Mojo, October 1997

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Mojo Classic


Hit me!!!!

Will Birch

Take 18 musicians, including the near genius and the merely talented, the desperately hungry and the downright thirsty. Bung in some villains. Stir well. Add one spring-loaded manager. Place on a coach for 34 days. Light the blue touch paper? Hardly necessary. Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to Stiff's Greatest Stiffs - Live!

In the summer of 1977, Stiff Records was considered by many to be the most happening record label on the planet. Actual hits were elusive, but in terms of press coverage and kudos the results were impressive. Since its inception the previous year, Stiff had developed parallel to the punk phenomenon, although Stiff had superior commercial potential, offering a tuneful alternative for the more squeamish fan. But behind Stiff's sharp packaging and humorous one-liners there lurked an equally deranged assemblage of pop persons, particularly in the boardroom.

Label bosses Jake Riviera and Dave Robinson had arrived at this point after years of dues-paying on the Pub Rock scene. They were now threatening to become the record industry's worst nightmare — an independent label with the determination to bring about change. Riviera was the creative firebrand, who could summon up a snappy slogan at the drop of a cider bottle. Robinson was more of a nuts-and-bolts man, but he could close a deal in the wink of an eye. Both men were driven, but, in the words of Stiff publicist Glen Colson, Riviera was "a man possessed. Everybody lived in fear. He was so hot, you didn't want to touch him."

Working close to the flame were the Stiff artists. From Max Wall to The Damned, they were all fascinating characters, a compendium of wacky ephemera and instant collectibles sprung to life. But their music was wonderful: "So It Goes," "Less Than Zero," "Go The Whole Wide World", "Sex And Drugs And Rock And Roll" — life-enhancing 45s that had been eagerly snapped up by the pop cognoscenti. Now it was time to take it to the people.

In early September the pre-tour publicity for Stiff's Greatest Stiffs - Live! hit the front pages. "Five Stiff acts — Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, Ian Dury, Wreckless Eric and Larry Wallis — in 24 UK concerts, commencing October 3... Each act will play a 30-minute set, with the running order changing nightly... A barrage of new releases, including "Watching The Detectives," New Boots And Panties! and Wireless World, the debut LP from Lowe... A live album of the tour will be recorded on the opening night at High Wycombe and appear in the shops four days later!" The music formerly known as Pub Rock was about to re-emerge as New Wave.

Riviera and Robinson had envisaged a package tour reminiscent of the mid-'60s Stax-Volt revue. It would be fast-moving, with short sets and shared equipment for rapid changeovers, all held together by a brace of lunatic comperes. 1975's Naughty Rhythms Tour, also masterminded by Riviera, was the blueprint, but now the stakes were higher. In an all-Stiff show, each recording artist would be vying for his label's attention, as well as the public's. One could look forward to some seriously competitive stagecraft, upping the ante at every turn. And, as Riviera had discovered in 1975, there would be winners and losers.

"I love my label, I love my label yeah,
And my label has high hopes in me..."

Rehearsals took place at Manticore Studios in Fulham, where the concept of a revolving bill started to look somewhat idealistic. Wreckless Eric was a talent whose songs would one day covered by artists ranging from Cliff Richard to Mental As Anything but his choice of musical accompaniment was quite bizarre. His New Rockets included the closerthanthis rhythm section of Ian Dury (minimal drum kit) and Denise Roudette (rudimentary bass), with Davey Payne on free-form saxophone. Eric, proudly proclaiming, "I never play anything less than a full chord," would handle guitar duties and occupy centre stage. It was to be a lonely place for one so ill-equipped.

Larry Wallis, suffering from a shortage of songs and an inferiority complex, would fare little better. His solo repertoire was limited to the A- and B-sides of his lone Stiff single: Police Car c/w On Parole. The former Pink Fairy did, however, surround himself with some musical muscle in the many shapes of Nick Lowe's Last Chicken In The Shop.

Eric and Larry were no match for Elvis Costello & The Attractions. With a mere 10 weeks on the clock, The Attractions were already a lethal live force. "We'd been once round the club circuit and we were ready to kill," says Costello. "Elvis was way ahead," confirms Colson, "but we were all unprepared for Ian Dury. New Boots And Panties! was a masterpiece, although nobody believed he could re-create it on-stage."

But Dury, who had formerly been dependent on the erratic musicianship of Kilburn & The High Roads, was now older; wiser and secure in the knowledge that every night he could rely on the awesome firepower of The Blockheads.

