Friday, June 26, 2015

Stiff Records: It's You, Only You (Mein Schmerz)

Stiff Records have always catered to a different type of artist and Lene Lovich certainly fits that mold – if there can be a mold for being unique. While Lovich never had a large following in the US, her songs generally got club play and placed her on the dance charts. She had greater success in her adopted home of the UK than in the land of her birth – the US.

Our feature today is the unusual but captivating 1982 recording “It’s You, Only You (Mein Schmerz).” Mein Schmerz can be translated as “my pain” – can you beat that for a pet name – probably. I remember this release probably from the equally unique video on MTV.

Speaking of the video, the uniform of the soldier has me baffled. It appears to be in the style of the West German Army to some extent. The badge at the top of the soldier’s breast with the crown is definitely British, but it is too difficult to discern which unit or service to which it belongs. The first medal is the Russian Cross of St. George. The second medal appears also to be in the Soviet style, but I could not find a corresponding medal to the one he is wearing. There is also a decidingly Spanish theme in the dress of Lovich’s two characters. Sorry to go off on a tangent, but I typically look for such things in movies and videos. It’s a blessing and curse to be obsessed with the minutia.

OK, back to the minutia of this tune. While Lovich did better in the UK than in the US, “It’s You, Only You (Mein Schmerz)” appeared on two US charts – her only tune to do so. It placed at #25 on the dance chart and unusually so on the rock (AOR) chart at #51. This is not a song you would typically find being played on album radio, but apparently the MTV play influenced a handful of influential stations to add this song. It charted at #68 in the UK on the pop charts.

One thing I like about this tune is the campy synthesizer hook that sounds strangely like the ocarina part from the “The Good, the Bad, and The Ugly” – only faster. Mein Schmerz.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Stiff Records: Hooked on Love

As I said during our first post chronicling Stiff Records, the label’s biggest hit in the US was Ian Gomm’s 1979 classic “Hold On” that I featured several years ago as a “one hit wonder.” While Gomm was signed to Stiff/Epic in North America, Stiff was not his UK record label – that was Albion Records who was distributed in the UK by Arista. In a number of other countries, Gomm appeared on Arista’s sister label Ariola and on Victor in Japan.

Although not released as a single in the UK on Albion, it was Gomm’s second US single and follow-up to “Hold On.” Additionally, it was the second cut on his first US album “Gomm with the Wind.”    

Billboard in November 1979 gave a glowing review of the single by stating, “Bright uptempo rocker reinforced by driving percussion and crisp horn flourishes make this an excellent followup [sic] to ‘Hold On.’ Clean harmonies and modulations in the arrangement underscore the hook.” Unfortunately, Billboard’s comments fell on deaf ears and “Hooked on Love” failed to make it into the Hot 100 or even the “Bubbling Under” category.

Billboard mentions the song’s modulations – and there are two. The tune starts in the key of “C” and modulates to “D.” Just before the fade, it modulates again to “E.” This is a great little song with a swing beat, but alas the modulations were not enough to carry this tune. Again with CBS doing the promotion as this was a Stiff-Epic release, they may have had other Epic and Portrait artists that they were pushing harder at the time. So goes the music business.

Brinsley Schwarz Original

Americans who had the opportunity to hear Gomm’s recording of “Hooked on Love” were first exposed to this song in 1979. Gomm’s former band, Brinsley Schwarz, recorded the song first in 1973. “Hooked on Love” appeared as the lead track on the band’s LP “Please Don’t Ever Change.”

It also shared the B-side of the single “Country Girl” with “Surrender to the Rhythm” that was released in 1978. Unfortunately, United Artists decided not to release either the album or the single in the United States – probably due to their lack of a following here. The 1978 release of the single might have been in response to Brinsley Schwarz members Nick Lowe and Ian Gomm’s solo careers that were just starting.

I attempted to find a studio version of the original, but couldn’t. We will have to settle for a very nice live rendition by Brinsley Schwarz that was from the “Old Grey Whistle Test” presumably in 1973 or ‘74. Their version was slightly slower, had only one modulation from “C” to “D” and has a bridge that is missing from Gomm’s solo version.

In addition, there are no “horn flourishes,” but rather some nice Hammond B3 work by Bob Andrews. Note, Nick Lowe is present on bass – another Stiff artist in the UK, but alas he was signed to Columbia in the US and we will not be featuring his music this week. Pity – maybe some other time.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Stiff Records: (I'd Go The) Whole Wide World

One of the earlier members of the Stiff Records stable was Eric Goulden who is better known as Wreckless Eric. His first recording for Stiff, “(I’d Go The) Whole Wide World,” appeared as the second track on the UK compilation “A Bunch of Stiff Records” in April 1977. For the few who purchased this early Stiff release, it was an introduction to Wreckless Eric and others who had been signed by the fledgling company.

