Bunch Of Stiffs
The Stiffs formed in Blackburn in 1976. They played their first gig in 1977. They released their first 45 in 1978. They signed to Dork Records in 1979. They signed to EMI Records in 1980. They released a single on Stiff Records in 1981 - & then promptly spilt up.
Today their 45s command healthy prices on the collectors market & The Stiffs place in Punk Rock history is writ large. Marquee Smith tracked down The Stiffs founder & head honcho, Phil Hendriks, to quiz him about his recollections of being a part of that explosive street level rock & roll movement that came to be known as Punk Rock:
trakMARX - What was your introduction to the world of Punk Rock & what made it so exciting?
Living in Blackburn, Lancashire, we weren`t really in the thick of any Punk movement like London was in 1976. All we knew about it was what we could read in the music press. We were aware that something was rumbling, but since no Punk bands had actually made any records and we couldn`t see them 'live', it was impossible to be a fully paid up member of the Punk club. The nearest we got to it was seeing Eddie and the Hot Rods or Dr.Feelgood on Kid Jensen`s '45' TV show, or some such show. Those bands were pretty exciting at that time and had a much more aggressive approach and played fast. The music press were also heralding AC/DC as Punk in 75/76, with records like 'Problem Child' and 'Big balls', so that was really the first hint that there might be a 'movement' beckoning. The Runaways also picked up huge tabloid press coverage, though their music never lived up to the hype.
The radio was full of Disco shite, so part of the excitement was being the first to discover some great new band or hard-to-find record which couldn`t be heard on the radio.
The first Punk gig I ever attended was a band called London, who`d just released a great single called Everyone`s A Winner. I was only 15 at that time in 1977, and my Dad wasn`t happy about me going 10 miles out of town to a club called the 'Lodestar' to see them....he agreed to drop me off there and pick me up at 9.30pm....the f*ckin` band didn`t come onstage till 9.25, so I watched them for half an hour and got 10 rounds of shit when I eventually came out of the club from my old man waiting in the car park. It was a shame for London as well, as I represented 25% of the audience!
trakMARX - Were you aware of any US Punk heritage at the time?
Not really. I didn`t know anything about The Velvet Underground, The Stooges, The New York Dolls.....none of that stuff that Punks were 'supposed' to be influenced by. I`d heard that Lou Reed was supposed to be a big Punk influence, but the only thing I`d heard at that time was 'Transformer' and I thought that was shite.
The first US band to impress me personally were The Ramones, when I heard I Remember You on the John Peel show. My mate and I cycled about 15 miles from Blackburn to Chorley to a little specialist record shop, just to buy that record with the picture cover. They only had one copy, so my mate got that and I bought Neat,Neat,Neat by the Damned instead. On the ride home The Ramones record fell from my mate`s saddlebag onto the road and cracked...Ouch!
trakMARX - You were only 14 years old when you decided to form a Punk Rock group? How did you go about it?
Stiffs guitarist (Strang) and I had ambitions to be in a band from the age of 11 but we couldn`t find a drummer or bass player. We played our first 'gig' as a duo at an over-60`s club in 1974, when we were both 12 years old....he played chords on guitar while I played the bass part on a standard 6-string guitar.
It was 1976 when we were introduced to Tommy O`Kane, a drummer from a neighbouring school. Another schoolfriend, Mark Young, bought himself a bass and suddenly we had a band. We started rehearsing in my Mum and Dad`s garage, much to the chagrin of the neighbours. Punk hadn`t arrived on the scene at that time, so we were attempting to play songs like Caroline and Roll Over Lay Down by Status Quo, along with hugely over-ambitious tracks like Deep Purple`s Highway Star, which I recall attempting once.
It was early 77 when we decided to 'go Punk'. We called Tommy up and said: "Hiya Tommy....we`ve decided to be a Punk band" - after hearing Neat,Neat,Neat on the John Peel show. Tommy had panic in his voice when he said: I`m not being a punk!....he hadn`t even heard a punk record at that time...he just thought it was too dangerous...heh,heh....then he discovered The Clash and changed his mind!
trakMARX - What was the Punk scene like in Blackburn in 1977?