But before battle could commence, there was to be one headline-grabbing incident. On Saturday, September 24, a mere nine days before the opening show, Riviera and Robinson had a major disagreement. "I'd been in the office in the morning and then gone off to see QPR," recalls label manager Paul Conroy. "When I returned later that afternoon, the pavement outside the office was littered with broken glass and empty cider bottles, some of which Jake had thrown through the window" The two label heads were then spotted walking round the block in deep discussion.

‘Stiff's Riviera In Mystery Split' announced the Melody Maker; but this was no publicity stunt. The confines of Stiff were simply too cramped to accommodate the overwhelming personalities of Dave Robinson and Jake Riviera. "Jake and Dave were a good double act for awhile," remembers Costello. "They could play good cop/bad cop with promoters and distributors. Even when they were caught blatantly in the wrong over something, they were so righteous, you couldn't argue with them."

A settlement was hammered out. Riviera would leave Stiff and take Lowe and Costello to a new label. Robinson, who also managed Vertigo recording artist Graham Parker, would continue with what remained of Stiff. This was an extraordinary development on the eve of what promised to be an eventful tour.

At 4pm on Monday, October 3, coach driver Trevor Wiffen parked his K-reg 42-seater outside the Stiff HQ in Alexandra Street, London W2 to collect the motley entourage. The 18 musicians, accompanied by masters of ceremony Kozmo Vinyl and Les Prior, tour manager Dez Brown and assorted Stiff personnel, all clambered on board. The mood was upbeat as the coach crawled towards theA40, destination High Wycombe.

Two hours later a second coach departed from Alexandra Street, packed with journalists. "It was my job to ensure that the tour got plenty of oomph on the first date," recalls Colson. "It was massively important to get everyone grooving, because it would help to sell out the rest of the tour."

On arriving at High Wycombe Town Hall in a torrential downpour; the journalists, all wearing ‘I'm Ligging With Advancedale' stickers, marched to the front of the queue, where they were greeted by promoter Ron Watts. "You're not bringing that lot in," roared Watts, "they'll all have to pay" Riviera was furious and ordered Colson to resolve the issue at once. "Jake always liked a guest list," remembers Conroy, "but for Ron, who had been doing the local Nag's Head for years, the Town Hall was the big one."

Showtime arrived, and a flurry of roadies were still fussing around on-stage as Les Prior was sent out to keep the audience entertained. Prior; a member of the satirical group Alberto y Lost Trios Paranoias, delivered a typically inventive improvisation. "We're here to play a benefit to Save The Whale!" he joked. "But unfortunately the whale's been held up at Dover..." Prior rambled on for a few more minutes until he was given the signal to announce Nick Lowe, who appeared to be wearing a fluorescent green suit decorated with question marks.

In the two years following the break-up of Brinsley Schwarz, Lowe had built an enviable reputation as a record producer and purveyor of Pure Pop For Now People, but he was a reluctant Live Stiff toting a somewhat anachronistic twin-necked guitar, he launched into "Shake And Pop," followed swiftly by the cynical "Music For Money." "It was more important to have something that looked strange," he recalls. "I thought that if I had a weird looking group it might get me through." Lowe's odd combo consisted of the bushy-haired Larry Wallis and the close-cropped Pete Thomas (a drummer by trade) on guitars; Terry Williams and Dave Edmunds (the well-known guitarist) banging away on drums"as if they were building a shed", plus keyboard player Penny Tobin, who had been selected by Lowe to provide the tour with the much needed "Cherry Wainer vibe".

Next up was Costello, looking uncomfortable in a shiny black bomber jacket. Intent on making a name for himself and prepared to take the necessary risks, Costello disappointed large sections of the audience by refusing to play material from his recently released debut, My Aim Is True. "If you wanna hear the old songs you can buy the fucking record," he roared, subjecting the crowd to yet another unfamiliar song. "Frankly, it was the kiss of death," says Colson. "It went down like a lead balloon, but Elvis would never do the same set twice. It was always a bit like running the Derby and stopping halfway for a cup of tea."

As Elvis rode on defiantly, matters were made worse by Ian Dury's publicist B.P Fallon. "I'd made these badges — a series of four," recalls Fallon. "One said ‘Sex &‘, the next one said ‘Drugs &‘, et cetera." With complete disregard for Costello, who was halfway through his set, Fallon threw hundreds of the badges into the crowd like "heavy confetti"."The punters started scrambling around everywhere trying to complete the set," adds Fallon. "Jake wasn't mad for it."

