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 commanded in a vision from heaven to commit 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 come 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 fucking 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 fucking 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 evening dress and silver stockings. Ian Dury settles behind his drums. Davey Payne stands to Eric's right. Davey looks as if he's wearing a straitjacket. He blows a few tentative squeals on his saxophone.
Wreckless blows a whistle.
The ensemble lurch into a devastating 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 awful 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've survived the deceptively gentle "Reconnez Cherie" (which had climaxed with Eric's screams chasing the fierce wails of Payne's audacious sax solo around and now they're confronted with the bizarre spectacle of Wreck twitching and gibbering like an extra from the Marat-Sade as he proclaims love for some unidentified boiler on a beach in the Pacific.
"Personal Hygiene" follows: ostensibly a remarkably placid and attractive balled with a touching refrain, the melody disguises lyrics as graphically gross as any 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 fractured spinechilling chords and yelping loudly at the most unexpected moments.
During "Telephoning Home" he produces a solo — a two-chord job — over Payne's hysterical sax bleats that’s simply astonishing in its unadulterated verve and cheek. “Piccadilly Menial” brings the set to a fierce and sensational climax: Ian and Denise bash out an impenetrable rhythm, Davey’s sax squeals and shrieks like all the hounds of hell, and Wreckless thrashes out a spastic guitar riff over which he screams and stutters the most volatile lyric imaginable … “I saw it HAPPEN! Up THERE! I saw IT! … I saw IT .. LookattheCLOCK,” he gibbers. “TICKTOCKTICKTOCK . . . “
He bounces up and down, scraping the neck of the guitar against the mike stand. Lord, it IS amazing what some people will do in the pursuit of artistic truth.
“We ONLY played two gigs before this,” Eric says later. “We did Birmingham and Essex University with the Damned. Birmingham was wet. So were the Damned. And in Essex the audience didn’t know WHAT to make of us.”
Neither did High Wycombe, Bristol or Bath; but, God knows, they all seemed to groove on Eric’s wayward, out-of-focus charisma.
“THE GUITAR solos are too long!” shrieks some adolescent heckler at Ian Dury during his award-winning performance at High Wycombe.
“An wot exactly do YOU know abaht it, sailor boy?” asks Ian. “Anyway, the gittarist gen’lman is now at the Joanna … “
“The guitar solos are STILL too long,” the hapless youth persists.
“Worriz this,” Ian burns. “A firkin debatin’ society. Sharrup.”
“Trying to win points off Ian,” observes Jake Riviera after this exchange, “is like trying to out-verbal Peter Ustinov or like having an harangue with Orson Welles. You can’t win. And he’s been off the road for a year thinking of those replies.”
“Man’s a genius,” says Kosmo.
“It’s HIS year,” says Glen Colson, Stiff PR and man-about-town: and we all agree that at this High Wycombe gig Ian Dury wins on points over Elvis Costello (who had chosen, adventurously, to perform a set consisting of unrecorded songs, many of them brand new), and Nick Lowe, whose hastily-rehearsed combo, which features Dave Edmunds on guitar and drums, Pete Thomas (EC’s drummer) and Larry Wallis on guitars, a lady named Pam on keyboards and Terry Williams of Rockpile on drums fails significantly to wipe out the audience.
And this despite Nick looking spectacular in a green suit tattooed with question marks, and killer versions of “So It Goes” and “Heart Of The City.”
“High Wycombe was a shambles. Fun, but a bit of a shambles,” Nick Lowe admits in Bristol. “We knew it. But we’re professionals and we’re not wingeing.
“Last night was nearer the mark and tonight it was really beginning to work. I know it should be even better, though, and we’ll get there. I know that it looks as if I’ve put together an easy kind of band.
“You know, I’ve got Terry and Edmunds and Larry Wallis. Mates, really. But still some of the best rock and rollers around. Like Edmundo … I love him. Rock and roll pours out of his ears.
“And I know the numbers we do are maybe a bit obvious. But it doesn’t mean I don’t care about what we’re doing. I owe those people on stage with me a lot. I don’t want to let them down. I don’t want them to think I’m cruising. I don’t want them to think I’m just a lazy c---.
“It’s for them as much as the audience that I want it to really work. I want it to work for Stiff too. Even though I’ve left. I want it to work for Jake. I want it to work for me. I’m fed up with what people write about me. I’m fed up with what people write about me, I want to work for myself.
“I enjoy producing other people. Love it. It’s marvy. But I’m fed up with all that Nick Lowe mystique I keep reading about. It’s time to go out and DO it. I’ve got over 70 tracks recorded. Been in the studio for a year.
“I’ve now picked out nine tracks. And THEY ARE DYNAMITE. Killers. Absolute KILLERS. I’ve just got to do one or two more . . . I don’t care when the album comes out. This year. Next year. It’s still going to be a killer.”
I believe it. I really do.
Glen Colson and Jake Riviera are having a rabbit on the balcony overlooking the stage at Bath University.
“The one thing I like best about this tour,” says Glen, “is that all the birds have got thin arses. Really nice thin ones. I can’t stand birds with big fat arses. Puts me right off. Like all those American jobs, with arses hanging out everywhere. This lot are much better. Real slim-line jobs. I love it.”
“That’s all right, Glen,” replies Riviera. “We hired them just for you. We were thinking of hiring a couple of hippos and dressing them in skirts. Just for the tour.
“Then we thought, ‘Dear old Glen Colson. Turn him right off that will.’ So we only hired girls with nice, thin, skinny little arses. Cost us a fortune, mind you. But as long as you’re happy. That’s what counts.”
“I USED to live in Bristol,” Wreckless Eric tells me as we amble through the doomy corridors of the Bristol Exhibition Centre. “I was at the art college. I hated Bristol. It made me ill.
“All I can remember about being in Bristol is crawling around the streets. And snapping aerials off cars. I used to wake up in the morning, with windscreen wipers stuffed in my pockets. Didn’t like Bristol. So I went to Hull.”
ELVIS COSTELLO and the Attractions are running through their soundcheck at the Bristol Exhibition Centre. The sound bounces off the wall and rebounds toward the stage like a fleet of aural boomerangs whistling discordantly as they fly.
“Terry Williams lifts up his young daughter: “Take a good look,” he says, directing her attention toward the stage. “That’s the only Elvis you’ll ever know.”
WE’RE DOWN in the Stiff bar, below the main hall of the Exhibition Centre, talking to Elvis Costello. Check that: we’re listening to Elvis Costello. El, I suddenly notice, seems to end every sentence with a pause, followed by a declaration.
The final word is always, it sounds, spoken in capital letters. He verbals like someone taking an unnatural delight in banging nails into a post, there’s a second spent relishing the thought of the hammer smacking the head of the nail. Then whack! That final word. Always in capital letters.
He’s discussing the High Wycombe gig: “I did it on . . . PURPOSE. I did it to get the audience AT IT. To get the band . . . AT IT. That was the whole . . . POINT. And if some people couldn’t see it, well f--- THEM.