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Digital Subscriptions > Long Live Vinyl > Jun 2019 - The Stone Roses > IF IT AIN’T STIFF

IF IT AIN’T STIFF

From pub rock to punk and straight into new wave, Stiff Records was the stuff of indie fantasies. Genre-breaker, cult laboratory, purveyor of sleeves and objects that still remain collectible artifacts, Stiff had it all. But is there an even deeper side to the label that we’ve been missing? Gareth Murphy goes behind the scenes

Arty, funny and hip is a tricky combination to strike, but they’re a trio of virtues that Stiff Records were well served by. This was the independent label that blew new wave wide open, and its story was truly an unlikely meeting of wide boys, whizz-kids, weirdos and one-chord wonders. Right time, right place, Stiff Records literally emerged from the beer-splattered underworld of local pubs where bands played in the basement. Before Stiff’s fortuitously timed creation in the summer of 1976, just as punk was gurgling up from the gutters, its founders, Jake Riviera and Dave Robinson, were already well-travelled managers of rockers such as Dr. Feelgood and Graham Parker.

Having forged their own pub circuits for unsigned bands to play, it was touring the Feelgoods and Graham Parker around the smaller cities of America that they noticed how locally minded indies, many of them management agencies, were releasing singles as calling cards for hot new bands. Adapting the model to England, they rented the ground floor at 32 Alexander Street in West London. Inspired by showbiz slang, the brandname “Stiff” was a double-edged joke meaning a flop, but a sturdy, durable flop. For extra irony, the founding byline boasted that Stiff was The World’s Most Flexible Record Label.

In August 1976, Stiff’s first single, with its quirky reference BUY 1, was So It Goes by Nick Lowe. More seven-inch stompers quickly followed from the Pink Fairies, the Roogalator, Tyla Gang and Lew Lewis. However, with BUY 6, the barely erectile Stiff Records released what would officially become the UK’s first ever punk record, New Rose by The Damned.

As New Rose exploded into a punk hit, Stiff secured a distribution deal with Island, at the time, England’s only indie powerhouse. Confirming Stiff’s instant cool factor, the next release was Blank Generation by Richard Hell. It was here that Riviera noticed the demo of a singer-songwriter bound for glory.

Named Declan MacManus, Riviera concocted the improbable stage name of Elvis Costello, complete with the Buddy Holly glasses. It was also at this rapidly happening juncture, just as 1977 got off to a loud bang, that Stiff began hiring the services of a genius graphic artist by the name of Barney Bubbles. As well as designing the custard-spattered sleeve for The Damned’s debut album, Damned, Damned, Damned, Bubbles conceived the striking cover of One Chord Wonders by The Adverts, one of punk’s defining images.

But it was Bubbles’ designs for Elvis Costello’s debut album, My Aim Is True, and its accompanying hit single Watching The Detectives, both released in February 1977, that marked the first milestone of what we now call new wave, some seven months before even Talking Heads released their first album in New York.

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About Long Live Vinyl

In our cover story, we look back at The Stones Roses' classic 1989 debut album 30 years on from its release. Producer John Leckie takes us inside the making of the record and Peter Hook reveals how he would have made it sound even better. We also count down the 60 greatest debut albums of all time, from Are You Experienced to Unknown Pleasures. Elsewhere, the irrepressible Bobby Gillespie guides us through Primal Scream’s new best-of collection, Maximum Rock ‘N’ Roll, Kevin Morby explains why a concept album about religion might be the best record he’s ever made, and we meet the outrageously talented Aldous Harding to hear about joyful new LP Designer. We also profile the legendary Stiff Records and take an in-depth look at The Cure’s Disintegration – which turns 30 this year as the band prepare to headline Glastonbury. Legendary photographer Norman Seeff recalls shooting Blondie, Fleetwood Mac and The Rolling Stones, and if that's not enough we bring you the widest range of new album, reissue, turntable and accessory reviews anywhere on the newsstand. Long Live Vinyl is THE magazine for vinyl lovers.