Album Reviews

Various Artists – The Big Stiff Box Set

(Salvo/Union Square Records) UK release date: 5 November 2007

Once Upon a Time, so the legend went, “if it ain’t Stiff, it ain’t worth a fuck”. And pretty much, this was an accurate description of the influential punk-pop label that from 1976 to 1985 brought us bands from The Damned to Madness, via a plethora of household names including Kirsty MacColl, Ian Dury And The Blockheads, The Pogues and many, many others. More recently, the label has been resurrected to furnish the radio waves and music charts with unit-shifting new wave punk-pop once again, thanks to bands such as The Enemy and The Tranzmitors.

Ninety-eight tracks are present and correct on this four-disc box set, from more than 70 bands who have made Stiff their home at one time or another. Amid the lost gems you’ll probably be discovering for the first time, such as England Glory by Max Wall and The Realists I’ve Got A Heart, are a plethora of tracks no record collection should be without.

Ian Dury‘s Sweet Gene Vincent, Lene Lovich‘s I Think We’re Alone Now, Dave Stewart and Colin Blunstone’s What Becomes Of The Broken Hearted, Kirsty MacColl’s New England, The Pogues‘ Dirty Old Town and A Pair of Brown Eyes – just in case you’re greedy and not easily satisfied.

Then there’s the purely bizarre, from Devo covering (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction to The Wit And Wisdom of Ronald Reagan which is, yes, that Ronald Reagan. Originally released as a record that was blank on both sides, the joke doesn’t translate quite as well to CD (and will be decidedly irritating on MP3) but nonetheless consists of a blank track at the end of disc four. Other novelty moments of note could have included Billy Bremner’s Loud Music In Cars, except that it’s a solo effort by the former Rockpile guitarist rather than the Leeds United legend, who it turns out wasn’t as good at riffs as he was at bone-crunching tackles.

There was always a playful quality about Stiff’s music, easily evidenced on track titles such as Let’s Loot The Supermarket (Mick Farren) and You’ll Always Find Me In The Kitchen At Parties (Jona Lewie) that spilled over into the infectious energy of Madness and the pop perfection of Kirsty MacColl. The Pogues were as melancholy as it ever got, and you don’t need me to tell you how great they are. Several editors are still seeking psychiatric help to recover from Devo’s live performance at this year’s Benicassim.

Stiff’s original incarnation may have come to an end in 1985, but “the world’s most flexible record label” (not to mention the one most fond of catchphrases), has recently risen from the grave with new signings including The Enemy, who enjoyed their first single successes with Stiff before running away to the majors, The Producers and Canadian scenesters The Tranzmitors, all of whom deserve their place amongst the legends of the past.

There are, inevitably, minor disappointments amid the diamond geezers. The label’s first number one, Ian Dury And The Blockheads’ Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick , is an obvious omission. It might also have been fun, for novelty value if nothing else, to include some of the many cover versions of Devo’s Be Stiff recorded by other artists on the label over the years.

Any criticisms are, however, little more than nitpicking. You can’t really argue with four discs that provide some of the catchiest indie tunes of the late 70s/early 80s and are following up that legacy with newbies very much in the mould of the golden oldies.

If you need any more convincing, the final button badge on the post-punk package is the bands you’ll discover here that you’d never have found out about otherwise. From The Inspirational Choir Of The First Born Church Of The Living God (who backed Madness on Wings Of A Dove before releasing this effort on their own), to psychedelic survivors The Pink Fairies to Mint Juleps, who should have been much, much bigger than they were there’s a wealth of new material to discover.

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