Melody Maker, August 6, 1977

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A Day In The Life Of A Bunch Of Stiffs


Allan Jones

Allan Jones spends a day with Stiff Records and sees label boss Jake Riviera make a racial slur, Elvis Costello arrested, and the Feelgoods discuss the sex life of jellyfish.

Jake Riviera reminds me of a hip Hitler. Jake, of course, hasn't Adolf's toothbrush stubble moustache lingering beneath his nose like a malevolent caterpillar; neither does he have that lank comma of hair slicked rakishly over one eye like a Brylcreemed bat's wing. Nor is it likely that he shares any of the late dictator's more unpleasant psychopathic tendencies. And it would be difficult to imagine the Fuhrer prancing about Nuremburg in winkle-picker cowboy shoes, Levis and a cowboy shirt, singing the praises of the likes of Rat Scabies or Captain Sensible or Nick Lowe.

But there is about Jake that sense of manic urgency, the controlled hysteria and ruthless insistence on achievement that one remembers from those films salvaged from the ruined archives of the Third Reich.

It's 10.30 on an overcast Tuesday morning and Jake is cartwheeling furiously about Stiff Records' command centre in West London. The Damned have been successfully despatched to Southampton to record a television show with Mike Mansfield.

He's now dealing with the first wave of incoming telephone calls and simultaneously arranging a multitude of freewheeling deals, negotiating forthcoming Stiff projects and contracts and organising the advertising campaign for Elvis Costello.

Meanwhile, an American journalist is attempting to interview him on the subject of Stiff's plans.

"Is Elvis Costello going to be Stiff's biggest star?" she asks seriously.

Jake can't resist the temptation to scream with laughter. "I don't f- know. I just put out the records."

His attention is diverted (fortunately, perhaps) by another telephone call. The American lady consoles herself by taking a series of candid photographs: she seems, for some unlikely reason, infatuated with his feet and snaps a series of shots of his ankles.

Jake stares at her in mild disbelief and takes another call. He verbals at a speed so relentless that it leaves friction burns on the brain.

"Yeah, Stiff Records. Bonjour. That's French for bonjour. Ah, it's you. Right. I want full-page ads on Elvis. Spot colour. Somewhere near the front of the papers. Got it? No excuses. I don't want to find them stuck right up the back. Good. Get on the case, then. Let's start shaking. Groovy."

He slams down the, telephone. "Cynthia. A letter. Quick. Shake it, Cynthia. Time is money and we're late. With an overdraft."

The American journalist surrenders in the face of this early morning frenzy. She has to leave now, but could Jake possibly put her name down on the guest list for Elvis Costello's London debut that evening at Dingwall's?

Jake looks at her. He notes that she `is obviously of Oriental extraction. "Sure," he replies. "What was the name again? Pearl Harbour? Cynthia, put Pearl's name on the list. Let's get shaking."


The history of Stiff Record since its inception last August has been a saga of intrepid adventure and individual enterprise.

Succinctly: Stiff was conceived by Jake Riviera as a challenge to the superiority of the major record companies. The idea of Stiff as a renegade independent company, operating almost as a kind of guerilla force within the music business, first suggested itself when he was skating across the wastelands of North America as tour manager for Dr. Feelgood.

"We were travelling through Louisiana," he remembers, "in and out of all these one-eyed towns and even there you could find all these thrift shops stocked with all these singles on obscure labels. There's always been that kind of tradition in America. There have been some attempts to do it here, but none of them realIy worked. I just thought it would be a real gas to start a label.

"We were just sitting in this station wagon. And there isn't really a lot to occupy your mind after you've seen the first mile of swamps and you've seen your first three alligators. By the time we finished the tour I'd thought of the name, designed the logo. Everything."

Jake had previously managed the delightfully eccentric Chilli Willi — who had been signed to Mooncrest, a subsidiary of Charisma — and had endured what he believed to be a bureaucratic mentality.

"I presented them with all kinds of wild schemes," he recalls, "but no one had the imagination to suss what we could do. The whole thing was a lot more off-the-wall with the Willis, though. I mean, if you're a band with a name like Chilli Willi and the Red Hot Peppers and you release an album called `Bongoes Over Balham', it's going to strike a few people as eccentric. It's not exactly `Frampton Comes Alive', is it?

