musings on music, travel, books, and life from Southeast Asia

Posts tagged ‘Nick Lowe’

Stiff Records

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.

 

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John Hiatt

A topic that’s guaranteed to stimulate heated discussion among music fans would be: Who is the greatest songwriter of the Rock and R&B era? Bob Dylan is probably the first name that would pop into many minds, or perhaps Lennon & McCartney — as a duo or individually — would be the choice of many. You can also toss around the likes of Neil Young, Curtis Mayfield, Joni Mitchell, Bruce Springsteen, Holland-Dozier-Holland, Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon, Pete Townsend, Burt Bacharach, Townes Van Zandt, Brian Wilson, Dan Penn, Randy Newman, Leiber & Stoller, Carole King, Elton John & Bernie Taupin, Richard Thompson, Laura Nyro, Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, and countless others. But one guy who ranks among the greatest in any genre yet never gets proper props is John Hiatt. If you just said “Who?” then my point is made. John Hiatt is a music legend who remains criminally under the public radar.

Since the early 1970 John Hiatt has been writing songs, lots of songs. He’s written clever songs, funny songs, wistful songs, tenderly beautiful songs, and foot-stomping numbers that leave a smile on your face. Rock, Country, Folk, R&B, Blues; he can do it all, and do it all well. Hiatt has a wicked sense of humor, but he’s also a compassionate and tender writer. Really, there is no style of song or type of music that this guy can’t write. Many of Hiatt’s songs have been covered by artists such as Rosanne Cash, Emmylou Harris, B.B. King and Eric Clapton, Jeff Healey, Joe Cocker, Linda Ronstadt, Delbert McClinton, Nick Lowe, Patty Griffin, and even some fellow named Bob Dylan. Not surprisingly, there is a tribute album of artists covering Hiatt songs; It’ll Come to You: the Songs of John Hiatt.

In addition to being a superlative songwriter, John Hiatt has recorded twenty most memorable solo albums. His songwriting has always been of the highest quality and he has gained the reputation for being a vibrant live performer (I was lucky to see him perform with a band one time in Florida), but over the years he has also developed into a fine singer too. Check out his powerful 1994 live album, Hiatt Comes Alive at Budokan for a dose of his energetic and electric side. No, this album wasn’t really recorded at the famed Japanese venue where Cheap Trick also experienced concert success, but the title – not to mention the hilarious cover — does serve as proof that John Hiatt has a definite sense of humor.

Hiatt began his career as a songwriter for a publishing company in the early 1970s. His first brush with success came in 1974 when Three Dog Night scored a hit with one of the songs he had written, “Sure As I’m Sitting Here.” That same year he recorded his debut album, Hangin’ Around the Observatory for Epic Records. That album and the next year’s Overcoats, sunk like molten bricks, and Hiatt was promptly released from his contract. He signed with MCA and made two even more impressive albums, Slug Line and Two Bit Monsters, before finding himself out of a contract once again. Next came a stint with Geffen Records, where he made three more wonderful albums; All of a Sudden, Riding with the King, and Warming Up to the Ice Age.

But those records also failed to sell as well as hoped, and Hiatt went label shopping once again, eventually signing with A&M. That led to a nearly decade-long streak (from the mid 80 to the mid 90s) of wonderful albums such as Bring the Family, Slow Turning, Stolen Moments, Perfectly Good Guitar,  and Walk On (the later two with yet another different label, Capitol). While Hiatt didn’t turn into a Michael Jackson hit-making machine during those years, his albums did finally start selling better and cemented his reputation as a top-notch songwriter and recording artist. Hiatt was part of super-group Little Village, an ensemble that also featured Ry Cooder, Nick Lowe, and Jim Keltner. Those same musicians played on Hiatt’s perfectly crafted Bring the Family album in 1987, but as Little Village they only recorded the one album in 1992.

Hiatt eventually abandoned the major label ship and has continued to steadily release consistently fine new albums on smaller labels such as Vanguard and New West. His latest offering, 2011’s Dirty Jeans & Mudslide Hymns is a particularly outstanding collection of tunes. Songs like “Damn This Town,” “Train to Birmingham,” and “Adios to California” rank as some of the best he’s ever written. Considering the wealth of gems in his back catalog, that is saying a lot.

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