Within moments, the tour received its first taste of cold steel as Riviera subjected Fallon to the legendary ‘full corgi' — a severe dressing down with intimidating hand movements. This terrifying spectacle was witnessed by Wreckless Eric, the next performer due on-stage. "Jake came and apologised to me afterwards," recalls Wreckless Eric, "simply because I was around when it happened. He was very charming and said, ‘Eric, please don't let it upset you'!"

After Wreckless Eric's brief set, Ian Dury took the stage. "Oi Oi!" croaked Dury, cautiously. "OI OI!!" The crowd responded as one. "OI OI!!" This was the turning point. "It was one of the greatest things I'd ever seen," says Kozmo Vinyl. "Dury just slayed ‘em. Wallop! His day had come. The Blockheads were a complete revelation, especially Charley Charles, and this was an amazing tour for drummers. Terry Williams, Pete Thomas... Ian Dury. Something for everybody! But Charley, everybody was like... Jesus Christ! And Ian couldn't put a foot wrong. It all happened at High Wycombe."

Later that evening, the coach took the musicians to a motel outside Oxford, where they would spend the night before the onward journey to Wales. "It was in the middle of nowhere," recalls Vinyl, "and there was no bar!" There was a certain amount of dissent about this, especially from Larry Wallis. "Oh maan!" exclaimed Wallis, "Where are we? This is unbelievable!" Wallis, "a real road warrior", was so desperate for action that he walked out of the motel and crossed six lanes of dual carriageway to reach a nearby service area, where he thought he could detect signs of life. A few hours later, he was back on the coach, unshaven and bereft of sleep. "It would appear we're not paying Larry Wallis enough to afford razor blades!" yelled Riviera as the coach pulled up outside the Belle Vue Royal Hotel, Aberystwyth. "I began to over-hear other musicians on the coach saying things like, ‘Well, if I wear this shirt tonight I'll look really sharp," recalls Larry Wallis. "I hadn't quite realised that I was in show business."

But show business it was and the events of High Wycombe had given Elvis Costello something to think about. At Aberystwyth University on October 4 he promptly reorganised his set to include more of his ‘oldies' and adopted a less confrontational approach. Nick Lowe, who closed the show, had his set rounded off by an outbreak of food throwing. "It was all fairly hippy still," recalls Wreckless Eric, "and the Students' Union had catered for about 18 vegetarians, plus an economy-sized packet of crisps. When Nick did "Let's Eat" we threw all the food over the top of the back line into the audience. When the food hit the crowd, there was a kind of silence within a noise, then it all came flying back again. It was the best reaction we got all evening."

On October 6, with two consecutive shows in the Avonmouth area, the entourage checked into the Bristol Holiday Inn. After a well-received show at the local Exhibition Centre, the coach delivered the musicians back to their relatively luxurious accommodation. The inevitable drinks party got off to a good start in the reception area, where Farrah Fawcett-Minor, self-styled ‘Tour Nurse' and creator of a weekly tour newsletter, upended a huge glass table laden with empties and over flowing ashtrays. Immediately the highly polished floor was a sea of broken glass. "A tour manager would have seen that moment coming and averted it," opines Wreckless Eric. "But I can't remember any great tour manager presence."

Even though the jaunt was in infancy, Dez Brown, a former Pink Fairies equipment handler, was becoming quite unpopular. A cross between Lemmy and a typical college social secretary, Brown stuck out like a sore andvery hairy thumb. "Someone said that Dez was the tour manager to make everything more unpleasant," continues Eric. "But the whole vibe of the tour was becoming pretty aggressive. And Dez's manner helped to make the general vibe even more nasty."

After a few nights of rotating the artists, the question of the running order was resolved. "The revolving bill idea was part of the pitch," recalls Dave Robinson "It was obvious it wasn't going to work so it became two revolving bills. Jake and I presented it as a fait accompli. A number of factors had influenced their decision. Firstly, Wreckless Eric's New Rockets were simply not cut out to close the show "They were much quieter" recalls Costello. "Although Eric had some cracking songs, his group didn't have the clout of The Blockheads or The Attractions, so they couldn't compete."

Secondly, there was the lure of the pub, which accounted for Nick Lowe and his combo's preference for a very early slot. "If Nick and Dave Edmunds had chosen to put their best case out front they certainly could have headlined," continues Costello, "but they were playing this low-key game, constantly switching instruments and being deliberately perverse in hiding their pop potential."