As a single, “(I’d Go The) Whole Wide World” was officially released in the UK in August 1977 and his debut, self-titled LP followed in March of the next year. Unfortunately,  Eric’s first two LPs were not issued in the US; however, Stiff created what amounted a compilation of Eric’s singles and B-sides on an LP titled “The Whole Wide World” in 1979 to break him into the US market. Unfortunately, it didn’t work. Additionally, “Take the Cash (K.A.S.H.)” and not “(I’d Go The) Whole Wide World” was released as his first US single.

With this album, Stiff continued their humor in numbering their releases as they had started in the UK.  UK singles were prefixed with BUY and Nick Lowe’s “So it Goes” was cataloged as BUY-1.  UK EPs were prefixed with LAST and albums primarily issued with SEEZ with occasional use of GET, DEAL, ODD, SOUNDS, MAIL and custom numbering for artists such as GOMM. LENE, and ERIC.  On Stiff’s self distributed releases in North America, USE was used primarily for albums and OWN for singles.  Wreckless Eric’s first American album and single were numbered as USE-1 and OWN-1 respectively.

As for “(I’d Go The) Whole Wide World,” it is amazing that Eric could do so much with two chords – the tonic “E” and the subdominant “A.” While Wreckless Eric played guitar on this cut, it also features Nick Lowe on guitar and bass and Steve Goulding on drums. While “(I’d Go The) Whole Wide World” failed to chart in the countries where it was released as a single, it has become Goulden’s best known recording and was featured in three films: “That Summer” (1979), “Me without You” (2002), and “Stranger than Fiction” (2006).

A vinyl single of “(I’d Go The) Whole Wide World” was finally issued on Stiff/Razor & Tie in the US during November 2013. The single included the original British picture sleeve and catalog number (BUY-16).  It was about time, albeit it was 36 years too late.  It’s a shame that this tune isn’t better known as it truly is a classic example of the music of the late 1970s. I am also featuring a rare acoustic version of the tune which is very nice as well.

A Rare Acoustic Version

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Stiff Records: Second Choice

Day three in our excursion into the catalog of Stiff Records and we remember one of my favorite bands on the label: “Any Trouble.” I’m not sure how I got to know this English band, as none of the stations where I worked played their music. I think I found their debut LP, “Where Are All the Nice Girls?” in a stack of discarded records at WCIR in 1981 and took it home. “Where Are All the Nice Girls?” was on my turntable for a season – until it was replaced by another latest and greatest discovery.

“Second Choice” was the band’s second single and was the second cut on their album. While I didn’t like every song on this LP, there were some really stand-out tracks such as “Second Choice,” “Playing Bogart,” “Foolish Pride,” and “No Idea.” As always, veteran producer John Wood did an excellent job in molding and capturing the sound of the musicians.

As I listened to the album this morning, the variety of styles used by Any Trouble was amazing; however, I quickly grew tired of Clive Gregson’s vocals. Not that he is a bad singer – on the contrary, he is quite good. I think a few other vocalists would have made this album a bit more palatable 35 years later. As they say variety is the spice of life and a couple other lead vocalists would have added to the musical variety of the songs.

While the four tunes I mentioned earlier still capture my ear, I doubt that today I would list “Where Are All the Nice Girls?” in my top list of albums; however, with that said, I could listen to “Second Choice” every day and not get tired of it. Too bad it wasn’t a hit. Its Ska based rhythms still sound good today. Thanks guys for the memories of discovering this LP In 1981.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Stiff Records: I Go To Pieces

Probably the most atypical of Stiff Records’ recording artists was the 16 year-old singing wonder Rachel Sweet. In 1978, Sweet was signed to Stiff-Columbia and may have been the only artist on this version of the Stiff Records label. Her first US single from her 1978 album “Fool Around,” was a cover of the Del Shannon composition, “I Go to Pieces.”

Peter and Gordon had the original hit with the song which peaked at #9 in the US in early 1965. It was the first hit for the duo that hadn’t been written by The Beatles and the third biggest US hit for Peter and Gordon.

