Book Review: Read My Lips
Another micro UK label with macro influence
Reviewed by Michael Toland, Fri., May 29, 2015
Be Stiff: The Stiff Records Storyby Richard Balls
Soundcheck Books, 288 pp., $22.95 (paper)
"If it ain't Stiff, it ain't worth a fuck," declared the most notorious of Stiff Records' slogans. Be Stiff reminds that, at the pioneering UK label's zenith, that was likely true. The brainchild of Dave Robinson and Jake Riviera, a couple of managers/provocateurs besotted by pub rock, Stiff challenged the reign of major English labels by scoring hits from an unlikely set of stars that became legends in the process. It wasn't easy, and it didn't last, but for a good decade Stiff was Great Britain's label to beat. Richard Balls recounts the story with a straightforward narrative style, injecting just enough opinion for spice. He gets Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, and the Damned – the names most famous to Americans but with short stays on the label – on and off early, giving equal play to Ian Dury & the Blockheads and Madness, the mainstays that put the label on the charts at home. Also starring: the Pogues, Wreckless Eric, the Belle Stars, Lene Lovich, Tracey Ullman, Any Trouble, Kirsty MacColl, and token Americans Devo, Rachel Sweet, the Plasmatics, and former Austinite Joe "King" Carrasco. Be Stiff isn't just the story of a label. It's practically the best of the British New Wave.