"Then there was some kind of argument," continues Robinson, "and Ian said he needed a break between drumming for Eric and performing his own set. That was agenda number two. Ian was happy to go on when he was told, but it meant a lot more plotting." Soon, Pete Thomas was talking about putting some distance between playing in Lowe's outfit and drumming with The Attractions, so all of these factors reduced the possible programme permutations to just two: Plan A: Nick — Eric — Elvis — Ian, or Plan B: Eric — Nick — Ian — Elvis.

"It didn't take too long to decide," confirms Lowe. "Either Eric or I would open and Ian and Elvis would take it in turns to close." Dury and Costello were both delivering riveting performances. Any other arrangement would have been the rock 'n' roll equivalent of entering Charles Hawtrey and Julian Clary in a tag wresting contest with Spider Fred Rowe and The Sulphate Strangler — two of the more colourful members of the Stiff road crew.

Throughout the next week, the tour settled into a familiar pattern. Nick Lowe would deliver a dependably rocking set, featuring Larry Wallis's modest cameo and Dave Edmunds's appearance in the front line to perform his recent Lowe-composed hit I Knew The Bride. "Edmunds was a great drummer," says Lowe, "but he didn't have the stamina to play drums for the whole set." Wreckless Eric would continue to struggle with alien equipment. "I was told I had to use Edmunds's amplifier," recalls Eric. "It was about six miles away and could not be moved. Spider Fred, the roadie who doubled as Ian's minder, would be standing there at the side of the stage, looking out for Ian. I'd turn round looking desperately at the amplifier; which hadn't been switched on, and Fred's looking at me, thumbs up, shouting, ‘Go on boy, kill ‘em!"

A number of bizarre incidents then ensued. At Loughborough University on October 8, the musicians were puzzled to find their dressing room full of tinned cat food. The explanation for this was that whereas the contract called for the promoter to supply cold cuts of meat', a typing error resulted in the supply of ‘cold cats meat'. At Middlesbrough Town Hall the following night during a nasty outbreak of bottle throwing, Dave Robinson badly lacerated his hand when he leapt up to intercept a pint jar that was hurled towards the stage during Costello's set.

After a claustrophobic week on the coach, and with 36 hours to kill before Liverpool on October 11, several of the musicians, including Edmunds and Wallis, decided to let the train take the strain. Unfortunately, the complexities of the local railway network became a bit of a challenge and the wandering Stiffs ran out of cash. This resulted in much hiding from BR inspectors and jumping over ticket barriers in Carry On-style. Finally arriving at Liverpool in a dishevelled state, a visit to the cinema was unwisely slotted in. "We decided to go and see Roger Moore in The Spy Who Loved Me," recalls Vinyl. "We had the place to ourselves and sat the front row. It was hilarious, particularly the opening feature about life in the modern navy." Most of the group, however; were suffering under the weight of the full metal trilby. "The worst hangover of my life.. I really thought I was going to die," groaned Dave Edmunds. "I never realised that a movie could be so loud," added Larry Wallis.

By the Glasgow Apollo date on October 13, the major press coverage had started to appear. Both Sounds and NME ran features on Ian Dury, mainly reporting the release of New Boots And Panties!, but neither article made much mention of Dury's co-writer and musical director; Chaz Jankel. "Chaz had seen himself and Ian as a team", says Vinyl, "but Ian was an editor's dream come true, so he was bound to get the dairy. I think this shocked Chaz, who probably thought that ‘talent will prevail' and ‘the musicians will get the credit'. He'd obviously paid no attention to what had happened in the previous two years!"

It was Jankel's musicality and fully-interlocking arrangements that had provided Dury with the crucial piece of his jigsaw "I preferred Ian with the Kilburns," says Costello, "but The Blockheads were ace players and Ian got his stories over better with this more polished music. That week New Boots And Panties! entered the UK album chart, where it would remain for the next two years, giving Stiff Records some much needed economic stability.

Meanwhile, despite suffering a crisis of confidence, Larry Wallis was sharing the spotlight with Elvis and co. "Time Out stuck us on the cover" he recalls. "There's Eric being fairly serious, Ian too. Me and Nick had just drunk a pint of vodka and orange each. Right in the middle is Elvis Costello, looking straight at the camera." Costello, it seems, had his own private agenda. The heavily publicised tour presented the perfect opportunity for a spot of legend-building. With tough new songs like "Night Rally" and "You Belong To Me" peppering his set, the release of "Watching The Detectives" imminent, and the ink drying on a lucrative US contract with Columbia, Costello oozed confidence.

