Memorably described by Pete Waterman as “a crepe soles and roll-ups operation” Stiff Records was set up by industry managers Jake Riviera and Dave Robinson in the eye of the Pub Rock boom in August 1976, with a £400 loan. Their first release was the Nick Lowe single, So It Goes.
Stiff released eight singles that first winter and, by the end of 1977, had issued quintessential punk records New Rose (The Damned), One Chord Wonders (The Adverts) and Blank Generation (Richard Hell).
Stiff quickly proved how ahead of the pack they were by signing artists who would clearly not have been possible without the lack of pretension of punk but who aspired to more musically: Ian Dury, Madness, and the dazzlingly clever songwriter Elvis Costello broke boundaries in popular music that nobody had ever realised existed and had big hits in the process.
Stiff in 1978 was a label in transition. Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe manager Jake Riviera had eloped with his charges, leaving Stiff boss Dave Robinson in a tight spot.
“I found drawers full of unpaid invoices,” he recalls. “We owed about £15,000. We were not in very good nick, if you’ll excuse the pun”.
Robinson’s ace in the hole was Ian Dury, fated to end the year with the labels only #1, Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick. For his less established artists, Robinson organised a headline-catching tour. “We knew we had to make it special, and I loved those old trains with the first-class carriages that had the little compartments, so we hired one”.
Entitled ‘Be Stiff’ (after Devo‘s third and final Stiff single) the tour choogled between Brighton and Wick, the logo-emblazoned train often shunted into sidings as scheduled expresses hurtled past.
The artists – Stiff stalwarts Mickey Jupp and Wreckless Eric augmented by poppier-yet-weirder recent signings Rachel Sweet, Jona Lewie and Lene Lovich – played in 2½ hour, revue-style shows and five of them enjoyed the dubious benefit of having their albums released mid-tour on the same day.
Akron-born popstress Rachel Sweet (pictured), still only 16 during the tour, had an on-tour tutor, a device which Robinson milked for all it was worth. “Every day as the train pulled into a new town we would have all the local media queuing up”.
Robinson had read the runes of the post-Punk fallout and had seen a demand for old-fashioned pop novelty return along with a new affection for quirky outsiders.
Head-turning publicity stunts and aggressive radio plugging did the rest, and within 18 months even Lovich and Lewie had enjoyed chart hits.
“The train tour was typical Stiff,” concludes Robinson. “We liked to have fun and we liked to keep our bands busy. ‘A Tired Band Is A Happy Band’ – that was our motto”.
As musical styles changed and Stiff struggled to stay in business, the label gradually became Just Another Record Company.
Putting out records for anything other than sound business reasons may have been cheeringly anti-corporate, but the hit-to-flop ratio became unsustainable and after numerous upheavals – and millions of quid in debt – Stiff limped to an end in 1987. The label was sold to ZTT.