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Talking Stiff with Richard Balls

In his rather excellent books Richard Balls has had the privilege to document two of the most important elements of British music history – Ian Dury and Stiff Records. His book Sex & Drugs & Rock ‘n’n Roll gives a brilliant insight into the life of a true musical genius, Ian Dury. The book has sold nearly 40,000 copies and is still in print today. Richard’s book Be Stiff which documents the history of Stiff Records (label to bands such as Elvis Costello, Madness and The Damned to name a few) has just been released in five limited edition colours and looks to be very a beautiful and collectable book – one for Christmas list. Thing caught with Richard to ask him about his favourite ‘things’ and to give us an insight into his craft.

Thing: Where did you learn your craft?
Richard: I worked as a newpaper journalist for 20 years, cutting my teeth on a weekly in London and going on to write for national newspapers in Ireland and regional papers in my native Norfolk. In 2000 I published my first book, Sex & Drugs & Rock ‘n’ Roll: The Life Of Ian Dury.

Thing: What inspires your work and which piece of work are you most proud of?
Writing about the things I feel a passion for inspires me most. Pop music has been important to me from a young age and having the opportunity to meet up with some of the artists I respect most – and to tell their stories – is a real privilege. I was extremely proud of my biography of Ian Dury; it was my first book, it is still in print and has sold almost 40,000 copies.


Thing: The digital age has changed music and/or reading book as a ‘thing’ forever. Has the change ruined or enhanced music/books as a product, in your opinion?
Richard: Good quality music books continue to be published and they are always in my ‘to read’ pile. My book about Stiff Records has two sections of black and white and colour photographs. Most of these have never been published before which makes the printed book itself a keepsake. Be Stiff is also being published in five different colours in a limited run, so people can choose the one they want and have a special edition. This is exactly the kind of thing Stiff did to give record buyers something genuinely appealing and collectable. Although people are listening to music and finding out about new records in different ways now, I think they still like to buy books about their favourite artists, especially if they are offering something they can’t get in any other format.


Thing:Can you choose your five ‘things’. Places, things, old toys, albums; that mean something to you. Like a ‘desert island discs’ of things. And tell us a little about what they mean to you.

1. Cromer beach in north Norfolk. We used to go there for family holidays when I was growing up and it is still one of my favourite places to visit along the Norfolk coast.

Beach and Pier, Cromer

2. A copy of the Ian Dury single Sex & Drugs & Rock ‘n’ Roll. This has a very striking black and white photograph of Ian looking like a movie star from the silent era and the song introduced a phrase that has become part of the language. I got Ian to sign the sleeve when I went to see him at his house in Hampstead a few months before he died.


3. A match ticket and programme from the 1985 Milk Cup Final. Being a lifelong Norwich City fan, this victory over Sunderland at Wembley is among my fondest memories and these are treasured souvenirs.


4. My Guild acoustic guitar. I’m not the most proficient guitarist, but I have always enjoyed playing and I bought this guitar in Denmark Street 14 years ago.


5. Dublin. I lived and worked as a journalist there for nine years from 1990, so it holds a lot of memories for me. It was also where I met my wife Anne.


Thing: What’s your favourite record cover?
Richard: Elvis Costello – My Aim Is True. Designed by Barney Bubbles, who did a lot of covers for Stiff, it is one of the most iconic pop sleeves ever. When you look at it closely, you can see the words ‘Elvis Is King’ written in the chequered squares, and the picture of Elvis standing pigeon-toed with his Fender Jazzmaster is still the best-known shots of him. It’s also a brilliant album.


Many thanks to Richard for getting involved. Check out Be Stiff book here or follow Richard on Twitter.