Stiff Records - The Legend Returns

stiff again

Stiff Records - The Legend Returns

Stiff is back, with their first set of re-releases reviewed right here on trakMARX last time round. It was the label that brought such luminaries as Elvis Costello, Ian Dury, Wreckless Eric, Nick Lowe, Kirsty MacColl (not to mention Max Wall and Humphrey Ocean And The Hardy Annuals), through the all-conquering mid-80s institution that was Madness. Stiff also did much to establish the ethos of late 70s independent music; cool, highly individual releases with a real sense of outsider identity, bizarre press stunts, great logos, fiscal brinkmanship. Never had so many attitudinal mavericks gathered in one place, it seemed. Stiff’s founders Jake Riviera, now a recluse in Texas, and Dave Robinson, are not part of the set-up any longer. But I spoke to the man behind the label’s reactivation, Pete Gardiner, and Andy Murray, a veteran of the label from its early incarnation when he was their press officer, who is currently working with another of the label’s mainstays, Clive Gregson’s Any Trouble.

PETER GARDINER: To give you a bit of background, we’ve managed the catalogue for quite a long time. It was acquired by Trevor Horn and Jill Sinclair at the end of the eighties, because of a tie-up they had with Stiff at the time. So they ended up acquiring the catalogue, although not all of the rights, and they bought the name. We just run it as a catalogue concern. But at the beginning of last year I met someone from the BBC and I pitched the idea of a documentary, just to give us a bit of catalogue profile, to be honest. The BBC ended up producing that documentary [If It Ain’t Stiff]. As we were doing it, we realised there was still interest and quite a lot of awareness of the brand. So we thought, why don’t we do some low-key bits and pieces, in the original manner of the label? We had an A&R guy that worked on the publishing side that went to Warners and came up with this band, the Enemy, that he was looking to sign. So we did the first couple of singles. A lot of the originals on Stiff were one-off singles originally. We never had any intention of signing the band to any long-term deal, we’re not in that sort of market. We did those two singles, just 1,000 limited editions, and they sold rapidly. Suddenly we had more and more interest and people contacting us. So we just thought, this is a good chance now. And it’s something we can manage – it’s being run as a relative cottage industry, if you like – we’re not heading for the big time with this one, unless something gathers its own momentum. But the intention is to sell ourselves, use the websites, use the downloads, sell limited editions and get a little bit of business ticking over from there. From that initial two Enemy singles, we've got a single out today actually, Eskimo Disco. It’s called ‘What Is Woman’. It reflects the diversity of the label from the first time round. The Enemy are a three-piece guitar rock band and – I don’t think you can describe Eskimo Disco easily. They’re sort of an electronic rock band if you like. And we started talking to other people. We ended up talking to Andy Murray, cos he was coincidentally looking at a new Any Trouble album, so it seemed a logical place to come to us. We partly financed that along with the band.

ANDY MURRAY: Generally speaking, if you’ve got something of good quality, it’s successful, to a certain degree, to its own level. And it usually has nothing to do with money. Having said that, because you’ve now only got four majors in Britain, and only a few more in America, it’s very worrying in that, with the fragmentation of the marketplace, it’s very hard to get exposure. So if you’re up against monoliths of the media as you still are, people do tend to look over their shoulders, because they want to know whether the train is leaving and if Universal is at the throttle. So if you have an act on an independent, in a straight fight, with an act on Universal, the Universal act will get the nod. That’s my concern about the modern world. And that’s why I’m excited about having Any Trouble on Stiff, because it is something new, and I think they can compete in a world of songs, guitar playing and rhythm voodoo, if you like, because I think there’s so little of it out there. But that’s my opinion. But it is a sad reflection that everyone with a mySpace page is now a musician.

PETE GARDINER: The guy who was producing the Any Trouble album [John Wood, original Squeeze producer] was also producing Chris Difford. So we signed Chris as well, which is a solo project that is almost finished, but won't actually come out till the end of the current Squeeze revival. Then we picked up a little band from Vancouver called the Tranzmitters – they’ve never really played outside the area, it’s just that someone at the Rough Trade shop gave me copies of the singles that they’d been putting out. The band is coming over of its own accord actually. We’re not in a position to bring them over, but they’re coming over on their holidays in August and lining up a couple of dates here, plus anything else they can line up while in this country. Then we’ve got a young band from Leicester called the Displacements, they’re about 17 or 18, and are just recording a single for us at the moment. It’s very much that we’re trying to reflect the way the label was originally run, but we’re also adapting to the way the market’s changed in the last few years, it’s changing day by day. We’re relying a lot more on the download side, selling a lot more through our website and the Be Stiff website, which has a really active Stiff-related shop, The Turkey Zone. And that’s where we’re at.

trakMARX: You’re also concurrently re-releasing Stiff archive material.

PETE GARDINER: Yeah, some of them. Traditionally the catalogue has been licensed out and no-one’s actually done the albums, they’ve tended to compile the main artist. And we just thought there’s a market, small though it might be, but if we can control the costs there is a market. So we did that batch of releases, Any Trouble, Rachel Sweet . . . in some cases it’s the first time the actual albums as such have been done. There have been compilations, but they’re never really been done with any . . .

trakMARX: Care?

PETE GARDINER: Yes, as you well know. There are two or three labels who had licences and did things and it was horrible. One of the first things I did when I came in was put a stop to all those deals and people putting things like that out. We did things like the Dirty Looks, two albums that had never been on CD. There’s some good records in there as well. We’ve got a few other bits and pieces lined up. We own about 30 or 40 albums from the original catalogue. A lot of other things just reverted back to the original artists or their estates, in terms of Dury, Costello and Madness. But we’ve the Kirsty MacColl and Tenpole Tudor albums, all those sorts of things. We’re just doing the Tenpole ‘Stiff Package’ if you like. That’s both albums and all the b-sides and a handful of live tracks, which we’ve just mastered up now. Again, there have been best of’s where no-one’s bothered with the original albums.

trakMARX: There’s been at least three Tenpole best of’s.

PETE GARDINER: Probably more than that! But we’ve pulled everything on to one double mid-priced release. The same as we did with Dirty Looks. Sometimes it doesn’t seem worth releasing the album by itself, but there are people who want everything, and quite a lot of those tracks have not been available, the album tracks and b-sides, so we’ve pulled everything together there really.

trakMARX: Just in terms of your background Pete, did you come in through the ZTT side?

PETE GARDINER: Not really, no. I came in a few years ago to look after the licensing rights for both catalogues, both ZTT and Stiff, to do sub-licensing and film syncs. And the way things ended up was that the various staff have all gone, one by one, and I just ended up running both labels, by default as much as anything else. I was in retail for the entire 80s. I remember all this stuff coming out, from buying it. I was a big fan of the label, much more so than of ZTT to be honest. Because I bought all those singles from ’76 onwards, and I worked in retail through the entire 80s for Our Price. So I was aware of it all and a big fan of it all.

trakMARX: The reputation of Stiff was of two hard-headed businessmen. Jake especially, though of course he left fairly early on, but also Dave Robinson was legendarily formidable. They got things wrong, but they didn’t pussyfoot around their artists as much as some labels did.

ANDY MURRAY: Not at all. That was actually very refreshing. Dave used to say to us: “The trouble with you lot is that you’ve got the English disease.” We said, what do you mean. He said, “You think having a good excuse is as good as doing something”> And it’s as true today as it was then. It’s not necessarily British, but it is a trait of people in business. “Oh, I couldn’t do it”. That’s no good if you’re an entrepreneur. If you want something done, you just want it done. But they were very single-minded, put it that way.

Alex Ogg – tMx 30 – 07/07