"But, at the same time, there were people we could have got that record to, people that would've been interested and would have enjoyed it. We didn't have a chance, though, because no one would take the kind of risk involved."

The Chillis were one of the last bands to represent the ill-fated pub rock movement that blossomed in London between 1973 and 1975. To promote that band, and their contemporaries, Dr Feelgood and Kokomo, Jake devised the Naughty Rhythms Tour.

The idea was ingeniously simple. The three bands would form a package tour, sharing expenses and alternating as headliners. Ticket prices would be low. The tour broke the Feelgoods as a commercial property, but precipitated the split of the Chillis (much to Jake's regret).

It had been, however, a courageous manoeuvre; a vivid expression of the dissatisfaction with the existing principles of the rockbiz empires that Jake and his immediate accomplices were determined to undermine.

I recall interviewing Jake at that time. I was impressed by his impatience with the lumbering mechanics of the music industry. He criticised eloquently the superstar elite and their lack of concern for young bands (Pete Townsend he congratulated for the studio time he offered at the Who's Ramport Studio, however), thus anticipating by three years the belligerence of the new wave.

He was determined to divorce himself, and by implication those bands with whom he wouId be subsequently involved, from what he then described as "the Punch and Judy Syndrome of groups who spend most of what they earn on platform boots and leather coats, trying to maintain the illusion of being stars. They don't understand that the kids will eventually see through all that."

Three years later, with Stiff now a thriving commercial venture (its success with singles by Nick Lowe, the Damned and their album was catalogued in detail in the July 9 edition of MM), Jake's opinions on the Industry Of Human Happiness have hardly mellowed.

"I spent years shouting at people over desks in record company offices. They turned down virtually every idea I offered them. I decided I could do it without them.

"Kids are hipper and brighter than most record companies think. Stiff is interesting in reaching those kids, right. I'm not interested in handing out stacks of free records and tee shirts and free lunches to journalists and dealers. I'm interested in the kids who buy the records, not the music business. And I want to offer those kids a good deal.

"Like, we've had ONE reception since we started Stiff, when we had champers and strawberries at the end of the T. Rex tour. That was EMI's idea. We agreed `cos we thought the Damned might enjoy it."

Jake is very much the public face of Stiff, though it should not be implied that the company is a solo operation: his partner is Dave Robinson, with whom he has also formed Advancedale Management. This handles the careers of Graham Parker and the Rumour, Elvis Costello, Clover, [Nick Lowe and the Damned.


Still, it is Jake's personal philosophy and maverick character that the label reflects. The marketing and promotional tactics and the often whacky schemes and advertising ploys synonymous with the label are invariably the product of Jake's fertile imagination.

The catalogue signatures of Stiff's releases are BUY and SEEZ, for singles and albums respectively; and the labels bear such delightful qualifications as "Proper Stereo" (Plummet Airlines' "Silver Shirt"), "Would-Have-Been Stereo" (Costello's "Welcome To The Working Week"), "Reasonable Stereo" (the same artist's "Less Than Zero").

"It's just a way to remind people in the industry that music is fun," he says, explaining these idiosyncrasies — for example, Stiff gave away singles to celebrate the first anniversary of the Damned, and there is a current "Help Us Hype Elvis" free album offer.

"I can't understand why people are so suspicious of things like that. The industry thinks we're a joke, that we're not interested in selling records. Of course we want to sell records! It's just that we're trying to offer some bonus to the people who buy them.

"People are beginning to appreciate what we're doing and there have been some direct lifts of Stiff`s marketing approach. Limited edition 12-inch singles in picture bags ... all that. But most of the lifts have been uninspired.

"I feel sorry for a11 these overweight executives trying to come to terms with what's going on. They take an idea and sterilise it out of existence."

Stiff's success, he adds has coincided with the re-assessment of established values forced by the emergence of the new wave in rock, and the label's commercial prosperity (only Max Wall's "England's Glory" 45 failed to recoup recording costs) has, he feels encouraged the growth of other independent concerns.

