I guess it’s inevitable that popular music will reinvent itself every so often to keep things fresh. Punk music certainly did this back in 1977 and England’s Stiff Records was a major force in that revitalization. Not only did they give chances to many artists that other labels wouldn’t have touched with a ten-foot pole, they made things fun by employing clever promotion and helping restore the passion of record- collecting. They had good sense in calling themselves “The World’s Most Flexible Label.”
The Stiff label wasn’t full of a bunch of household names, but rather an assortment of familiar artists looking for a new home plus some exciting young talent just off to the races. As a collective, there was somehow a common bond among the Stiff artists that the label was good at taking advantage of when it came to their promotion.
In addition to some legendary package tours, Stiff were also really great at putting together cheap compilation records that often included their deleted singles and special rare tracks. The only downside to these records was that here in the States they were British imports and cost a bit more. Notwithstanding having to save more of my lunch money to fund my record budget, I eagerly bought and wore out their first two comps, A Bunch of Stiffs (April ’77) and Hits Greatest Stiffs (September ’77), which as a package, I’m calling out to be my fave compilation album of all time.
As far as making the first one worthy, A Bunch of Stiffs included three rare cuts making their vinyl debut. One was Nick Lowe’s apropos “I Love My Label” that kicks off the record. Stiff’s happy to be on board first artist and house producer’s attention-grabbing call out of “Oh yes!” to start the song has always been endearing to these ears. (After touring with Nick as their opening, Americana band Wilco released a version of this obscure gem in 2011.)
Another surprise song was an alternate keyboards-enhanced version of Elvis Costello’s “Less Than Zero,” his debut, which had been released as a Stiff single just a week prior. This hat trick of treats was completed by a hidden track at the end of Side Two in the form of the first release of Graham Parker’s “Back to Schooldays.” Parker was not listed on the record since he belonged to another label at the time.
When it came to the “regular” cuts on the record, Wreckless Eric ‘s “ (I’d Go The) Whole Wide World ” was the icing on the cake since this incredible song, now considered somewhat a standard from this era, did not see its release as a Stiff single for another four months.
On the other hand, the songs on the second comp, Hits Greatest Stiffs, were culled from ten of the first eleven Stiff singles that carried the catalog numbers BUY 1 to BUY 11. While as the LP claims, these singles had been deleted from print, this record wouldn’t help your record collection much in that it mostly contained the B-sides and not the “hits” on the other side. But any place where you gathered songs by blossoming Punk/New Wave icons like Lowe (“Heart of the City”), Costello (“Radio Sweetheart”), The Damned (“Help”) and Richard Hell (“You Gotta Lose”) was just fine with me and worthy of repeated listens.
There were also some echoes from the sounds of Pub Rock days in songs by the likes of the Tyla Gang, Lew Lewis and Roogalator. Those with a hidden flair for Metal could also secretly relish in the track from Motörhead . Like its predecessor, a varied selection of songs that seemed to belong with one another.
Music trivia buffs take note, Stiff creatively cataloged these LPs as SEEZ 2 and FIST 1, respectively. Neither comp ever made it to CD, but you can find Hits Greatest Stiffs on Spotify. Both are available on vinyl at eBay and Discogs but can a little pricy.
These two Stiff Records compilations are still fun and fresh to listen to. These days, record labels such as Jack White’s Third Man and North Carolina’s Yep Roc do release a lot of fun stuff using creative marketing gimmicks no doubt inspired by Stiff. But I think it’s safe to say that there will never be another record label like Stiff Records. Remember, as they said back then, “If it Ain’t Stiff, it Ain’t Worth a f**k.”