Perhaps the best way to approach Stiffs Live and Ian Dury's New Boots and Panties!! is through the label rather than the artists. Stiff was one of the first and most important of the small independent English labels that sprang up in 1976. At the outset, it was more or less an outlet for the efforts of a group of pub-rock artists led by Nick Lowe (formerly of Brinsley Schwartz, and the man responsible for Graham Parker) and the legendary Dave Edmunds. Stiff lived up to its motto — "Today's Music Today" — by demonstrating an uncanny power of producing the music of the minute. Among the early releases (all worth hunting for in import singles bins) were singles by Lowe, the Pink Fairies, and the Tyla Gang (led by Sean Tyla of Ducks Deluxe) — all names familiar to followers of English pub-rock — and two compilation LPs, A Bunch of Stiffs and Hits Greatest Stiffs. Then in 1977 Stiff released Elvis Costello's My Aim is True; an Arista distribution deal followed, and here we are with the first releases.
Stiffs Live forms the best introduction to Stiff music for an American uninitiate. Fortunately, a certain audience is guaranteed by the inclusion of two Elvis Costello performances. Unfortunately, the low-budget live recording is somewhat muddy. The performances more than make up for that. "I Just Don't Know What to Do With Myself" displays Elvis at his best, a sophisticated interpreter of popular music. The spare arrangement lets the extraordinary emotional power of Elvis's vocal delivery stand out. "Miracle Man," while a fine performance, is overshadowed by the alternate live version released as the B-side of Elvis's first Columbia single. Wreckless Eric (rumored to be Stiffs next LP artist) contributes "Semaphore Signals" and "Reconnez Cherie," marked by minimal backing, frantic vocals, and charmingly inept saxaphone. Larry Wallis (ex-Pink Fairy) plays a respectable "Police Car."
But the star of the show is the master himself, Nick Lowe. His first number is "I Knew the Bride When She Used to Rock and Roll," a collaboration with Dave Edmunds from Edmunds' Swan Song LP Get It. The layered guitars, bouncy bass line, and Everly Brothers style vocals prove that the Edmunds-Rockfield Studios sound can be translated to the concert stage. The other Lowe number is a back-to-basics rock song with the kind of lyrics only Lowe can write, "Let's Eat."
Ian Dury, arguably the ugliest man in rock and roll, takes his place with such revolutionaries of pop music as Captain Beefheart and Wild Man Fisher. New Boots and Panties!! will appeal to those who like music with the rough edges left on. "Wake Up and Make Love With Me" takes all the wind out of polished Bee Gees style disco: its more or less straight disco tune, not yet pasteurized into banality, accompanies 1 perversely suggestive lyrics. "Sweet Gene Vincent" doesn't revive rockabilly, but revitalizes it. "Blockheads" features the most disgusting noise ever produced by a synthesizer, and Dury manages to play his flashes of humor against a deeply-felt lyric in "My Old Man" without undercutting the ballad's force. "Billericay Dickie," a series of graffiti-like accounts of sexual adventures to a vaudeville music-hall tune, is the only song that comes off better live than in the studio (Dury appears on Stiffs Live with "Billericay Dickie," "Wake Up and Make Love," and "Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll").
The whole collection presses the outer limits of pop forms from disco to the music hall to straight rock and roll. It isn't for everyone — the sensibility is exclusively British, the music rough, and the humor sexual, scatalogical, and twisted. But the album is successful in putting pop music back in perspective: after listening to "Wake Up and Make Love," I'll never be able to hear "Stayin' Alive" again without laughing.