Rachel Sweet’s 1979 release didn’t do nearly as well. While if failed to chart in the US, it barely made it into the Australian Top 40 by peaking at #36. While “I Go to Pieces” was Sweet’s debut single on Stiff in the US, it was not the case in the UK. Her remake of Carla Thomas’ “B-A-B-Y” was released first in the UK and made some headway at #35; however, when released as her second Stiff-Columbia single in North America, it too failed to chart.

Sweet’s only US hit proper was a duet with Rex Smith in 1982 after she left Stiff, but was still under contract with Columbia Records. This remake of Robert Knight’s “Everlasting Love” peaked at #32.

While Sweet’s version of “I Go to Pieces” was a fitting introduction to American audience, her talent and the excellent production of this pop single was not enough to put her into the winner’s circle. A number of reasons could be attributed to this. By 1979, musical tastes had changed and pop music was challenged by disco and new wave on the Top 40 front.

Stiff was still an unknown label in the US and because the label was largely regarded as a punk/new wave label this too may have impeded her success. With the co-marketing of Stiff and Columbia, the Columbia promotions department may not have pushed this single to radio as they might have with an artist just signed to Columbia proper.

Finally, some have suggested that, despite her colossal talent, her young age may have been negatively received by radio programmers who were catering to young adult women as the key demographic. We may never know, but enjoy it anyway.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Stiff Records: My Old Man

Is it possible that I haven’t made a post in nearly three months? I guess so. My life had some changes beginning in April and the blog was the furthest from my mind at the time – so I took an extended vacation for several months. Several friends have commented directly to me regarding the absence of posts, so I decided today to get back to it.

The decision of today’s post and those for the remainder of the week was determined primarily due to the fact that this is Father’s Day. In addition, it is the first day in the fourth week of the month when I generally feature record labels. The challenge being is to find a song related to fathers that I haven’t already used. Second, the song needed to have been released on a label that I hadn’t featured as of yet. Third, the label had enough US releases in order for me to find seven releases in order to feature.

The task was to find an appropriate Father’s Day related song – and I selected Ian Dury and The Blockheads’ “My Old Man.” Although the song about Dury’s absent father isn’t the most positive of songs about dad, think of others that also came up in that list: Madonna’s “Papa Don’t Preach,” The Temptations “Papa was a Rolling Stone,” and Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s in the Cradle.” These were some of the selections that were also considered – and all had negative connotations. Dury’s record at least discussed their reconciliation and depicted his dad as a working stiff.

Speaking of stiff, Dury’s label was Stiff Records. I hadn’t featured this independent label out of the UK - so it rose to consideration. Founded in 1976 by Dave Robinson and Andrew Jakeman (professionally known as Jake Riviera), Stiff billed itself as “the world’s most flexible record label,” and it was.

While it was able to capitalize on signing new acts in the punk and new wave genres, it also signed several pop and dance artists as well – but these were not the label’s primary thrust. Stiff’s mantra was that it offered “today’s music – today.” Originally active from 1976-1986, Stiff rebooted in 2007 and have had several releases since that time.

The third criterion was difficult at best, as the fourth week label feature must be issued on the American version of the label. Had I opened it up to the Stiff’s British stable of artists, I would have had more than enough to spare. Stiff was not as successful in the US and their few charting singles testify of this.

Additionally, several of the better Stiff (UK) artists, such as Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe, had been signed to major labels in the US – and were disqualified for being featured this week; however, I have managed to find seven releases for this week. Most, however, were relatively innocuous in the scheme of American popular music.

I cannot verify this, but I believe that Ian Gomm’s “Hold On” was the only Stiff (actually Stiff-Epic) release to chart in Billboard’s Top 40. Unfortunately, I’ve already featured “Hold On,” so I have picked one of Gomm’s lesser known US singles for this week. In addition to releasing singles and albums on its own label that was both independently released as well as distributed by Arista in the US, several artists were co-signed to CBS and appeared on the Stiff-Epic and Stiff-Columbia labels. Since these were Stiff releases, they will be featured this week.

As for Ian Dury and The Blockheads’ “My Old Man,” it was an album cut in most of the world from Dury’s debut LP from 1977: “New Boots and Panties!!” Dury’s first single, “Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll” and which garnered some album play in the US, was not on the first version of the UK album; however, it was added (but not credited) to releases in 1978 in the UK. “My Old Man” made it as a B-side of “Wake Up and Make Love with Me” single in Australia – this may be the track’s only single release worldwide. The standout aspect of this track is the excellent saxophone work by Davey Payne.

I’m glad to be back and I hope you’ve had a happy Father’s Day – if that fits.