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.