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Richard Balls - The Stiff Records Story

  by Lisa Torem

published: 10 / 5 / 2018

Richard Balls - The Stiff Records Story


in her regular 'Raging Pages' book column Lisa Torem finds that Richard Balls' book ‘Be Stiff’, which is about the rise and fall of Stiff Records, imbues a classic, cultural relevance and that its heroes made an indelible mark on pop/punk music.

This illuminating book is about the making of an essential record label formed by Jake Riviera and Dave Robinson in 1976, which was known for its quirky marketing acumen—i.e., glossy, coloured vinyl and irreverent sales slogans, as well as a cornucopia of unique clients: Elvis Costello, Ian Dury, Madness, The Pogues, etc. But the weirdness didn’t stop there — in one instance, Stiff released an Akron, Ohio compilation project entitled: ‘The Wit and Wisdom of Ronald Reagan’ which consisted of (shades of John Cage…) 45 minutes of silence. Like many labels, it couldn’t sustain itself and came to a halt in 1987. But through the wit and grit of Trevor Horn, it became resurrected again in 2006 with the release of ‘Bom Bom’ by Sam & The Womp. Like a cool, can’t-put-it down novel, the reader will enjoy a lot of back story and character portraiture. Chapter four, for example, provides a glorious narrative of Elvis Costello (‘Elvis is King.’) “‘My Aim It’s True’ delivered Stiff its first hit record,” confirms author Richard Balls , despite some folks fearing the Declan MacManus might have been mooching off the Elvis Presley legacy… There’s a strong element of humour in the chapter titles and beyond: ‘Undertakers to the Industry,’ ‘Stop The Cavalry’... This levity allows for a freely-flowing read and because each chapter is so well-ordered, it is possible to make a choice between taking in one at a time or devouring many in a single night over a glass of wine. Like most books of this ilk, there is a healthy tendency towards gossip, especially here in regards to the Damned and the Sex Pistols: “I don’t know how much rivalry there was between Jake and Malcolm (McLaren), but I’m sure there must have been some,” asserts drummer Rat Scabies, and as most rock readers might contend, that’s one element that fans never seem to get enough of in the mad world of rock lit, so bring it on… Most exploratory was the discussion of what caused the label demise: “Paul Conroy cites the lack of songwriters at Stiff as one of the reasons for that.” Clearly, they were not able to keep coming up with “the hits.” Richard Balls, who also wrote ‘Sex and Drugs and Rock ‘N Roll: The Life of Ian Dury', unquestionably did his homework, as the research was born of fifty interviews of integral players, including label illuminati and subsequent artists, such as Graham Parker, Wreckless Eric and more. The book also includes a section of never-seen-before photos and other memorabilia, buthowever, for a book of this length— three hundred plus pages, I would have liked to have seen a few more. This is a fascinating account of a business bursting with originality but eventually waning financially due to a few predictable happenings as well as surprises. Yet they achieved greatness in a fairly short amount of time - turning “pub rockers such as Nick Lowe, Elvis Costello and Ian Dury into hip new wavers” and heralding the UK’s first punk single, 'New Rose' by the Damned. And in a still-mysteriously run industry, ‘Be Stiff’ remains an important book, as it is thick with emotional and commercial history and equally generous with the telling of colourful, artist stories. Readers may note that this is not a newly published book, yet 'Raging Pages' says it still stands as a phenomenal and timeless resource.

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