Wha?! A compilation?!
Stiff records, recently affiliated by personnel problems, began last year almost by accident, one little thing following another, building slowly, with the help of commitment, zany advertising, genuinely strange and wonderful talent, and the New Wave explosion, into quite a significant operation. The purpose of this album is not to show how significant, though it does, as a by-product of its content.
Basically it's like a retrospective for the year since Nick Lowe's "Heart of the City" launched the enterprise in August 1976, and it contains singles, B-sides and stuff which were released, or not-released-but-should-have-been in that period. All great stuff in its own way, but an acquired taste. Like you're due a couple of blinks if you pop this on after the Eagles, and while a lot of Eagles fans won't, I'd like to think that it's not so absurd as it seems to suggest that they might.
Lowe's "Heart" kicks off the album, with a bashing drum intro, and Lowe's Americano vocal and beat group sound. He plays everything except drums. A clever little song (as are most of his) with pisstakes here and there of things you've heard somewhere before — "It's a girl my lord" no, not in a flatback Ford slowing down to take a look at me (that's right, "Take it Easy"). No, this one passes him in the street, so he turns and doubles back (no, chuck, not to see her split in a coffee-coloured Cadillac)... he adds at the end that "a bird in the hand is worth two in the street."
Pink Fairies offer "Between The Lines," real amphetamined stuff, arums biff-biffing, and Larry Wallis straining away on voice and guitar. Wallis is the Fairy who survived their break up to stick with Stiff, and who contributed the pretty weird "As Long As The Price Is Right" to the new Feelgood album.
Then there's Roogalator's ulllltra sassy "Cincinnati Fatback," lazy and funky, very American and clubby, real rolling music, late night and dirty.
And to close side one we have two Tyla Gang songs — "Styrofoam," for me the strangler of the pack, and the less distinctive "Texas Chainsaw Massacre Boogie." "Styrofoam" is a Beefheartian batter, the band chug-chugglin' up behind his gravelwords.
"A li'l lady lives in a home / made entirely of styrofoam / styrofoam fireplace / styrofoam logs / styrofoam cats / and styrofoam dogs" Bada-bada-dam, bada bada-dam. "Styrofoam people / styrofoam bodies / styrofoam pencils / styrofoam bath / that li'l lady living in a home / ev'ry damn thing made of styrofoam."... great idea! But he missed out on styrofoam windows / styrofoam doors / styrofoam ethics / styrofoam mores... Hey it's catching... this li'l lady lived on a hill, made entirely of chlorophyl...
Side two has "Caravan Man" by Lew Lewis, a bluesy harp song, recorded on a Revox, i.e. a sophisticated but quite orthodox nonstudio tape-recorder, with a strangely powerful and appropriate 1950's Chicago sound. "Help" by the Damned, which is funny once or twice. (very fast, y'know). and ...
"You Gotta Lose," by Richard Hell. A cheap sounding guitar enters picking an off time riff, cheap r 'n' b guitar enters alongside, then Hell's demented James Brown's "Yeah!" before the lyric... or is it leer-ic. A bizarre little world wanders across the room from this track... of pinheads, flies, boredom, and Hell's sneering "You gotta lose."
Funnily enough, I can't hear it without the feeling that I've heard it before... no, not the lyrics, but the rest. Even down to his vocal... it's like a more gibbering version of Tom Verlaine, and it's related to Patti Smith too, which maybe explicable, since TV and Hell were once buddies in a band, and Smith was a Close Associate. The voice I'm talking about is high, strained and has a strange forward-thrust mini-yodel at emphatic moments. Try listening and see if you get it.
After that there's "This is the World" by Plummet Airlines, which is like some odd mutant of Jerry Lee Lewis rockabilly and Jethro Tull, "Learn Here" by motorhead, derivative but fun, and "Radio Sweetheart" by Elvis Costello. Ah, yes, Elvis... comes in strumming like lightnin' Hopkins, singing like Van Morrison — then like Richard Mannel... and no, I'm not numbering him or his influences.
Early recordings often sound like someone else, before an artist emerges into the light in their own unique style, and the heir apparent has shown and is showing that he don't need no comparisons to make it... This one is right up to standard... even a little more interesting than some album tracks. The acoustic guitar and the steel guitar heighten other aspects of his work.
Just how many of these artists have developed is made clear in the witty liner notes. The frightening possibility they pose is that there are literally dozens of undiscovered talents lurking around waiting for a street-level operation of this nature to emerge. Ok, people are doing it in England, but it's still a serious indictment of the record industry that in it's complacency it ignored even the possibility that this kind of talent might exist and it's not just a matter of contact with the street, and what's going on. Nope, Elvis Costello had his tapes rejected by a lot of companies before Stiff took him up.
The biggest irony of all is that while Stiff is bang-in-there New Wave, it's original impetus (street level sales, limited pressing, accurate knowledge of the potential market, contempt for the high-budget, big-ad major approach) is more quintessentially hippy than almost anything that has happened in music in years.
You don't believe me? Check out the articles in IT, The Ecologist, Undercurrents. An Index of Possibilities, Radical Technology... not just the anarchism latent therein, but their ideas on a alternative technology, local organisation and printing (above all). Translate them into records and you've got Stiff.
And believe me, any company that sells its compilation record with an inner sleeve listing its own trivia for the collector, and "recommends some fine records from other labels you might enjoy," i.e. stuff by Abba (Abba??!?!) Tom Petty, Mink DeVille, Dave Edmunds, Chiswick Chartbusters, Lee Dorsey, the Rumour, Elvis Presley (sun collection), the Ramones, Nick Drake, MC5, Little Feat, Blondie, Steve Winwood, Jonathan Richman and Captain Beefheart, has got class and ideals. It deserves a long life.
Let's hope it gets it.