In 1977, the British independent record label Stiff Records was beginning to pick up interest among music fans, and one of their schemes was to put five of their artists, along with assorted roadies and management, on a bus and send them on a tour of the British Isles. This first excursion by such bands as Elvis Costello and the Attractions and Ian Dury and the Blockheads went down in history as one of the great live experiences to be had around this time with its exuberant party atmosphere and music tapping into the approaching New Wave movement that emerged from punk.
But could a tiny camera and sound crew working on cheap film really capture that selection of moments in one fifty-minute extravaganza? Well, sort of, as it was accurate to observe this was a mishmash of live performances and snatches of conversation and horseplay that thanks to its quality not exactly of primetime news variety, never mind The Old Grey Whistle Test, meant some of it was frustratingly indistinct. When you could hear what the participants were saying, it was usually an extract that made little sense outside of its context, and you'd be surprised if even the conversers would recall what they had been on about should they get a chance to watch themselves later.
Granted, much of that was down to them being either stoned on cannabis or hammered on alcohol, as there was not a lot to do on the bus: at one point it drives past a pub and they all get tremendously excited that they will be breaking up the monotony of the journeys, only to be foiled when they carry straight on. This is probably the curse of touring and why so many musicians are reduced to relying on drugs or booze to get through their days, and you could definitely see it here, that boredom practically forcing them into more and more reckless behaviour - including Wreckless Eric, who was on the tour as well, along with the much-respected Nick Lowe and the largely forgotten Larry Wallis.
The tone was relentlessly aggressive, albeit often jokey, as the artists were plainly in fierce competition with each other, most obviously Costello and Dury. This was the place where the grand finale saw all the bands on stage and Dury encouraged Costello to stand next to him and sing along with Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll, which Elvis was blatantly doing under duress, intimidatingly standing stock still, glowering and emotionless as Ian did his best musical hall entertainer for the seventies act. Was he putting on his disdain? Maybe he was and wasn't, but it was a fitting end to a film that, for example had two of the female assistants helped off with their tops for the camera, no matter that they may not have wanted that kind of help.
Music-wise, that was really what anyone interested to seek this out would want to hear, and though it was never going to be crystal clear under these circumstances, you pretty much got the idea of what they would each concert have sounded like on the night. Eric doesn't have his guitar plugged in, Nick sports a fancy double-necked guitar more appropriate to a prog rock gig, and Ian drops the C-bomb on the audience (fair enough, the title of the movie dropped the F-bomb), all part of the show which does look as if it would be a lot of fun had you been as off your head as the performers. As a snapshot of the time, If It Ain't Stiff had value, but if you had no first-hand memory of this sort of thing from that decade, its appeal may pass you by. However, as Dury's tune tells us, all these shenanigans were very good indeed should you care to indulge... for a while, anyway. Stiff Records went bust in the eighties, leaving quite the legacy.