Mojo, July 2021

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Stiff Records

Pat Gilbert

A rough-and-ready rogues' gallery, curated by Pat Gilbert.

You didn't have to be a loveable lunatic to be signed to Stiff Records, but it helped. Established hack in summer 1976 by two key figures au the pub rock scene — Dave Robinson and Jake Riviera — the London-based independent label was to revolutionise the way the UK music business operated. The basic premise was to sign all the gifted misfits the majors wouldn't touch with a bargepole — Nick Lowe, Pink Fairies, Roogalator, Tyla Gang — and release a string of singles that would, if not change the world, then at least prove that the spirit of outsider rock 'n' roll was still alive and well and living at Stiff's offices in Alexander Street, Westbourne Grove, W2.

It would be Stiff's sixth single that was the gamechanger: The Damned's "New Rose," released in October 1976, was punk's first outing on vinyl, and opened the door for more rough-and-ready rogues who, unlikely as it looked on paper, would go on to become Top Of The Pops staples: Ian Dury, Elvis Costello, Wreckless Eric, Lene Lovich, Madness, The Pogues.

Key to the Label s success was Robinson's knack for marketing gimmicks that would quickly become music biz norms: coloured vinyl pressings, picture sleeves, 12-inch singles, posters, jigsaws, plus badges and T-shirts bearing natty slogans like "Surfing On The Crest Of The New Wave" and, notoriously, "If It Ain't Stiff, It Ain't Worth A Fuck."

There were Stiff package tours and customised Stiff clocks warning "When you kill time, you murder success." Graphics magus Barney Bubbles was charged with creating the label's distinctive artwork, while discipline was kept via the baseball bat under Robinson's desk.

It wasn't all plain sailing, though. After the critical and commercial success of Elvis Costello's debut album My Aim Is True, Riviera split from the label taking Costello and Nick Lowe with him. But Robinson quickly righted the ailing ship, breaking Ian Dury in the wake of New Boots And Panties!! and bringing Madness into the crew. (The nautical metaphors are apt: the boat-mad Robinson once bought a barge in Holland and reportedly navigated it back to Britain by following a cross-channel ferry.)

In the early '80s, with Tenpole Tudor and Tracey Ullman in the charts, Robinson was seconded to then-struggling Island Records — whom he bailed out financially — taking his eye off the Stiff A&R ball. Nevertheless, he was back in time to nurture The Pogues' ascent, and see out the label's last days with intriguing signings such as Furniture and Phranc. Stiff was energetically resurrected in 2006, with some familiar faces on board, but within two years it really was all over. But what a legacy — if it wasn't Stiff, often it really wasn't worth a fuck.

Tags: Stiff RecordsMy Aim Is TrueLive StiffsNick LoweIan DuryDave RobinsonJake RivieraMadnessThe DamnedWreckless EricThe PoguesRum, Sodomy & The LashPathway StudiosCloverThe ClashLittle FeatWelcome To The Working WeekLess Than ZeroAlisonI Knew The BrideShane MacGowanThe Band Played Waltzing MatildaA Pair Of Brown EyesRoogalatorStiff's Greatest Stiffs Live

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Mojo, No. 332, July 2021

Pat Gilbert profiles Stiff Records and reviews readers' 10 favorite Stiff albums, including My Aim Is True (No. 2), Live Stiffs (No. 10), and Rum, Sodomy & The Lash (No. 4).


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Page scans.

You can't keep a good Stiff down

Pat Gilbert


Elvis Costello / My Aim Is True

"Announced an extraordinary new songwriting talent; one as unafraid to be angry as he was to write a tender ballad." — Jeremy Shatan, via

Rarely has a songwriter arrived so fully formed on his debut album as Costello on My Aim Is True. The fact he'd been quietly perfecting his art for years played its part, but a proper day job meant Elvis still had to bunk off work to record this with Nick Lowe at Pathway Studios in Islington and a backing group later revealed as visiting American country rockers Clover. The intelligence of Costello's writing and a musical style situated in a fascinating space between The Clash and Little Feat can't wholly explain the quirky brilliance of "Welcome To The Working Week," "Less Than Zero," "Alison, et al, but history attests whatever Costello was doing was magical.

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Various / Live Stiffs Live

"One of the great live albums — the true grit and greasy thrill of early Stiff is right here." — Paul McDonald, via e-mail

Anyone searching for a vivid snapshot of what Stiff Records was all about should look no further that this aural memento of the label's infamous package tour of autumn 1977. Earthy, gritty, funky, geezer-ish, it captures Nick Lowe, Elvis Costello, Ian Dury, Wreckless Eric and Larry Wallis in their urgent prime. Introduced by Stiff PR man and future Clash barker Kosmo Vinyl calling the audience away from the bar — followed by Nick Lowe inquiring, off-microphone, "What we doin'?", before launching into a tearaway "I Knew The Bride (When She Used To Rock And Roll)" — it reeked of sticky pub carpets and, well, one hell of a fun night out.

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The Pogues / Rum, Sodomy & The Lash

"Shane's finest work — and an Elvis Costello production, don't forget." — Rory Fitzpatrick, via e-mail

Punk scenester Shane MacGowan, a poet manqué with an alcohol problem and an obsession with his Irish ancestry, was, in retrospect, always a potential Stiff hero, but his flowering into a folk songwriter of uncommon genius was yet to be proven when The Pogues signed to Stiff in 1984. But by this second LP, released in '85, MacGowan's compositions "A Pair Of Brown Eyes" and "Sally MacLennane" dwarfed pretty much anything in the trad canon the group deigned to cover. Add a powerful reading of Eric Bogle's "And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda" and bassist Cait O'Riordan — a future Mrs Costello — singing "I'm A Man You Don't Meet Every Day," and what's not to love?

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