Various Artists

A Bunch of Stiff Records

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The fact that Stiff Records has become very much the model for every self-respecting independent label of the past three decades is not necessarily to the advantage of the label's own iconography. It's well-known there have been singles that were deleted for fear they might become hits, the limited editions that weren't (and the regular editions that were), the brutal slogans, and the brittle talents -- those are all a matter of historical record. But the records themselves are frequently overlooked, with this set a case in point.

Released early in 1977 -- that is, before the world of collectors and anal-retentives truly leaped aboard the Stiff bandwagon -- A Bunch of Stiff Records compiles a handful of future classics with a clutch of total unknowns. For every Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, and Dave Edmunds, there is a Magic Michael, a name familiar only to anyone who watched Hawkwind support acts in the early '70s; a Stones Masonry, a kind of pre-pub rock supergroup; and Jill Read, a fabulous Edmunds discovery whose Spectorised version of the girl group classic "Maybe" was recorded back in 1969. Even Wreckless Eric, whose "Whole Wide World" debuted on this album, was a total unknown at the time, a lemonade-factory worker who dropped his tape off at the offices one day and was as surprised as anyone when the label wanted it.

Elsewhere, Motörhead was still reeling around the London underground, unwanted and unreleasable -- Stiff had already canceled the release of "White Line Fever" as a single; while the Takeaways were basically an excuse for a bunch of musicians hanging around the studio to pretend they were Bruce Springsteen. In fact, the only true star on the entire album doesn't actually get his name on the sleeve; Graham Parker was already contracted to Mercury, but pops up with an uncredited track at the end of side one regardless. For all its perceived obscurity, however, A Bunch of Stiff Records works as a compilation of great new names, as a cohesive gathering of the age's freshest notions, and -- of course -- as a suitably off-kilter introduction to the world of Stiff Records.

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