Interview with Ed Ball

As he prepares to release the ArTpOp! compilation featuring some of his best work, we caught up with the living legend that is Ed Ball

In the interview he tells us about meeting Dan Treacy and Joe Foster at school right up to his future plans as a solo artist and the new Television Personalities album.

Ladies and Gentlemen… I give you Mr Edward Ball.

You started The Television Personalities in August 1977 (THE SAME MONTH ELVIS DIED).

We started the Television Personalities because WE’D KILLED Elvis . . . He’d become fat, redundant and useless. We were young, spunky, good-looking and very, very talented and launched a musical revolution from the common room of the ultra-strict London Oratory school.

We’d had enough of fat rock’n’roll and decided young skinny punks – like ourselves – was the future of music. Here’s to old England!’ An ArTpOp! Compilation, is an humble sampling of the ensuing twenty two years, the first in a re-issues programme featuring The Times and Teenage Filmstars.

How were them days,  do you have many fond memories?

Well ten years before, I’d lived with my family at 20 Wetherby Gardens, off Gloucester Road – 100 yards from Anita Pallenberg, Brian Jones and Keith Richards, 200 yards from Syd Barrett and the infamous 101 Cromwell Road and 50 yards from Mervyn Peake (Auntie Veronica was friends with his daughter Claire). A bohemian atmosphere, you get me? I have fond memories of those times.

Beyond that . . . just of being in the trenches fighting the Great War – winning – going our separate ways at certain points in our lives, only to come back and fight another war . . . like foreign legionnaires or mercenaries . . . perhaps I was the most mercenary of all.

At what age did you start listening to music? What artists/bands first grabbed your attention?

Apart from the obvious hand-me-downs, the highlights of my album collection were pretty lean – David Bowie ‘Images 66-67′, Kraftwerk ‘Autobahn’, Wizzard ‘Wizzards Brew’, Mothers of Invention ‘We’re only in it for the money’, Pink Floyd ‘Piper at the gates of Dawn’, Alan Price ‘Lucky man’ and Bob Dylan ‘Blood on the tracks’. That pretty much defined me for the next twenty-odd years. But I didn’t just want to listen to this stuff, I wanted to play it.

I don’t know how to explain this, but broadly speaking, I see music in my head and can automatically play back vast compositions after one hearing, despite not being able to read or write music. But even with this affliction, I was treated as rather an idiot in music lessons at junior school, given a stick to bang on the floor while other supposedly more talented children were given the keys to the music cupboard. Later on at the Oratory, I would sneak into the assembly hall during breaktime to furtively pick out tunes from memory on Mr Ferguson’s upright.

“Ball! Stop with that hooliganism!”.

John and Gerard Bennett would’ve been a party to all this, we’d shared the same celebrity neighbours and education since we were five years old. Revenge at sweet seventeen would be our first record as O Level, containing the names of our most hated teachers, played most nights on John Peels radio show. But we’re getting ahead of our story somewhat . . .

I undertsand you went to school with Joe and Dan. You must have pretty close friendships with them?

Unbelievably close. To say that we drew alarmingly similar parallels to the three boys in Lindsay Anderson’s 1968 film ‘If’… would be an understatement; corporal punishment was an everyday occurrence and public floggings by the Head, in mortar board-and-gown drag were not unheard of. Art Life Imitation Whatever.

Apart from my referred-to affliction and this horrific ability to play virtually anything on guitar or piano, I was pretty good at rugby and football, quite apart from being able to sprint like the devil himself. So although at heart I was a Rimbaud amongst Rambos, to use an American college expression, I was probably a reluctant jock (perhaps with bagpipes, if you will).

Joe on the other hand was a brain in denial. Highly intelligent but always in confrontation with teachers; his tirades often had an undeniable logic and were always very entertaining. Essentially, his rants always articulated our defiance against the bullying education system we were in.

As for Dan, that American expression is redundant, so i’ll invent one. He was a ghost; that is, he was never there! He had the school’s second worse attendance of all time. I can still recall in our third year when Mrs Couch ushered Dan into Divinity, announcing him as a new boy. But Miss, I exclaimed, he’s not, he’s been on the books for the last two years, only he’s never bothered to come in.

“Ball! You’re bad, mad and awfully trad. Go and get the cane this instant!!”

I knew Dan by sight anyway because during those two years truancy, We’d moved flat from Gloucester Road to Beaufort Street, around the corner from Dan’s on the Kings Road. Even though he was shy, and that no one seemed to notice him, I knew he was special. He would’ve been a brain in denial too, because there’s an extraordinary part of Dan’s mind that could, and still can, work out complicated multiplications mentally. This is particularly interesting because around this time, we were streamed into roughly the same sets for each subject, all of us dumped in the bottom class for Maths. Me, and John Bennett, who couldn’t add 5 apples between us, even if you numbered them – sitting next to this mathematical phenomenon waiting to happen. His short stories were fantastical works of invention too.

