Take 18 musicians, including the near genius and the merely talented, the desperately hungry and the downright thirsty. Bung in some villains. Stir well. Add one spring-loaded manager. Place on a coach for 34 days. Light the blue touch paper? Hardly necessary. Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to Stiff’s Greatest Stiffs – Live!
No Sleep Till Canvey Island
It is 40 years ago now, September 1977 and Stiff Records is the UK’s freshest, wittiest and most happening independent record label.
Founded in 1976 by Dave Robinson and Andrew Jakeman, two stalwarts of the London Pub Rock scene along with a £400 cheque from Lee Brilleaux, the lead singer of Dr Feelgood, Stiff had released some of the most interesting and innovative music of the time, all promoted with wit and saucy humour. They named themselves self-deprecatingly after the standard industry term for returned unsold records or a hopeless act and called themselves The World’s Most Flexible Record Label.
Their first release was Nick Lowe’s So It Goes/Heart of the City in August 1976, which had the witty catalogue number of BUY 1. It made single of the week in Sounds and NME but failed to chart despite being just terrific. Press coverage was impressive but actual hits were elusive. As awesome a debut as New Rose – BUY 6 – is, it didn’t trouble the chart compilers . Classics such as Less Than Zero, Whole Wide World, Sex And Drugs And Rock And Roll all failed to make the charts and Stiff had to wait till BUY 20 to get their first hit which was Elvis Costello’s Watching the Detectives .
Low on cash, they decided to send their acts out on an old-fashioned 24-date package tour, which featured Ian Dury, Nick Lowe, Elvis Costello, Wreckless Eric and Larry Wallis, all of whom had new records to promote. Dury’s new single BUY23 was Sweet Gene Vincent, Costello’s BUY20 was Watching The Detectives released in the first week of the tour, Wreckless Eric’s BUY16 was Whole Wide World and was already out as was Larry Wallis’ BUY22 the brilliant Police Car. Nick Lowe’s new single BUY21 was a cover of Billy Fury’s Halfway to Paradise, On top of all that Ian Dury’s New Boots & Panties!! was released 4 days before the tour started.
Each act played a 30 minute set and the running order changing nightly, so democratically a different act could headline each night. It took off from London in the direction of the first night in High Wycombe 40 years ago this October 3. One of its 24 stops was the Lyceum in the Strand on October 28. Ticket price was £1.50
We all by and large know who Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe and Ian Dury are, although at this point they really weren’t really anyone. Lowe had been bass player and chief songwriter with Brinsley Schwarz and was now main in-house producer at Stiff; Dury had been an art teacher and pub rock singer whose band Kilburn & the High Roads had fizzled out; and Costello had only left his job as a computer operator at Elizabeth Arden in Acton that July when his debut album My Aim Is True had been released and he was expected to get out there and promote it.
Fellow tourist Larry Wallis had been a member of the Pink Fairies, Ladbroke Grove’s favourite psychedelic underground freak band of the early 1970s, whose gigs promoted free music, drug taking and anarchy and often didn’t always involve playing with their clothes on. He was even an early member of Motörhead but by the autumn of 1977 had a solo single out, the rather brilliant Police Car produced by Nick Lowe. Wreckless Eric on the other hand was a newcomer who had been signed by Stiff because he just dropped by the office with a tape they liked. He became a quirky troubadour of the new wave era and his new release was the enduring hit Whole Wide World.
The idea was that each artists picked their own backing band from the same pool of musicians and come up with a witty name. Costello already had his Attractions (three of whom still play for him to this day) and Ian Dury had his Blockheads, who had played on his new album. Nick Lowe’s band though, billed as the Nick Lowe’s Last Chicken in the Shop, included Dave Edmunds and Larry Wallis on guitar and Attractions’ drummer Pete Thomas … on guitar. Wreckless Eric’s band, the New Rockets, included Ian Dury on drums, Ian Dury’s girlfriend Denise Roudette on bass and Blockhead Davey Payne on free form jazz sax. Larry Wallis’ Psychedelic Rowdies included Nick Lowe on bass, both Terry Williams, later of Rockpile and Dire Straits and Attractions’ Pete Thomas on drums.
However nine days before the opening show, Jake Riviera and Dave Robinson had a huge row. Their relationship was always volatile but this must have been a bad one, because instead of the broken cider bottles in the office, they were on the pavement outside their 32 Alexander Street, W2. And the front window was broken. A settlement was hammered out where Riviera would leave Stiff with Lowe and Costello and Robinson would continue with what remained of Stiff. But only once the tour was over.
At 4pm on Monday, October 3, the entire company left Alexander Street destination High Wycombe in a 42-seat coach, led by tour manager, Dez Brown, amazingly a teetotaler given the mayhem to come but with the social skills of an angry Lemmy, so overall he was quite unpopular. His assistant, a blonde girl from California called Farrah was inevitably referred by all to as Farrah Fawcett-Minor
First on at High Wycombe Town Hall was Nick Lowe, wearing a fluorescent green Riddler suit decorated with question marks. Already an experienced road warrior, he was apparently a reluctant Live Stiff and was now content to be a Stiff’s in-house studio producer. Using the wisdom from years on the road with Brinsley Schwarz, he always asked that he go on early in the bill so he could spend more time in the bar after he’d finished.