The Blackburn Punk 'scene didn`t really exist back then other than kids searching down the records and starting to dress a bit more daringly....as far as I can recall...but by `78 there were a few bands appearing...The Cybermen (from Accrington), The Activators (Tom Petty soundalikes), IQ Zero, ourselves, Schoolgirl Bitch and maybe a couple of others, all playing small gigs in the backrooms of pubs and church halls while youth clubs were running Punk Disco nights.
At the time, a lot of 'establishment' people were terrified of Punk, so it took a while before the touring bands started being booked in the town`s public halls. However, in 78 we seemed to get a steady stream of great acts playing 'King George`s Hall'...The Adverts, The Jam, Rezillos, Buzzcocks, The Clash, Generation X...and then it was really starting to feel like we had a 'scene'.
trakMARX - Were you aware of the Buzzcocks, Slaughter & The Dogs, The Drones or any other fellow Northern Axis groups?
Oh yeah. At that time Tony Wilson used to introduce 'Granada Reports'.-.the local TV tea-time magazine show. He featured the Buzzcocks, The Nosebleeds and Slaughter playing songs live in the studio over a period of a few weeks, so I was aware of them. I remember thinking Slaughter were amazing on that show, as were Ed Banger & the Nosebleeds...though the Buzzcocks were so badly out of tune (playing Boredom as I recall) that it was laughable. Their records were hard to find though, even living locally.
trakMARX - You used to rehearse in John McVittie's (Bass) parent's garden. Was that an outdoor experience?
We only rehearsed there once. One of the lines Big John had used to talk his way into the bass player`s job was that he could 'provide rehearsal facilities'. We`d organised a rehearsal one day and were waiting for him to let us know where his 'facility' was. At the last minute, I think he said he`d been 'let down', but that it`d be okay to rehearse in his Mum and Dad`s garden. We duly set all the kit up and ran cables from the house and started making a fookin` awful racket right there on the lawn. We kept asking John:..Are you SURE this is gonna be okay with the rest of the street? He`d just say oh,bollocks to `em. Eventually the Police arrived and persuaded us that it`d be prudent if we`d effectively 'shut the fuck up'.
trakMARX - You were allegedly so displeased with your debut 7" 45 - "Brookside Riot Squad" (EP) - that you hid copies under the bed. Why was that?
Firstly, I must stress to anyone reading this that the versions of Standard English and Brookside Riot Squad on any of our CD albums are NOT the original single versions of these tracks, so we`re NOT referring to the CD versions (which were recorded a few months later).
Those original single tracks were demos, recorded in a two-bob studio. We had no knowledge of how to get a powerful sound in a studio and the playing and singing were pretty weak. We needed a few months more practise and honing and a better recording studio to realise our potential. There were only 6 or 7 months between the recordings of that first single in Dec 78 and the session in July 1979 which produced Inside Out and Kids On The Street, yet to listen to them it sounds like a completely different band.
Once we realised what we COULD sound like, we didn`t want people to hear the band sounding weak, so we just pretended the first single had never happened for a long time. That single always felt like a 'false-start'. We always thought we`d re-record the Standard English tracks (with balls) for an album and nobody would be any the wiser. Of course, it didn`t work out like that.
The funny thing is that 24 years later, a young Chicago Street-punk band, The Street Brats, have covered one of the tracks, Brookside, and they`ve done it almost identical to our early version...the irony of it!
trakMARX - How did it feel when John Peel picked up on "Inside Out" & began playing it on his show?
That was a fantastic feeling, to think you could write/rehearse/record and release your own record without the help of any managers/publishers or major record labels and actually be played on Radio One alongside all the greats and not-so-greats.
I was in a pub in Blackburn just before Xmas 1980, when a friend walked in and told me he`d just heard Peel play the record on his car radio, and that Peel had promised to play it lots more.....that made my Xmas!
trakMARX - What do you remember about your John Peel session?
