stax package tours, though Robinson also namechecks a tour he did "with Hendrix, the Move and Pink Floyd on the same bill in 1968. I always liked package tours, and so did the public".

With its 24 dates, 24-hour drinking club, and grand finale of Dury's "Sex and Drugs and Rock'n'Roll", the Live Stiffs tour certainly put Stiff on the map (the trick was used again in 1978 with the Be Stiff tour, and in 1980 with Son of Stiff).

New Boots and Panties, Dury's debut album, entered the charts and stayed there for two years while, in November 1977, Costello finally went Top 20 with "Watching the Detectives". However, Costello hadn't taken too kindly to the debauchery on tour and wrote "Pump it Up" about his bottled-up feelings. Worse, Riviera decided to end his partnership with Robinson, took Costello, Lowe and new signing The Yachts with him, and launched Radar Records the following year.

Robinson was livid. "We had a big deal with CBS lined up, which was going to fund us for a couple of years, but Jake pre-empted it, saw an opportunity for himself and took it. He didn't think we would survive without him, so that was an extra reason to carry on."

Thankfully, Dury and Stiff built on the success of New Boots and Panties, with "What a Waste" going Top 10 in 1978, and "Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick" becoming the first Stiff No 1 single at the end of January 1979, selling 900,000 copies in the UK alone. A licensing agreement had finally been struck with Arista for the US but, as Robinson remembers, "Kosmo Vinyl, Ian's press guy at the time, had a row with Clive Davis, the head of Arista, and threw him out of the dressing room. That kind of turned Clive off us.

"We opened a label there, Stiff Inc, but it became a financial burden on the British company, though we did very well with The Wit and Wisdom of Ronald Reagan. I got the idea from the writer Richard Williams, who reviewed the wrong side of a vinyl test pressing. I thought it would be a great joke to do a record with nothing on it. We sold 40,000. People in America liked the idea and bought it as a Christmas present for friends who didn't like Reagan."

Stiff did much better across Europe, with quirky releases by the likes of Lene Lovich - "Lucky Number" - and Jona Lewie - "You'll Always Find Me in the Kitchen at Parties" - featuring their wacky humour and Barney Bubbles' wonderful sleeve and poster designs. Off-the-wall slogans such as "When You Kill Time, You Murder Success", "Pure Pop For Now People" and "Today's Sound Today" even seemed to work in translation.

"We had 36 licensees globally. Jona Lewie's Christmas single, "Stop the Cavalry", was a huge hit in Europe in March 1981, and Madness, of course, were very big in France," says Robinson, who thought he might as well direct videos for Tracey Ullman and Madness himself since he'd been a photographer.

"Doing videos was very expensive and, once they'd got your money, directors would go off and make exactly what they wanted, as a stepping-stone to Hollywood. I did a couple and then started doing all of them. We weren't an MTV label, particularly, but I made them funny. People remember the humour in "It Must Be Love" and "House of Fun" long after they forget the good-looking haircuts," he says in a pointed reference to the likes of Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet.

Between 1979 and 1984, Madness ruled the roost, scoring 18 Top 20 singles and six Top 10 albums on Stiff before leaving for Virgin. "Another chapter in the rock'n'roll romance. They didn't want to make singles, they wanted to make serious albums," muses Robinson, but I wonder if it wasn't a case of the Nutty Boys realising that they'd replaced Dury as the big-selling act keeping the Stiff ship afloat.

Robinson bristles at the notion. "Every single year, every group would come to me, first of all The Damned, then Costello, Dury the same, and say, 'We're really paying for this record company and we don't like who you're signing'. It didn't affect me."

Still, Robinson admits that the link up with Chris Blackwell's Island Records in 1984-1985 was a mistake. "Island was in a bad financial state and I spent too much time worrying about his label and not enough about my own. I had a big hand in the success of Legend, the Bob Marley compilation; U2 went multi-platinum; and I had a lot to do with the marketing of Frankie Goes To Hollywood. Blackwell kind of double-crossed me after I'd essentially saved his arse," says Robinson, whose original inspiration had been Island when he launched Stiff.

By 1986, the label had gone indie again and Robinson had signed The Pogues and their incorrigible singer Shane MacGowan. Elvis Costello even produced Rum Sodomy & the Lash, the group's second album, but, following "The Irish Rover", their Top 10 collaboration with The Dubliners, events took a dramatic turn. "The Pogues' manager, Frank Murray, ran off with the tapes at a crucial time, when we would have released an album. And, by the time we issued the 'Furniture' album, to follow the success of 'Brilliant Mind', the timing was off," says Robinson, whose label went into liquidation in 1987 after releasing a couple of singles and an album, entitled Brilleaux, by Dr Feelgood. Stiff had gone full circle and gone under. The label's assets were eventually bought for £300,000 by ZTT, one of the labels Robinson had helped to establish during his time at Island.

There was talk of reviving Stiff as a stand-alone operation to coincide with its 30th anniversary but, when he isn't consulting or wondering who is selling T-shirts with the infamous "If It Ain't Stiff, It Ain't Worth A Fuck" slogan, Robinson is happy to just celebrate the label's legacy.

"Stiff has many fans. I didn't know Jonathan Ross was a fan until recently. He knows more about the label than I do. These kind of people keep the Stiff flag flying. It wasn't just a flash in the pan. Anybody creative who worked for the label has done well. We always told other people who wanted to start their own labels how to do it. We were always there as an encouragement. If we could do it, you could do it!"

'Stiff Nights', a weekend of programmes about Stiff Records, BBC4 tonight and tomorrow; 'If It Ain't Stiff...' is on both nights at 10pm

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