"John Otway and Willy Barrett came in, right. And they had their album recorded, they had the sleeve designed and printed and they wanted Stiff to put it out. I said, `You're nearly there. Do it yourself.' They did. And it sold and then Polydor signed them. That's gratifying. We proved to people that you could do it without the help of EMI or CBS or Decca. Things are changing. Slowly perhaps, but they are changing.

"People are beginning to realise that it no longer has to take three albums, two years and 200 gigs a year to break a band. Like, the Damned have been with us a year and they've a Top 30 album. And we're committed to them. Like we are to Nick Lowe and Elvis. We'll stay with as long as they want to be with us.

"We're not interested signing an act to a seven-year five-album deal and then dumping them after two albums if they're not cutting it commercially. You've got to stick with people you believe in.

"That's why we only sign people who've got a clear sense of direction, people who're bright. People who've got a grip on it. I'm not interested in signing any old drongo that comes in off the street. We'd only have the Wombles and the Muppets on Stiff if we were."


Stiff's office is presently located in Alexander Street, tucked away anonymously behind Porchester Road and Westbourne Grove. They rent the ground floor (two rooms cluttered with Stiff paraphernalia), and basement (two more rooms, less chaotically furnished), of a building owned by Blackhill, whose own offices occupies the first floor. B. P. Fallon lives somewhere on the premises, merely to enhance the fairly lunatic atmosphere of the joint, I imagine.

There is at Stiff a permanent staff of six: two secretaries, Suzanne Spiro and Cynthia Lole; Barney Bubbles, the art director; general manager Paul Conroy; Dave Robinson; and, of course, Adolf Riviera.

This morning, after the despatch of the American journalist he'd rechristened Pearl

Harbour, Jake has copped a sympathetic ear to the tapes of a forthcoming. one-off project and offered a contract to the parties involved — "the standard Stiff rip-off contract" -- organised the details of another deal, blistered the ears of an endless number of callers, dictated a volume of letters, and more pressingly, finalised the organisation of the Week's Silly Stunt.

This is it: CBS are holding their annual blow-out convention at London's Hilton. The entire upper echelon of the CBS empire is in town, accompanied by the label's more prestigious artists, some of whom will be performing for the exclusive pleasure of the executives gathered there.

Jake has a little extra entertainment planned for them. Elvis Costello will perform an unscheduled set on the street outside the Hilton as the CBS folk leave at lunchtime.

Two of the floating cast of assorted nutters that gravitate around the Stiff office that's Kosmo and Alphonse, GP & the Rumour roadies — are already outside the Hilton with placards and sandwich boards advertising Elvis' gig at Dingwalls and welcoming CBS to England, The Home Of Stiff Records.

Back at Stiff, meanwhile, the joint is jumping: "Get some cabs, Cynthia. We need wheels. Now, Jump. Right, where's Elvis? Who's here and who's coming with us?"

The Stiff Shock Squadron assembles: Elvis has arrived looking very dapper in two-tone shoes, sports jacket and checked trousers (with a crease you could cut your throat on). The Attractions, Elvis' spanking new band, are here.

Roadies dash about. Jake is still screaming for cabs. Telephones are ringing like alarm bells announcing Armageddon. "I can't answer it now," Jake shouts. "Tell him I'm just off with Elvis to scare the hell out of CBS."

The cabs arrive. Jake grabs a bottle of cider. He orders everyone out on to the street. "Let's get shaking.

We pile out of the office. Jake bundles people into cars, shouting directions. The transit with the band and reinforcements for Kosmo and Alphonse drives off: Elvis nonchalantly to his car. Several other individuals leap in beside him.

Jake is still running about calling people out of the pub, leaving instructions for Cynthia. Elvis' car drives off with its boot flapping open. Jake races after it and slams it. Five of us are crammed in a second car. The driver looks bewildered.

"It's like the Keystone Cops," Paul Conroy mumbles laconically. "Take it away, Jake."


