BETWEEN 1976 AND 1985, CULT UK LABEL STIFF RECORDS WAS HOME TO MANY OF THE FINEST PUNK AND NEW WAVE ACTS. ITS ROSTER INCLUDED THE DAMNED, ELVIS COSTELLO, IAN DURY AND THE BLOCKHEADS, MADNESS, THE POGUES, NICK LOWE AND KIRSTY MacCOLL.
But Richard Balls’ new book BE STIFF looks beyond the most famous of the artists signed to the label. It goes deeper than any previous music press or magazine article has managed to go, exposing a wealth of new information, fresh anecdotes and insight through countless interviews with Stiff’s key-players. This exclusive – highly amusing – extract concerns Jakko Jakszyk (scarcely believably, now a member of King Crimson), Tracey Ullman and the great Kirsty MacColl…
MacColl’s own love life blossomed when she began seeing Stiff press officer Andy MacDonald, who would shortly form his own independent label Go! Discs. Within a short time they were both married – but not to each other. When MacColl appeared on the BBC’s POP QUIZ show on 1st October, MacDonald accompanied her and got chatting to Juliet de Valero Wills, manager of fellow guest Pauline Black of The Selecter. They would go on to marry and within a month, MacColl had met her future husband. For years she had been a huge fan of Simple Minds and had been nagging them to let her sing on one of their records. In the studio to work on their new album SPARKLE IN THE RAIN, they phoned her with two requests. First, could she come and join them and sing on the record? Second, could she collect some cocaine and bring it with her? She dutifully did so and not only got to record with her idols, but met their famous producer, Steve Lillywhite, at a Big Country gig at Glasgow Barrowland Ballroom. On New Year’s Eve he proposed. The following August they were married.
Jakko Jakszyk was a regular caller at Stiff’s offices and things were not happening for him. WHO’S FOOLING WHO?, his second single, had flopped on its release in early 1984, and Robinson told him he needed a change of image. “I remember one thing he said to me was, ‘Jakko, the trouble with you is that you are unfashionably heterosexual,’” says Jakszyk. “‘Can’t we get you hanging out at Heaven [a fashionable gay club] for a while? You don’t actually have to do anything, just be seen with the right people.’”
A prankster with an impudent sense of fun, Jakszyk was also a brilliant mimic. So, it wasn’t long before he’d perfected his impression of Robinson and members of staff would egg him on to do it. Simon Ryan from the art department was one of them and one day the phone rang while Jakszyk was there. “Go on, go on, just pick it up and pretend to be Robbo,” begged Ryan. Jakszyk picked it up and put on his best Irish burr. “Hello, this is Dave Robinson in the art department. Who’s this?” A brief silence at the other end was broken by the inevitable words, “It’s Dave Robinson”. Jakszyk didn’t answer the art department phone again.
On another occasion, Jakszyk was in Robinson’s office with Annie Pitts, and Kirsty MacColl. The latter was telling him how she had a single coming out, and her husband Steve Lillywhite was in Paris, about to produce a solo album for Abba’s Agnetha Fӓltskog. She wanted to go and stay with him in Paris, but Robinson wanted her to be around to promote her new record. He also tactlessly told her that he thought she should lose some weight. MacColl sensed an opportunity for the singer’s party-piece.
Jakszyk recalls: “Kirsty said, ‘Why don’t you phone up Steve and pretend to be Dave?’ And I said, ‘And say what?’ She said, ‘Oh just make up some stuff about the fact that Dave doesn’t want me to go to Paris’. So, she phoned her home number and Steve Lillywhite answered and I said, ‘Hello Steve, it’s Robbo’. And Steve immediately bought it and went, ‘Oh, hi Dave. How are you doing?’ I said, ‘Listen Steve, we need to talk about Kirsty.’ And Steve said, ‘Oh God, not that again Dave. What is it?’ ‘Well we really don’t want her out there, the bloody temptations in Paris are an absolute nightmare, all those cream cakes. Quite frankly Steve, she’s fat enough as it is.’ Annie and Kirsty are absolutely pissing themselves laughing, but Steve got absolutely fucking furious and slammed the phone down. Kirsty had to phone him back up and say, ‘No, it was Jakko doing an impression of him’!”
Of the scenes he witnessed at St Peter’s Square, as Robinson desperately tried to juggle his dual responsibilities, the most entertaining involved Tracey Ullman. Stiff’s golden girl had scored a fourth Top 20 hit with SUNGLASSES, written by US composer John D. Loudermilk. The beachside video featured fellow comic actor Adrian Edmonson. However, when HELPLESS became her first single not to make the Top 40, the formula appeared to be wearing thin. With Madness no longer on Stiff and no other hit acts on the horizon, Robinson was understandably keen to identify suitable material for one of his star acts of the eighties.
1983’s THEY DON’T KNOW had been Ullman’s biggest hit and Stiff reached again for a Kirsty MacColl song. TERRY had been released by MacColl herself a couple of months earlier, after her return to the label, and Edmonson had also appeared in the mainly black and white video. Ullman recorded the song and a video shoot had been scheduled to take place in advance of its release in December 1994. A mix-up, however, had left Ullman standing in the freezing cold waiting for the crew to arrive. Apoplectic, she headed straight to Stiff’s headquarters.
“I was in the office being given a bloody hard time and, in the middle of the meeting, the door flung open and Tracey Ullman walked in,” says Jakszyk. “Tracey had obviously had a great deal of success with Dave, but she came flying in and she was absolutely furious, screaming and swearing at him. It turned out, I found out retrospectively, that very day there had been a video shoot for her then current single. She’d got a call to get to a location, which I think was Hackney Marshes or some unpleasant place like that at about seven in the morning. She’d already had a great deal of argument with Dave because he insisted on directing her videos and she didn’t need any direction – she was Tracey Ullman. Dave, for whatever reason, had decided to cancel the shoot or had to cancel the shoot and he had told everybody, apart from her.
“She turned up to Hackney Marshes at half past six in the morning and there was nobody there. So, she drove up to Stiff at Island in St Peter’s Square, and just burst into the meeting I was having. And she was effing and blinding. She said, I don’t care if I never make a fucking record for you ever again. You can go fuck yourself, I’ve had enough. Piss off!’ and slammed the door. I kid you not, Dave Robinson, with barely a beat after the door slammed, just picked up the phone and said, ‘Get me the video department … Hello John, yeah John, could you get hold of a Tracey Ullman look-alike to finish this video? Not for all of it, but for some of it.’ Unbelievable.”