Stiff Records billed itself as “the world’s most flexible record label” and during their glory years from the mid 1970s through the early 1980s they released dozens of excellent and influential singles and albums. Artists such as Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, Devo, The Damned, Lene Lovich, Rachel Sweet, Ian Dury & the Blockheads, and Madness were among the most famous, but digger deeper into the Stiff archives and you’ll be rewarded with even more amazing music from The Members, Wreckless Eric, Tracey Ullman, Any Trouble, and many others. Call it punk, new wave, indie, alternative rock, or just plain pop, but the recordings on Stiff were mostly very good and definitely very influential.
In addition to the music, Stiff was notable for their bold, and sometimes bawdy, advertising slogans. In print, and especially on those omnipresent buttons and badges, it was hard to ignore jewels such as:
“If it ain’t Stiff it ain’t worth a fuck”
“Stiff’ll Fix It”
“If they’re dead, we’ll sign ‘em!”
Fuck Art, Let’s Dance!”
“Money Talks, People Mumble”
“We Lead Where Others Follow but Can’t Keep Up”
Yeah, there was no other record label quite like Stiff!
When I was in Kuala Lumpur earlier this year, I was delighted to find a two-disc set called Born Stiff: The Stiff Records Collection at one of the Rock Corner shops. This CD has the usual Stiff suspects plus obscure tracks from the likes of Pink Fairies, The Tyla Gang, Larry Wallis, Billy Bremner, The Yachts, and The Sports. Some of my very favorite songs of that era are included: the rollicking “Swords of a Thousand Men” by Tenpole Tudor; Kirsty MacColl’s brilliant version of Billy Bragg’s “A New England”; Jona Lewie’s nifty “You’ll Always Find me in the Kitchen at Parties” (a good tune, and one of the best song titles ever!); Lene Lovich’s faithful cover of “I Think We’re Alone Now”; The Belle Stars Motown-like nugget “Sign of the Times”; and Graham Parker & The Rumour’s bitterly brilliant “Mercury Poisoning.” Stiff Records pretty much came to a grinding halt in 1986, but was resurrected two decades later, and this collection contains three tracks from 2008, including a wonderful song from Chris Difford of Squeeze and a nice new tune from Wreckless Eric and Amy Rigby. She was so good that he married her!
About the only knock I can make about this collection is the absence of two very good artists: Ian Gomm (who had a big hit with “Hold On” and wrote some songs with Nick Lowe too) and the underrated/overlooked New York band Dirty Looks. Instead, we are offered a Motorhead track that seems woefully out of place, along with the puzzling “England’s Glory” by Max Wall. There are also a few tracks on this collection that sound dated or just plain dull; I never was a fan of Yello’s novelty-like tune “I Love You,” and while I like Devo very much, the version of “Jock Homo” on here sounds like it was recorded in a well. For the most part, however, Born Stiff is a great listening experience: fascinating collaborations, singular brilliance, and myriad moments of musical magic.