On of the few things I can still remember from studying history in my humanities degree was the concept of unwitting testimony. As far as I remember this is the idea that you can find out things from a period in history from what was written, unwittingly, about something else. For example a 1920’s biography of Nelson could also reveal information about the 1920’s in terms of the moral or political stance of the writing .
Stiff records were not concerned with making any statements about the mid 70’s, they were, initially at least, just releasing songs by people they liked who were struggling to release anything through more commercial routes. Unwittingly the first few releases tell us an awful lot about what music was like, certainly in London for a few months of the ‘phoney war’ when music was changing but no one knew that punk was going to arrive like a hurricane.
So here are the first five singles on the Stiff label
So it Goes/ Heart of the City
So It Goes
About as cutting edge as pub rock could get. Lowe could play write and produce to a certain standard. We liked him because he was not one of the old guard (largely because he had not been that successful) but he wrote songs that sounded like we’d heard them before, but we hadn’t.
Another person who was having a bit more success with this approach was Graham Parker and Steve Golding from his band The Rumour plays drums on these tracks. The rest is all Lowe. Give Lowe enough speed booze and dope and leave him in a studio with a drummer and he would always come out with something.
So it Goes is almost the sort of thing that Van Morrison might sing if you ignore the barbed lyrics. There’s an American influence, a smidgen of Springsteen, a touch or Southside Johnny, maybe a little bit of The Band but it still sounds like it was recorded in a basement in Camden Town at a cost of £34.
Heart of the City is a more straight forward rocker, rather like Lowe’s future work with the band Rockpile. Different but still the same.
The Pink Fairies
Between the Lines/ Spoiling for a Fight.
Between The Lines
Lowe’s record sold about 10,000 copies. The Fairies achieved about half of that. On the basis of the 30 seconds I heard on the John Peel Show I thought it was great. I never heard it again until recently. The Pink Fairies operated somewhere between Hawkwind and the MC5. They came out of the Ladbrook Grove squat scene where they were huge. Elsewhere they amounted to diddly squat. Robinson and Rivera, the owners of Stiff would have been familiar with them through the London music/drugs/booze scene. The Fairies were in their final throes, psychedelic Canadian rocker Paul Rudolph had left to play bass with Hawkwind. In his place was Larry Wallis a big boozing mate of the label owners. Wallis was a bit more direct in his playing, the A side thunders along brutally. It sounds ok even today, I have never heard the B side.
All Aboard/ Cincinnati Fat Back.
The sort of people who drank at the Hope and Anchor or The Nashville loved The Roogalator. I didn’t like them at all. They were clearly excellent musicians who played a sort of swing/country/blues mixture. I resented their lack of edge and the fact that they seemed to pretend they were American. In their defence their main man Danny Adler was from the states, I think. Even in 1976 everyone who wasn’t pissed in a London Pub didn’t wasn’t to hear some talented Yank singing songs about juke joints. Another flop followed, listening today of course it sounds absolutely great. The keyboard player was to leave to join the Tom Robinson Band and The Roogalator petered out.
The Tyler Gang
Styrofoam/Texas Chainsaw Massacre Boogie
Yep, more pub rock Americana. This release managed to slip below everyone’s radar. I did listen to for the first time recently and, well I cant really think of anything good or bad about it. Sean or Shaun Tyler had been in Ducks Deluxe who almost rivalled the Feelgoods in the good rockin stakes for a while. Unfortunately they all looked like builders rather than gangsters. A great live band but not a great recording band, the Ducks had splintered and Tyler had formed his gang. Already they were out of date.
Lew Lewis and his Band
Boogie on the Street/ Caravan Man
Boogie On The Street
Stiff was showing it’s true colours here. Feelgood’s manager Chris Fenwick had helped set up Stiff. Lew Lewis was from the same pool as the Feelgoods and, of course had been in Eddie and the Hot Rods for a while. The cream of Canvey Island/Southend convened to back one of their own, in fact Lee Brilleaux is on guitar. Lewis is a pretty good harp player but then again most harp players who treat the instrument seriously are. The result is a perfectly acceptable slice of Chicago/Canvey blues.
That’s the first five releases on Stiff. With the possible exception of The Roogalator it’s pretty much a collection of boozing mates of the label owners. There was a lot of mix and match going on here, Lowe would work with the Feelgoods, Larry Wallis would become a writer/producer in his own right. As new artists came along they would become part of the pick and mix community. Rumour’s drummer Steve Golding would end up playing with Elvis Costello on Watching the Detectives, Lowe would play on Wreckless Eric’s first single (with Golding on drums again) and so on.
At this point the Stiff catalogue was pretty hopeless, a collection of pub rockers who might fill a pub but on record were shown to be pretty derivative. After all these years there’s a charm to all the recordings, at least its real musicians playing together. The main selling point of these tracks however is almost entirely their naive nostalgia appeal, Lowe showed a certain promise but no one was going to wait with baited breath for another record by Lew Lewis (just as well, he was about to descent into a nightmare drugs/mental health/ crime nightmare which hopefully he has now left behind him).In a couple of years Lowe had formed a reputation for his skills and the rest had disappeared.
The next release on Stiff was New Rose by the Dammed. A great record and the first British punk single. Produced by no less than Nick Lowe himself. Punk seemed to nudge Stiff onto some new creative track, it wasn’t an easy ride but soon it would sign yet more pub rockers but this time it would be people with a genuine enduring talent.
Step forward Elvis Costello and Ian Dury..OK Wreckless Eric you can take a step forward too, you’re the young generation and you’ve got something to say