Kosmo and Alphonse are parading along the facade of the Hilton when we arrive. The Hilton's elaborately attired commissionaires follow them with belligerent stares. "See Elvis on your doorstep. See Elvis at Dingwall's tonight. Roll up for Elvis," Kosmo announces,. like a demented streetcorner newspaper seller.

Elvis, with the Vox practice amp that Jake has bought him strapped over his shoulder, strolls casually to the front of the hotel and plugs in his Fender Jazzmaster. "Go to it, Elvis boy.," Jake barks, between fits of laughter. Paul Conroy and El's PR, Glen Colson, look apprehensive.

Elvis suddenly locks into "Welcome To The Working Week" and we're away. "Look at him go," enthuses Jake. "See that glint in his eye? He's well off now."

Elvis hollers the lyric with unrestrained passion, knocking out chords on the Fender with relentless venom. The commissionaires back away, pretending indifference but throwing bewildered backward glances at this curious spectacle.

A group of Jap tourists waddle by armed with stacks of souvenirs and cameras: the scene before them seems to reinforce their secret conviction that the English are all crazy. Elvis is now playing "Waiting For The End Of The World".

A group of refugees from the CBS bash wander out of the Hilton grasping little paper tuck bags bearing the legend: A Big Fat Thank You From Ted Nugent. They gape at Elvis. He's now singing "Less Than Zero". He ignores them.

Jake is swigging cider and cackling gleefully as the crowd outside the Hilton begins to swell with tourists and CBS representatives. Kosmo and Alphonse are still strolling the length of the hotel front with their placards and boards. "Do you know any Neil Diamond songs?" asks an emphatically smarmy cityslicker in blue mohair.

"Listen, mate," Paul Conroy intervenes, "Nell Diamond doesn't do any of Elvis' songs, so Elvis isn't going to do any of his. Hop it."

"All right. Who's in charge here?" It's the security officer from the Hilton. He looks like an extra from the Sweeney, with close-cropped hair and an unpleasantly aggressive air about him.

"Who's in charge? Who's in CHARGE?" Jake shouts. "NO ONE'S in charge. It's a free country and we're all free individuals expressing ourselves. We can do what we like. Who are you, anyway? From the hotel, are you? Must be American. Did you know that some parts of America date back to 1934? Well? Are you from America? Are you American? Uh?"

The fellow reels back in utter confusion: "I'm not American," he splutters. "I'm from Hampshire." He attempts to compose himself before Jake launches another verbal onslaught. "Anyway, this is a caution. Move on. You look suspicious." This announcement coincides with the arrival of a group of Arabs and their womenfolk. The ladies, of course, have their faces covered with yashmaks. Jakes takes one look at them.

If you think WE look suspicious, what about all these f- people wandering about with masks on?"

BY THE -time Elvis starts "Mystery Dance" it seems that at least half of the CBS convention is on the street outside the Hilton; Matthew Kaufman, Jonathan Richman's manager, is there. So is Herbie Cohen. Even Walter Yetnikoff, president of CBS Records International, has been drawn into the action. Everyone, it seems, is clapping and singing along with Elvis.

Then the Law arrives.

A young constable, clearly embarrassed, has been summoned by our friend from Hampshire. He has a dekko at Elvis and a word with Jake. "He's NOT busking man!" "He's just SINGING IN THE STREET! You can't stop people SINGING IN THE STREET!"

The confused P.C. has every intention of trying just that.

"GET DOWN, ELVIS!" Kaufman bellows, enjoying himself enormously, it seems,

The constable gets out his radio: he's got six punk rockers and a crowd of 50 people causing a disturbance outside the Hilton, he informs headquarters. Three squad cars and a police van are on the scene within minutes. The Old Bill pile out, anticipating a riot by the look of them.

Jake argues with an inspector. "These people are ENJOYING themselves, man! Look at them! They're clapping and singing!" The inspector is clearly appalled. Elvis is still singing his heart out.

"Oh God," mutters Paul Conroy as the police inspector advances threateningly on Elvis.

"Move on, son," he tells El.

Elvis takes one stride to his left and continues singing.

"Right," says the inspector. "You're nicked."

He arrests Elvis.