While Elvis remained somewhat aloof, the young and footloose Attractions got stuck in. Pete Thomas was one of a small group of revellers who sought to brighten their leisure time by seeing just how far the weekly allowance of £50 would stretch if thrown in the general direction of a bar. This determined group, which also included Bruce Thomas, Larry Wallis, Dave Edmunds, Terry Williams, Penny Tobin and Kozmo Vinyl, quickly became known as the 24 Hour Club. Vinyl, who assuming more and more duties of a PR nature both corporate and in-house, denies it was he who coined the expression. "If you were in it" he claims, "the last thing you'd remember was who christened it!"

Elvis Costello was rarely seen in the proximity of the 24 Hour Club. "I was never big on communal drinking over long hours," he recalls. "But I did have a little blue sandwich case with my note book, a half-bottle of gin and a few lemons for my throat. My emergency kit." Ian Dury wasn't a club member either. "Ian thought everyone should get on that stage sober," recalls Dave Robinson. "The Blockheads weren't allowed to drink too much before the gig. Ian had a lot of rules and regulations for his band. He was leading them very strongly. If anyone offered them a drink, Ian would say, ‘We don't'."

"Sex and drugs and rock and roll
Is all my brain and body need...

On October 15 the tour reached Leeds University. By now Dury's "Sex And Drugs And Rock And Roll" had become the tour anthem, and a routine had evolved whereby the entire company, or those that could be located, would join Dury on-stage for a rousing finale of the song. The three principal drummers would lay down a slab of fatback funk, Blockhead Norman Watt-Roy would give it the bass from outer space and, after Chaz Jankel's signature riff, Dury would summon his fellow performers on-stage one by one. "The Sex And Drugs finale was Ian's thing," recalls Robinson. "Even if Elvis was the closing act, in Ian's mind the real headliner was himself! He had gazumped Elvis!"

"Ian is a very considered person, very conceptual," says Peter Jenner Dury's co-manager at the time. "He would know what games he was playing. Anything that happened would not have been accidental. Ian saw the tour as an opportunity to upstage Elvis. He knew he was always going to win." Dave Robinson recalls Dury's determination to trounce Costello: "Ian never stopped working on his act. Elvis may have been turning out four or five songs a day, but Ian was constantly routining and polishing and thinking, How can I be seen to be better than Elvis? Also, I'm sure Ian had his date sheet out with Pete Jenner, saying, ‘Who's gonna headline London? How are we gonna do that?' It was a key thing,whereas I don't think a lot of other people had even thought about it."

As the coach rolled through the English countryside, various forms of relaxation were adopted. While some played cards or slept off hangovers, Costello could often be found on the back seat dashing off a few new songs, such as Sunday's Best, which he would offer to Ian Dury. Another permanent fixture was Nick Lowe, holding court at a table seat. With a bottle of vodka and a Senior Service permanently on the go, Lowe would declare that everything was "marvy" and treat those within earshot to a "Mile Melter" — his own expression for one of his many extended anecdotes, often detailing the exploits of his former group, Brinsley Schwarz. According to witnesses, Nick's stories would indeed melt the miles.

At the University of East Anglia on October 18, a mobile recording truck was in position to capture performances for the live album. Costello took everyone by surprise, Opening with the Bacharach & David ballad "I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself." "It's raggedy, but it sounds like we meant it," says Costello. "It was very much against the prevailing mood at the time." Backstage, the prevailing mood was stormy as Jake Riviera harangued the social secretary demanding sandwiches and drinks for the musicians. "There was a fiery atmosphere when Jake was around," recalls Glen Colson. "He would arrive at about 90 miles an hour have a bit of a scream up, put everybody on edge and then leave."

After a rousing home-town performance at Brighton Top Rank on October 19. Wreckless Eric was close to collapse. "We took Eric to a private doctor," recalls Colson. ‘He said he'd never seen a young man in such bad shape and recommended a week in bed for the unhealthy young specimen." With laryngitis and other problems, Eric went to his parents' house to rest and missed the next grisly segment of the tour.

On October 21, the coach left London for Manchester, accompanied by a film crew under director Nick Abson. In true rockumentary style, the cameras intruded on the musicians' routine activities. "They're filming us eating," complained Larry Wallis at the Watford Gap service cafeteria. "Haven't they got anything better to do? We're eating egg and sausage. It's just not interesting!"