It wouldn’t be much of a conceit to say that I brought us – Dan, Joe, John, Gerard and me – together. Getting us to sit together in classes and at lunchtime. Working at the group’s weaker aspects and relationships. Talking us up individually and as a band to anyone who’d listen.

Writing songs for us to practise, writing plays, giving everyone notes, telling everyone what to do . . . fuck, how much did they hate me!! Still, everyone played their part too. John and Gerard, drums and bass, providing a massive basement to practise in; Joe’s obvious love and attention to how Byrds, Velvet Underground and early Floyd records were made and a thought process that could ‘manifesto’ itself at will – Dan’s Wilco Johnson guitar style/demeanour, always looking like he wished he was somewhere else. I knew Dan and Joe were geniuses . . . I suppose at that age it takes one to know one.

Up in Glasgow, Alan McGee was doing much the same with Bobby Gillespie and Andrew Innes. The “No Turning Back” teams of ’77. We really believed we could change the world.

Did you ever consider you’d still be making music nearly 30 years later?

I don’t think any of us seriously thought more than 30 packets of ‘Space Dust’ let alone 30 years ahead! But you’re right. It’s 30 years since we started our very own brand of anti-music in that subterranean haunt down Earls Court way, and it’s basically the same shower making the same old racket on this new record . . . once again, we’re ahead of the story.

You left The Television Personalities originally in 1982. What were your reasons for leaving the first time round?

Like many important decisions in life it was a compound reason. for one thing, Dan and I had been making records fairly intensely for five years (twelve singles and five albums between us as the TVPs, O Level, Teenage Filmstars, Gifted!” Children and the Times), and we’d reached a point where everything that Dan seemed to do and everybody’s appreciation of Dan seemed to eclipse alot of the things I felt were important. But that’s not even near the mark . . .

You ran the WHAAM! label with Dan Treacy in the 80’s. Can you tell us much about that period?

It was our vision of Track records, a label that didn’t appear to have any shit artists on it. And back in 1981, no one was even contemplating the sort of visions we were having on daily basis, Whaam! being the sort of dream that only Dan and I could’ve conceived at that time. We spent time perfecting it too, releasing two splendid singles that Shel Talmy would’ve been proud to have produced – ‘Red with purple flashes’ The Times and ‘Painting by numbers’ The Gifted Children, complete with pop art sleeves and labels bearing the beautiful full colour Whaam! logo. We then proceeded to instil some life into an ailing mod/psychedelic scene by DJing and action painting at all the trendy clubs.

Soon after, we launched a triple broadside of albums ‘Pop goes Art!’ The Times, ‘Mummy you’re not watching me” TV Personalities and ‘Beach Party’ The Marine Girls. What a start! But certain machiavellian/svengali/smakywallyponces saw Whaam! as a convenient vehicle for their own uses. And wouldn’t it be easier, they schemed, to convince Dan, and not Dan AND his obstinate buddy, that it would be a good idea that some shit-awful bands from fuck-knows-where should make records on our beautiful label. Rather than have an undignified row with a dear friend I moved on, and eventually, er . . .

So when did you first meet Alan McGee?

. . . Yes, I met Alan! Now, that would’ve been around 1983. just as he’d started Creation, with singles by Biff Bang Pow and Revolving Paint Dream, Alan and Andrew Innes respectively. In the interim, I’d released ‘I helped Patrick McGoohan escape’ and ‘This is London’ LP as The Times on my own ArTpOp! label and was enjoying some status on this largely untapped area of independent sixties idealism.

I recall meeting Alan at the Living Room and his enthusiasm was so similar to my own I was quite stunned. It was usually I, the charm master, who administered the flattery and complimented artists on their work, what was going on here?!? He made reference largely to ‘This is London’ and even suggested re-recording and releasing a track off it called ‘If Only’ on Creation, with Bobby Gillespie on drums, (only I didn’t know who Bobby Gillespie was), and strings, possibly in the style of “Sunday morning” Velvet Underground. I liked him right away and although he made me feel special as a writer, my natural instinct at this point was to kindly decline. A big mistake, but it wouldn’t happen again . . .

At what stage did you get involved with Creation?