"Colson," snaps Jake as the crowd boos the police, "follow them. Vine Street station. Get on the case. I want Elvis sprung. Can't have him in the nick all night. He's got a soundcheck at Dingwall's at four. Spring him."

Colson dashes off. He's followed by Paul Conroy. A sound tactic, this; Colson has a finely-honed sense of the absurd, as Conroy well knows. The thought of Colson at large on his own in a police station could provoke disaster (the old Bill not having much sense of humour, as we know).

Indeed, we learn later that Conroy reached the station to find Colson wandering down a line of constables greeting them individually with a cheery, "Evening all!"

"Five more minutes of that," Conroy reflected, later, "and we'd all have been sent down for life."

JAKE, meanwhile, has raced back to Alexander Street. He tumbles into the office. "Cynthia! David Gentle (Stiff's lawyer) on the 'phone. They've nicked Elvis and I want him out. Jesus."

Colson is on the other telephone. Jake conducts both conversations at once, receiving information on the arrest from Colson and relating it to Gentle. "They've booked him for unlawful obstruction. You spring him. Great. Gentle thinks we'll get him off with a fine. They can't keep him in overnight. I need A DRINK."

So did I.

Lee Brilleaux, Sparko and John Mayo of the Feelgoods are already in the boozer with Nick Lowe, who's producing their new album. Lee and Kosmo (who neatly escaped the clutches of the law outside the Hilton) are deep in conversation about the delights of Canvey Island as a holiday resort.

Kosmo used to enjoy vacations there as a kid: spent most of his time murdering hordes of crabs on the beaches there. Used to rip off their legs and stick needles in their eyes. That kind of thing.

"'Ere, Lee," Kosmo says, "I wish crabs 'ad ears." "Why's that?" asks Lee. "'Cos you could tear 'em off," laughs Kosmo, who, steers the conversation towards the sex life of jellyfish. "No, jellyfish don't f-," Lee informs Kosmo, who's been wondering how the species multiplies. "They sort of split up. Like worms.

"I 'ate jellyfish as it 'appens. No time for 'em. Vicious fings. Like adders. If they bite you it's not certain death, but they'll make you ill."

Lee sinks another pint. I wondered how the Feelgoods were getting on with Nick Lowe. "He's a bastard," says Lee. "Stickler for time, old Basher. Doesn't understand complications of British licensing laws. The pubs close at three. He wants us in the studio at two. I'll just have a swift 'arf."

Lee's had a swift 'arf before him on the bar for over an hour. Everytime Lowe asks him when he's going to leave, Lee says, "Just finish this 'arf, Bash, and we'll be off." He's actually downing brandies by the bucket-load.

"I can't get them out of the pub," Lowe complains later to Jake. "They just won't move." Jake sympathises. He'd been out boozing with Lee the previous night.

"Annuver one, Lee?" asks Kosmo.

"Just a swift 'arf. Must dash," Lee replies, knocking back a brandy.


The Feelgoods are finally dragged out of the pub and despatched to the studio with Nick Lowe, and the mood at Stiff relaxes for the first time.

Ian Dury wanders in, looking like some bedraggled tinker. He has a single out soon on Stiff called "Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll" (classic Dury opus, this); he's also been producing Wreckless Eric, whose "Go The Whole Wide World" was one of the standout attractions of the "Bunch Of Stiffs" compilation (which is to be followed by "Hits Greatest Stiffs," which will include most of the early Stiffs 45s, incidentally).

He wanders down to see Barney Bubbles, and B.P. Fallon wanders in to be insulted. How are you, Beep. "I'm effervescent, man," he smiles, adjusting his jockey cap. Archie Leggett, who's been recording with Wings' Jimmy McCulloch, nods his head around the door. "I'm shattered," he moans, and vanishes.

The telephones continue to ring, and Jake verbals merrily: "Are you asking me for money. Is that it? Yes, that is a mistake... Yes. I'll put you on the guest list if you bring along your cheque book and spend lets of money on me... Of course I'm out of my crust. That's why I'm so talented and make so much money... Groovy. Advice is free. Consultation costs money. Stop wasting — my time..."

