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the perfectly stiff gift for a man of a certain age

As you've been wandering around the shops this week you can't but have been aware of two songs which feature on every compilation of Christmas songs.

Jona Lewie's 1980 hit Stop the Cavalry is a charming anti-war oddity while the Pogues' A Fairytale of New York remains a work of sublime genius which still brings a lump to the throat 27 years after it was first released, and both acts came through one of the most influential little record labels in the world.

Stiff Records was founded by Dave Robinson and Jake Riviera in 1976 and its remarkable rise and demise is told in Be Stiff - the Stiff Records Story by Richard Balls, published by Soundcheck Books.

Here's a tale of scrimping and scrounging, opportunism and simply making things up as they went along.

Its founders, the volatile, belligerent Riviera and the more measured Robinson, were determined to push against what they saw as the inflexibility of the majors at the time, and their timing really couldn't have been better.

Coming into being just as Pub Rock was giving way to the rumblings of Punk, Stiff operated more or less as a guerilla outfit, being capable of signing an act on a whim and sending them into the studio - usually with resident producer Nick Lowe - within a matter of days.

They gave the world Elvis Costello's debut My Aim is True and, in New Rose by The Damned, the UK its first Punk single before Riviera jumped ship in 1977, taking Elvis and Low with him.

Undaunted and despite several acts tanking, Robinson persisted and the label saw success with Lena Lovich until finally reaching No.1 with Ian Dury & the Blockheads' Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick in January 1979.

A promising North London ska outfit played at Robinson's wedding that same year and that was how Madness came to be a major part of the Stiff story before moving on and being replaced by a bunch of misfits playing Irish-influenced music which went against every UK trend at the time.

The Pogues were a slow-burner for a couple of years until Rum, Sodomy and the Lash, their second album saw Shane MacGowan and his ragged cohorts rightly acclaimed as a vital musical force.

Ironically, Fairytale was originally slotted for inclusion on that album but producer Elvis Costello didn't reckon the song was fully finished and by the time it became a hit the band had moved to Warner Brothers and Stiff was about to go under due to finances.

Be Stiff is a fabulous account of heady times and a perfect Christmas present for gentlemen of a certain age.

> George Byrne


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