Back in the late-seventies I really liked multi-band concert bills, especially the Sunday night punk cabarets that started at The Roundhouse in Chalk Farm and then switched to The Lyceum in The Strand. I don’t remember exactly when and where, but I also took a punt on the 5 Live Stiffs tour featuring Elvis Costello, Ian Dury, Nick Lowe, Wreckless Eric and Larry Wallis, that hit the UK for a month in the autumn of 1977. Back then punk and new wave acts did proper tours, heading as far north as Aberdeen or Inverness and doing around 30 dates in as many days. Since I was going to shows in and around London, that generally meant I saw touring bands as they were warming up or else worn out at the end of a month long trek around the British Isles. I don’t know whether I caught 5 Live Stiffs at the beginning or end of the tour, but it was a long way from being the greatest show on earth
My understanding is that on the 5 Live Stiffs tour the order of the acts was rotated, and the night I went Larry Wallis was on first. There wasn’t much atmosphere because most the the audience hadn’t arrived but the ex-Pink Fairy knew how to rock and tunes like Police Car came across as full-on body-odour boogie. Nick Lowe was a lot better and only partly because there was more of a crowd for him. Lowe wrote songs that were so catchy they should have been infections diseases, and I’ll take a a great pop tune over boogie every time! If I recall correctly, the Lowe highlights were Heart Of The City and I Knew The Bride, but I may be imagining that. And surely Dave Edmunds, who was playing in the band, sang lead on the latter. Since Heart Of The City is my favourite example of Nick Lowe-style stomp, I hope he played it – but 32 years on I’m not sure I can remember the set perfectly! My memory also tells me that Lowe and Edmunds were part of the Larry Wallis backing band, and that Wallis played with them too. Wreckless Eric was up next, and while it was fun to see him doing Whole Wide World, his act came across as nothing special after Lowe’s perfect pop. Ian Dury was a real trooper, and he had some rockin’ tunes like Blockheads, but his slower material didn’t work so well despite his flair for showmanship. As for Elvis Costello, I’ve never really liked his whining voice. His first album had two really classy tracks in the form of Mystery Dance and Waiting For The End Of The World, but it was all downhill from there. Live Costello just bored me.
The first Stiff live package was a mixed bag, but that didn’t stop me checking out the next one. The Be-Stiff tour hit the road in the autumn of 1978. It featured Wreckless Eric again, Lene Lovich, Jona Lewie, Mickey Jupp and Rachel Sweet. Wreckless Eric came across as a 1977 re-run, acceptable but not worth seeing twice. Mickey Jupp was better, enjoyable pub rock but more than one rung down from The Feelgoods and The Hot Rods. You know someone isn’t a first division rocker when the most interesting thing about them is the fact that Bill Legend – the drummer from their old band Legend – went on to join T. Rex Moving on, I’m a huge fan of novelty pop but Jona Lewie and Lene Lovich are acts that give this genre a bad name. Lovich’s mannered stage movements and vocal warblings proved particularly irritating. But this crap didn’t matter, the real reason I caught the Be-Stiff tour was to see Rachel Sweet.
“The Forgotten Lady of Stiff” didn’t have much of a stage act but she had a great repertoire! Her material was an amazing mix of pop, rock, country and soul; her best tunes being Pin A Medal On Mary and Truckstop Queen, but everything on her first album Fool Around is a total groove. This really was ‘pure pop for now people’! Rachel Sweet was like a cross between Dusty Springfield, Lulu, Chris Clark and Sylvie Vartan, for the blank generation! If you didn’t like Rachel Sweet you didn’t like pop music, and were probably either a headbanger or so far up your own arsehole that you got your kicks contemplating Greenslade or some other prog slop! Listening to Rachel Sweet’s voice on that Stiff tour, it was mind blowing to think she was the same age as me, sweet sixteen in 1978! She may have looked like the teenager she undoubtedly was, but she sounded much more seasoned. Sweet is probably the most underrated female artist to emerge from the new wave, and shits all over Goth bores like Siouxsie Sioux (who grabbed loadsa attention despite a complete lack of talent and a penchant for wearing swastikas). Truckstop Queen, which was on the Akron compilation album, remains one of my all time favourite tunes to this day. Sweet ‘retired’ from the record industry in 1982 after making just 4 albums, although she subsequently did some TV work and recorded the odd song.
As far as I was concerned, Stiff might as well have not bothered with a package tour in 1978, they could have sent Rachel Sweet out alone and I’d have been happy. There wasn’t a Stiff tour in 1979 and when they got around to doing another one in 1980, I couldn’t be arsed with it. The 1980 Son Of Stiff tour featured Ten Pole Tudor, Any Trouble, Dirty Looks, The Equators and Joe “King” Carrasco. Thirty years on I’m still convinced I made the right decision when I decided to give it a miss.
And while you’re at it don’t forget to check – www.stewarthomesociety.org – you know it makes (no) sense!