‘If it ain’t Stiff it ain’t worth a fuck!’ Just one of the enduring slogans from England’s greatest-ever independent record label STIFF, who introduced the UK to more legendary bands and songs than you can count.
Originally set up by Dave Robinson and Jake Riviera on a £400 loan from Dr Feelgood’s Lee Brilleaux in 1976, Stiff went on to sell millions of albums from the likes of The Damned, Elvis Costello, Madness, Ian Dury, Devo, Richard Hell and even Alvin Stardust! Renowned as predominantly a punk label, they released punk, new wave, ska, soul, mod, reggae and even calypso records. The label has recently been revived, without founder Dave Robinson, and has released new records by the likes of the Tranzistors and the no 1 album from The Enemy, so it seems Stiff’s days are not quite up yet. We spoke to Dave Robinson in his old rock ‘n’ roll stomping ground, Camden Town.
VLP: When you started Stiff Records you didn’t seem to have any rules, it seemed to be quite chaotic. Even the name Stiff – where did that come from?
“It came from the record company expression ‘To have a stiff’ which is to have a non-hit. So that’s really where it came from and then it lent itself to a lot of slogans thereafter.”
VLP: And of course the T-shirt still lives on, ‘If it ain’t stiff…’
“Yeah, the T-shirt is good. It’s been put out by a lot people.
VLP: You didn’t seem to have any rules when you started – you were just trying things out.
“Well, we were managers, we had groups, myself and Jake, when we started. We managed several groups and then we decided to make a label because we thought the major labels were crap – their idea of marketing was you would go out and tour forever and then maybe if the public discovered you the record label would get behind you, rather then the other way around, which is what we thought should happen. There was a great environment for promoting new music. Radio 1 at that time was actually prepared to put the oddest music on. 1 could be playing on the daytime playlist in a couple of weeks. There were five newspapers, weeklies, and so if you needed information or anything that was going on there was a great media format for the promotion of good music but the major record companies didn’t seem to have any attitude about it.”
VLP: You did The Stiff Tour, which was quite legendary. Who was on that and how did you do it?
“Elvis Costello, Ian Dury, Nick Lowe and Wreckless Eric, those were the people involved. Dave Edmunds was playing with Nick Lowe and Larry Wallace was playing with the Pink Fairies who played with Nick Lowe as well. It was a very diverse musical evening and the idea essentially was that the package tour was big in England. When you had a hit in the ‘60s you were automatically added to the package to go around the country. You might just have one number, or you might have two numbers, or if you have a couple of hits you might get twelve minutes. It’s a diverse way in taking part in quite a lot of music and the universities in particular loved it. It was a great format. The universities were also excellent because they had funding from the Labour Government, society subsidizing it to a degree, and so they were able to get some very good music. And of course, you could play at a university and your audience was spreading all over the country as soon as they went home. It was a good time. I think that’s really what it was about. The majors weren’t doing it, so we decided we could do it and show people we were up for it. ”
VLP: And how crazy were The Damned for you?
“They were great fun. They were pretty naughty but they were a lot of fun. They were humorous people and I found over the years that we signed a lot of bands that had a sense of humour in their sound. The ones that took themselves super-seriously and thought that everything they did was phenomenal were always very difficult to get along with, kind of the demons of the business. Always been a pain in the arse. We have people who play good music but also didn’t take themselves completely seriously so there was an era of humour and interest around the place. Comedy, which I always thinks makes the difficult work of making a living from music much easier.”
VLP: Besides breaking a lot of the early punk artists you signed Madness, and then you moved on to things like The Pogues.
“It’s quite a cross section of music really. Anyone who was good we signed. That was the essence of it all, the actual style was up to the individual, but as long as they could write good songs and we thought the general public would take to them we put them on.”
VLP: Fantastic. Out of all the records you released is there any you rate as your finest?
“Well I think one of the best records we ever put out was certainly ‘Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick’ by Ian Dury. When you think of the sax solo on that record and a few other musical elements it is fairly unusual even now to have that.”
VLP: Are you involved with the resurrection of Stiff Records?
“No I have nothing to do with it. I’m promoting this box set (‘The Big Stiff Box Set’).”
VLP: What are you up to at the moment?
“I’m doing some work for a couple labels in the States, quite a bit of Caribbean music of all kinds. This box set, plus I’ve started a new record label myself called Download Records, and I’m starting to look around for things to go on that. So I’m still busy at night, out getting drunk.”
‘The Big Stiff Box Set’ is out now on Salvo.
The best singles from Stiff
THE DAMNED – New Rose (1976)
ELVIS COSTELLO – Watching The Detectives (1977)
WRECKLESS ERIC – Whole Wide World (1977)
LENE LOVICH – Lucky Number (1978)
IAN DURY & THE BLOCKHEADS – Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick (1978)
MADNESS – One Step Beyond (1979)
THE PLASMATICS – Butcher Baby (1980)
TENPOLE TUDOR – Swords Of A Thousand Men (1981)
KING KURT – Destination Zulu Land (1983)
THE POGUES – Dirty Old Town (1985)