England's Stiff Records (distributed in America by Arista) nurtures oddballs, and Stiffs Live presents five of them in concert. Nick Lowe, the most coherent, keeps his fondness for old-fashioned rock & roll prominent on two cuts, "Let's Eat" and "I Knew the Bride," the latter a rockabilly raveup that's also wistful and magnanimous about its lamented subject. Least coherent is Ian Dury, the solipsistic whiner of a pair of semiprecious, loud ballads. And it is Dury's would-be anthem, "Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll & Chaos," that all the oddballs sing spiritedly at the album's conclusion. Unfortunately, the song is one of the most perfunctory salutes to rock excess ever written.
Between Lowe and Dury are Wreckless Eric, whose two numbers punch a gurgling saxophone into the guitar jangle, and Elvis Costello, who wrings out a Bert Bacharach/Hal David ballad for everything both he and the song are worth. With a becoming Dylan-esque perversity, Costello also transforms an anguished "Miracle Man" into what sounds like a chipper Doug Sahm outtake. And it's terrific. Elvis Costello works in mysterious ways, his motives known to few. Then there's "Police Car" by Larry Wallis' Psychedelic Rowdies (the band name and maybe the band of the year). "I howl when I get the scent / I turn on my flashing light," Wallis sings, carrying out an impeccable oddball conceit fraught with all sorts of dizzy implications: the police as rock & rollers? An official vehicle as an obsessed lover? This song is definitely a minor classic.
Stiffs Live is really fun and may help persuade Americans that punk rock in England can be a lot more than anger and frenzy.