Specifically working at the label, probably early 1988. No question, Alan McGee saved my life. This would have been precipitated by some key events in both our fortunes. Working with good musicians but missing the creative competitiveness of another writer, I made a string of records that were so pop art and underground, I was virtually off the map. I had to flog off my Jam albums just to keep me and the Times in outfits – those poplin tabcollar jobs could cost the earth! In Toytown, I was the Ball who’d lost his Bounce.

By contrast, Alan had perfected the art of maintaining a medium-sized independent label in the mid-80s with his own contemporary vision. I looked on in awe as the Jesus and Mary Chain rioted on record and in concert. Even better, I recognised some of the other players; isn’t that Joseph Foster up there on the barricades with Alan, Jim and William? And there, isn’t that Joe’s name on the label, doing what I always told him he was best at?! And even as the JAMC moved on, Alan always seemed to gauge the ensuing moods of those times.

So when I bumped into him at a TV Personalities show at the 100 club sometime late ’87 I was pleasantly surprised. And when he offered me the opportunity to make an album on his label I was dropdead surprised. Me, with my tattered reputation? Surely not.

But he felt certain there was an audience out there for The Times, of anything from five to ten thousand, mainly in Europe. But I haven’t got a band, I said. The Times had split up eight months before on the very stage Dan was singing from as we had this conversation. Simple, Alan replied, His own band Biff Bang Pow! would make the record with me. And so it came to pass. “Beat Torture” 1988, sort of picked up where “The girl who runs the Beat Hotel” left off. Conversely I joined them on “Love is Forever”, the Pow’s fourth album, the making of which was massively instructive for me – particularly Alan’s acoustic writing style.

From here, it was just a short magic bus ride to ‘E for Edward’ 1989 Times album, by which time I’d been working at Creation for about a year and was in the froth and thrall of it’s Ecstasy culture. This last record reads like the drug-fuelled confessions and revelations of a James Fox ‘Performance’ stylee gangster confronting his own sleaze and guilt. But with Charlie Hawtrey and Babs Windsor as Mick and Anita.

Creation had quite a few different phases with C86 and the Shoegazing scenes being the most fondly remembered judging by the people I speak to, is there an era of the label you regularly feel nostalgia for?

If I’m entirely honest, (and believe me I am) I will tell you I didn’t understand any of it. I CAN tell you that in the ‘C86 phase’ I recognised the sound that Dan and I had made almost 8 years before. Only most of these bands had forgotten to record the song. Or even write one in the first place. Shoegazing was much the same for me. Only prettier. I’m not nostalgic about any phase or era. Thinking back to those times doesn’t make me feel warm and runny. You see, it was what we wanted to do, but it was really tough mentally and we weren’t fucking about.

That tag Label of Love was a complete misnomer too, the touchy-feely notion that all these bands loved each and really got on being a joke. They were mostly indifferent to each other , maybe verging on hatred in certain instances. It’s the basis of pop narcissism. it’s what a label pays the advance for. I’m sure deep down I was hated in some quarters too, being a close friend of Alan’s. But I wasn’t there because I could warm the toilet seat. A decade of running labels through Rough Trade doesn’t come as a diploma at Polytechnic. You can’t buy that experience in Oxbridge, either. You gotta live it. The Charm School of Hard Knocks. I wasn’t a natural, but I knew the drill, helping to play some small part in smoothing out an edgy relationship with distributors Rough Trade.

If there’s any period that has a particular resonance with me, then its ’90 to ’93. There was an unspoken “licence” that existed at Creation by Alan’s decree. Any artist could make as many records as they liked, the prerequisites being you recorded inexpensively, quickly and could guarantee 5000+ sales. It benefited the label by filling the release schedules resulting in turnover. This privilege had briefly been in the hands of two or three other notable writers. I applied for the “licence” and had it for a year on probation. It prompted one weekly music paper to describe me as “the only artist in music today who uses and abuses his label” – for the next forty-odd months I made 12 albums, variously as The Times, Teenage Filmstars and . . .

You made a few albums under The Love Corporation banner in the early 90’s. I really loved the ‘Tones’ album which I still regularly listen to. when did you first get into dance music? Do you think you’ll ever release anything else by The Love Corporation?

Thank you for saying that about ‘Tones’. Listening to it now, it sounds like a Quentin Tarantino film soundtrack – ’60s inspired themes interpreted by Kraftwerk on a ’70s porn film set, the whole sweetmeat produced by Giorgio Moroder. Not bad for 1989. The first of its kind on Creation. even though I’d dabbled with pop electronics on “Hello Europe” 1984, I couldn’t put my hand on my heart and say I was into dance music, more the pirate concept of sampling, half melodies, noise, the deconstruction and the excuse for another disguise.

