The Roots of Indie: Stiff Records
Rock and roll has Sun Records. Indie has Stiff.
Everything released prior to October 1976 -- your Ramones, Iggy and the Stooges -- can be considered proto-punk, much as everything prior to Elvis releasing 'That's All Right' can be considered precursors to rock and roll. These are debatable points, best left for drunken late nights with beer and a turntable, but stick with me.
What's so special about October 1976? We'll get to that, but first a little background.
Back in 1976, when the USA was celebrating 200 years of selling cheap plastic knockoffs of the Liberty Bell, Londoners Dave Robinson and Jake Riviera decided to form an independent record label. Both had prior music experience working as managers; in fact, they considered their new venture a management company. Robinson recently told Vive Le Rock!: "We were really a management company and we dealt with the records hoping to do well enough with one to fund the next one."
They named their label Stiff Records, and don't think for a minute that they didn't know what they were doing. Their most famous slogan was "If it ain't Stiff it ain't worth a f--k," though they also called themselves "The World's Most Flexible Record Label." Robinson and Riviera were great marketers who were not only good with catchy slogans but keen on the value of things like picture sleeves and music videos.
Keep in mind that MTV didn't launch until 1981, so Stiff had about a four year jump start on the biggest music boom of the '80s. "When MTV reared its ugly head we were already making videos," Robinson says in the same article. "We had 34 different companies in different territories working for us and so we would make videos just to enlighten us who the artist was. We made videos before it became popular with other people."
But before they could expand to different territories, they had to launch. Singer Lee Brilleaux from Dr. Feelgood loaned the pair £400, and off they went. They dumped their entire budget into the new label's debut single, Nick Lowe's 'So it Goes,' released in August '76.
It's a great cut with a bit of a Steely Dan vibe, but there was a whole new scene happening in London. Back to Robinson:
We were keen to have the first punk single. Our attitude was, 'we go hard, we go fast.' We planned to have the first punk record and the first punk album. There was such a great audience for punk and they wanted to buy a record. They weren't worried whose record it was.
"They weren't worried whose record it was." That's an amazing sentiment, given that the first punk single those hungry record buyers got their hands on happens to be one of the greatest punk tracks ever laid down.
On October 22, 1976, Stiff released their third record and the first punk single, the Damned's 'New Rose':
'New Rose' beat the Sex Pistols' 'Anarchy In the U.K.' to the record bins by a good five weeks. Just three months earlier the band played their first ever gig, opening for -- you guessed it -- the Sex Pistols.
Stiff was the epicenter of the British punk movement, if you want to call it that. Their offerings were much more diverse than two minutes and two chords. They released cuts from Devo, Motorhead, the Plasmatics, and the Pogues, and that barely scratches their discography.
Without Stiff, we may have never heard Elvis Costello. The label agreed to pay the musician what he was making at his day job, bought him an amp and a tape recorder, and let him do his thing. The final result was the classic album 'My Aim Is True,' which fittingly opens with a nod to Costello's very recent data entry past:
Stiff also discovered early MTV stars Madness, whose label audition happened at Robinson's wedding. "It was the only time I could see them, and I knew the band anyway," he told Vive Le Rock! "My wife has never forgiven me entirely."
Robinson states that the band recorded 'One Step Beyond' under duress, laying it down as a 1:25 minute cut because they didn't want it released as a single. Robinson "went into the studio, edited the track and did a bit of harmonizing on a couple bits" and a hit single was born. For many Americans, 'One Step Beyond' was their introduction to ska:
Perhaps no artist is more closely associated with Stiff than Ian Dury. Dury's international claim to fame may be that he coined the phrase "sex and drugs and rock and roll," but in the U.K. 1978's 'Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick' went all the way to No. 1:
Stiff's last huge success story came in October '84, with the release of the Pogues' debut album, 'Red Roses For Me.' The band created a template for blending punk attitude and traditional music that became the predominant alt-indie vibe of the early 21st century, albeit in the form of Americana:
Unfortunately, the Pogues' success wasn't enough to keep Stiff in business. The label folded in 1985, but there's good news: The label relaunched in 2007, though their website appears to be a bit under-maintained. Lots of great Stiff box sets are out there, and in January 2015 we'll get 'Be Stiff: The Stiff Records Story,' which promises to be the definitive history of the World's Most Flexible Record Label.
Almost 40 years and still Stiff. That's quite an achievement.