Get It At Discogs
Any box set that starts with Nick Lowe's "Heart of the City" is going to be pretty good, but any box set that gets from that song to Elvis Costello's "Less Than Zero" in 10 tracks via the Damned, Motörhead, and Plummet Airlines' rock epic "Silver Shirt" is going to be great. By that same logic, any box set that peppers those mind-blowers with pub-rock like Roogalator's "All Aboard" and Lew Lewis & His Band's "Boogie on the Street" is going to be a rollercoaster, to put it nicely. The Stiff Records Box Set managed this feat back in 1992, compiling nearly 100 hits and misses on four discs. The Big Stiff Box Set, which deviates enough from that setlist to complement its out-of-print predecessor instead of replace it, is likewise a great rollercoaster: A formidable label retrospective that includes more than its share of incredible tracks mixed with more than a few that haven't aged well or just weren't very good to begin with. Of course, every label, however venerable, has its high points and low, but to its credit, the UK-released The Big Stiff Box Set-- which follows a wave of reissues from the resurrected label-- favors historical inclusivity over consistency and is all the better for it. According to this set, there's no such thing as a Stiff Sound-- the imprint has billed itself as the "world's most flexible label." Founded in 1976, Stiff primarily worked 7" singles by career artists, newcomers, and one-offs, paying special attention to packaging and sending artists out on traveling revues around the UK. Stiff signed artists who would go on to great things and others who would go on to nothing. How's this for impressive? First singles by Nick Lowe, Elvis Costello, the Damned, Wreckless Eric, Kirsty MacColl, and the Pogues. What about introducing Britain to Americans like Devo, the Go-Go's, the Plasmatics, and Richard Hell (unfortunately omitted from this set)? But Stiff's flexibility extended beyond its creative business practices and savvy signings to its music, and despite its rugged independent stance, the label essentially followed larger British trends, tracing pub rock into punk, then ska and new wave, with depot stops at gospel, rockabilly, and soul. It's all pop in the end, which makes The Big Stiff Box Set a grab-bag experience. On one hand, it sounds scattered in places, especially on the first disc, as if the commonality of distribution isn't enough to connect these songs. On the other, such variety can be bracing and even exciting, especially on the second disc, which begins with punk (the Members' "Solitary Confinement"), touches on bubblegum (Rachel Sweet's cover of Carla Thomas' "B.A.B.Y."), detours into ska (Madness's "One Step Beyond"), catches a flight to L.A. (the Go-Go's' "We Got the Beat"), and ends up in Jamaica (Desmond Dekker's "Please Don't Bend"). That's not even mentioning Wreckless Eric's catchy "Take the Cash (K.A.S.H.)", Lene Lovich's wonderful staccato delivery on "Lucky Number", Jona Lewie's delectably bitter "You'll Always Find Me in the Kitchen at Parties". Big and Stiff, eh? Well, the label always had an ear for humor. In 1980, Stiff released an LP titled The Wit and Wisdom of Ronald Reagan, which sold surprisingly well despite being blank on both sides. Stiff trafficked in talky novelties like Max Wall's "England's Glory", with its yakety sax and rambling lyrics, and Mick Farren & the Deviants' "Let's Loot the Supermarket Again Like We Did Last Summer", with its healthy satiric self-awareness. These songs, mostly forgotten but compiled here for posterity, might have stemmed from outrage, but now sound quaint and innocuous-- not rarities so much as oddities. Except, that is, for Ian Dury, whose songs "Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll" and "Sweet Gene Vincent" put this sound toward more serious ends. History's been kinder to Dury than Wall and Farren, obviously. In addition to comparing one band to Huey Lewis & the News with no detectable irony, the Big Stiff liner notes manage to speak to novices who just discovered My Aim Is True as well as to veterans who know the label's catalogue by heart, offering extensive introductions to artists as well as obscure trivia. The Big Stiff Box Set is both an introduction to the label as well as an elaboration. In addressing both camps, it does what every good box set should do: Making few distinctions between the legends and the obscurities, these four discs recontextualize what you already know via stuff you don't.