The pop landscape had changed radically in the ten years leading up to 1976. With albums such as Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s, The Beatles had officially done away with the single as pop’s primary medium, ushering in an era of often overly-serious long players, possibly elevating pop to high-art, possibly helping to erase some of its intrinsic fun. We all know what happened in the seventies with the rise of progressive rock, that favorite bugaboo of rock and roll purists. While I believe the ill effects and, well, crappiness of prog have been highly exaggerated (and I’ll admit, it has often been exaggerated by me here on Psychobabble for no other reason than making fun of prog— quite a bit of which I really dig— is fun), I also believe pop really did need a high colonic around ’76.
It got that with two major events: the arrival of calculatedly “dumb” punk rock and an even more calculating new record label that consciously established itself as everything mainstream rock no longer was. Founded by brilliant iconoclasts/wise asses Dave Robinson and Jake Riviera, Stiff Records took a great, big whiz on the seriousness and ponderousness of current rock by returning the focus to singles with humor that might have made Rick Wakeman hide under his spangled cape. This was the label that had the great bolshie yarblockos to adopt “The King Is Dead, Long Live the King!” as a slogan promoting Elvis Costello mere days after Presley bit the dust. Less controversially they issued an LP called The Wit and Wisdom of Ronald Reagan, which naturally contained forty minutes of total silence. Robinson and Riviera were also reverent record lovers who understood that their fellow geeks would drool over limited edition, colored vinyl, ingeniously designed (most notably by legendary house artist Barney Bubbles) packages. Every indie label worth its salt followed suit.
Robinson and Riviera knew well the benefits of publicity bad and good, but they also knew that artists who don’t don superhero costumes and play half-hour Hammond organ solos need nurturing and exposure too. Thus, Stiff became home to some of the best and truest artists of late-seventies/early eighties pop— Costello, Nick Lowe, The Damned, Madness, Lene Lovich, The Adverts, Devo, etc.—if only before they passed on to bigger labels.
Richard Balls’s new book Be Stiff: The Stiff Records Story is half great because it serves as a series of biographies outlining the early careers of such significant artists and half great because it’s so fun to read about all the outrageousness of and surrounding Stiff. One of the book’s weirdest tales involves Virgin Records founder Richard Branson getting Devo baked so he could ambush them with a surprise request from Johnny Rotten. One of its funniest involves Rod Stewart sabotaging Lou Reed on Ian Dury’s behalf. Perhaps its most shocking revelation is recording engineer Bazza’s declaration that The Damned recorded their anarchic debut album as “well behaved young gentleman.” Now that’s outrageous!