Stiff Records: the sex, the drugs and the rock 'n' roll

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The Independent Culture

Born in 1976, just as punk was beginning to revolutionise rock and pop, Stiff Records - motto: "If It Ain't Stiff, It Ain't Worth a F***" - became the first small independent record label to be truly successful, with a reputation for idiosyncratic credibility.

The heyday of Stiff Records is to be relived in London next week bringing together Dave Robinson, one of the two co-founders of Stiff, and former general manager Paul Conroy.

They will be taking part in an event entitled Chewing The Fat, where they will be talking about the inside story of the label - or, as the promotional material puts it, "the drugs, the groupies, the shady deals, the campaigns, the bomb scares, the arrests, the cock-ups, the people they left behind and, of course, the music."

And innovation was the byword of Stiff. It was founded in 1976 by Robinson, then manager of Ian Dury, Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds among others, and Jack Riviera, tour manager of Dr Feelgood. Both believed there was a gap in the market for a label that would provide a home for such individuals. Robinson said: "Major labels, then and now, are not very good at finding new talent and many of our artists were people they hadn't shown the slightest interest in."

Robinson and Riviera's model was Island Records, which gave a wider audience to both reggae and Roxy Music but Stiff's ethos was more left-field and launched what became known as the New Wave - the regeneration of rock music that punk kick-started.

Stiff's initial release in August 1976 was Nick Lowe's single "Heart of the City/So It Goes", the first of a series of singles by artists like Lena Lovich, Graham Parker and Roogalator marketed under slogans like "Today's Sound - Today", "Artistic Breakthrough - Double B side" and "Stiff - The World's Most Flexible Record Label". The covers featured distinctive artwork and reintroduced picture sleeves.

Undoubtedly, their biggest discovery was a geeky Irish bloke from Liverpool called Declan MacManus, playing with a band called Flip City. Recalls Robinson: "The band were rubbish really, but he was really good. We thought we saw something special in him." Rivieria came up with a new name, Robinson with the heavy-rimmed glasses, and MacManus was remade into Elvis Costello. Over the next few years the label would release a series of legendary first singles: Costello's "Less Than Zero", Madness's "One Step Beyond", Kirsty MacColl's "They Don't Know" and Ian Dury's enduring anthem "Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll".

It was too good to last. After two years, Riviera departed with Costello to form the short-lived Radar Records. Robinson continued alone and the label enjoyed a long period of success, before petering out in the 1980s under the wing of ZTT Records.

Robinson remains proud of Stiff and its artists. But he also remembers another Stiff slogan which greeted new signings: "Rule Number One: The Sale of a Lot of Discs Does Not Increase Your IQ."