As the Japanese fisherman exclaimed when he saw the prehistoric fish in his nets: "This is something else again."
A rare beast indeed... certainly remote from the majority of the current glut of live albums that fashion, technology, and contract-filling tactics have unleashed on the great record-buying public.
No, this item harks back more to an era when oily promoters saw fit to parcel up a whole slew of currently flighty names into a rock bonanza with which to zap the nation's Locarno and Gaumont circuit for teenage loot. You know — The Beatles supporting Helen Shapiro, Gene Pitney with The Stones...
Not that the acts showcased on Live Stiffs represent gross culture clash of that order, but that's how long it's been since package tours like this were put together over here; in this context an honourable mention for the "Anarchy" tour — if only someone had got that down on tape for posterity. The Stiff package in any case suggests more of a zany British rock update on the great Stax / Volt and Motown Revues that the American soul labels organised in the '60s.
But to the origin of this epic recording of an historic and memorable moment in the great march of rock and roll tradition blah blah... The Live Stiffs gig at London's Lyceum which furnished this recording was the best rock gig I witnessed last year, equalled for rather different reasons by Burning Spear at The Rainbow.
The scene — backstage, the finale of the UK Rolling Blunder Revue where a motley assortment of road-hardened (well, most of 'em) musical veterans lock fretboards and egos, share blood, beer, and women, the whole carnival held together by the fierce human chemistry that musicians living in the rough camraderie of the road drum up to keep themselves sane. Well, you know what musicians are like (You don't?? I won't disillusion you).
Onstage, no less than three drum kits stride the stage. Gibsons and Fenders are stacked like rifles round a camp fire, amps littered like ammo boxes, a camera and sound crew maintain a ceaseless vigil, and a distant coyote calls from across the river at Lambeth...
As the compere — one Kosmo Vinyl, a young artisan of London Town — barks out his introduction, the customers grog their foaming pints of fetid ale and the pretty oyster girls move through the gaslit throng selling their wares ... no, hang on, this is the modern world ... Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds run onstage (Betcha didn't know Nick Lowe could run, did you?) and slam straightway into "I Saw The Bride." Vox AC 30s swell with pride...
Still, never mind the concert, here's the record. No visuals (though there is a film / video). What makes Live Stiffs such an odd record is firstly that there's five artists on it. In order, on side one you get two tracks from Nick Lowe (with Dave Edmunds), two cuts from Wreckless Eric, and one from Larry Wallis. On side two there's two cuts from Elvis Costello and The Attractions, two from Ian Dury and The Blockheads, and the grand slam finale of "Sex and Drugs and Rock & Roll" sung football terrace style from everyone, which meant that stage was goddamn full.
The best stuff's on side two. The Lowe / Edmunds tracks are not as good as they should be and probably were on other nights when they weren't opening. Here the spark never quite ignites the mixture; the choruses on "I Knew The Bride" fall flat and "Let's Eat" is too undistinguished a song to do much other than take the audience past the opening rush.
Wreckless Eric makes out better on disc than he did on the night. Ian Dury plays refuse collector drums as the diminutive one drums up an interesting version of his best song, "Semaphore Signals," a story of thwarted teen romance. "Reconnez Cherie" — a studio version of which is the man's new single — is too ragged. but any song that cops part of its melody from The Drifters "Save The Last Dance For Me" has to have something going for it.
Larry Wallis didn't take off his shades and "I'm A Police Car" stays likewise incommunicado; an interlude. Nice spot on the solo, mine's a pint, and I never did care much for fuzz wagons.
Dury and his Blockheads stole the show on the night but Elvis Costello and his Attractions steal the album with his poignant reading of Bacharach / David's "I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself", sung virtually acapella. A screaming intense version of "Miracle Man" will have Costello freaks panting for more, and is an almost arrogant affirmation that the man is one of the most compelling live performers we have, as well as one of the very best songwriters.
At the time I couldn't see how Ian Dury could follow El and come out on top but he did. His stage presence is uncannily hypnotic. He is a timeless performer, an unholy incarnation of mediaeval court jester, Max Miller music hall star, greasy '50s rock and roller and '70s roots hero. "Wake Up And Make Love To Me" and "Billericay Dickie" from the man's top ten (!!) album should need no introduction, and the versions here are fine, just fine. But of course, when yer can see 'em an all ...
Incidentally, the playing — on side two especially — is throwaway great. By which I mean that these guys make no big deal about the fact they're classy musicians. (None of that, Look Ma. it's my solo stuff) they just get on wiv it! After more years than I care to remember of pompous technical posturing (you know who I'm talking about), that alone is like a breath of fresh air. Like the whole Stiff operation really ...