PART­NER­SHIP De­but nov­el­ist’s first in a tril­ogy Es­sen­tial read­ing for na­ture lovers

Yorkshire Post - Culture & The Guide - - BOOKS -

RICHARD Balls has fond mem­o­ries of his first en­counter with the mu­si­cal mav­er­ick spirit of Stiff Records. It was Oc­to­ber 30, 1981 and Balls, then 14, was at­tend­ing his first ever gig head­lined by the la­bel’s most suc­cess­ful act at the time, Mad­ness.

Thirty-three years later the cousin of Ed Balls, Shadow Chan­cel­lor and Labour MP for Mor­ley and Out­wood, has pub­lished a his­tory of the la­bel he be­came such a fan of in his teens.

Formed in 1976 by band man­agers Dave Robin­son and Jake Riviera, Stiff grew out of the London pub rock scene. Its first sign­ings – Sean Tyla, Nick Lowe, Elvis Costello and Ian Dury – had all been bands who’d been over­looked by the ma­jor la­bels who then dom­i­nated the mu­sic in­dus­try.

Ex­plains Balls, a 47-yearold for­mer jour­nal­ist: “Dave Robin­son and Jake Riviera were frus­trated at the way that the in­dus­try op­er­ated in the sense that Ian Dury, Elvis Costello and Wreck­less Eric did not fit into cat­e­gories that the ma­jor la­bels had for their prod­ucts. Here were some amaz­ingly tal­ented peo­ple, par­tic­u­larly song­writ­ers, who were not get­ting heard. One of Stiff’s mis­sions was to give a plat­form to peo­ple who were re­ally tal­ented but were not be­ing given a chance.”

Stiff were canny enough to tap into the nascent punk scene, sign­ing The Damned, whose sin­gle New Rose was the first punk 45. “There was a healthy ri­valry be­tween Jake Riviera and Mal­colm McLaren,” says Balls. “It’s hard to imag­ine now but McLaren viewed The Damned as ri­vals to the Sex Pis­tols. They were dither­ing with their first record and Stiff nipped in.” Riviera and Robin­son were quick to re­alise that punk “lent it­self to sin­gles – two-and-a-half to three minute records that could be packed in an ex­cit­ing way” and rushed out 45s by Richard Hell and The Ad­verts.

The art­work of Barney Bub­bles and Chris Mor­ton gave their re­leases an “aes­thetic that made Stiff stand out from other la­bels”, they used coloured vinyl too to tempt teenagers into part­ing with their pocket money.

But the la­bel loved clas­sic song­writ­ers too. “That’s one of the rea­sons why I drew a par­al­lel be­tween Stiff and Mo­town – the im­por­tance that Stiff placed on song­writ­ing,” says Balls.

Nick Lowe, Elvis Costello, Gra­ham Parker and Ian Dury were all re­cruited as “amaz­ing per­form­ers who were also peo­ple who could pro­duce amaz­ing songs”. The likes of My Aim is True and New Boots and Panties!! re­main among the most durable in Stiff’s cat­a­logue.

There were es­o­teric sign­ings too, such as Lene Lovich, Jona Lewie and Wreck­less Eric – all of whom scored sur­prise hits with the likes of Lucky Num­ber, Stop the Cavalry and Whole Wide World.

Later came Mad­ness and The Pogues but at the la­bel’s com­mer­cial zenith Robin­son “ef­fec­tively merged” Stiff with Chris Black­well’s la­bel Is­land which proved “a dis­as­ter”. While Robin­son scored a huge hit with Bob Mar­ley and The Wail­ers’ Legend al­bum, he “com­pletely took his eye off the ball at Stiff”. Mad­ness quit Stiff to set up their own un­suc­cess­ful bou­tique la­bel Zar­jazz with Richard Branson’s Vir­gin em­pire.

The Pogues might have been “a dream for jour­nal­ists” but they “did not sell records in the kind of amounts that would have dealt with Stiff’s fi­nan­cial prob­lems at the time”. By 1986 it was all over.

Its name con­tin­ues, mainly as a reis­sues la­bel, hav­ing been bought by Jill Sinclair, late wife of Trevor Horn, so Stiff’s spirit lives on.

“It’ll be in­ter­est­ing to see what hap­pens in 2016,” says Balls. “It’ll be the 40th an­niver­sary of Stiff. Maybe there are plans to do some­thing then.”

Be Stiff: The Stiff Records Story by Richard Balls is pub­lished by Sound­check Books, priced £16.99. A YORK­SHIRE au­thor is cel­e­brat­ing Christ­mas with her de­but crime novel. The Art of The Im­per­fect by Kate Evans is the first in a tril­ogy of books – which will all be based in her home town of Scar­bor­ough. The book cen­tres on the mur­der of psy­chother­a­pist Dr Themis Green. Kate uses Scar­bor­ough – lo­cated as it is on the edge of the coun­try – to sym­bol­ise one of the key themes that runs through the novel, marginal­i­sa­tion. A NEW book, out next year, will give a de­fin­i­tive nat­u­ral his­tory of the York­shire Dales Na­tional Park.

York­shire Dales by John Lee will cover a range of wildlife habi­tats, cul­tural her­itage and eco­log­i­cal his­tory in the York­shire Dales. John Lee is a Pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Sh­effield and re­searched plant re­sponses to pol­lu­tion and how this will ef­fect the ecosys­tem.

The book is due for re­lease in July 2015.



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