On the Web site of the revived Stiff Records, Paul Adams writes this of the label’s history: “Let’s gloss over the barmy and remember those classics and never forget that this was the label that made so much that followed in its wake possible.” Such celebratory platitudes are typical of any label’s or artist’s cheerleading, but it’s unexpected for a company known for its thorough unconventionality.
Founded in 1976 by Dave Robinson and Jake Riviera, a pub-rock-band manager and an ex-roadie, respectively, the label took off quickly with a motley combination of brilliant talent (Nick Lowe gave its first release and Elvis Costello was its first signee), punchy packaging (full picture sleeves and catch phrases like “If it ain’t Stiff, it ain’t worth a fuck”), and a brimming disregard for industry protocol (releasing a blank album called The Wit & Wisdom of Ronald Reagan). For ten years, Stiff used the success of one artist, such as Madness, to fund less commercially viable projects, like Tenpole Tudor, a band perhaps best known for its singer, who was once billed as a replacement for Sex Pistols’ Johnny Rotten in The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle. However, the label met a familiar fate and folded under financial pressures in 1985.
Amid a recent flurry of interest, including documentaries on the label’s flagship artists, such as Ian Dury (1999’s On My Life) and Shane MacGowan (2001’s If I Should Fall From Grace), as well as one on the company itself (2006’s If It Ain’t Stiff. . .), Stiff reactivated and returned with a new signee, a U.K.-based band called the Enemy. As expected, the label is using this attention to cast light on another project — reissuing a broad swath of its catalogue. Hearkening back to its signature package/variety tours, five vastly different artists are included in this batch, including the debut albums of Any Trouble (Where Are All the Nice Girls?), Rachel Sweet (Fool Around) and Tracey Ullman (You Broke My Heart in Seventeen Places), and collections of Wreckless Eric (Big Smash) and Dirty Looks (The Complete Stiff Years). Higher profile artists, such as Costello, the Damned, and the Pogues, would have been obvious sellers. And, admittedly, each of the reissued artist’s obscurity is relative: members of Any Trouble once backed Nancy Griffith; Dirty Looks pushed more than a hundred thousand units in the United States.; Sweet has written and produced for television shows like Seinfeld and Dharma and Greg; Ullman has also been a mainstay of television, but as a performer; and Wreckless Eric’s “Whole Wide World” was recently included in the screen adaptation of Stranger Than Fiction. However, each artist’s music heretofore remained mostly in the realm of trivia factoid and collector’s mania. And, taken together, these releases form a comprehensive picture of the eclectic and irreverent genius of Stiff Records.
For all of Stiff’s leftfield airs, the label remains rooted in existing popular-music modes. Its expertise was in recognizing pop savvy in pub-level talent and crossing those artists over to a larger audience. Under the guise of novelty or quirk, Stiff draped its artists in familiar garbs: sixteen-year-old Ohioan Sweet became the Lolita starlet; up-and-coming comic Ullman became the lounge covers act; Any Trouble spoke nervously yet unequivocally to angst-filled teens; and Wreckless Eric and Dirty Looks were noted for picking their masculine guitars.
For all of this calculation, each record is surprisingly consistent and has aged well, with the notable exception of the occasional ’80s sheen that sits uncomfortably next to the ’60s pop throwback production on Ullman’s album. Sweet’s “hit,” a cover of Isaac Hayes and David Porter’s “B-A-B-Y,” still best sums up her bubblicious pitch, but Fool Around contains a broad range of material that presents her as a burgeoning talent. Any Trouble’s debut is a perfect companion to Costello’s My Aim Is True and Nick Lowe’s Labour of Lust; it quivers in the presence of girls and love with painful familiarity. Dirty Looks’ The Complete Stiff Years contains the group’s two albums, its self-titled debut and Turn It Up, as well as collected singles and live tracks, all of which still rocks with the same aggression of their New England contemporaries. And Wreckless Eric’s Big Smash (bolstered here with bonus cuts, including the aforementioned “Whole Wide World”) is still a drunken pub crawl through rock sprawl. None of these albums are exceptional on its own, but taken in context, each resonates with a familiar charm. Therein lies the real Stiff, a cover of a familiar theme: “We came. We saw. We left. We came back.”