Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Pure pop for now people

Been meaning to mention this, but how great was BBC4's Stiff Records two-part documentary over the weekend? BBC2 are repeating a series of the BBC4 Originals music documentaries at the moment - The Wonderful And Frightening World Of Mark E Smith this Friday at 11.35pm, Mose Allison and Solomon Burke over the next couple of weeks, Ivor Cutler to come - and even though this was timelocked, even though it was a month late, to the thirtieth anniversary of its first release we hope it gets a wider airing soon. So much to enjoy, from Dave Robinson on his boat to an uncredited Derek The Draw standing at the back while Chas Jankel and Norman Watt-Roy reminisced to Tracy Ullman actually looking fondly back at her shot at pop for once to Wreckless Eric's typically forthright wordy views to Captain Sensible recalling setting fire to Elvis Costello's trousers while he was fast asleep...Get it off UKNova, if you can. Or borrow it from someone who taped it.

There really isn't another label like Stiff, is there? Plenty of indies have tried to foster a gang mentality at the right end of the charts - 4AD, ZTT, Factory, Creation - but Stiff really did see themselves as a pop hit factory, getting the well off radar likes of Tenpole Tudor and Jona Lewie, those just the less obvious stars the majors had passed on, into the top ten and pressing ahead with a third Live Stiffs tour despite the first one losing a shedload of money and the second being watched by nobody. As heartening as we find the mini-renaissance of labels that win support for everything they release and build up slowly under the foundation of people you can actually put names to, nobody could have that musical and social chart/pop impact today. We grew up with Stiff through our older sister's love of everything they put out, and to see this almost anomolaic moment in British pop put into such context sent shivers down our spine as much as it brightened those two evenings.

Technology, of course, moves on, but if you know where to look it also drags our collective nostalgia points back towards us. YouTube's full of Stiff releases, so in chronological order here's some of Today's Hits Today:

* Where else to start? Well, So It Goes/Heart Of The City, ideally, but after that and four other slices of pub rock life came the commonly regarded First Punk Single, the basic but effective New Rose.

* That attempt to surf a new wave, as it were, continued with Richard Hell and Motorhead, of all bands. Then came Elvis' first three, Max Wall's Dury co-penned England's Glory (and if anyone does have this on mp3, please let us know) and Wreckless Eric, the barroom philosopher hitting big with Whole Wide World - note Ian Dury on drums.

* The Adverts had debuted by this point with One Chord Wonders and actually released Gary Gilmore's Eyes on something called Anchor Records, but it's an unmissable slab of mock-horror three chord punk. Plus, Gaye Advert. Lives with TV Smith now, apparently.

* My Aim Is True and Damned Damned Damned, yes, but surely the early Stiff album with the greatest impact was New Boots And Panties, released in October 1977. From the Concert for Kampuchea two years later, Blockheads.

* My Aim Is True was recorded with the US country outfit Clover, who later formed Huey Lewis' News. The Attractions were formed for the Live Stiffs tour and stuck around for a bit longer, starting with Watching The Detectives, here from the famous Saturday Night Live performance the other half of which we covered two days ago. Seriously, that bit where Elvis sidles up to the camera is creepy, isn't it?

* Nick 'whose birthday it is today' Lowe was house producer for much of the above, so let's not overlook I Love The Sound Of Breaking Glass.

* You know The Contest episode of Seinfeld? Yes, you do. Well, you know when George's cousin visits him in hospital while he's otherwise engaged watching the silhouetted bed bath behind the screen? That's Rachel Sweet, that is, and in 1978 she was master of her teenage new wave country domain with B-A-B-Y.

* Lene Lovich first released Lucky Number on the back of a cover of I Think We're Alone Now, but it was that piece of lateral thinking that ended up being reworked by the Barron Knights. We bet plenty were slightly scared by guitarist and co-writer Les Chappell.

* Jona Lewie had the financial foresight to write a successful Christmas single even if it wasn't intended as one, but his laconic delivery fit right in with their peculiar view of the job of the singer-songwriter. You'll Always Find Me In The Kitchen At Parties is indicative of that early style of electropop with the emphasis on the latter, and while this isn't the TOTP performance with Kirsty Maccoll on backing vocals it is the one in a mock kitchen, plus Blockhead Norman Watt-Roy on bass.

* Can't go any further without some Madness, so we've arbritarily gone for our favourite of their more overlooked singles, and here with the intro from the Complete Madness video too, Grey Day.

* As we say, who would form a band like Tenpole Tudor today? Admittedly there was more than one rockabilly revivalist in 1981, but none quite as, well, energetic or completely at odds with anyone's idea of charting pop music. Where the hell is Wunderbar, which in YouTubeVision almost appears well mimed, from exactly?

* Tracey Ullman's Stiff span is also worth looking at, as it seems to come from a place where a feminised early rock'n'roll meets 60s girl group meets Minnie Mouse. Apart from Maccoll's They Don't Know, which we were heartened to learn from the documentary was entirely Ullman's idea given Stiff only wanted her to do covers.

* Hit that tin whistle for The Pogues' Sally MacLennane.

* Stiff fell apart in 1986, their last release being Girl To The Power Of 6 by Mint Juleps. Us neither. Dr Feelgood released a few singles at the end, but their real last hurrah, in qualitative terms as much as chart ones, were future Mojo hack Jim Irvin's Furniture and the still glorious Brilliant Mind.

...except that, bizarrely, the label has been reactivated, if seemingly in name only, for the forthcoming debut by Coventry teen pop-punks The Enemy, whose Dancing All Night is decent enough but, well, not immensely Stiff-esque. For further reading, then, visit the official website, fan site Be Stiff and this hugely comprehensive discography.


Anonymous said...

Just to let you know. I have the Max Wall 7" vinyl of Englands Glory.

Let me know. If you're interested

Anonymous said...

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djbethell said...

Anyone got a download of The Mint Juleps Power of 6. I can't find it anywhere and I miss it!
D x