Worse still, Dez Brown, a teetotaller, was refusing to allow the coach to stop at pubs. Nicknamed ‘The Ice Queen Of Tour Management', he had become very unpopular. Upon arriving at hotels, he'd announce: "The coach leaves at nine. Anyone not in the lobby will be left behind." And then disappear to his room and spend long periods of time alone. "He relished the part," says Vinyl, "wandering around with his long hair and aviator shades — the LA Cocaine Cowboy look."

When the coach arrived at Manchester's Ardwick Apollo that evening Elvis Costello's name was in lights on the marquee and local celebrities including the Buzzcocks and John Cooper Clarke had turned out to catch the show. After an agreeable set from Nick Lowe, Dury turned in an ecstatically received performance, followed by a blistering retort from Costello. Opening with the recently composed "No Action," Costello's extended set included the Kilburns' "Roadette Song," "Go The Whole Wide World" in honour of the absent Wreckless Eric, and a raucous "Radio Radio."

Off-stage, tension was building between Lowe and Edmunds. "Dave was disappointed that Nick was not always such an après-gig presence as he had been in the past," opines one 24 Hour Club member. "Dave would say, ‘Look I've come along on this for a laugh, where's Basher?" Basher Lowe was keeping his head down, trying to control his own excesses. "Nick was allowed out now and again," recalls Paul Conroy,"then Jake would rein him in."

"Dave Edmunds had been getting very drunk," remembers Lowe. "We'd all been doing it, but Dave's hangovers were now so dreadful that he couldn't really perform the next night. I sensed he was gonna blow me out or let me down. I could see it coming." After seven years as a virtual recluse at Rockfield Studios, where he had honed his production skills, Dave Edmunds was very much enjoying being part of the Stiff circus. This, he thought, was preferable to Led Zeppelin's Swansong, the label to which he was contractually tied.

By the time the coach returned to the Manchester Post House that evening, Edmunds was so pleased to be a part of the industry of human happiness that he was banging on about it to anyone with a spare hour to kill. "All I want is to be with Jake Riviera... Jake and Nick and Stiff Records," repeated Edmunds, as if he was unaware that Jake/Stiff was history. "I want Jake to manage me.. .this is my scene now... I don't want to be with Swansong..."

In the Post House bar the 24 Hour Club was in full swing. The place was packed, with members of The Kursaal Flyers and The Cortinas also in attendance. Wearing full nurse's uniform, Farrah Fawcett-Minor stalked the bar, asking if any of the musicians were requiring "medical attention". Had Farrah been fully versed in safety first, her presence would have been invaluable in light of what was about to happen.

It was 1 AM. Drinking enthusiastically with Larry Wallis and Pete Thomas, Dave Edmunds suddenly recalled that he had left some valuables in the care of Dez Brown, who had retired early as usual. Feeling a sudden urgency to view said valuables, Edmunds went to the house phone and asked to be put through to Brown's room. Unfortunately ‘Mr Brown' was ‘not to be disturbed'. Meanwhile, Wallis, oddly desperate for a glass of milk, had summoned the night porter. As Edmunds returned to the bar to announce that Dez was not receiving visitors, Larry was taking delivery of a pint mug of milk and some chocolate biscuits.

"I know," said Edmunds, "let's take this to Dez. Milk and cookies... he can't argue with that." Bearing the midnight feast, several musicians made for the lift. On reaching the tour manager's room, they knocked, and continued knocking until a naked Dez Brown opened the door. The details of What Happened Next cannot be fully reported, other than to say that the horseplay got out of hand and Dez Brown was left "covered in blood and chocolate". Reporting for the NME, Charles Shaar Murray diplomatically referred to this episode as "a prank that escalated into a full-scale accident". It nearly brought the tour to its knees.

Amazingly, Nick Lowe, who was sharing the room with Brown, slept through it all. When he awoke the following morning, Brown was in hospital and there was a note at Lowe's bedside that read: "Basher — you missed the sound of breaking glass, make sure you have your boots on when you get out of bed." When Lowe learnt about the full extent of Brown's injuries, it was time for a showdown. Edmunds was the first to be confronted by Lowe. "I think this was Dave's excuse to get chucked off the tour" he says. "It certainly did the trick. It was the full Spinal Tap."

Dismissed from the tour, Dave Edmunds packed his bags and called a cab. When, moments later Larry Wallis explained to Lowe how the accident had occurred, and nobly accepted some of the blame, it was agreed that Edmunds could be reinstated, but he'd already left the hotel. "We headed for the station trying to catch up with Dave's cab," recalls Wallis, "but he was on a train to London."

