Be Stiff: The Stiff Records Story, by Richard Balls

Title: Be Stiff: The Stiff Records Story

Author: Richard Balls

Publisher: Soundcheck Books

Publication Date: January 15, 2015



Rough Trade and Factory Records are regularly named-checked in conversations about influential British indie labels, but often unjustly overlooked, was the immensely important Stiff Records. Founded in 1976, the label ultimately flamed out about 10 years later, but in that decade the label managed to launch careers for The Damned, Wreckless Eric, Elvis Costello, Madness, The Pogues, Nick Lowe and Ian Dury and The Blockheads among many, many more.

Richard Balls does a stellar job of telling label’s short, but crucial role in helping introduce pub rock, punk and new wave to an audience that at times may not have been ready for it. The label was founded by Londoners Dave Robinson and Jack Riviera, both figures on the periphery of the rock scene before starting Stiff, who revealed in their outsider status, taking every opportunity to taunt the well-funded major labels, through ads, interviews and labels on the outside of their records. As Balls details in the book, Stiff had a cozier relationship with Island Records, who would eventually buy half of the label, before its eventual shut down.

Along with a knack for discovering and signing an eclectic collection of overlooked, but talented musicians, Stiff was also known for their bizarre promotional campaigns. The most famous of those, covered in great detail here, was the arrest of Costello for busking outside of CBS Records.

With access to the key figures at the label, industry insiders and plenty of the acts that Stiff launched, Balls rolls out the definitive history of a once-brilliant label. Sadly, thanks to lost focus, weaker and weaker signings in the ‘80s and some key defections, Stiff limped to its demise and was quickly forgotten by most. Be Stiff does a great job of putting the label back in the spotlight at least for a little while longer.


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