High Wycombe Town Hall had the privilege of hosting the opening night of The Bunch of Stiffs Tour on Monday 3rd October 1977 and this piece was written and published shortly after the 40th anniversary of this historic occasion.
The much-publicised tour would showcase five artists on The Stiff label, Elvis Costello and The Attractions, Ian Dury and The Blockheads, Nick Lowe, Wreckless Eric and Larry Wallis. The initial idea was for each act to play around 20 minutes on a rotating headline basis but the partially chaotic events at the opening night in High Wycombe led to a change of plan – Elvis Costello and Ian Dury would eventually alternate the headline slot, with the remainder sharing the support roles during a tension filled tour across the UK.
The Stiff publicity machine encouraged a host of journalists to attend The Town Hall gig, but the tour entourage did little to please promoter local Ron Watts. The events are recalled in Will Birch’s ‘No Sleep Till Canvey Island’ book first published in 2000.
The book claims that on arriving at High Wycombe Town Hall in a torrential downpour; the journalists marched to the front of the queue, where they were greeted by promoter Ron Watts. “You’re not bringing that lot in,” roared Watts, “they’ll all have to pay.”
It goes on to say that Jake Riviera [Stiff boss] was apparently furious and ordered Glen Colson [Stiff Publicist] to resolve the issue at once. The book then quotes Paul Conroy [Stiff Manager] as saying: “Jake always liked a guest list, but for Ron, who had been doing the local Nag’s Head for years, the Town Hall was the big one.”
These were comments that obviously riled Watts and he attempted to put the record straight in his ‘100 Watts’ autobiography, saying: “I admit I wasn’t happy at the sight of dozens of Stiff employees, journalists and hangers-on demanding free entrance and eating into my takings, but I’d worked with bigger and better artistes than Elvis Costello and Ian Dury, good as they were.”
However, Watts would have been delighted with the turnout from the general public. By the time the doors opened at 7.30pm, the queue outside the front entrance of the Town Hall was tailed back around 100 yards towards the High Street.
Birch’s book is less than accurate about the running order on the evening of the High Wycombe gig. The recollections from more than 20 years previous suggest Nick Lowe opening proceedings, followed by Elvis Costello, then Wreckless Eric and Ian Dury headlining. However, reviews in Record Mirror, Sounds, Melody Maker and local fanzine Bucks Shee Press, written within days of the gig, give a more reliable sequence of events.
By 8.30pm the punters inside the venue (described by Melody Maker journalist Allan Jones, as having, ‘the immediate feel of a youth club on a cancelled Sunday afternoon’) had to be patient. A mass of roadies on stage battled with the logistics of dealing with five sets of equipment before the first act could take to the stage.
Les Prior, a member of Alberto y Lost Trios Paranoias, was sent on stage to keep the audience amused. “We’re here tonight to play a benefit concert. A benefit concert for the Save The Whale Fund!” he joked. “..but unfortunately the whale’s been held up at Dover.” He waffled on for a few more minutes before introducing Wreckless Eric (playing only his third gig). W.E., donning a hideous pink knitted jacket, played a short set with Ian Dury guesting on drums. The highlight is when he plays his single, ‘Whole Wide World’.
Ian Dury would return next with his Blockheads for a set that would ultimately steal the show. He made his entrance by shouting ‘Oi! Oi!’ at the crowd and adding: “I used to go to a school near hear at the top of Amersham Hill. The headmaster was cruel to me because he didn’t like me, an’ that’s why I’m warped.”
Dury had previously played High Wycombe with his previous band, Kilburn and The High Roads, and this was one of his first outings with the highly professional Blockheads. The set drew mainly from The New Boots and Panties album, and included, ‘Sex and Drugs and Rock n’ Roll’, ‘Plaistow Patricia’, ‘Sweet Gene Vincent’, ‘Wake Up and Make Love to Me’, ‘Billericay Dickie’, ‘Clever Trever’, ‘I’m Partial to your Abracadabra’ and ‘Blockheads’.
The former Grammar School boy won most of the crowd over but part way through the set a local wag shouted out, “The guitar solos are too long”. Dury responded to the heckler with; “An’ what exactly do you know about it? Anyway, the guitarist gentlemen is now at the Joanna [piano].” Not put off by Dury’s retort, the heckler adds: “The guitar solos are still too long.” Dury comes back again with: “What is this, a f**king debating society? Shadup!” The face in the crowd is not heard again.
Nick Lowe (formerly with Brinsley Schwarz) had the task of following Dury – coming on stage in a green suit covered in question marks. His band included two drummers, including Dave Edmunds and Larry Wallis (ex-Pink Fairies) on guitar. They opened with ‘So It Goes’ – a familiar number with the crowd. Wallis took over the vocal duties later in the set to perform his most well-known song, ‘Police Car’ but the set never hit the heights of Dury.
Headliner for the night, Elvis Costello and The Attractions, had played a sell-out night at The Nag’s Head just a couple of months previous. However, he chose to play mainly new numbers for his Town Hall appearance – a situation that didn’t please some the crowd when some called for more recognisable numbers. “If you’ve got it, you can go home and listen to it. If you haven’t you can go out and buy it.” It was not the greatest tactic so late into a multi-act show.
The evening got worst for Costello when half-way through the set, Ian Dury’s publicist B.P Fallon threw hundreds of badges into the crowd. The badges were a set of four, saying ‘Sex and’, ‘Drugs and’, etc. The Town Hall punters scrambled to collect the set while Costello played on. The incident did not amuse Jake Riveria who was seen to physically ‘reprimand’ Fallon.
Interesting to note that the High Wycombe date was originally intended to be recorded for an official live album to be released just four days after the gig. However, for whatever reasons, the Town Hall recordings were never used and the live album instead called upon material from later dates at Norwich, Leicester and London Lyceum. I wonder if the live recordings made at High Wycombe are still in existence?
If you have any memories, memorabilia or pictures from the gig please get in touch via the contact page.
Here’s a few YouTube clips of the artists on show at High Wycombe on 3rd October 1977.
Wreckless Eric – Whole Wide World
Nick Lowe – Sound of Breaking Glass – this is from 1978 but he’s performing in the same green jacket as the one from the Town Hall gig
Larry Wallis – Police Car
Ian Dury and The Blockheads – Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll
Elvis Costello and the Attractions – Watching the Detectives
Stiff Live Tour Album – 1977