Ah, Stiff. That maverick little enterprise that turned independent history on its head with a clutch of punk era releases which, on the whole, weren’t all that punk really. The Damned’s momentous, wood-splintering debut(s) aside, it’s easy to forget that the label was the bridge between pub rock and a brand new age. It was one of our finest imprints because it’s A&R policy was essentially tutored only by the stuff that Dave Robinson and Jake Riviera happened to like, rather than what they thought might tickle the NME.
Robinson and Riviera are long gone, but the Stiff label is being revived with a clutch of reissues. These are the first four – well, there’s five, but I couldn’t bring myself to face the Tracey Ulman one:
Featuring later folk hero Clive Gregson’s baby-steps as a songwriter. Even in 1980 it sounded a tad anachronistic, the vocal style too close to Edmunds/Costello and the (John Wood) production reminiscent of too many similar Stiff recordings. Gregson would go on to write much better songs than the ones present here, but the revamped recordings at least sound as clear as cut glass, sharply rendered and fully formed – though strictly boy meets girl. The most affecting example of which is, of course, ‘Nice Girls’, a perfect period piece, albeit a dead ringer for Costello’s ‘Alison’.
This isn’t the first time Eric Goulden’s first two Stiff albums have been compiled in various permutations, but it’s comfortably the most seductive package. This is endearingly ragged pop, which, though meticulous performances and compositions abound, always centred on those downtrodden, lovelorn vocals. Of course, ‘Whole Wide World’ is present, that quite marvellous, vaguely disturbing, quixotic little gem which ranks alongside anything Dury or Costello recorded for the label. But it’s no diamond in the rough. ‘Reconnez Cherie’ (which at one point sounds like an alternative theme tune to Only Fools And Horses) and ‘Semaphore Signals’ have commensurate charm. There’s also ‘Broken Doll’, which Sir Cliff would later cover, and while the junk blues of ‘Back In My Home Town’ and ‘Break My Mind’ haven’t aged particularly well, there’s plenty to be rediscovered across this sprawling 28-track collection. Notably, ‘Walking On The Surface Of The Moon’, an endearingly snotty stab at 77-style cynicism, or ‘Hit And Miss Judy’, which sounds like the Ramones played at quarter the speed.
One that I don’t remember much about from first time round, apart from the fact that this attempt at a new-wave/country hybrid (yes, really) was marketed in fairly dubious ‘Lolita’-esque terms. There’s something perplexing here; the voice works, but I instinctively dislike it. It’s too showbiz, yet the hook on ‘Just My Style’ is a killer. Perhaps it shouldn’t be such a surprise. By the time Sweet signed to Stiff, aged 16, the Ohio native had already done the kiddy-star circuit, and it shows. The chart-bothering version of Carla Thomas’s ‘B.A.B.Y’ has plenty of punch, but when she gets all Barbra Streisand cum Dolly Parton on your ass (as on ‘Pin A Medal On Mary’ or Costello’s ‘Stranger In The House’) you want to run for cover. ‘Truckstop Queen’ is as trite as the title suggests. Also, none of the (largely) Liam Sternberg-penned compositions here have the pop shrewds of his best-known song, ‘Walk Like An Egyptian’. Design note: white on pink sleeve-notes – never a good idea.
This is the find here. ‘They Got Me Covered’, the first track on this career sweeping retrospective by the Staten Island power-poppers, sounds by far the most contemporary of this batch of releases – it could almost be a Bloc Party intro. It’s sharp, insistent pop at breakneck pace that wouldn’t sound out of place on one of the better Hot Rods/Feelgood albums. Yeah, you can trace elements of the group’s bar band heritage (‘You Can’t Love Me’ is dullsville), but they were also regulars at CBGB’s and Max’s Kansas City, and some of that spirit seeps into the songs (think a less precious, more poppy Television). There’s a version of ‘Love Comes In Spurts’ from the Son Of Stiff tour, on which the band sound fantastic, even on a cover of ‘Stepping Stone’, which takes some doing. ‘The Girl’, with its spy film guitar and ‘committed’ vocal, is actually quite mesmeric. The second album, Turn It Up, produced by Nick Garvey of the Motors, is way more restrained, slick and polite, lacking the bite of their debut, and on tracks like ‘Do We Need It’, it sounded like they’d copped the Stiff ‘sound’ wholesale. Shame really, the first half of this package is great.
Alex Ogg – tMx 29 – 04/07