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