Now that the new wave has broken, and the three-chord punk wonders fade into obscurity, it's a good time to look at just what's washed ashore.
The media churned out reams of copy on the safety-pin and spit-wad brigade. But something new, different and genuinely exciting was happening at the same time in British rock, and it was not punk.
Artists like Graham Parker and The Rumour, Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, Dave Edmunds and Ian Dury rode the crest of the new wave to America. Together they may make up a rather rag-tag movement, but it's one that's made a considerable splash with the record buying public.
While their music covers many differing styles, they all share two things in common. Most important is a mutual return to the basic rock values of energy, imagination and fun, the result of their varied involvements in the British pub rock scene. But they also share an association of sorts with the scrappy little label that has gleaned the best of this scene and groomed them for success — Stiff Records, named cheekily after a bit of record business slang for albums that bomb. And even if these "stiffs" look deceptively like so much human flotsam and jetsam, don't be fooled. They are real pearls... if unpolished ones.
Pub rock was a natural response to the headliners and pretension of early seventies superstars — a return to good, basic songs and a low-key people-oriented approach to audiences. At the forefront of the pub bands was Brinsley Schwarz, composed of Brinsley Schwarz and Bob Andrews (now in The Rumour), Nick Lowe, Billy Rankin and Ian Gomm. The Brinsleys were once best known as the victim of one of the biggest publicity hypes in the history of recorded music.
One hundred and fifty British journalists were flown to New York to witness the then unknown band's debut at The Fillmore East. Everything that could go wrong did, and the band received a fierce roasting by the press while their backers disappeared with the money.
The band went into "terminal shock" and considerable debt, according to Dave Robinson, the unkempt but ultra-effective Stiff Records scion who then managed the band. So they retreated to a 10-bedroom house outside London to pick up the pieces.
From there they began to forge a low-key career playing up-tempo, countrified rock a la The Band (an oft-applied and deserved comparison). This coalesced into leading the pub movement when Robinson introduced them to another band he’d
discovered playing in a London pub — Eggs Over Easy.
An energetic quartet from Marin County. Calif., the Eggs wound up in London on a bum recording deal and had persuaded a pub owner to let them play and pass the hat to keep the rent paid. London pubs had featured jazz but never rock, and the engaging atmosphere soon had the Brinsleys stopping by to sit in, finally playing the pub themselves.
"Gradually all these good bands and musicians came out of the woodwork," says Robinson. As more pub owners caught on, a scene was born. It was more a diverse phenomenon than a style. Bands with tags like Bees Make Honey, Chilly Willy and
Quiver plowed a country bluegrass furrow (from the latter two came Bruce Thomas and Pete Thomas respectively, now in Elvis Costello's Attractions. Elvis, then known as D.B. Costello also fronted a pub bluegrass band in this era). Dr. Feelgood and Ducks Deluxe pursued raw, hard-edged rock. And the inimitable Ian Dury fronted Kilburn and The High Roads, a perverse rock and roll horn band.
London pubs were filled with good music.
"It was a very relaxed scene," recalls Robinson. "Really exciting and great fun. Then suddenly the press noticed this phenomenon — naturally because they spend a let of time in pubs anyway — and they labeled it pub rock."
It may have been the kiss of death. British and U.S. record companies seeking to capitalize on what they thought was a trend tossed out albums they didn't understand. Most bombed, and caught in the bind of too much pressure too soon the pub scene and many of the bands shattered.
Brinsley Schwarz played a well received farewell tour opening for Wings first outing, and the press and
record companies went on to discover punk rock.
But the music lived on. Robinson discovered Graham Parker, and around this brilliant young songwriter
formed The Rumour, featuring Schwartz, Andrews and guitarist Martin Belmont, late of Ducks Deluxe. Parker’s initial success fueled Robinson's next venture, the formation of Stiff Records with Jake Riviera, a sort of street visionary of music marketing who once managed Chilly Willy.
Stiff was to be no ordinary label. They tossed out their records with messages of self-effacing aplomb on the jackets. ("The world's most flexible record label," "If it means everything to everyone it must be a Stiff," "If they’re dead, We’ll sign em.") Even Robinson's VW was stuffed with posters that he’d tack up around London.
An ad in Melody Maker brought a slew of demo tapes to the cluttered, hectic West London storefront Stiff calls home. The very first was an amazing set of songs by one Declan Patrick McManus, aka D.B. Costello. So good, in fact that Riviera waited a week to see if anything else as good came in. It was all junk, and realizing his first find was just that, Riviera nabbed Costello, and changed his name to Elvis. "Less Than Zero" became Stiff’s first big U.K. hit.
Stiff soon became home for Nick Lowe’s stabs at pop music masterpieces. And Lowe persuaded his friend Dave Edmunds, reknowned Welsh guitarist and producer with an obsession for American rockabilly, to return with him to active performing.
Ian Dury's new album provided more British hits, and a whirlwind Stiffs Live tour of England stirred excitement. In their first year of operation, Stiff sold 100,000 albums and singles in the U.K. alone.
Last summer Riviera had Elvis Costello play outside the London hotel where CBS Records was conventioning. The result was Costello's arrest and a contract with Columbia in America.
With Columbia’s machinery behind him, in a mere nine months Costello has sold over 600,000 records with two albums — My Aim Is True and This Year’s Model.
Lowe has also joined Columbia and accompanied Costello on his last tour with Edmunds and their Rockpile band to promote his own wonderful lp Pure Pop For Now People.
As for Ian Dury and the rest of the Stiffs, they’re now on Arista Records here, and making friends fast. Forget punk, think Stiffs. Because frankly, wouldn’t you really prefer this year's model?