Stiff Records was set up by entrepreneurs Dave Robinson and Jake Riviera in the Summer of 1976 and it’s probably not a coincidence that punk was about to explode. Whether this explosion happened because of or despite the formation of Stiff, there is no doubt that this small company punched above its weight in the very earliest days of punk.
The label’s roots, however, were based in the London pub rock circuit, which adapted to embrace and become blurred with the nascent punk and new wave scene. They were the first label to sign a punk band (The Damned) and thus released the first punk single, the blisteringly superb “New Rose”, on 22nd October 1976.
With a liking for 12-bar pub boogie bands, Stiff actually proved adept at unearthing skilled songwriters and lyricists for whom a band would be built around them. Take Nick Lowe, Elvis Costello, Ian Dury, Wreckless Eric, Graham Parker and Kirsty MacColl; that’s quite a platoon of wordsmiths! You can add Madness to the ranks too. In 1979 the Camden Nutty Boys were swiftly signed after their debut on 2-Tone, and they proved to be the great archetypical British band over the next 20 years.
Stiff seemed to take great pride in their outsider status and proved great innovators when it came to marketing (or hustling) their acts in punk’s early days (Ian Dury and the Blockhead’s second album Do It Yourself came in multiple wallpapered sleeves – Discogs reckons there could be 31 different designs). They also sent out their roster of talent – Lowe, Costello, Dury, Eric, and Larry Wallis – on a package tour in October ’77 thus producing the landmark “Live Stiffs Live” album.
Like any label, except perhaps Motown in its heyday, the quality control couldn’t be kept at a consistently high mark. Some of the big names moved on and, let’s be frank, they did release some rubbish, but big sellers – Madness, Kirsty McColl, Tracey Ullman, and Jona Lewie’s Christmas monster “Stop the Cavalry” kept them solvent throughout the 1980s. After shutting up shop in 1986 the label resurrected itself in 2008.
We end with three classic cuts from the earliest days of Stiff that have withstood everything that has been thrown at them for four decades and counting, and still sounds as fresh as they did way back.