Well, we did 2 Peel sessions, actually, and I remember both of them vividly. The first one was in early 1980. I`d summoned up the guts to call John Peel and ask him What`s the chance of a session?. He talked to his producer (John Walters) and Walters called me back to book a date....I was thrilled to bits.
At the same time I`d been called by the proprietor of a local record shop who said that a guy called Chris Briggs from EMI records had `phoned them, trying to trace the band, as he was interested in signing them. We arranged for Briggs to come down to Maida Vale studios on the day of the session to meet us.
We went down to London in 2 cars...my Dad driving one of them and our friend (and future drummer) John 'Juice' Mayor driving the other - and recorded 4 songs for the show: "Let`s Activate", "Innocent Bystander", "Brookside Riot Squad" and "Best Place In Town".
Juice had to get in on the act, so he played some percussion bits on Best Place which was a disco spoof and blew his brand new 'Acme Thunderer' whistle for extra authenticity. That got us in trouble later on when we were accused of using 'session musicians' after John Peel announced '...and on percussion...Rankin` Juice'...what a load of utter bollocks!
Chris Briggs duly turned up and invited us to meet him at EMI House the following day, when he offered us £1,000 to buy the rights to the Inside Out/Kids On The Street single. My Dad asked him: Why should they sell it to you?...They`ve done alright without your help so far!"...which was probably one of my Old Man`s finest quotes (though at the time we were kicking him under the table and thinking 'he`s gonna blow us the deal').
We also recorded a Mike Read session in Summer 1980. EMI set that one up and told us we must be absolutely sure to join the Musicians Union or we wouldn`t be allowed to record. Of course we didn`t bother! On the day of the session the first thing that happened was some guy with a clipboard asked us if we were M.U. members....I lied and told him 'Yes we are!'. He said, " Well, then you`re technically not allowed to record as the M.U. is on strike!"...we had to do a quick about-turn!
We recorded 4 songs: "Innocent Bystander", "Goodbye My Love", "Send Us The Money" and "Volume Control", then at the end we did a quick 'jingle' for the Mike Read show to the tune of "Kids On The Street". We recently located a reel-to-reel copy master of that session tape, jingle included, in glorious stereo...which was unusual as Read`s shows were always broadcast in Mono. None of it`s ever been released as yet. Dale Griffin (aka 'Buffin' - former Mott the Hoople drummer) was producing that session and we went on to become good friends.
In fact it was Buffin who got us the 2nd and last Peel session in Feb 1982. By this time we`d lost 2 members and replaced them with John 'Juice' Mayor on drums and Nick Alderson on bass. Dale called up one night and said: "the scheduled band for tomorrow`s Peel session has cancelled,- if you can get to London by 10am tomorrow you can have the session!". I called all the guys with the good news, but drummer Mayor (who was a male nurse) reckoned he 'couldn`t change his off-duty in time'. I had to call Buffin back and say: Yes, we can make it, but can YOU play drums for us?. He didn`t have much choice, so he agreed.
We recorded 4 songs; "Hook In Your Heart", "Child`s Play", "Over The Balcony" and "Standing Ovation". Buffin was superb on that session, with only 15 minutes to rehearse each song, he delivered a power-house performance. He did claim that he hadn't played drums for about 5 years - although he had a brand new kit in the back of his Mini, by coincidence. Our bassist, I think, stopped one song halfway through a run-through when Buffin had missed a particular accent or something and Buffin exploded at him: "I`ve only heard the f*cking song twice, just give me a f*ckin` chance to get through the thing - eh!" Buffin signed the session file as BLOODY RICH so as not to take credit for the session.
trakMARX - Would Punk Rock have spread as effectively without him?
Not a hope in Hell! Peel was THE man. Okay, he played some right old shite in between the good stuff, but he was the only guy on national radio with the balls to play Punk. He gave everybody a chance. The other DJs were all ex-fucking Motown and disco-dancing Northern Soul loving soft bastards, who were more interested in whether they could segue Disco Duck into I Love To Love than the future of Rock`n`roll...cunts! I once heard Dave Lee Travis swearing after his producer had made him play Complete Control, saying how much he hated it but he had to play it `cos it was in the charts...and I thought;,'now you know what it feels like for us listening to you pumping bilge like Demis fookin` Roussos all day!'.
