Live Stiffs

On the 18th October 1977, just a few days after my nineteenth birthday, the Stiff tour hit the University of East Anglia.

Elvis Costello chose this time to debut a ragged version of ‘I Just don’t Know What to do with Myself’. Costello was on fire, having released ‘My Aim Is True’ backed by country rock band Clover he was adopting a scorched earth policy to his career. He now had a proper backing band The Attractions who could turn their hands to any tune hence a Burt Bacarach cover on this particular night. Costello had begun the tour refusing to play most of the semi popular songs from his debut LP. It was Costello who played the first set of the tour and managed to alienate half the audience with his assertion ‘if you want to hear the old songs you can buy the fucking record’.

By necessity he had mellowed a bit but he was writing new songs almost daily and didn’t want to stay in one place for any period of time. The Attractions were only 10 weeks old but they were already one of the best bands on a live circuit anywhere.

Even before the tour began there was trouble ahead, namely a split between Stiff owners Robinson and Riviera. There was now the prospect of squeezing 18 musicians into a bus and touring the country for 34 days. The idea was that this was going to be like one of the old soul reviews with artists sharing equipment and  musicians and presenting a series of short snappy sets. Along with Costello there was Ian Dury with his new band the Blockheads. Nick Lowe, the artist who kicked the label off would be there along with Larry Wallis who had played on the second Stiff release with the Pink Fairies. Last, but not least was the previously unknown Wreckless Eric.

So lets just compare and contrast the first lines from the albums of the performers who had got as far as recording a full product

‘Now that your picture’s in the paper being rhythmically admired’

Elvis Costello -Welcome to the Working Week

‘I come awake with a gift for womankind

Ian Dury – Wake up and make Love to me

On a convenient seat by the lavatories in the sodium glare’

Wreckless Eric -Reconnez Cherie

And you have their personalities in a nutshell. Costello is clever, sarcastic and vicious, Dury is poetic and funny, Wreckless is irreverent and flippant. And here lay the secrets of their success or failure.

But firstly, the dark heart of the tour, the 24 hour club. These were a group of musicians who had accumulated an enormous amount of road experience between them and were along to have a good time. Dave Edmunds was an incredibly experienced producer singer and guitarist who, let off the leash, was determined to party. He was joined, for most of the time at least by Pete and Bruce Thomas (no relations), the rhythm section from the Attractions, Larry Wallis, Nick Lowe, Keyboard player Penny Tobin and sometimes ex Man Drummer Terry Williams.

The bulk of these musicians were the house band dubbed ‘ Last Turkey in the Shop’. They would back Lowe, Wallis and sometimes Edmunds. Pete Thomas, a very good drummer, elected to play rhythm guitar while Edmunds, a very good guitarist elected to play drums alongside Terry Williams.

And so a potential contender for best band title was sabotaged. Wallis was hampered by having only two songs, both sides of his recent Stiff single so most of the time he elected to just play guitar, Lowe had plenty of material of course and Edmunds could usually be tempted up to the mike. The main problem the band suffered from is that most of them really just wanted to get off and over to the nearest local pub so most of the time they were happy to be on and off before the gig had really got going.

Another victim of a lack of a career plan was Wreckless Eric. He had been persuaded to have Ian Dury as his drummer, as a man with significant physical disabilities Dury was not best suited for the job, he could just lift his left arm but then could only drop it on the snare, the beat was there but only just. Dury also roped in his girlfriend Denise to play bass and Davy Payne from the Blockheads for a bit of sax squalling. It was probably fair to say that none of his band were really committed to their tasks. Problems were further compounded by Eric having to use other people’s equipment and the fact that 20 minutes of drumming so exhausted Dury that he had to have time to recover for his own set; and so Wreckless Eric had to play near the beginning of the evening and Dury played at the end.

The Attractions and the Blockheads were self contained, not only were they blisteringly good musicians they had also rehearsed together, a lot. As the tour progressed Costello was including more old songs and covers, he remained pretty aloof from the dark heart of the tour, in fact he wrote ‘Pump it Up’ about the experience. Dury was also in his own bubble for slightly different reasons, he was older and this time he was determined not to blow it like he had with his previous band Kilburn and the High Roads. The musicians from New Boots and Panties had been augmented by ex members of Loving Awareness. There had been an expectation of a quirky pub rock band but the Blockheads were unbelievably tight and funky. Dury could manipulate an audience in a way that was beyond Costello, by the end of the tour Dury’s signature tune ‘Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll’ was appropriately the closer with other musicians joining him on stage for the finale.

The levels of showmanship took some of the other musicians by surprise. Larry Wallis whose idea of stagecraft was to down a pint of vodka and orange and change his tee shirt was quite put out by the new competitive edge. Fortunately he was joined Dave Edmunds who was also a bit put out when his drinking buddy Nick Lowe started dressing in a ‘Riddler’ suit to put on a show. Unfortunately it was getting to the stage where Edmund’s drinking, or rather his hangovers were getting in the way of his playing. Matters reached a head where there was an altercation with the tour manager which led to Edmund’s expulsion from the tour for a few days. Also discharged was Wreckless Eric on health grounds. Unused to the rigours of life on the road young Eric had fallen very ill with Laryngitis and had had to go back to hid parents to recuperate.

There were lighter moments, at one gig the musicians were bemused by the presence  of several tins of cat food backstage, it transpired there had been a typo in the request for ‘ cold cuts of meat’ in the rider.

The tour was filmed and various clips have escaped onto YouTube. Its fairly depressing viewing really, lots of shot of cheap hotel rooms and the ‘get off your face and be an asshole’ mentality that Costello was observing. Like touring itself the film is a study in tedium.

Apart from the music of course, for a few minutes on-stage everything was aright. The tour actually lost money, the musicians themselves were all on £50 a week but tours are expensive and in the 70’s admission was relatively cheap, the money was in records. A live album was released and it was OK, some of it was recorded at the UEA including the Costello performance that I started this piece with.

By the end of the tour Dury was in a bubble surrounded by sycophants and minders, he had seen his chance and seized it. Wreckless Eric had appeared as a bit of a novelty act despite the quality of songs that would be covered by Cliff Richard among others. Costello had the raw talent and now he had the band to back him. Material he composed on tour would be on his new album and like Dury he was on the way to becoming a household name. Larry Wallis, not a natural star, would go on to become producer and songwriter for hire, eventually his drinking would become so problematic he was forced to stop alcohol altogether. Sobriety rekindled his actual interest in music and he re recorded his Stiff record ‘Police Car’ it wasn’t a hit this time round either.

As for me; I missed the gig but got to hear the live record and eventually managed to blag a copy of the poster for my wall from a record store a couple of years down the line.

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