The spirit of Stiff Records lives on

Stiff Records produced Madness, Elvis Costello and Ian Dury – then went bust. Pierre Perrone salutes a brave venture

It was the quirky catchphrases leaping out of the pages of the weekly music press, the rude and irreverent slogans adorning T-shirts, badges, posters, sleeves and other types of merchandising that grabbed you first. "If it ain't Stiff, it ain't worth a fuck". "The world's most flexible record label". "When you kill time, you murder success". "We came, we saw, we left". "Today's sound today". The music turned out to be just as quirky, irreverent, and rude.

Released in October 1976, "New Rose", by The Damned, the sixth single on Stiff, was the first UK punk 45. "Sex & Drugs & Rock'n'Roll" by Ian Dury, a year later, became the catchphrase of Live Stiffs, the first package tour put together by the label, featuring Dury, fellow veteran pub-rocker Nick Lowe, Elvis Costello and the Attractions, grizzly rocker Larry Wallis, and Wreckless Eric, a newcomer who just walked in off the streets and recorded the original low-fi single "Whole Wide World".

By early 1979, Dury was topping the British charts with "Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick" and Stiff had its first million-seller. In 1982, Madness, the natural heirs to Dury's music-hall-meets-ska, reached No1 with "House of Fun", a rites-of-passage song about buying condoms, and the Complete Madness compilation. Yet, by 1987, the Pogues, who also made their name on Stiff with their second album, Rum, Sodomy and the Lash, had become the last major act to leave the sinking ship and the label went bankrupt.

Stiff was the brainchild of Dave Robinson and Jake Riviera, two buccaneering entrepreneurs. Robinson had tour-managed Irish band Eire Apparent on a legendary 1967 package bill with the Nice, the Move, Pink Floyd and the Jimi Hendrix Experience, and later worked with Hendrix and Brinsley Schwarz. This brought Robinson into contact with Riviera, who managed pub rockers Chilli Willi and the Red Hot Peppers, and also shepherded Dr Feelgood on tour. The Naughty Rhythms tour, featuring both Chilli Willi and the Feelgoods in 1975, sealed their partnership, and, with a £400 loan from the Feelgoods' frontman Lee Brilleaux, they were off.

On 14 August 1976, Lowe's "So It Goes"/ "Heart of the City", a publisher's demo recorded for around £50, became the first Stiff 45 and made single of the week in two of the five music weeklies. Robinson would later claim to have had "a bit of masterplan. We were really putting together what I consider to be the best songwriters of the period." But this was something of an exaggeration since Stiff's original roster mostly comprised survivors of the pub rock era, ie Roogalator, Plummet Airlines, the Tyla Gang (a group fronted by Sean Tyla of Ducks Deluxe fame), and Lew Lewis, who had just left Eddie and the Hot Rods.

Still, Robinson and Riviera's ears-to-the-ground approach paid dividends when they licensed Blank Generation, the EP by Richard Hell, the ex-member of Television and Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers, and the New York-based artist who originated the spiky hair and T-shirt held with safety pins punk look in 1976. Stiff were punk and new-wave talent-spotters extraordinaires, releasing debut singles by the Adverts – the epochal "One Chord Wonders" in 1977 – the Members – "Solitary Confinement" in 1978 – the all-female California band the Go-Gos – "We Got the Beat" in 1980 – and licensing three 45s by Devo, the art-rockers from Akron, Ohio, but failed to sign any of these acts to long-term deals.

Costello, born Declan MacManus, was another artist launched by Stiff whose tenure on the label was short-lived. He'd recorded his debut album, My Aim Is True, in the UK with the US West Coast band Clover, and took up the Elvis Costello alias at the behest of Riviera, his manager. His first two singles – "Less Than Zero" and "Alison" – stiffed and he struggled until he was arrested in July 1977 for busking outside the London Hilton where CBS were holding their sales conference. Robinson shopped the singer by putting a phone call in to the police. The following month, Costello performed "Red Shoes" on Top of the Pops and eventually signed to CBS for the US.

In the autumn of 1977, he joined the Stiffs Live tour, one of Robinson's better ideas. "I always liked package tours and so did the public," said Robinson, whose hunch was proved correct when "Watching the Detectives", Costello's fourth single for the label, made the Top 20. However, Costello didn't join the 24-hour drinking club on the tour and described the experience and his feelings in "Pump It Up". By the time that single and This Year's Model, his second album, came out in the spring of 1978, Costello and Lowe, the producer of many of Stiff's early releases under the Basher moniker, had followed Riviera, who formed Radar Records after dissolving his partnership with Robinson.

Stiff survived, with Dury's New Boots and Panties spending close to two years in the album charts.Robinson revisited the package idea with the Be Stiff Route 78 Tour, using good old British Rail to launch the Akron teenage singer Rachel Sweet, Lene Lovich – the scream siren of "Lucky Number" – and Jona Lewie, of "You'll Always Find Me in the Kitchen at Parties" fame. However, the Son of Stiff tour, which attempted to introduce not only Britain, but also continental Europe to the delights of the greasy sword-wielding rockers Tenpole Tudor, British ska band the Equators and the Tex-Mex rocker Joe "King" Carrasco was a step too far.

But no-one seemed to care as long as Madness were doing their trademark nutty dance to "One Step Beyond" on television shows across Europe. Jona Lewie's "Stop the Cavalry", became a festive favourite.

The maverick Robinson always kept a baseball by his desk in case negotiations got tricky. Directing videos for Madness and the comedienne Tracy Ullman himself, with the help of press officer Nigel Dick was a good way to keep costs to a minimum.

Over the course of its 11-year existence, Stiff and its various subsidiary labels issued around 400 singles and 100 albums, with a strike rate of about one in five. In 1981, the label had another chart-topper when Dave Stewart and Barbara Gaskin put a synth spin on a revival of Lesley Gore's "It's My Party", but their most successful act remains Madness, who scored 18 Top 20 singles and six Top 10 albums before leaving for Virgin in 1984.

The same year, a link-up with Chris Blackwell's Island Records – the original inspiration for Stiff – saw Robinson dissipate his energies on U2, Frankie Goes To Hollywood and the other acts signed to the Island-funded ZTT. By the time that Stiff had gone indie again, in 1986, the Pogues were dragging their feet and refusing to deliver their third album.

The Pogues defected to WEA and had the Christmas hit of 1987 with "Fairytale of New York", their collaboration with Kirsty MacColl, who had herself scored a Top 10 hit on Stiff with "A New England" in 1983, and seen Ullman do the same with a note-for-note cover of MacColl's sublime composition "They Don't Know" the same year.

Stiff soldiered on with the vocal group Mint Juleps and a Dr Feelgood album called Brilleaux before going bankrupt in 1987. The irony of the situation wasn't lost on Robinson, especially when Trevor Horn's ZTT operation picked up Stiff's assets for a paltry £300,000. In November 2006, the label was even reactivated under the auspices of ZTT, and many alumni of the label are still active. The Stiff spirit lives on.

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