When music advertising’s aim was true

One of the key factors which accelerated Stiff Records past all-comers in 1977 – whether established majors or the new wave of indies launching in its wake –  was the quality, wit and invention of its music press advertising.

Cut-out-and-keep Elvis Costello poster constructed from Stiff adverts in Melody Maker, NME and Sounds, July 1977.

As explained in Reasons To Be Cheerful, this was a result of the winning combination of Barney Bubbles’ graphic genius and commercial experience (principally with Conran) and Stiff founders Dave Robinson and, in particular, Jake Riviera‘s pithy and provocative promotional nous.

Stiff Records DPS adverts, New Musical Express (top), Sounds (bottom left) and Melody Maker, all published July 23, 1977.

Jake’s progress in London’s hidebound advertising scene on leaving school in the 60s had been stymied by lack of qualifications. Come the 70s his substantial creative capabilities locked in with Barney’s arsenal of references and willingness to play games to provide series after series of individual ads for each of Britain’s music publications: the five weeklies Disc & Music Echo, Melody Maker, NME, Record Mirror and Sounds and the monthlies Let it Rock and ZigZag.

Stiff Records ad detail. Assembly instructions, July 23, 1977.

A fabulous example is the batch of three cut-out-and-keep double-page spreads announcing the release of Elvis Costello’s debut album My Aim Is True in the summer of 1977. Pieced together and clipped, these created a poster of Keith Morris‘s image from the front of the album.

12in sleeve. Back and front cover, My Aim Is True, Elvis Costello, Stiff, 1977.

“Our credo was that people are more intelligent than politicians or big business gives them credit for,” says Jake. “We wanted to really engage with fans and, since there were so many music papers, why not come up with a collectable series? Better than the same old ad for the latest Genesis album; hold me back, you know?”

Jake Riviera with point-of-sale Elvis Costello cut-out figure, outside Stiff offices, 32 Alexander Street, London W2, 1977. Photo: LIFE.

This and the image on the back had been carefully selected after a photo-session in which Barney and Jake were both involved to ensure that Costello’s transformation from country-rocker DP McManus (at the time holding down a day-job as a computer operator in North Acton with cosmetics manufacturer Elizabeth Arden) was complete.

Meanwhile retailers were provided with in-store cut-outs of the back cover shot; I coveted without success the one which occupied pride of place in my local record shop, Manzi’s in Finchley Road, north London.

Full-page adverts for Bongos Over Balham, Chilli Willi And The Red Hot Peppers, Mooncrest, 1974. Left: artwork for Let It Rock. Right, artwork for ZigZag.

Barney and Jake had been finessing this approach for a couple of years; Chilli Willi And The Red Hot Peppers benefited from a wide range of stickers, cut-outs and other promotional ephemera, and, when second album Bongos Over Balham was released in 1974, it was “presented” in the music press ads by a variety of items, including a pig’s trotter and a vibrator.

Contact sheet, My Aim Is True photo-session 1977, Keith Morris. (C) Keith Morris Estate.

And the objective of introducing the then-totally unknown Costello as “Buddy Holly on acid” with a sackful of songs driven by guilt and revenge was achieved in the time-honoured fashion of maintaining tight rein over available imagery while word-of-mouth was built. 

My Aim Is True colour variations, 1977/78.

Morris’s two cover shots were used repeatedly in posters as well as ads, and Barney adopted a Warholian approach by chopping and changing the eye-popping overlaid colours of the album sleeve over the course of several print-runs.

Elvis Costello posters promoting live appearances (left) and his debut album, 1977.

With the initial pressing containing the “Help Us Hype Elvis” leaflet offering free copies for those who could turn their friends on to the album, it’s likely that there were at least 30 different coloured sleeves.

Full page adverts: (left) NME August 6, 1977, Melody Maker, August 13, 1977.

Of course it’s impossible to calculate what would have happened had Elvis Presley not died on August 16 1977 just as the My Aim Is True campaign got underway; the album’s prospects certainly weren’t hurt by the public attention directed to such elements as the near-sacriligeous phrase “Elvis Is King” Letraset-ed into the cover’s two-tone boxes by Barney.