TV was as bad...just remember there were only 2 'proper' TV channels...I don`t count BBC2 `cos all it showed was the test-card and the News. There were 2 music shows, kids shows not included: Top Of The Pops' and the 'Old Grey Whistle Test'. One would only play chart records and they made sure that Punk records couldn`t chart by not playing them on the radio and the Whistle Test was fronted by boring tw*t Bob Harris, who would only feature bands with beards who played 10 minute solos.
trakMARX - What went wrong with EMI?
The major problem at EMI was the old familiar story. Chris Briggs, who signed us, left a few weeks later and moved to Phonogram. No one else there had much interest or understanding of the band, so they were in no rush to release anything. They kept rejecting tracks we`d recorded for one reason and another.
Another factor was that we`d signed a management contract with Marksman Music after the EMI deal, but we`d been crafty and inserted a clause which meant that our management weren`t entitled to any percentage of contracts signed prior to the management agreement. This effectively meant that they couldn`t benefit from our EMI deal, so it was in their interests therefore to get us out of the EMI contract. Our management made life difficult for EMI and vice-versa. Ultimately, I think EMI took enough shit from Marksman and gladly allowed us out of the contract.
trakMARX - How did you hook up with Stiff Records?
Our management, Marksman music, also managed Stiff artists Any Trouble. Marksman called up one day in Jan. 81 and said: "you`re out of EMI and you need to be in London tomorrow to record a single for Stiff Records". We kept asking: "What`s the deal" - and we were always told: "Don`t worry about it lads". It wasn`t until a couple of months later we found out there was no advance involved, and furthermore...no deal unless the single charted. To put it bluntly, we`d been 'had'!
The single didn`t chart, despite massive airplay, and then we were sent out on tour with the UK Subs to promote it. We had to pay 2 Grand out of our own money to 'buy onto' the tour, so the whole episode left us skint.
trakMARX - Could Stiff have been the perfect label for The Stiffs if they'd got on board earlier?
No, I don`t think so. Stiff Records always seemed to be looking for a gimmick. I don`t think they had much interest in career development unless they struck gold with an artist`s first release. They used to annoy the hell out of me, when they first started, by 'deleting' records after only a few weeks as a promotional gimmick. They probably thought that having The Stiffs on Stiff Records was a good gimmick for one release!
trakMARX - A cover of Gary Glitter's "Goodbye My Love" wasn't very Punk Rock. Was that a mistake, in retrospect?
Well, it wasn`t a G*ry Gl*tter song for starters (doh! Ed). It was a hit for the Glitterband when they started making records independent of Gary. If there is a true meaning of Punk rock, then it wasn`t a 'Punk' song...but then neither was Jimmy Jazz by The Clash or White Rabbit by the Damned (or even Jefferson Airplane Ed). I always thought Punk was more of an attitude than a distinct form of song. The Punk brief was to be different to every f*cker else, so in our small way that`s what we were doing by trying to combine melody and power rather than pure anger.
It`s funny, but when we play it live now, the Punks still respond to it with fondness...so a lot of `em did like our version, even if we never wanted to release a cover version as a single. The only mistake was that no fucker bought it, `cos despite being on Radio One`s playlist it wasn`t available in the shops.
The proof of that is in the pudding....there are more 'A' Label promos appearing now than the 'stock' copies. I`ll bet my ass that Stiff only pressed 1000 copies, maybe as some side-deal with our management.
trakMARX - Any interesting memories of the UK Subs/Anti-Pasti tour?