At Leicester University on October 22, Costello deputised on guitar for Edmunds and, in his own set, performed The Damned's "Neat Neat Neat" and Richard Hell's "Love Comes In Spurts." Hell himself enjoying a night off from The Clash tour, watched from the wings.

Meanwhile, Dave Edmunds had received a telegram from Lowe, inviting him to rejoin the tour. At Rochdale, on October 24, Edmunds returned and, on entering the Crest Motel, walked straight into the Pound-A-Minute Club — a new annexe of the 24 Hour Club that would usually be declared open as an unsuspecting individual approached the bar. There he would be expected to spend a pound for every minute the ‘club' remained open. "The Pound-A-Minute Club — open for 10 minutes!" recalls Vinyl.

"It would never stay open very long."

Birmingham, Cardiff and Wolverhampton flashed by in the run-up to London, with the competition between Elvis Costello and Ian Dury gaining in intensity. Dury, having spent years honing his performance skills, was now effortlessly wooing the crowds with tales of "Sweet Gene Vincent," "Billericay Dickie" and "Plaistow Patricia" (with its infamous lewd introduction). It was as if a whole new audience had come out of the woods to work to worship him. In response to Dury's new-found celebrity, the wired and unpredictable Costello was pushing himself and his group to the limit, delivering incendiary performances of "Lipstick Vogue" and "Watching The Detectives." Both artists had risen to the unwritten challenge and, on-stage, each would attempt to make it impossible for the other to follow.

Off-stage, the atmosphere was more electric. Dury was particularly intimidating. With the sinister Spider Fred Row permanently at his side and a small fawning entourage in tow Dury transformed the simple act of walking along a corridor into a slow motion highdrama. "He had massive charisma," recalls Glen Colson. "Paul Morley more or less kissed his feet. He was so impressed by Dury's presence, he was crying! It was as if Dury had become Marlon Brando."

"Pump it up, until you can feel it
Pump it up, when you don't really need it..."

On October 28, the tour climaxed with a sold-out Lyceum Ballroom gig in London. Unsurprisingly, it was Ian Dury's turn to close the show The event was recorded and filmed and received extravagant media attention. Five shows remained, but there was now general impatience to get things over and done with.

On November 4, the penultimate night of the tour, Elvis Costello found himself out on the fire escape of Newcastle's Swallow Hotel writing "Pump It Up" in response to what he describes as the "get off your face and be an asshole" side of touring. "It was anti the boring stab-you-in-the-back stuff," he says. "But it's impossible to look into the mind someone who was out of his mind on vodka and amphetamines."

Fully-stimulated, Costello worked fast. The Attractions had no trouble in keeping up and by the following night, at Lancaster University the freshly-conceived "Pump It Up" was in the set, after which Ian Dury closed the final show of the tour. It was Saturday, November 5. Fireworks lit up the surrounding countryside as the exhausted musicians, themselves in a highly combustible state, filed onto the coach for almost the last time. "Everybody finished," recalls Kozmo Vinyl, "in one state or another." Considering the volatile mix of personalities, the tour had escaped lightly. "There were a lot of young people put together in a very confined space," says Peter Jenner, "and it led to a very dynamic situation in every respect, emotionally and creatively."

For Stiff Records the tour had gone into the red. A conservative estimate of £11,000 was bandied about, in 1977 a significant sum for an independent label. "It definitely made a loss," recalls Stiff accountant Alan Parsons, "but it was a promotional exercise. It broke Ian Dury, and that was a life-saver for Stiff." This is an understatement. Stiff's Greatest Stiffs - Live! was the launching pad for Ian Dury and a year of exceptional commercial success awaited him. Without this, Stiff Records may not have survived, especially after the disintegration of The Damned and the defection of Elvis Costello to Radar Records.

Although the Live Stiffs LP bears the message "Now See The Film", Nick Abson's footage has never seen the light of video and, in the opinion of Ian Dury, "will never be seen". Initially, a disagreement dyer the editing delayed its release. In the years that have followed, the main participants have failed to reach agreement over its contents. The 50-minute director's cut is, however, a faithful snapshot of a bunch of young musicians out for a lark, with all of the self-conscious camera reactions and quaint behaviour one can imagine. It is a must-see.

