Dr. Feelgood and Stiff Records seem like the perfect match. Under the direction of Lee Brilleaux, Dr. Feelgood was perhaps the key band to push pub rock toward punk, thanks to their hard-driving, relentless rock & roll, coupled with their love of reckless rock & roll and drunken pranks, Stiff was the label that bridged pub and punk. Of course, this describes Dr. Feelgood and Stiff Records in the mid-'70s, when they were both at the beginning of their stories, but they didn't team up then: they teamed up a decade later, when Stiff was on the decline and Dr. Feelgood had metamorphosed from a tough group of rock & roll revivalists to genuine working band, soldiering on through shifts in the lineup and shifts in mainstream tastes, so they were kind of forgotten by the public at large. In other words, neither party was at their peak, so the music captured on Grand's 2005 double-disc set The Complete Stiff Recordings is not exactly what fans of either pub or punk would have in mind from merely reading the title. This is not raw, raucous, rock & roll; this is an old-fashioned band that is valiantly trying to swim with the tides of the '80s, so that means they've brought in drum machines, ratcheted up the synths and tried to sound modern even if they'd much rather be covering Johnny Cash's "Get Rhythm" and Bobby Charles' "See You Later Alligator," which they do here. Dr. Feelgood did have sympathetic producers for their two albums for Stiff -- Will Birch produced the 1986 Brilleaux LP, Dave Edmunds helmed the 1986 single of "See You Later Alligator," Pip Williams produced 1987's Classic -- but everybody involved is trying to sound like the times, sometimes for better (Birch pulls off an effective slice of synth-soul on "Don't Wait Up"), sometime for worse (complete with canned synth-horns, "Alligator" is truly ghastly).
Of the two albums, Brilleaux's is the stronger effort, largely because Birch does keep the focus on the band, never succumbing to the robotic pulse that plagued Jeff Lynne's '80s productions of Dave Edmunds, or the work that Edmunds does with Feelgood here. If that's the nadir of new wave oldies rock, Williams' work on Classic falls somewhere between the two extremes, never sounding as misdirected as the Lynne/Edmunds axis but sounding far bigger and slicker than Birch's work, as if this was intended to sit next to Brothers in Arms on the charts when Feelgood would have been better served with something simpler. And Classic is really overblown: at its worst, the cavernous drums are pushed to the front and are dressed with clunky synths, and this makes such an impression, it's easy to forget that there are some cuts here that either play up the band's interaction well or actually use the sound to its advantage, as on the lively, Nick Lowe-esque shake-n-pop of "Spy vs Spy." These are the reasons why The Complete Stiff Recordings are worth investigating by fans of Feelgood, Stiff and pub rock: decades after these albums were originally released, it's easier to appreciate not just the good stuff here, but to marvel at how even bands singularly unsuited for the big sound of the '80s nevertheless succumbed to it. So, it's not essential listening per se, but for those dedicated fans of Dr. Feelgood and Brilleaux -- as well as the handful of listeners fascinated by oldies rock given a new wave polish -- this is worth investigating.