By the autumn Costello was proving he was not only one of the greatest songwriters of his generation but also a fearsome live prospect, having hooked up with The Attractions and started to perform some of the stunning tracks to appear on follow-up This Year’s Model.

Once again, this was heralded by a campaign based on more spectacular advertising, including a music press series  of three ads (NB: we’re advised there were at least six – see note below) featuring various headings including “Drugs”, “Fads” and “Commodities”.

Barney chose not to lay the titles across the gutter (the central margin separating type and images) to increase legibility for the reader holding the paper open. Laid out flat this would be nearly 2ft wide and was often a source of discomfort for those trying to read the “inkies” on cramped public transport.

DPS advert for This Year's Model, NME, March 25, 1978.

These ads are packed with puns and inside jokes: Patti Smith is miscaptioned as Patty Hearst, Chilli Willi as “saccharine”, Troggs’ singer Reg Presley as Elvis Presley, The Attractions as much-maligned budget label K-Tel and the recently arrested Roman Polanski as Charles Manson (the man, of course, responsible for the death of his wife Sharon Tate).

DPS advert for This Year's Model, NME, March 18, 1978.

And Costello was not spared: a photograph of Buddy Holly was placed next to his name. And a banjo lying on the ground lays the ghost of DP MacManus to rest with the caption: “Elizabeth Arden Blue Grass”.

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8 Responses to “When music advertising’s aim was true”

  1. Will Birch Says:

    Fabulous reconstruction of a great campaign, It’s not only about the music, is it? The music is the most important thing but if the people are not drawn in, inspired, motivated to investigate, then the music will sadly not flourish. Is this the best ‘hype’ of credible artistry in living memory?

  2. Paul Gorman Says:

    Hands down Will.
    Consider what else was going on. Within a 20-week radius of My Aim Is True coming out Sex Pistols, The Clash, Iggy and Bowie (the latter two with two albums) all released the defining records of their career.
    God what a time to be a popular music fan. Of course I bought them all and was not only bowled over by the music but impressed with various aspects of their design, promotion etc.
    Iggy, Bowie and The Clash provided great copy but were sometimes let down by their visuals, and the Pistols and Malcolm had the lock on press, providing a story filled with content, but not even they and Jamie Reid could match the sustained way in which this advertising campaign rolled out, propelled of course as it was by Costello’s presence and amazing songs which really kicked in once the Attractions were on board.
    That, with Nick Lowe’s production, Jake’s fearlessness and Barney’s brilliance, provided one of the most almighty rides in popular music for at least the next four years, wouldn’t you agree?
    Apart from, maybe, someone whose initials were ID?

  3. Joly MacFie Says:

    > Meanwhile retailers were provided with in-store cut-outs of the back cover shot;

    “Provided” is too mild a word. The tag team of T. Razor and K. Vinyl used practically mobster tactics IIRC.

  4. Paul Gorman Says:

    Hi Joly
    Thought I’d keep it polite!
    Did you do any badges? Don’t recall off the top of my head/in the groggy early morn.
    Sure someone will be along to inform and correct me.

  5. Mark Lungo Says:

    Thanks for sharing this material with us, Paul! I’m convinced that the Riviera and Bubbles’ clever campaigns helped pioneer the smartass advertising style used by American postpunk labels such as Sub Pop and Matador. I hope you can post more ads from the “This Year’s Model” series, as well as more Radar ads in general.

  6. Paul Gorman Says:

    Hi Mark
    Good to hear from you.
    What a great point you make about what would now be pigeonholed as the early 90s trash aesthetic.
    When I lived in LA at the time, one of the things I really got into was the visuals emanating out of Get Hip/Crypt/SFTR (as well as their great music which was such an antidote to the prevailing atmosphere).
    I guess it was this rougher graphic style (as exemplified by the great Art Chantry) which was smoothed out by the faux-indie likes of Matador and Sub Pop (though on their day they still did great work).
    Add to that the great likes of Eugene Arthole for Damaged Goods/Vinyl Japan/Hangman coming over from Blighty and suddenly I realised that these all had Barney in common – THAT’s why I paid for all of his albums etc to be kept in storage!

  7. Lilly Bell Says:

    Elvis Presley is the only King, there would be no other music artist like him`*`

  8. Christian Says:

    J Cole is a modern day buddy holly.

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