Backstage scenes of impending debauchery bring into focus only too clearly those halcyon days of wine, women and petty bickering about the monitors. It's not very PC. "Come on Farrah, show us your tits!" pleads a legless Attraction. Costello prepares to yawn as the poor girl's breasts are forcibly revealed. On the coach, thinly-disguised insults are traded and all kinds of intoxicants are imbibed to relieve the tedium. As Trevor Wiffen drives on heroically, a pale and bleary-eyed Dave Edmunds swigs the dregs of a bottle of whisky and takes a long slow hit of wacky baccy "You're supposed to inhale it!" wisecracks an onlooker. Edmunds leans into the camera, barely able to focus. "Yes Mum, it's me," he slurs.

The on-stage moments are no less entertaining: Costello's reading of "Watching The Detectives" grips with menace as he crouches among the amps psycho-style. "She's filing her nails while they're dragging the lake," he chillingly intones. Nick Lowe's "Heart Of The City," a minor rock 'n' roll landmark, is knocked out with a casual swagger, climaxing with guitar solos from Edmunds and Wallis. Runt of the litter Wreckless Eric bravely delivers the tremendous "Reconnez Cherie," confirming his status as one of pop's most under-valued writers. And Ian Dury, his face a palette of smudged mascara, is pure music hall. "Fill ‘er up say The Blockheads," he screeches as his group dispense their high octane mixture. "How would you like to find one in your laundry basket?" he enquires.

The "Sex And Drugs And Rock And Roll" finale is also captured. First up is former Kilburn Humphrey Ocean, who dances expansively as the stage gradually fills. "Nick!" calls Dury, "Elvis!" Obliged to perform for the cameras, the two deserters appear, Lowe clutching a pint and grinning broadly, Costello in Ron Mael mode, motionless and deadpan. "I'm very grumpy by the end of it," admits Costello. "I was usually somewhere else when the finale was going on, but I had my arm twisted at the Lyceum. I was extremely drunk."

Today, Nick Lowe is characteristically modest about his role in the proceedings: "I enjoyed wearing the Riddler suit, but I viewed my musical contribution as an irritating interruption to the day. I didn't take it very seriously. I had to be there, but Elvis and Ian were so fantastic that I didn't really see myself as a contender."

"Ian could have come on and read a Sainsbury's shopping receipt and everyone would have cheered," recalls Humphrey Ocean. "I think it became difficult for Elvis to come on after Ian." Costello stands firm on his own group's ability to ignite a show: "There was nobody that could follow us really. I think Ian and The Blockheads had a hard time, even though Ian was so commanding. We made it difficult for them to follow us, although I think that sometimes it was better when they did.Our energy didn't really lead anywhere at that point, but Ian and his band were much more competitive than I'd expected."

"There was a very competitive atmosphere," confirms Jake Riviera."and Ian and Elvis were the most ambitious people on the tour." He agrees that the imminent departure of Lowe and Costello from Stiff had created a divide between those that were going and those that were staying. Riviera also describes his relationship with his former partner Dave Robinson during the tour as "terse".

Although two decades have elapsed since ‘Clever' Trevor Wiffen last had to hose down the inside of his coach, a blanket of secrecy surrounds the darker moments of Stiff's Greatest Stiffs - Live! In a mass outbreak of selective amnesia, many participants simply clam up on the subject. "In the calmness of day," says Peter Jenner, "you don't want to reveal how you were thinking. It starts exposing a lot of the machinations and manoeuvrings that artists get up to. They like to pretend they're just interested in art. Once you start scratching the surface you see the competitiveness.

Reading between the lines one senses a degree of displeasure about some of the ‘shenanigans' that occurred. "I thought it was all for one and one for all", offers Larry Wallis, "but I didn't realise how many games were being played." Others talk of chicanery. "It brought out the best and worse of everything. adds Jenner, "and it was done on a shoestring. It wasn't an established pecking order when it went out. They had to find out who was the hierarchy, socially, professionally and musically. There was a certain amount of stitching each other up while pretending to be chums."

"It was a bunch of mad people on the road," concludes Elvis Costello. "There was a lot of staying up late and a lot of badness... But when isn't there on a tour? What's the shock?! We were young, we were free. Just like Cliff! But it was hardly Summer Holiday".

Thanks to Nigel Cross, who interviewed Larry Wallis; Tony Judge and The Witnesses

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Mojo, No. 47, October 1997

Will Birch chronicles the Stiff's Greatest Stiffs tour.


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Photo by Chris Gabrin.
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