Be Stiff – A Genuine Tale of Disruption

In 2015 the word ‘disruption’ is fast becoming what ‘engagement’ was to 2013, and authenticity and mindfulness were to 2014, much hyped, overused and often misunderstood terms. Disrupt, disruption, disruptive, everything cool seems to warrant the disrupt tag. Here’s how the dictionary positions this currently popular term.

disrupt – verb

interrupt (an event, activity or process) by causing a disturbance of problem, ”flooding disrupted rail services”, throw into confusion/disarray, play havoc with, derange, make a mess of, drastically alter or destroy the structure of, “alcohol can disrupt the chromosomes of an unfertilised egg”, distort, damage, buckle, warp.

Pretty heavy stuff huh? While the overuse of engagement in the world of work felt like the equivalent of sneaking sleeping pills into a board bored meeting, taking the definition above, disruption is more akin to lobbing in a couple of stun grenades under Any Other Business. It’s still only February, and I’ve already had enough of the business word of the year. Or have I?

I’ve just finished reading ‘Be Stiff – The Stiff Records Story’. Written by Richard Balls, Be Stiff is a fantastically well researched and written headlong dash through the chaos, and dare I say it, disruption, that was Stiff Records. Despite being over 300 pages long (not including the all important discography, Stiff Tour Dates, notes and research), this book conveys the pace, urgency and in your face attitude that epitomised the Stiff Records way of life.

Stiff Records emerged on to the music scene in 1976, founded by Jake Riviera and Dave Robinson. Right from the start, they championed musical underdogs, and the way Stiff Records marketed their acts using badges, coloured vinyl, promotional stunts and more, left the established music business staggering in their wake. Click the badge montage photo to see all manner of unconventional promotional items that Stiff Records used to announce new signings, releases and tours.

Stiff Badges

It was as if the rest of the industry was completing the final plodding lap of a marathon when Stiff Records shoved them all out of the way in the last 100 metres as they sprinted for the line, before nicking all the medals, sticking two fingers up at everyone and jumping in the back of a beat up transit van to head to the pub and celebrate.

I first became aware of Stiff Records when they signed The Damned, and released New Rose (catalogue number BUY 6) as the first punk single in the UK. The Damned weren’t the first punk band on the scene, but whilst the like of Malcolm McLaren and The Sex Pistols dithered over their rehearsing and recording, Riviera and Robinson shoved The Damned into their own cramped recording studio, and beat everyone else to the punch, even going so far as to include a cover of The Beatles song ‘Help’ on the B side, just to piss off the establishment. The Damned also gave Stiff Records their first album release, Damned Damned Damned (catalogue number SEEZ 1), and among the first ten album releases you will also find artists such as: Elvis Costello, Ian Dury, Wreckless Eric, Lene Lovich and Jona Lewie.

Stiff Records put out more than its fair share of duff material too. Does anyone remember Pookiesnackenburger, The Astronauts, or Viva Vagabond? Thought not – but these unknowns were all part of the mix and all contributed to the colour and the chaos and the creativity that made Stiff Records the disruptive influence it was. Alongside the forgotten, you will find acts such as Madness and Tracey Ullman who generated the all important sales needed to keep the good ship Stiff patched up and sailing hurriedly through uncharted, dangerous waters.

The beginning of the end came when Robinson agreed to run the then failing Island Records in addition to running Stiff. It was too much for one person, and in particular, the kind of person like Robinson, who wanted input into everything. After eleven years of excess, fights, hit records and an approach to packaging and marketing that truly shook the industry, Stiff finally stiffed.

Stiff Records was brought back to life in 2006 and has generated some income for its current owners through reissuing elements of the back catalogue, but it’s not the same disruptive Stiff Records I, and many of you will remember. Despite its current popularity, disruption is a rare beast, and even when it works, by its nature it has a limited lifespan. If everything is disruptive, then nothing is, so if disrupt you must, then please use sparingly. If you have any interest in rock, punk and pop music and what real disruption looks and feels like, I recommend you read Richard Balls’ excellent book. And remember:

‘If It Ain’t Stiff… It Ain’t Worth a F@#!’

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