If It Ain’t Stiff, BBC4

by | Sep 16, 2006 | All, Reviews

Did we like it?

At times, this documentary about wilfully idiosyncratic record label Stiff assumed the tone of one of those investigations into underground subcultures that threaten to subvert society. And while Stiff was merely a shabbily-run company that released a few astonishingly good albums, the manner perfectly captured its unique place in British popular culture.

What was good about it?

• Adrian Edmondon’s restrained narration that made him sound as though he were auditioning for the job of God’s Arch-Angel so holy and pious was his intonation.

• The vivid, perhaps over-romanticised, picture that was painted of the way Stiff operated with meetings down the pub, contracts written on the backs of fag packets, offices with notes and folders strewn about like dismembered limbs on a battlefield.

• Captioning Elvis Costello as DP Costello (his original stage name), Pub Rocker.

• The anecdotes of the haphazard way in which Stiff stumbled from one financial disaster to the next only to be rescued by one of the acts on their roster, such as Ian Dury And The Blockheads or Madness, releasing a modern classic.

• The revelation that colleagues used to deliberately rile Ian Dury in order to get the best performance out of him on stage.

• The gradual rise of Stiff as marked by how high their singles got in the charts. Elvis Costello’s Watching The Detectives was their first single that breached the top 20, while Ian Dury And The Blockheads gave them their first number one with the timeless Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick.

• Nigel Dick’s economical, but accurate, assessment of Stiff’s ill-fated move into the American market to find the next Devo after they missed out on them to a major label. Devo, by the way, were no great loss sounding as they did like Goldie Lookin’ Chain crossed with the sickly monotone of Mr Spock. Dick also summed up Stiff’s existence that oscillated between serendipitous success and reckless failure when he said: “Stiff was a constantly sinking ship.”

• Phill Jupitus capturing the excitement of hearing a classic song for the first time on the radio and then racing down to the local record shop to buy it. In his case, it was Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick.

• Dave Robinson asking Madness to play a gig for him, which also just happened to be his wedding reception after he found it difficult to book entertainment.

• Jonathan Ross summing up the near-religious reverence that Stiff inspired in the youth of the day. “If a record came out on Stiff,” he confided, “I would get it.” This also included the notorious, but big-selling record called The Wit And Wisdom Of Ronald Reagan, which was blank on both sides.

• Pete Waterman revealing how as a producer he used to slow records down in the anticipation of Dave Robinson speeding them up to counter his delusion that Radio 1 slowed records down when they played them.

• Shane MacGowan, who is a uniquely pale shade of white (don’t be too shocked if you see MacGowan’s Pallor offered as a choice of paint colour from Dulux), and who also laughs like a detuned TV that’s had too much to drink spouting saliva-drenched white noise.

What was bad about it?

• As with any documentary set in a time that many of its viewers either won’t remember or hadn’t been born, it set about subjectively manipulating history to recast Stiff as the King Richard of music labels cleansing the mid-70s of despoiled heathen music. Obviously, prog-rock (the dinosaur-extinction comet of pop music) was rightfully ridiculed as was the glittering, garish glare of Glam. But what of Kraftwerk, David Bowie and Can; musicians whose influence has lingered long after Stiff’s admirable efforts have faded away?

• Elvis Costello wearing sunglasses indoors, especially when it was revealed that his big glasses were as much a record company calculated part of his image as the Fat One, Cute One, Cheeky One, Wrinkled Dancer, Tanned Dancer set-up was in Take That. He’s not even short-sighted. Captain Sensible also wore sunglasses indoors, but that’s alright as no one has given a damn about him since Happy Talk.

• Yet another attempt to proclaim three minute pop songs played by gruff men with guitars as somehow more ‘authentic’ and ‘genuine’ than other genres. The aim of the ‘pub rock’ that Stiff initially championed was to get music “back to its roots”. Another instance of the Luddite mentality that blights each afternoon of the Glastonbury Festival when one grey Indie band after another troop onto stage and churn out their leaden grey anthems to a frothing crowd with their free NME Festival Specials stuffed down their labelled jeans.

• The original founders of Stiff – Jack Riviera and Dave Robinson – were both interviewed on what we took to be their boats. And while they are both in their 60s now (though according to Riviera, the lazy high-life was always the main aim of Robinson), it seemed sad that a pair of pioneering mavericks now seemed to squat comfortably on what are the toilet-bowls of middle-aged obsolescence.

• Pete Waterman sitting proudly in his home while his Gold and Platinum discs scarred the walls behind him in an exercise in inappropriate triumphalism was the heinous musical equivalent of interviewing General Augusto Pinochet in a football stadium.

• For all the great records, charisma and individualism brought to the UK’s musical heritage, we’re sad to report that because it inspired Pete Waterman to “take on the world” it must be held partially responsible for the dirty blood of manufactured pop that has flowed through the arteries of music since Stiff’s collapse in 1986, ultimately causing the debilitating septicaemia of Pop Idol and X-Factor.

Luke Knowles

Luke Knowles

16/09/2006

Editor of the website and host of the podcast. A general TV obsessive. I've been running the site since 2008 and you can usually find me in front of the TV. My Favourite show of all time is Breaking Bad with Cracker coming a close second. I feel so passionately that television can change the world and I'm doing my little bit by running this site. You're Welcome!

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