It all began with just £400 and a tiny room in Notting Hill. Jake Riviera, co-founder of Stiff Records, claimed, "We are dedicated to releasing three-chord songs lasting three minutes — all available for 65p including posting and packing."
Riviera, who'd started rock life as Andrew Jakeman, had been involved in numerous projects, working for Revelation, a record company doomed from the onset despite selling 15,000 copies of a Glastonbury Fayre triple-album, and also managing Chilli Willi And The Red Hot Peppers. But starting his own indie label was something he'd envisaged for a while. "I always wanted to be an A&R man," he mused. "Unfortunately that's a position that most people achieve only upon death."
Partnership with Dave Robinson, manager of Graham Parker and Ian Dury, provided one source of material. Robinson, who'd promoted gigs at London's Hope And Anchor pub, had recorded numerous sessions there and had hours of tape by pub rock pioneers Brinsley Schwarz, Kokomo, Ducks DeLuxe, Eggs Over Easy et al.
But first, there had to be a single of consequence, albeit one made on a shoestring. Released on August 14, bearing the catalogue number BUY 1, So It Goes was originally a publisher's demo with Nick Lowe singing and playing anything he could get his hands on, with help from Rumour drummer Steve Goulding. "It shifted 1,200 copies in five days," Riviera claimed. Not bad for a record initially sold via mail-outs and the back of a van.
"All I can say now is thank God for John Peel," recalls Dave Robinson, these days head of Shell Records. "I don't even know how he got hold of the record — but he started playing it immediately. And suddenly people were ringing up and there was a lot of action.
"We had frenetic ideas sessions. We wanted to sign Dave Edmunds and Mickey Jupp. We just made lists of people we actually liked. Pink Fairies provided our second release merely because we had the record to hand and we wanted to keep the flow going. We had all kinds of stuff, including tapes by Elvis Costello — I had about 36 of his songs. I recorded him one evening after a gig. I merely said to him, Have you got any songs? — after which I didn't get sleep for about a day and a half I eventually sent them to him for his birthday and they became his first five or six records. The great thing about Elvis was that he could cannibalise his own stuff— he had so much of it."
Even during those first few weeks of Stiff's existence, it was obvious that something momentous was happening. "Rough Trade got going and we began getting calls from some very odd shops wanting credit and suchlike." There was little problem obtaining further sounds: "Between Jake and I we knew all the musicians who were playing live. Lots of them came round. Some would bring bits of tape. Stuff just kept coming through the door. We were pressing on a very small budget. The records were cheap but we had to get labels and lots of other things we didn't know about. We had to learn quickly."
The downside was the Stiff office was also deluged in rubbish — tapes made by untalented wannabes who demanded their wares be returned, to them should they not be released.
Robinson chuckles: "Jake created the most offensive put-off letter, telling them we'd already re-cycled their offerings. The favourite expression at the time was, 'We're running a record company, not a museum' — one of the great quotes of our time."
So when did Robinson and Riviera finally realise Stiff had made it? "By the time of [annual music business forum] Midem, the following January. We went along and several record companies began offering licenses and things. Island was interested and we were already going through UA. It was at Midem that we actually got offered money!"