If It Ain’t Stiff, It Ain’t Worth A F…: The Stiff Records Story
directed by Ben Whalley
starring Elvis Costello, Shane McGowan, Wreckless Eric, Ian Drury, The Damned
I have to admit that collecting Brit New Wave is one of my secret vices. I haunted used record stores and bought every weird record I could find in 1980, and often as not that 12 inch treasure came from Stiff Records, home of Ian Drury and Elvis Costello and a dozen bands too obscure to get a Wikipedia listing. Director Ben Whalley assembled interviews and archival footage from God know where, sucked out the color and reduced the resolution out of the modern stuff, and gives us a film that looks like he shot it 30 years ago. Back in those days, ANYONE could start a band, and usually did.
Against the backdrop of corporate mega-bands and leather clad punks, Dave Robinson and Andrew Jakeman started a label that featured musicians and bands already rejected by every decent label in the United Kingdom. Best know for their string of flops, duds and dozen sellers, Nick Lowe, Wreckless Eric and D. P. (Elvis) Costello had the occasional minor turntable hit, but it took Robinson’s manic promotional genius to turn these washups into the smoking hole in the ground that we know as STIFF.
You’ve seen the story before – a plucky group of never-say-die artists who believed in themselves when no one else did, overcame enormous odds, achieved fame and poverty and went on to obscurity except for a few well resented winners, in this case Mr. Costello. The rock and roll lifestyle looks pretty good – on tour they all belonged to the 24 Hour Club, which required you to hold booze in your hand 24/7. The interviews are fascinating – Elvis Costello come across as the intellectual slightly embarrassed by the past, Shane McGowan (Pogues) looks homeless and raves incoherently about the title of their disk Rum, Sodomy and the Lash, and Lena Lovich philosophizes and looks like a mysterious Eastern European princess. As the years went on, the label achieved success with Madness and The Pogues, but ultimately fell apart in a merger with Island records and a shift in the public’s taste and style.
The film is one for those diehard fans and their long suffering children. There’s a real Spinal Tap feel to If It Ain’t Stiff, with Robinson carrying a baseball bat and clearly seeming the model for the Ian Faith Character. The music is loud and raw, but few songs are played through, and your eardrums are reasonably safe. Stiff lived fast, died young and left a hell of a roster.