The front page of this paper's September 3 issue, you might perhaps recall, was colourfully decorated by a rather memorable portrait of an extraordinary congregation of rock and roll personalities that represented the most novel and unlikely repertoire of recording artistes ever assembled on one label.
The very lunacy of their pose made clear, from even the most cursory glance at that cover, that this group of nutters could only have been gathered together under the renegade wing of Stiff Records; and, indeed, this striking photographic study had been devised to announce to the nation an ambitious adventure conceived by that maverick genius, Jake Riviera, and his henchpeople at Stiff.
The news story that accompanied the cover pie elucidated the basic premise of Riviera s whacky scheme: on October 3, at High Wycombe Town Hall, we were breathlessly informed, Stiffs Greatest Stiffs — a travelling rock circus featuring the five principal Stiff artistes pictured here — would be unleashed in one neat package upon the unsuspecting population of these islands...
My God, I thought, snatching another look at that cover, will the nation ever survive such an assault?
Take another look at that photograph and the quintet of crazed individuals staring out of the frame with all the glamour of a Borstal line-up.
Elvis Costello props up the left-hand side, looking like the kind of depraved bank clerk whose life is superficially coloured with innocence but who returns home one evening with homicide in his back pocket and nails his wife's head to the mantlepiece (he will later confess to the police that he was corn mended in a vision from heaven to comma the heinous crime).
Nick Lowe lurks behind him in the photograph: that sly look in his eyes characterising him as the very apotheosis of Machiavellian conspiracy.
Ian Dury and Larry Wallis rub shoulders and egos beside Nick Lowe. Ian resembles a deranged tinker with a subordinate career as a ticket tout. Larry peers impassively through ubiquitous heavy shades with all the commission of an amateur thug threatening someone with a good belting at closing time. Wreckless Eric completes the looney chorus line.
And Wreck, dressed to kill in a bow tie and a rather fetching tartan blazer, looks like some demented waiter who's wandered aimlessly onto the set to serve the rest of the gang with chemical cocktails of such potency that terminal flippancy is promised as an aftermath to the first sip of the liquid...
It really was quite an unbelievable sight.
"It really is all quite unbelievable," Nick Lowe will tell me over a month later in the unlikely surroundings of a room in Bristol's Holiday Inn at the similarly unlikely hour of 3 a.m (the time is approximate: my body was still demanding yesterday's sleep and my brain was two days ahead of itself).
"But then," he continued, Stiff specialises in the unbelievable. So here we all are. Five marvy talents out and about and ready to burnnnnn."
"Ten little liggers. Look at them run. Just look at them GO!" It's a wet and wasted Monday evening and we're jaunting merrily off the Stiff party coach that's parked conveniently outside High Wycombe's Town Hall.
Jake Riviera, clutching in one hand a can of pre-mixed strawberry-flavoured tequila, maintains a dismissive commentary as we file off the coach and past the straggling queues patiently waiting in the rain for tickets for the opening of the momentous Stiff's Greatest Stiffs-Live tour: we're all plastered with "I'm Ligging With Advancedale" stickers.
And that means that we don't have to Stand outside in the rain and get drenched like these poor sods in their anoraks, duffle-coats and Marks 'n' Sparks ponchos. We dive straight in through the security cordon.
"I'm with the RECORD COMPANY, ma-a-an... I'm with the BAND," verbals Jake mimicking the ligger's anthem." You lot can wait outside. We can get in now. And we don't even have to pay for our tickets. Great, isn't it. The democracy of the rockbiz at work again."
High Wycombe Town Hall has the immediate feel of a youth club on a cancelled Sunday afternoon.
The stage, as we enter, is littered with roadies, drum-kits, amplifiers, mike stands and leads trailing like tapeworms across the boards, Ian Dury, who will be playing drums in Wreckless Eric's eccentric ensemble, squats behind a skeletal drumkit (it consists of one snare, one bass drum and an assortment of cymbals that look as if they've been welded out of hubcaps and dustbin lids).
Uncertainty hangs like dandruff on the shoulders of the evening: panic waits like a chorus girl in the wings and confusion tap-dances into the spotlight as the audience begins to drift into the hall while the road crew is still piling equipment onto the stage and the countdown to the opening chords of the tour begins...
Des Brown has the role of tour manager for this madcap Stiff escapade. Were hanging loose like dangling light-fittings in his room at Bristol's Holiday Inn, four nights into the tour.