Some of the gigs were great, some were hellish! We played Birmingham 'Top Rank' and were met by an avalanche of beer glasses from the moment we walked on-stage. They were plastic glasses, but fuck me they hurt when they`re still full of beer. I was hit square in the nose by a full glass on the first chord of Volume Control and, covered in blood, stormed offstage declaring: "I`ve fookin` had enough of this shite!". The other guys followed and we stood behind the curtain arguing whether we should continue. One of us came up with the thought that we wouldn`t even get our 50 quid fee if we didn`t play on, so we reluctantly re-convened and walked out to face the wrath of Birmingham for another half-an-hour. There were good audiences too, though....but the over-riding tour memory is one of being covered in gob every night.
trakMARX - New Romanticism killed of The Stiffs in June 1981. What was the death of the group like from your end?
It was absolutely miserable. We`d gone from Zeros to Heroes and back to Zeros in the space of about 18 months. We`d never even got as far as making an album.
The band members gradually decided they needed to eat, so they fell overboard one by one. Record companies weren`t signing guitar bands and the Punk scene was going more and more hardcore and underground - which wasn`t really our bag of tricks. There really wasn`t anywhere we could go at that time.
trakMARX - A posthumous compilation on Captain Oi Records has ensured The Stiffs their place in Punk Rock history. Are you happy with your legacy today?
Yes, I`m happy with the 'legacy'. Most of our recordings were only ever intended as demos, so I wonder how much better things might have been if we`d ever been given carte blanche studio time to produce 'definitive' versions of many of the songs. Who knows? From the reaction I get via the website etc., a lot of people like them just the way they are, so that`s fine by me.
The one unfortunate thing about it is that we only located original master tapes for many of the tracks AFTER the various recent CD re-issues came out, so we could now dramatically improve the mastering if we ever get the chance.
trakMARX - Both early 45s change hands for a lot of dosh on the collectors market today. Does that provide a feeling of warmth & satisfaction?
Yes, it`s nice to think you`re 'collectable'. It gives you the feeling that you`ve left a mark somewhere in the greater scheme of things.
I`ve recently had to pay fairly daft money to obtain Belgian, Spanish and Australian releases of our Goodbye My Love single - which was neither 'warming' nor 'satisfying' though!!!
trakMARX - What was the high point of The Stiffs active service?
One incident that sticks in my memory was being joined by Steve Jones onstage at the Marquee Club in 1980 or 81. Steve and fellow 'Professional', Ray McVeigh, joined us for an encore of the Pistols` Silly Thing. The idea of a bloke jumping up onstage to sing a song isn`t that big a deal, but for four 18-year old kids at that time, meeting their hero, it was a major achievement.
Recording tracks with Overend Watts and Dale Griffin (both of Mott the Hoople) producing us was also a fantastic experience, as was playing in front of a packed Lyceum theatre on the Subs tour in `81.
Walking up the steps of Abbey Rd studios in 2001 with a case full of tapes to re-master for the EMI "Innocent Bystanders" album...another moment to savour.
The highest point for me though, was going out to play a short tour in Japan in November 2002 and having a brand new single "Four Winds" released. The audiences were so enthusiastic and knew ALL the songs, which was unbelievable. That experience meant more to me than anything because it`s current AND because they`d come specifically to hear STIFFS songs.
Likewise, playing this year`s Antifest' in the Czech Republic in front of 4 or 5,000 people....what a buzz! You`ve got to keep making these new highpoints.
trakMARX - What are the various Stiffs up to these days?
They`re all getting on with their lives up in Blackburn. They might not thank me if I give out any more details than that, but suffice to say, they`re all well and keeping out of trouble.
trakMARX - And finally....how can people best access the sounds of The Stiffs in 2003?
Well I`d be much happier if they went and ordered a CD rather than download it as an MP3. We don`t sell records by the million in the first place!
"The Stiffs: The Punk Collection" CD on Captain Oi! Records is great for starters as it`s really a 'Best of' album. "Stiffology" on Angel Air Records ties up a lot of loose ends and the re-mastering is superb...it`s almost like a companion set to the Captain Oi! album. The EMI album Innocent Bystanders concentrates on the period 1979/1980 and the Volume Control - Live 99 album has been deleted now.
Marquee Smith tMx12 11/03