Stiffs Greatest Stiffs Live

Just before I left the U.K. to return to Australia after two and a half years away, I was fortunate to catch this remarkable concert. The venue was Bath University, the date 7 October 1977 and it was the third date on the Stiffs Greatest Stiffs Live tour. This review was my second ever published article, in the Adelaide punk fanzine Street Fever (December 1977).

Nick Lowe bounds on stage and launches straight into fast rock’n’roll. He only plays a short warm-up set but its solid, no-nonsense stuff. His band sounds like they’ve been playing the music all their lives. Lowe plays fast rhythm guitar leaving the lead to Larry Wallis, ex-heavy metal axeman with Motorhead. After three songs, Wallis steps forward and does a couple of his own numbers in the same vein. Then Dave Edmunds joins Nick and the band for a gutsy rendition of Nick’s classic Heart of the City single. The crowd is appreciative.

Next on, Wreckless Eric. As soon as I see him I know: he’s going to be great. He looks such a loser. If New Wave has done anything it’s given the losers a break. His band looks amazing. On drums, polio victim Ian Dury. On bass Dury’s girlfriend, a tall beautiful Jamaican lady who stands perfectly still, beaming at Wreckless as he pours out his songs. A stray saxophonist injects some quirky runs, and a keyboard player completes the line-up.

Wreckless Eric

Wreckless Eric

Wreckless Eric – he stands unmoving. his voice breaking with emotion (pic: Sally Thomas)

Most of the material is unfamiliar but it doesn’t matter. Eric plays with enough commitment to win the crowd over. Ian Dury bashes out the basic rhythm, grimacing with concentration. The sweat from his face flies everywhere. Wreckless stands unmoving at the mike, his voice breaking with emotion. The sound is simple with lots of spaces between the instruments. Uncluttered and effective. His single Whole Wide World is greeted with roars of approval and rightly so. If 1977 hadn’t been such a great year for singles it’d have to be single of the year. As it is it’d be in the top three. Wreckless Eric looks like he’s been down so long he can’t believe he’s a rock’n’roll star. He comes over as so genuinely nervous you have to feel for him. He sings neurotic love songs with a punchy beat. At the end of his final song he has to be carried off stage by a burly roadie. The release of pent-up emotion has proved too much.

Elvis is an original. His versatility, especially as a songwriter is stunning, and on the evidence of the new material he has just begun to amaze us.

After Wreckless, Elvis Costello and the Attractions come on. Looking really smart in a three piece suit, Elvis is undoubtedly the star of the show. I’d heard he was a nervous performer, but it certainly doesn’t show—in fact he is in complete control the moment he hits the boards. The Attractions provide a crisp, precise back drop-for Elvis’ rapier-sharp lyrics. Less than Zero from the album is instantly recognisable. Elvis has a great sense of musical rhythm, he knows when to stop and change. He reminds me a little of Graham Parker and the Rumour, though Parker is tighter and has a rawer voice. But it’s the lyrics that stand out.

The stand-out track of the set—of the whole concert—is Watching the Detectives, now released as a single. Thudding bass, hypnotic reggae beat and Elvis shouting out the chorus, ‘Watching the detectives/ Don’t get cute/ Watching the detectives/ They shoot, shoot, shoot.’ It’s brilliant.

Elvis is an original. His versatility, especially as a songwriter is stunning, and on the evidence of the new material he has just begun to amaze us. The crowd brings him back for two encores, Blame it on Cain and Red Shoes When he finally leaves the stage, Mick turns to me and yells over the crowd, ‘That guy is going to be a star!”

Between songs he (Dury) harangues the crowd with shouts of ‘Blockheads’ and other quaint cockney slogans.

All this excitement is getting a bit much, so we fight our way through the crowds to the bar for some liquid refreshment. As a result we miss the beginning of Ian Dury’s set. When we get back down the place is rocking. There’s no doubt Dury has an arresting stage presence. He has swapped his drumming outfit of a T-shirt and tea cosy hat for a white suit and is stomping around the front of the stage inciting the crowd to riot. With his hair cropped short on top and straggling down the back of his bull-like neck he looks like a cross between Rasputin and The Incredible Hulk. Between songs he harangues the crowd with shouts of ‘Blockheads’ (which turns out to be his last song) and other quaint cockney slogans. I am physically drained after pogoing throughout Wreckless and Elvis so I am incapable of dancing, but the crowd is jumping all over the place.

Ian Dury drumming for Wreckless Eric

Ian Dury drumming for Wreckless Eric

Ian Dury drumming for Wreckless Eric (pic: Sally Thomas)

I pitied whoever had to play last because by that stage the whole thing was accelerating into the realms of overkill. According to the pre-concert publicity the playing order was changed nightly, so the problem was shared equally and that for me was one of the beautiful things about the concert and the whole Stiff enterprise. It’s a real family affair. Everyone plays in each other’s band, Everyone lends a helping hand. And that’s a very healthy antidote to anyone’s superstar ego-trips.

It is only fitting that when Ian Dury is called back for an encore everyone on the tour, Nick Lowe, Wreckless, Elvis, Dave Edmunds, Larry and all the supporting musicians come on too, to treat us to a blitzkrieg brain-destroying performance of Ian’s new single, Sex, Drugs and Rock’n’roll. That finishes everyone off. And what better sentiments to close on?

While all this mayhem had been going on, a tremendous electrical storm had been raging outside. Sally, Mick and I were sitting out out on the stairs when Elvis walked by, underneath us. If we hadn’t just seen him participate in one of the most energetic, satisfying concerts ever I doubt we’d have given him a second glance.

1977—the year of the little guy.

♣    ♣    ♣

Postscript: There’s a great BBC documentary (2007) on Stiff Records that has extensive coverage of the Stiffs Greatest Stiffs tour. Well worth watching.
Stiff's Greatest Stiffs Live poster

Stiff’s Greatest Stiffs Live poster

4 Discussions on
“Stiffs Greatest Stiffs Live”
  • Great review fella! How do you not dredge out of a sweat pool memory after watching all of those bands become what they are today? Saw Elvis, Mumford, Etc. working on Bob’s Basement Tapes which was odd from my “stumbled over the channel by accident” point of view. It’s a great show in it’s own right although I still felt like I didn’t belong – the thief who broke in and got caught and was asked to stay. “I couldn’t lie to get out of it.!” This is now less about your review – haha whoops!

    • Thanks Philup. I could easily imagine Mumford & Sons as a Stiff band. I’ll keep an eye out for the Bob’s Basement Tapes doco you mention.

  • Great review and photos, Donald. Good idea to give the review a wider audience. I was similarly impressed with Live Stiffs show when it reached Guildford Civic Hall in October 1977. Ian Dury & the Blockheads were the undisputed stars of the show that night. It would be nice to see a decent copy of the Live Stiffs film shot at the time (the version available on YouTube is of appalling technical quality). Wreckless Eric was in fine form on stage in Brighton last week, by the way.

    • Thanks Nick. Who would’ve thought Wreckless would still be going strong nearly forty years later? Brilliant.

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