Next up was a tense Elvis Costello, who refused to play material from his just-released debut album My Aim Is True, which not surprisingly went down like a lead balloon. He had not considered the prospect that the acts on the bills might be eve a little competitive with each other but Ian Dury certainly had. He knew Costello was the major competition so had his publicist make a series of four badges saying Sex &, Drugs & ,Rock & and Roll and throw them into the crowd halfway through Costello’s set so that the audience started scrambling around everywhere trying to grab a badge rather than listening to the music. That set the tone for the tour.
Wreckless Eric didn’t have many songs so his was a brief set, but then Ian Dury took the stage, shouting Oi Oi! After seven years on the circuit and already aged 35, his moment had arrived and he wasn’t going to waste it. He and the Blockheads were a complete revelation, easily the equal of the white-hot Attractions. It became clear fairly quickly that this revolving bill idea wasn’t going to work, so it became two revolving bills: Dury closing one night and Costello the next.
Dury wasn’t finished with his one-upmanship though. His Sex & Drugs & Rock’n’Roll became the tour’s anthem and closed the show every night – at his suggestion – when the entire company, or those that could be located, would come back on-stage for a rousing finale of the song. It was a very clever idea – however brilliant Costello had been, they always sent the audience home with an Ian Dury song ringing in their ears.
Elvis Costello completely reorganised his set to include songs from the album and was a little less confrontational with the audience. As Costello says in his autobiography – it’s 600 pages long with only one page on Live Stiffs tour: We either had to follow Ian or try to upstage him. Most of the time Ian took the decision on points. He was charismatic, sometimes malevolent and most important funny, all qualities I lacked.
And then Dury responded. While Costello was writing four or five songs a day, Dury never stopped working on his act and thinking how can I be seen to be better than Elvis? He dressed differently each night, some nights as the Pearly King in a spangly jacket, some as a cloth cap Cockney cabbie, another with a striped hat and ski mask. During guitar solos he would pull hankies or feather dusters or plastic toys out of his pockets and throw them in the crowd or squirt water pistols at the crowd.
As the tour wound its way round its 24 stops, the permanently thirsty members of the company established the 24 Hour Club, a drinking club named after the rule that if someone knocked on your door at any time of the day or night you had to have an alcoholic drink. You just slept off your hangover on the coach to the next gig. Charter members were Nick Lowe & Dave Edmunds plus all the Attractions apart from Elvis, Larry Wallis, Terry Williams and one or two others, who dedicated their time to seeing how far their £50 a week wages might go in a bar and if possible stay up all night drinking. Dury wasn’t a member though and thought his Blockheads should be sober on stage. If anyone offered them a drink, Ian would say, ‘We don’t’.
And as the tour wound on, some people had been drinking so much and their hangovers so dreadful that they couldn’t really perform the next night. After two weeks, Wreckless Eric was close to collapse, he’d never played so many gigs in such a short space of time, so on Doctor’s orders he was sent to his parents’ house to recover and missed a few dates.
Nick Lowe’s appearances at the club were less and less. To be honest he’d done it all before and as senior Stiff staffer on duty was trying to control his own excesses. This led to some tension between him and Dave Edmunds, who’d essentially been a studio producer for several years and off the road so was out on tour for a laugh and was dismayed to find that his partner in crime was often missing. Then after on particularly drunken evening, Edmunds was sacked from the tour. At 1am after some enthusiastic drinking, Edmunds and Larry Wallis suddenly wanted some valuables he’d left with Dez Brown, the teetotal tour manager if you remember, who not surprisingly had gone to bed early and had left strict instructions not to be disturbed.
On reaching the tour manager’s room, they knocked, and continued knocking until a naked Brown opened the door. The details of What Happened Next cannot be fully reported, other than to say that things escalated really quickly and Dez Brown was left covered in blood and chocolate. Amazingly
, Nick Lowe, who was sharing the room with Brown, slept through the whole thing. When he awoke the following morning, Brown was in hospital and there was a note at Lowe’s bedside that read: Basher — you missed the sound of breaking glass, which gave him an idea for a song.
In the furore, Edmunds was sacked but graciously Larry Wallis explained that actually he was partly to blame, so Edmunds was almost immediately reinstated. However he’d already left the hotel so everyone chased off to the railway station to catch up with him but his train had left. At the next gig, Elvis Costello had to deputise on guitar although Edmunds was back the next night.
On October 28, the tour climaxed with a sold-out Lyceum Ballroom gig in London, where it was Ian Dury’s turn to close the show. The event was recorded and filmed and received extravagant media attention. Five shows remained, but there was now general impatience to get things over and done with, especially with Riviera, Lowe and Costello out the door the moment the tour ended.
Three shows, including the Lyceum, were recorded for a live album Live Stiffs that was released early in 1978 to recoup some of the £11,000 losses, a significant sum for an independent label. Luckily the tour broke Ian Dury and his New Boots & Panties album stayed in the charts for two years, a life-saver for Stiff. Without it they may not have survived. A year later, in the autumn of 1978 they did it all over again, with a second live package tour with the Be Stiff Tour. To up the ante they went everywhere by train which they hired specially for £40,000 for the month. There was a third tour, the Son of Stiff Tour, in 1980 but Stiff were actually too successful for it to matter. As Ian Dury’s success had waned, they had signed Madness, whose first 20 singles all entered the UK Top 20 and their debut album ‘One Step Beyond’, released in 1979, stayed in the British charts for over a year. They even had a US Top Ten single with ‘Our House’.