Elvis Costello. Ian Dury. Nick Lowe. Names that found their way onto the year's top ten lists of critics across the country. Each performer brought a unique, idiosyncratic personality and style into the limelight of pop music, changing the face of contemporary music by opening it up for outlandishly individual acts.
The record label which took the initiative to bring these three performers, as well as the equally talented but less familiar faces of Wreckless Eric and Larry Wallis, into the public eye was Stiff Records, a British label which thrives on new wave bands and "stiff" puns. One of the most interesting packages produced by this odd company is the Stiffs Live album, which features the five Stiff acts named above, all performing together on a 1978 English tour. The album renders a charmingly charismatic view of musicians having a good time, and is a worthy purchase strictly for the playful atmosphere created by putting the disc on the turn-table.
The real measure of an album, however, is the quality of the music. And these Stiffs, besides knowing how to have fun, really know how to rock. Recording five acts on a ten-song live album necessarily limits the listener's exposure to each performer, but the acts move from one to the next smoothly enough to make the album a cohesive package. The last song on the second side serves as finale to the concert, and ties up the loose ends of the record, leaving the listener fully satisfied.
Side one is opened by an outfit called Nick Lowe's Last Chicken in The Shop, featuring the Attractions' Pete Thomas on drums, and Dave Edmunds, Lowe's fellow co-founder of the Rockpile project, on guitar. Edmunds' influence on the music is obvious. The two songs, "I Knew the Bride (When She Used to Rock and Roll)" and "Let's Eat" combine the straight-forward early sixties rock and roll found on Edmunds' solo albums with Lowe's lyrical wit. The result of this combination is some real playful, but solid rock and roll, most reminiscent of good car-driving music.
The second act on the Stiffs Live bill is Wreckless Eric and the New Rockets, featuring Ian Dury on drums. Following in the wake of Lowe's impersonal frolicking, Wreckless Eric introduces the element of idiosyncracism into the set. His songs "Semaphore Signals" and "Reconnez Cherie," riddled with anxiety and frustration, comprise one of the stronger portions of the album. Eric's nasal, whiny voice seems desperately intent on squeaking out its message above the horns and rhythm section of the New Rockets. The singer voices a highly personal cry which is as disturbing to listen to as it is refreshing because of the music's intensity and honesty.
Wreckless Eric's emotional appeal gives way to the music of Larry Wall's Psychedelic Rowdies, a band comprised of the same musicians who made up Nick Lowe's band, the only exception being that Wallis takes the mike over from Lowe. "Police Car," the only Larry Wallis song on the album, is also the best song on the album. The very rhythmic, chorus oriented song builds to the climax of repeated chanting (screaming) of the line "I'm a Police Car" accompanied by frantic, if well ordered instrumental work. The rock is very spontaneous, and builds from a highly energetic base to an anarchal finish.
The album's most well known artist, Elvis Costello, proves that he really will do anything to confuse the enemy, opening the recorded portion of his set with a Burt Bacharach and Hal David cover, "I Just Don't Know What to do With Myself." Unfortunately, this is the one song of the album that doesn't really work. Costello doesn't manage to make the most of the incongruity of his singing a sappy ballad, and the song comes off flat. "Miracle Man" works out. much better, with the Attractions rocking the song out at full speed. It's just a little too fast for the listener to be able to settle himself into the flow of the song, but it is pumped up with the kind of vitality that makes for great live music. Costello sings about the adolescence blues with a believable intensity which more than makes up for the unsuccessful cover.
The clever charm of Ian Dury follows Costello's teenage hostility. Dury leads his Blackheads through great versions of "Wake Up and Make Love with Me" and "Billericay Dickey," providing some fun dance and sing-a-long music. Using his patented cockney accents, this strange little performer playfully uses irony and exaggeration to make the nicely syncopated "Wake Up" a delightfully invigorating example of pop decadence. Dury evokes audience participation to make the provincial "Billericay Dickey" a release of anxieties for his listeners as well as himself.
Every concert needs a crackerjack finale, and the boys from Stiff all join together and come through in classic style. All of the members of the five bands who play on the album take the stage and perform Ian Dury's "Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll and Chaos," the "chaos" being added to the title as a comment on this particular performance. Dury's anthem of seventies decadence stands up to this anarchy, finally resolving itself in a chant of the names of three of our favorite subjects.
Stiffs Live is all in all a great party album. The performances of all of the songs are just a bit more playful than the studio versions. Because of the number of artists involved, the package does not really work strategically as an album. It doesn't matter: the chance to hear new versions of old favorites, as well as the infectious, upbeat lightheartedness of the album make this bunch of stiffs a great addition to any collection.