Nick Lowe is in the bathroom rinsing his teeth with vodka, having just completed a 35-minute anecdote of hilarious proportions concerning a P. J. Proby recording session that had involved Brinsley Schwarz as his backing band and their manager Dave Robinson as producer. Des is talking about the tour: "Some people said we'd never get past the first chord. They said it would never some off. Gave us no chance. They said it'd be impossible. Four bands. Thirty-three people on the road... they said we d never pull it off. So far, we are pulling it off. In style. Thing is, were all men on this tour," he laughs.
"You know, usually, couple of nights before a tour I can't sleep. Things are going wrong. There's usually some panic. This time nothing's going wrong before the tour. And I still can't sleep. I'm laying awake all night looking at the phone and saying, 'RING! Tell me what's gone wrong. Put me out of my misery. Tell me it's off.'
I'm waiting for the bad news. And nothing happens. Four days into the tour and nothing's gone wrong. Were doing it. I'm going to start having nightmares if there isn't a crisis soon. But nothing's going wrong. It's f------ unbelievable."
That word, again.
Les Prior, the sabre-toothed maniac from the Albertos, is tonight's emcee, here in wonderful downtown High Wycombe.
"You KNOW why were here, don't you!" he screams at the audience in the Town Hall, bemusing them utterly with his high-speed patter. "That's RIIIIIGHT!!! Out of the goodness of our hearts we're here tonight to play a BENEFITCONCERRRRRT!! A Benefit Concert for the SAVE THE WHALE FUND! That's riiiight!!! It's SAVE THE WHALE NIGHT IN HIGH WYCOMBE!
"We were going to have a whale on stage here tonight, but unfortunately he's been held up at Dover. Immigration problems, ladies and gentlemen. And that's SAD. Because that whale was going to tell YOU about the hang-ups of being a whale.
"I mean, how would you like to be 20 tons of blubber and have to whistle for a mate? It's no f------ joke. I can tell you... But we DO have, here tonight, a FANTASTIC young man. He's on special release until nine o'clock. He's going to play for 23 minutes. He'd like to stay longer, but he really DOES have to be back inside at nine SHARP. Ladiesandgentlemen. Put your hands together for Mr Wreckless ERIIIIIIICK!!!"
Wreck wanders on to stage wearing — and I didn't believe it at first, either — a pink candlewick bedspread that's been cut into a kind of bomber jacket. It has a collar of artificial fur.
Denise Roudette, on bass, stands off to the left: Denise is wearing a gold flecked [word missing]ing dress and silver stockings. Ian Dury settles in behind his drums. Davey Payne stands to Eric's right. Davey looks like he's wearing a straitjacket. He blows a few tentative squeals on his saxophone.
Wreckless blows a whistle.
The ensemble lurch into a devaistating arrangement of "Semaphore Signals" and I'm bowled over into the middle of next week.
At Bath University four days later I'm watching Wreckless and crew run through their soundcheck with Bruce Thomas (Elvis Costello's bassist). He can't believe it. "That rhythm section," he says. "It's hardly Bernard Purdie and Chuck Rainey. But it's so right."
"It's a Wreckless Eric rhythm section comments Graham Parker roadie turned compere, Kosmo. "It would sound [word missing] with Bernard Purdie and Chuck Rainey. Wreckless needs a Wreckless rhythm section."
"I'm going to play my hit single now Wreckless informs the High Wycombe audience. And then he launches into an incredibly powerful rendition of "Go the Whole Wide World."
The audience is on the precipice of total collapse at Wreck's wild antics. They survived the deceptively gentle "Reconnez Cherie" (which had climaxed with Eric's screams chasing the fierce wail of Davey Payne's audacious sax solo around and then they're confronted with the bizarre spectacle of Wreck twitching and gibberin like an extra from the Marat-Sade as he proclaims love for some unidentified bonnie a beach in the Pacific.
"Personal Hygiene" follows: ostensibly remarkably placid and attractive with a touching refrain, the melody disguises lyrics as graphically gross as toilet wall graffiti: "Garnish your bottom with powder and wipe it with paper. And girls don't forget there's a place where you sweat — use your feminine spray," he sings in that chainsaw massacre whine.
All this time Wreckless wanders about the stage, flaying his guitar, cranking out