The Rogues, the In Crowd, Greek and the Barbarians and the Pete Klint Quintet — legendary North Iowa bands all — shared one common element: me. These outfits made more noise than music in the VFW dubs and high schools and dumpo nightspots that saw in us an affordable alternative to Talent, but we had a great deal of fun bashing out "The Story of Bo Diddly" (my claim to fame as a vocalist), "Telstar," the more rudimentary tunes from the Hollies' catalogue, and, of course, several Ventures classics. The haunting Frisbie saxophone has been stilled for years (ever since its owner o.d.'ed on poverty and hocked it), and my last gig was a five-minute stint with the Drake Marching Band in the fall of 1966. While the chops are gone, however, the memories are reactivated by records like Stiffs Live, a bad/good album showcasing the Stiff label's stable of miscreants. The better material — that of Costello and Dury —indicates the in-performance abilities of two of England's up-and-comers, and the dreadful stuff (even Greek and the Barbarians would have outclassed Wreckless Eric) has an enthusiasm to it that, in a pathetic way, is enjoyable. The whole thing is fun.
Stiff, incidentally, is an English company carried in the States by Arista (Costello is distributed here by Colombia); it bills itself as "the world's most flexible record label" and the outfit's logo reads "We came, we saw, we left." Rather than a Punk label like Sire, Stiff releases New Wave (I guess) rock 'n' roll based more upon the. British Mid-Sixties influence than the American Mid-Fifties sound most Punks proclaim as their roots (actually, the Punks owe more to Detroit minimalism and the New York Underground than to the fathers of rock).
Nick Lowe's Last Chicken in the Shop, for example, sounds like an uptempo American band filtered through the early Beatles on "I Knew the Bride" and "Let's Eat," a pair of high-energy harmony numbers that begin Stiffs Live. Producer/performer Lowe he was a member of Brinsley Schwarz and has produced Graham Parker, among others) and the rest of his band also make up Larry Wallis' Psychedelic Rowdies and Wallis plays in Last Chicken, so it's the same band with different members singing lead). The Rowdies contribute "Police Cars," wherein the black-and-white assumes a hungry life of its own and goes prowling for victims.
We are also treated to about eight minutes of Wreckless Eric vainly striving to find his pitch on "Semaphore Signals" and "Reconnez Cherie." Eric is terrible, but he tries so hard I find myself sharing his agony rather than wisely lifting the arm and moving on to side two. The audience wants to be encouraging, supporting Wreckless with affirmative, urging noises and give-him-a-break-style applause that unfortunately only give him the confidence to attempt even more soulful delivery. The New Rockets do their best to drown out the vocals, and everybody manages to end at about the same time if not in the, same key.
If you saw Elvis Costello in Minneapolis last month, his two songs here will not surprise you — he's a strong performer with a solid band and an already identifiable style. Bacharach/David's "I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself" and his own "Miracle Man" differ greatly in content, but both are delivered with a tight urgency and the commitment Costello seemingly brings to everything he does. These live recordings make even more apparent that he is a major new talent.
The Dury material surprised me, however, it rocks much more than on New Boots and Panties!! and is at times almost jazzy, thanks to Chris Jankel's piano work. Dury is an aggressively genial audience-pleaser "I'm From Essex," he growls "in case you couldn't tent") who acts more than sings. After first-rate versions of "Wake Up and Make Love With Me" and a smashing "Billericay Dickie," he brings everybody back on stage for "Sex and Drugs and Rock 'n' roll," probably the anthem of Stiff artists.
Even considering Wreckless Eric, Stiffs Live is an amiable, assertive collection of new artists. Two of them are destined for bigger things, and their friends, perhaps along for the ride, are good enough companions for forty or fifty. minutes. It's only rock 'n' roll, but I think you'll like it. Besides, Eric may serve as an inspiration for us all.