Any Trouble / Dirty Looks / Rachel Sweet / Tracey Ullman / Wreckless Eric
Where Are All The Nice Girls? / Dirty Looks/Turn It Up / Fool Around / You Broke My Heart In 17 Places / Big Smash
1980 / 1980-81 / 1978-79 / 1983-84 / 1977-1980
B- / B+ / A- / B / A-
n the great pantheon of British indie labels that grew in and around the punk era, Stiff has never quite gotten the respect that it is due. Between releasing the first punk single and album (by the Damned, beating the Pistols and the Clash to the punch) and launching the careers of Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, the Pogues, Madness, Ian Dury and the Blockheads, and a host of others, one would think that Stiff would be raised to its appropriate place in history by now, lauded by critics and museums as the ultimate DIY shop. Nick Lowe’s nickname “Basher” didn’t come from anything he did on stage—it was from the cheap and efficient way he could “bash” out the latest Stiff offerings from behind the mixing desk. The name and practice would be Stiff hallmarks, and perhaps this has something to do with the fact that they aren’t taken very seriously—they never took themselves too seriously either. There was also the fact that they were blatantly, comically chasing the quick buck; the way they shamelessly self-promoted through package tours and recorded odes to the imprint (Devo’s “Be Stiff” and Nick Lowe’s “I Love My Label” among others); and of course there were those ridiculous slogans: “If it ain’t Stiff, it ain’t worth a fuck” and all that.
Perhaps it is this lack of respect that has led the folks at Stiff to remaster, reissue, and expand these five releases (encompassing six albums and many singles across seven CDs) from the lesser-known reaches of their rather deep back catalog, in an effort to show the depth and flexibility they always had but has conveniently been forgotten in the years since. Perhaps it was a cash-in effort, as usual. More likely, it was a combination of the two. In either case, the first blast of what is likely to be a lengthy reissue campaign showcases both what was so wonderful and what was so forgettable about Stiff in the first place.
Case in point: Rachel Sweet’s 1978 debut Fool Around was seen by some at the time as an exploitative move by the label. The 16-year old Akron, Ohio native had pouty good looks and Lolita-like charm to spare, and in the lads-culture camp that was Stiff it sure looked to be a cheap ploy to gather the pervert dollar. As it turns out, however, Sweet could sing like a champ and rock with the best of the boys. Far from being a pre-Britney manufactured product, Sweet mixed punk and country, R&B and pop into a peppy and beguiling mix that holds up well today though it didn’t exactly light the world afire back then. With able backing from Stiff regulars, a cover of Costello’s “Stranger in the House,” and as a bonus, Sweet’s take on Devo’s “Be Stiff,” the album carries typical Stiff fingerprints all over it, but manages to charm in ways that much of the catalog doesn’t. Bouncing from her cover of Carla Thomas’ “B-A-B-Y” to the definitive teen pop-punk anthem “Who Does Lisa Like” (wherein the title question is elevated in import over weightier political issues, you know, just like a real teenager), to the country twang of “Stranger,” Sweet is the glue that holds it all together. Liam Sternberg’s Spector-on-a-budget sound and keen songwriting helps a far bit as well. Fans of Nellie McKay and sharp teen pop, look no further for the roots of the movement.
Solid too, but more in line with Stiff business-as-usual is Wreckless Eric’s Big Smash, expanded to a double CD and including the original album along with all of his other better known tunes and a shedload of other bonus material. Most casual Stiff listeners (and keen-eared viewers of Will Ferrell’s Stranger Than Fiction will already know the two-chord slash-and-burner “Whole Wide World” and “Semaphore Signals,” but Eric Goulden shows a lot more than that here. His pop smarts, sense of humor, and energy to spare make this a worthy addition to any fan of new wave/power pop. Eric’s appeal is summed up neatly in the very first track here, “A Popsong,” detailing how the Stiff honchos ask him to write a hit single and then proceeding to knock one out that, of course, never became a hit anyway. Such buried gold is found in ample supply here.
Unbeknownst to me, Dirty Looks were responsible for Stiff’s biggest Stateside success, although noting that the power trio are from Staten Island perhaps explains why. Filtering XTC-style quirks through a punk strainer, Dirty Looks are ripe for rediscovery here. Not all of the tunes hold up so well, but the spirit is willing and the hooks are plentiful. Perhaps a single disc introduction would better serve the novice or the curious, but the added live tracks (including a stellar take on “Love Comes In Spurts”) are worthy additions for sure.
On the other side of the ledger comes the expanded version of Any Trouble’s debut. Opening with the double-barreled attack of the Costello-like singles “Yesterday’s Love” and “Second Choice,” Where Are All the Nice Girls? quickly falls victim to the inevitable comparison (frontman Clive Gregson even resembles Costello, glasses and all) and is all the poorer for it. With none of EC’s trademark tension and bile to add weight, Any Trouble sounds a bit like a lounge version of the Attractions. The singles are great, including power-ballad “Girls Are Always Right,” but the rest is just a third-generation Xerox of Stiff’s most famous alum.
Of course, no Stiff project would be complete without a bit of a laff, and so we have Tracey Ullman’s debut album repackaged for the umpteenth time (much of this material has been available for years in a variety of GH packages). You Broke My Heart... is lightweight 60s girl pop fun run through the 80s production mill and if there is a stroke against it, that would be it. For her part, Ullman plays it fairly straight, however, and is mostly successful doing so. Of course, the gorgeous Wall-of-Sound hit “They Don’t Know” was a big hit, but fans of that classic Cilla Black/Petula Clark sound should find much to love here.
It remains to be seen whether this reissue campaign changes current public opinion of Stiff as merry pranksters not to be taken seriously, but in my perfect world of pop history it would. Then again, the label is apparently reactivating after all these years as well, so any good work done here might be undone by an ungraceful reentry to the marketplace. Still, there is gold in them there hills, and it would be a shame to leave it untouched given a second chance at it.