Thursday, February 07, 2008

Stiffs Live and A Bunch of Stiffs

Stiff Records was a visionary label in the late 70’s that specialized in the punk and new wave scene in England. They had some brilliant marketers that came up with such memorable catch phrases as “if it ain’t Stiff, it ain’t worth a fuck!” They also happened to put out some damn good music!

Stiffs Live is an early release and shows the communal efforts of the label-mates. Everyone tends to play in everyone else’s bands and the record ends with the entire troupe on stage at the same time for a crazed rendition of Ian Dury’s “Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll”!

Nick Lowe is everywhere on this record and along with Dave Edmunds, was probably the most commercially successful artist on the label – at least until Elvis Costello took off. The album open’s with Lowe’s rousing “I Knew the Bride When She Used to R’n’R”, which Edmunds also recorded on one of his solo albums. “Let’s Eat” is a fairly hilarious ode to mastication that still manages to rock!

Another demented genius of the stable was Wreckless Eric, who also created twisted pop songs such as “Semaphore Signals” and “Reconnez Cherie”, the two fantastic tunes included here.

“Police Car” by Larry Wallis is more of a standard rock’n’roll song, but also one of my faves of this record. I never heard any other solo work by this maniac (that I can remember, anyway), but this is a stand-out and I wonder if anything else sounded anything like this. He did play guitar with the Pink Fairies, the original line-up of Motorhead and many others, as well as working as a house producer for Stiff.

Elvis Costello is represented by a wonderful rendition of Dusty Springfield’s “I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself”. A Burt Bacharach/Hal David composition, this heartfelt paen to lost love foreshadowed Costello’s work with Bacharach by decades! Costello and his newly formed Attractions do a rave-up take on “Miracle Man”, as well. I would love to hear the original Attractions running through the first album tunes – I saw them when This Year’s Model came out and they were fantastic, but I don’t distinctly remember the arrangement changes that they made. But if this is any indication, they really made the songs their own!

I don’t really know what made Ian Dury the character that he was, but he certainly was a unique individual! Quirky would be putting it mildly! He still knew how to write a pop song, though and “Billercay Dickie” and “Wake Up and Make Love to Me” are memorable and funny as hell! He even had hits in England, proving once again that they love their eccentrics!

A truly great live album of some of the biggest stars of this fun label!

A Bunch of Stiffs is a studio compilation that came out at about the same time as Live Stiffs and has many of the same artists, but a few new ones, as well.

Opening again is Nick Lowe, this time singing that “I Love My Label” – how could Stiff not put that out?! This is more of Lowe’s trademarked catchiness! Wreckless Eric provides an early version of “Go the Whole Wide World” – another one of his best.

“White Line Fever” was probably a number of people’s introduction to Motorhead when most people were not sure how to describe them! They weren’t quite punk, but were far more obnoxious than most “metal” bands operating at the time. The production on this is a bit lacking but the power and majesty of the band still comes through!

Elvis’s contribution is “Less Than Zero”, a slightly different mix from the My Aim is True album version. There are a couple of tracks from lesser known artists – Magic Michael (yes, that is what he calls himself) is a bit dramatic while singing his original “Little By Little” – he almost sounds like Tom Jones! - but it is a good song.

Oddly, there is an uncredited track at the end of side 1 – Graham Parker and the Rumour’s version of Dave Edmunds “Back to School Days”, which sounds like it is probably the album version.

Then there is Stones Masonry doing “Jump For Joy”, a pub-rock romp through the blues – nice but nothing too special. Following that is Dave Edmunds’ Phil Spector-styled production of Jill Read doing her best Darlene Love impression on “Maybe”. I don’t know if the liner notes are serious, but they claim that Jill disappeared after this recording and no one ever heard from her again! I still think that this may actually be Edmnds singing falsetto and I may be a fool for even considering the bizarre story.

Dave does his own take on Chuck Berry’s “Jo Jo Gunne” and proves again what a fantastic interpreter of 50’s r’n’r he is! He stretches out on the tune, but keeps the energy and the spirit of the original while making it his own.

The Tyla Gang sound a bit like they’ve listened to too much Bruce Springsteen, but it’s not bad. The closer is the goofy “Food” by the Takeaways – a Bob Dylan parody done by Lowe, Edmunds (on drums!), Sean Tyla and Larry Wallis. Funny, but beyond silly!

More proof that Stiff was a label dedicated to good, fun music in a variety of styles! Definitely for the lovers of the post-pub-rock crowd led by Lowe, Edmunds and Costello!

In a bizarre coincidence, Lindsay Hutton at The Next Big Thing just linked to a bunch of videos from this tour on his site - check it out!