Stiff Records was in full swing. The first couple of albums came out. The Damned was the first album, produced by Nick Lowe, of course. The Damned were a typical punk rock, three chord band, but fun as all hell to listen to. The song “New Rose” still remains as one of my all time favorite punk songs. They went on to cult status and still make albums today.
Finally, Elvis Costello’s long anticipated first album was released. Again, Nick Lowe produced. I couldn’t wait to hear what else this guy was thinking. He was already a legend and deemed as the new “Dylan” with his apparent songwriting prowess.
“My Aim Is True” showed our hero in a Buddy Holly stance holding his guitar like a machine gun. He was ready to fire away. And he did.
From the opening assault of “Welcome To the Working Week”, My Aim is True is a masterpiece. This album is chockfull of classic Costello. “Miracle Man”, “No Dancing”, “Red Shoes”, “Waiting For The End Of The World”. Anger, bitterness, double entendre and brilliant wordplay ensued. A tender ballad called “Alison” was cleverly disguised since it was clearly about murdering an ex-girlfriend who Elvis finds is made unhappy by her new husband. “I think somebody better put out the big light cuz I can’t stand to see you this way. My aim is true” (sincerity in murder)
What an entrance Elvis made. The critics were in love. WNEW and WPIX, the only two radio stations not playing Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel, were infatuated with this new find. Could this be the artist that breaks it all wide open?
Elvis was signed by Columbia Records. The corporate giant that Stiff Records worked so hard to rebel against was now embracing one of their own. I imagine there must have been some mixed emotions. It was the beginning of the end of Stiff Records, and perhaps the entire punk rock movement. Elvis went where others failed. into the mainstream. Or so it seemed.
The masses were not amused, especially in the US. They didn’t get the joke. The audacity to call himself Elvis. Who the hell is this guy? Hatred for Elvis was so evident that even I, the rebel with a cause, hid my admiration for the new King. However, the Elvis cult was already in full force.
Elvis turned out to be more than advertised. Writing a song practically every week. He released more material in three years than probably any artist in history. the guy was prolific, smart and a music aficionado. He combined styles of music and threw them in a blender and created his own sound. Lyrics about suicide, pain, guilt, anger, bitterness, stalking, and self-destruction. He didn’t get screwed over by the opposite sex. He got even. All this under the guise of pop hooks galore. Sometimes three or four different hooks in the same song.
The first four Elvis Costello albums are perfect, covering every genre with expertise. “My Aim Is True”, “This Year’s Model”, “Armed Forces” and “Get Happy” are four amazing records. He takes time to enjoy for some, but worth the time.
Through his 35 year career, he went country, jazz, opera, classical, and lounge and back to rock, pop and back to country. Elvis does what Elvis does. He has earned a ridiculous amount of respect and no hit singles. He collaborated with everybody from Burt Bacharach, Tony Bennett, Paul McCartney, Allen Toussaint, and just seems to show up everywhere.
To this day, he remains one of the best songwriters of the past 35 years. Misunderstood by many, even me. He is never afraid to change direction and he fails, sometimes miserably, but he doesn’t care. I admire his tenacity and bravery.
Seen him live a dozen times and always love his performance. it’s like hanging out with an old friend.
Forever a fan, forever forgiving. Forever waiting for his next release to be something as good as those first four.
Elvis is King !
Elvis Costello – Red Shoes http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ab_IO-SlK5w&feature=share&list=PL2D1651E432F8B4C2
The UK punk scene was fast and furious. Unfortunately, it was met with resistance from the powers that be. Bands like The Vibrators, Buzzcocks and certainly The Sex Pistols were banned from many clubs due to indecency laws. The kids were turning the whole punk craze into some kind of fashion statement, wearing safety pins in their cheeks, coloring and spiking their hair. I think the music got lost in the flurry of negative attention.
However, somewhere in London, something was afoot (as Sherlock Holmes might say). a pub rock scene was emerging. Bands were cropping up in small taverns and gaining momentum but gainfully ignored by the massive corporate record companies. A couple of millionaires decided to pick up on this growing trend and started their own record company. In England, when a record didn’t hit the charts it was called a stiff. The artist rarely got a second chance. They just muddled around in the underground scene until they faded away.
With the emergence and hunger for new music, two guys named Jake Riviera and Dave Robinson formed Stiff Records and a new era was born. It was perfect timing for a genius idea. They monopolized on the idea of signing artists that were deemed as “stiffs” by the record companies. Using clever slogans such as “if it ain’t stiff it aint worth a fuck” and releasing singles almost weekly, they were building the future of some of the greatest music to come out of Britain.
Stiff singles would hit Record Stop each week and I bought them in order. Nick Lowe, crowned as the biggest stiff, had been part of a pub rock band called Brinsley Schwartz in the early 70’s and was completely ignored more than any other artist. He quickly became the poster child for Stiff Records. He recorded, produced and served as A & R and PR man, and all around office boy of Stiff.
Stiff #1 had to be by Nick Lowe. The song was “So It Goes” and it was a welcomed change from the previous punk releases from the UK. It was pop music with an edge. I immediately became a fan. I couldn’t wait for the next Stiff single. The first 10 were great. Bands like The Damned, Tyla Gang, Pink Fairies were all great, but it was Stiff #11 that changed my life, at the time.
Stiff #11 – It was a reggae inspired pop ditty sung by this bespectacled nerdy looking guy with a funny name. Elvis Costello, “Less Than Zero”. Elvis Presley died in August of 1977. He was still fresh in the ground and this guy has the balls to call himself Elvis? I became not only quite enamored with Elvis Costello, but a huge fan for years. I have forgiven him a million times over the years, but still find him amazing. More on Elvis coming up in the next post. I loved the whole Stiff concept. Bought every single.
Stiff went on to sign many great acts like Ian Dury, Lene Lovich, Wreckless Eric, and later dug into the US with acts like Devo, Rachel Sweet and Madness.
Like anything great, egos, money, and fame destroyed Stiff records, but the legacy lives on.
Great music and some of my all-time favorite artists originated from these guys. They saved the punk explosion from becoming a footnote in rock n roll history.
They opened my eyes and ears to another genre of music.
Documentary film “If It Ain’t Stiff” Part 1 (follow it to the last part) http://youtu.be/-iSzS9lGBbo
Nick Lowe – So It Goes http://youtu.be/5yN40x82FWU