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Various Artists / Various Artists | Are You Ready Steve? A Tribute To The Sweet / The Stiff Generation: If It Ain't Stiff it Ain't Worth a Tribute (Bullseye / Groove Disques)
We've all got our occasional musical indulgences, some of which we'd only admit to under duress. The arrival of two recent tribute albums provided me with an opportunity to own up to and get reacquainted with a couple of mine.

The first, just out on Bullseye Records is 'Are You Ready, Steve?: A Tribute to The Sweet.' I concede that The Sweet have never garnered much critical acclaim, but they were an influential part of my musical awakening - hey, I was only about ten at the time! Today they're often (dis)regarded as entirely disposable and representative of a period in music many would prefer to forget - Glam - but, for me, the likes of Blockbuster, Ballroom Blitz and Action still hit the spot. Dumb they may have been, but they had no pretensions and in pop's fickle history deserved their fifteen minutes of fame. And there are plenty of bands out there that have taken a leaf out of their bubblegum manual - Material Issue, Redd Kross and Cheap Trick all spring to mind. Admittedly 'Are You Ready, Steve?' (the name derives from the spoken intro to their original Ballroom Blitz) is perhaps overstating the band's influence, with twenty-three bands and a running time of almost eighty minutes. But, although there is a relative paucity of recognisable names here, there's no forced reverence and throughout the project the genuine love for The Sweet is well conveyed. Indeed, there's plenty to recommend the album too, with entertaining performances like Teen Machine's Wig Wam Bam, Blue Cartoon's Spotlight, Doug Powell's Love Is Like Oxygen, Jeremy's Dream On and The Lola's Fox On The Run amongst them. I like the K-Tel pastiche art work too. Overall it's a worthy effort but one that would have possibly benefited from a little judicious pruning. It's also strange that no one had a crack at Hell Raiser, probably my own favourite Sweet single [I was always rather partial to The Six Teens - Ed].

The other recent entry into the ever expanding tribute sub-genre is 'The Stiff Generation:If It Ain't Stiff It Ain't Worth A Tribute'. Stiff were undeniably one of the pioneering independent labels and, though they had undoubtedly lost their way by the time their fortune fizzled in the mid-1980s, for a few brief years in the late '70s they will always be remembered both for the music they released and the way in which they marketed it. From the release of the first ever punk single - The Damned's New Rose, surprisingly absent here - and other home grown classics from Elvis Costello, Wreckless Eric, Ian Dury, Nick Lowe and most lucratively for the label, Madness to the likes of Richard Hell, Devo, Rachel Sweet and Lena Lovich from the US, it is impossible to deny the label's good taste - at least for their first few years. Pleasingly packaged in a gatefold cover featuring some interesting Stiff-related ephemera from the golden years of the label as well as a detailed foldout booklet, Groove Disques deserve some praise just for their enthusiasm for the subject and the effort put in to its presentation. 'Oh, but what about the music?' I hear you cry. Well it's good, very good on the whole, despite a few hiccups. Bill Lloyd's Whole Wide World being one of them. Some songs just shouldn't be tampered with and here's a prime example. Huw Gower, Steve Holly and Keith Lentin's version of Ian Dury's Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick is a misjudged dud too. Among the positives though - which far outweigh the opposite - include a welcome (re)turn from Matthew Sweet on Halfway To Paradise, [is a compilation complete without him? - Ed] a Brill Building classic previously recorded on Stiff by Nick Lowe, who is very well represented here. In fact, Nick Lowe's So It Goes, the first ever Stiff single, opens the set with a superb interpretation by The Bigger Lovers which cheekily incorporates a few licks from Steely Dan's Reelin' In The Years in its intro. Another Lowe song, Endless Sleep, gets the treatment from The Lowe Beats, a thinly disguised turn from Young Fresh Fellow/Minus 5 main-man Scott McCaughey. More or less covering all the bases of Stiff's eclectic yet predominantly consistent output, (apart from their early punk singles), this tribute successfully recalls many of the label's past glories and much of what is included here compares well with the originals that inspired them. Lisa Mychols (also featured incidentally on the aforementioned Sweet tribute fronting The Masticators) takes on Baggy Trousers, Frisbie's inspired reworking of the quirky Angie single Peppermint Lump (the original of which was produced by Angie's dad - Pete Townshend) and the bizarrely named Ennui Malaise Experience, who succeed in out-weirding Devo on Be Stiff, the song appropriately adopted as the label's anthem, all capture the essence of what Stiff was about - inspired, innovative and fun. Bending the rules a little, Groove Disques even get away with including some original Stiff-related rarities - Ian Gomm (erstwhile member along with Nick Lowe of Brinsley Schwarz and later Stiff solo artist, though only in the US) is featured on a previously unreleased live cut of Hooked On Love recorded in 1979. Gomm's best known song Hold On is given a good treatment here by Chris von Sneidern too, although the original of that was actually released on Albion here in the UK. Another Stiff mainstay Any Trouble's Clive Gregson contributes a previously unreleased demo of their best known song Trouble With Love. One more subtle shifting of the goalposts allows another Nick Lowe moment, this time Pat Buchanan and Thundermug's robust zip through I Love The Sound Of Breaking Glass, which Lowe originally recorded, not for Stiff, but for departed Stiff co-founder Jake Riviera's Radar imprint. There's definitely more than enough Stiff material left untouched to justify another volume, but this is excellent for starters. Working on both levels I'd recommend buying this excellent tribute to the world's most flexible record label then spend time seeking out the originals that inspired it...

Geraint Jones
August 2002