Elvis arrives. He has to appear in court the next morning. He expects a £5 fine. The police were courteous, he says. He'd like a copy of his album sent around to Vine Street. Paul Conroy announces over the intercom system that he's got a chart position for My Aim Is True.

"Please God, I don't believe you're there, but make it good," Jake prays.

The album, we learn, has already sold 11,000 copies. It's only been on sale for three days.

"Not bad," says Elvis with immense calm. "Now let's get Dingwall's over and done."

TUESDAY night at Dingwall's: the joint is so packed, you couldn't squeeze in a greased monkey after 10.00 p.m. The sense of anticipation is choking. The only person in the place whose nerves have survived the day intact is Elvis.

Indeed, throughout the day he's displayed the utmost cool. Even his arrest, on the very day of his official London debut with the Attractions, seemed to affect him not at all.

One gets the impression of an artist whose self-confidence is unassailable. The unanimous critical praise with which his music has recently been received he accepts modestly. But he knew it was due, and expected it, I'm sure.

The Attractions pick their way through the glare behind him. Pete Thomas, the former rhythm merchant with Chilli Willi (returned to these shores after a spell in America) settles in behind the traps, Bruce Thomas (ex-Quiver and composer of odes to Queen's Park Rangers) eases in on bass and Steven Young sneaks in behind the keyboards. Elvis straps on his Fender and the action starts with "Welcome To The Working Week".

They then play the most startling set I've experienced since Television pinned me to the deck in Glasgow. This combo is so damned hot they could reduce the Post Office Tower to a mess of molten metal in 60 seconds flat.

The sound is naked and aggressive — only "Alison" offers a respite from the intensity — dominated by El's wonderfully spare guitar style (it's somewhere between the effect Lennon achieved on "I Found Out" and Neil Young's classic apocalyptic raunch).

Young's keyboards sparkle between the spaces with a sinister shine, while Thomas and Thomas punch out the rhythm with emphatic panache. The familiar brilliance of the songs from Aim were whacked out with an extraordinary force, fierce expressions of frustration, rage and revenge: "End Of The World" was alarmingly violent climaxing with a chilling scream of "Dear LORD..." and trailing into silence. "Red Shoes", "Miracle Man," "Zero" (with audience participation), "Mystery Dance" and "Blame It On Cain" were all despatched with stunning clarity.

Then Elvis moved in for the kill with a batch of new songs that emphasised beyond argument his individual and remarkable talent: there was "Night Rally", built around Pete Thomas' military percussion attack, the epic "The Beat", a fearsome, haunting nightmare parade of fears repressed and finally confronted, and the utterly vindictive essays, "Lipstick Vogue" and "Lip Service, That's All You'll Get From Me".

And then (as if a boy could stand anymore!!) there was a song called "Watching The Detectives": simply the best new song I've heard this year. Set against a spastic reggae backdrop, Elvis intones this really scary narrative about a guy and his girl watching some hack U.S. cop opera. She becomes sexually aroused by the violence on the screen...

"They beat him up until the teardrops start, but he can't be wounded 'cos he's got no heart," he sings... and suddenly the narrator realises that he and his girl are part of the drama: "They call it instant justice but it's past the legal limit / Someone scratching at the window, I wonder 'Who is it?"' It's the Detectives creeping through the dark, natch.

The song ends with the singer wasting his girl. "It only took my little finger to BLOW YOU AWAY... "

I saw Elvis and the boys the following night at the Hope & Anchor.

I'm still shaking.

Elvis vanished after the gig, less than enamoured of Dingwall's general vibe, apparently.

The rest of us finished off the day in style. I don't recall the actual details (conveniently, perhaps), but Jake Riviera was on the, receiving end of "someone's" fist and got himself flattened. Matthew Kaufman was ejected for diverting attention from the ensuing bout of fisticuffs by, uh, urinating in public. The rest of us just got absolutely legless.

"The perfect end to a perfect day at Stiff Records," smiled a tired and emotional Paul Conroy as we stumbled into the moonlight, conveniently providing me with a final quote.

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<< >>

Melody Maker, August 6, 1977


Allan Jones chronicles a day in the life of Stiff Records.

Images

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Photos by Barry Plummer.

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