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Adventures with iconic record label

13:30 26 November 2014

Richard Balls with his book about Stiff Records. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

Richard Balls with his book about Stiff Records. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

Copyright: Archant 2014

It was the record label that dared to be different. Norfolk writer RICHARD BALLS talks about his new book about the label that brought us everyone from Elvis Costello to Madness, Ian Dury to Lene Lovich... Stiff Records

The 'Be Stiff' tour at The Bottom Line in New York in 1978. From left: Wreckless Eric, Rachel Sweet, Lene Lovich and Les ChappellThe 'Be Stiff' tour at The Bottom Line in New York in 1978. From left: Wreckless Eric, Rachel Sweet, Lene Lovich and Les Chappell

Thoughts on - writing the book…

I was still at school when I first encountered Stiff Records. Madness was the first gig I ever went to. It was at the UEA in 1981 and the support was The Belle Stars, who were also signed to Stiff. Twenty years later, when I came to research and write my biography of Ian Dury, it was obvious that Stiff was worth a book in its own right. Writing any book is a huge undertaking and it was especially so when it came to writing this one - Be Stiff: The Stiff Records Story - as I suffered several flare-ups of an ongoing back condition while I was working on it. At times I couldn’t do anything at all; at others I was using an iPad to write while lying on the bed!

The most enjoyable part of writing a music book is meeting people whose records have touched your life. It’s not every day that Lene Lovich or Wreckless Eric call round for a chat, or you get to enjoy a few drinks with Shane MacGowan. Interviewing The Damned’s drummer Rat Scabies on a train and being driven across London by Jona Lewie will also stay in the memory. Skype was a godsend as it allowed me to speak to people in far away places and make sure their stories got told, too.

Cheers!: Norwich author Richard Balls, right, meets Shane MacGowan.Cheers!: Norwich author Richard Balls, right, meets Shane MacGowan.

Thoughts on Stiff Records…

Punk completely transformed a moribund industry in 1976 and Stiff was largely responsible for that. Founders Dave Robinson and Jake Riviera had become frustrated with the major labels when they had tried unsuccessfully to launch off-beat artists from the pub rock scene. They launched their own label to promote these “stiffs“ who no one else would look at. Their genius was to take un-hip performers such as Ian Dury and Elvis Costello and turn them into cool, new wavers. Stiff also claimed bragging rights over bigger labels by releasing the first-ever punk single in the UK, The Damned’s ‘New Rose’. When Ian Dury’s ‘Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick’ went to number one in 1979, Stiff joined the UK mainstream, but it was signing Madness that turned it into a global success story.

Many of those who bought Stiff records also became fans of the label itself and that was what made it unique. To this day, people remember its marketing stunts - like wallpapering music papers’ offices to promote Ian Dury‘s ‘Do it Yourself’ album - and their irreverent slogans, coloured vinyl and one-off records and sleeves which so appealed to collectors. Ultimately, Stiff was fun and my book is packed with stories of fights, backstage shenanigans and the making of some of the most memorable records in pop. 


Thoughts on – The Norfolk angles…

Five Classic Stiffs: Great songs from a great label

Ian Dury & The Blockheads - Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick

The self-styled diamond geezer wore a tuxedo and held a silver-topped cane on Top Of The Pops to toast the unlikeliest of number one hits. And both lyrically and musically, ‘Rhythm Stick’ certainly saw Dury Puttin’ on the Ritz. Charlie Gillett, his friend and former manager, astutely called it the “first British jazz funk record”, it’s irresistible rhythm owing much to the influences of his songwriting sidekick Chaz Jankel. But it was the singer’s passions for Music Hall and jazz and his delicious rhymes that made the song truly unique, and the first chart hit to rhyme ‘Eskimo’ and ‘Arapaho’.

Wreckless Eric - Whole Wide World

Two chords is all it took for singer songwriter and industry square peg Eric Goulden to forge his greatest ever composition. That it failed to trouble the charts on its release in 1977 but remains a favourite among Stiff records fans to this day, speaks volumes about its universal appeal. If just one record best reflects the early ethos of Stiff, a haven for artists who couldn’t get a deal elsewhere, this is probably it.

The Damned - New Rose

You could almost hear the hippies running for cover as punk made its vinyl debut in Britain and Jake Riviera got one over on his rival Malcolm McLaren. No one was entirely sure what ‘New Rose’ was all about - a blossoming romance or the arrival of punk itself? - but no one would have heard the answer over the din. Rat Scabies sounds like he is using rolling pins as he batters out the intro before Brian James joins in with a four-chord riff that burns straight into the memory. In just three frenetic minutes, The Damned bottled the bubbling insurgency of punk and probably made their finest record.

Elvis Costello - Watching The Detectives

Ian Dury might have come out on top against his bespectacled rival on the Stiffs Greatest Stiffs tour of 1977. But with this edgy tale of domestic tension, Costello held audiences transfixed and supplied Stiff with its first Top 40 hit. A reggae rhythm underwrote the beguiling record which showed that the computer operator was learning how to press the right buttons as a songwriter. “She’s filing her nails/ While they’re dragging the lake,” he sang menacingly. Costello would go on to write better songs, but perhaps none so atmospheric.

Madness - Embarrassment

Lee Thompson wrote ‘Embarrassment’ about the reaction in his family to the news his teenage sister was carrying the child of a black man. Their fifth single for Stiff showed the Nutty Boys had a more serious side and the video was shot in a darkened club. But the song was no bleak affair and had all the usual Madness ingredients: an attention-seizing intro, a searing sax solo and a stomping beat guaranteed to restock any depleted dancefloor.

Be Stiff is being launched at The Book Hive in Norwich tomorrow evening. There will be an informal chat-style interview with Richard about the importance of Stiff Records and the writing of his book. There will then be a chance to buy copies and get them signed at the same time. The event, which is being supported by Writers’ Centre Norwich, starts at 6.30pm.

One of my own favourite Stiff artists is Lene Lovich who has lived in Norfolk for many years, and is now based in Norwich. When you look at Lady Ga Ga, it’s important to remember it was experimental performers like Lene who paved the way for her. In the late 70s on Top of the Pops, no one had seen or heard anything like this outlandish woman with pigtails, scarves and a totally unique sound.

I got to know Wreckless Eric when I was writing my biography of his friend Ian Dury and he also made Norwich his home for a time, living in a bungalow in Costessey. One of Stiff’s original graphic designers, Chris Moreton, told me of his time studying at Norwich College of Art. He travelled between Norwich and London when the label started up and he created some of its first sleeves. Also, Nigel Dick, who was a press officer at Stiff, went to Gresham’s School near Holt. He directed the Live Aid video in 1984 and has worked with such artists as Oasis, Britney Spears and Madonna. He now lives in Los Angeles.

Some music fans in the region will remember the Stiff Greatest Stiffs tour stopping off at the UEA on October 17, 1977. The bill was Elvis Costello, Ian Dury, Wreckless Eric, Nick Lowe and Larry Wallis, quite a line-up!

Thoughts on – What to write about next? …

I’ll be taking a well-earned rest from writing for a while and focusing instead on promoting this book. It’s also an opportunity to catch up with things that I wasn’t able to do when I was busy writing, like reading the books and magazines that have piled up and listening to the music that inspired me to write Be Stiff in the first place.

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