Having to programme drum machines, grab the latest loops, blah de blah, was a bore and mostly got in the way of the really exciting stuff; stealing dialogue from films, lifting ‘grabbable’ voices and riffs from records . . . rather like bringing a graveyard back to life! Me and Dan could probably make a brilliant dance record. Maybe we will!!

You toured with The Boo Radleys after they released ‘Giant Steps’. Was that a good experience?

Touring with those Northern souls was a beautiful experience. I owe Martin no small debt for inviting me to join his concert party, as I probably wouldn’t have made it through the next three or four years. When they first visited the offices in ’93 I liked them straight away, enjoying Martin’s humour and the dynamic within the group. These were difficult days for me, having come out of an extremely intense relationship, being three stone overweight and fighting an escalating obsession with acid and amphetamine.

The Boos had had a fairly rotten time of it too, nailed in a shoegazing coffin. But Martin had come up with ‘Lazarus’ and the boys made ‘Giant Steps’ which set them up for a spot of real contender stuff and a See the World touring-type scenario. Only they needed a keyboard player. Dick Green, suggested me. Martin called, but I initially turned him down due to a lack of live practise, a massive lack of confidence and good old fashioned drug paranoia. We compromised, agreeing that I would go up to Liverpool to make up the numbers for an audition.

I remember that day well. Arriving at the rehearsal studios, I sauntered in, expecting to see all sorts of geezers and hairys with black and white notes on their lapels like Morgan Fisher. But there’s only the Boo Boys, two against two on a bar football game. I ask Martin have I got the day wrong. Through a cloud of cigarette smoke he informs me to stop arsing about cos he’s busy right now, that the keyboard’s in the other room and would I be a good chap and learn the songs in time for tomorrow night’s show in Glasgow. But not quite as nice as that. And that was the nice bit.

Later that night, after beers at the Crack, they jump me armed with garden shears and a blunt pair of crocodile scissors, surgically removing my leather cap and hair, such as it was. One moment I was Joe Orton, the next, Colonel Kurtz! The horrors!!

It was around this time also that Oasis signed to Creation (I’d still been an office wallah when they’d first visited Hackney) and they supported us on a few shows, the first of which was the Tramshed, Glasgow. Still bearing the scars from the previous night’s scalping, I reacquainted myself with the chaps. Noel, once he realised who I was, as before and ever since, was friendly and polite. But Liam! He was something else!! It felt like an automatic bond. As if we’d been friends since knee high. And he’s never changed.

Things took on an extra-surreal quality when the Boo’s next single went Top Ten and the album “Wake Up!” went number one nationally. Particularly surreal as I started trading in false particulars, pulling chicks as the “lead singer”, despite being a foot taller and a decade older than the lovely and ever-faithful Sice (as indeed all the band were). Feeling on the verge of another metamorphosis, I started writing with a degree of reality that I hadn’t achieved for more than a decade. And with just these new songs, I requested – and was granted a 20 minute solo spot before the Boos every night.

I remember soundchecking ‘The Mill Hill Self Hate Club’ on a stage somewhere on the planet for the first time, Martin striding out of the dressing room arriving nose-to-nose, engulfing me in the obligatory plume of smoke, asking, nay demanding “Where the fuck did you get that? That’s brilliant!!” Aah, music to my ears . . .

At the height of Britpop you were flirting with chart success as a solo artist. I still remember being pleasantly surprised seeing your viseo for ‘The Mill Hill Self Hate Club’ appearing on national TV with that star studded video. Did it feel strange finally being accepted almost as part of the mainstream after all those years?

Well, you see, not really. As a writer I was only doing what almost everybody else was trying to do at the time, what The Times and TVPs had been doing since the beginning -write seriously good songs and make popular records that would sneak past the system. Only now the high-tier media and the public in particular had become attuned to us.

Our scene from 1983 had permeated the mass culture and I was certainly glad of the company. But I wasn’t cheating anyone. Those solo albums ‘If a man ever loved a woman’ 1995 and ‘Catholic guilt’ 1997 with the invaluable music support of Alan McGee, Andy Bell (some of his most beautiful guitar work ever) Idha, Nick Heyward and the Boos, have an unswerving conviction about them – it’s the whole break up/healing process, right there in the songs.

Anyway, I was back on daytime radio again. My usual slot. I always made records that got played on the radio. Even when they cost sixpence to record, just knew how to. Only this time prime-time telly beckoned too. You can only guess how much fun it was making ‘The Mill Hill . . .’ video. Almost entirely scripted by Alan , it’s an absolute dramatic masterpiece featuring Doctor Heyward and Mister Bell, Monsieur Le Saux and Ms. Friel. The best film she ever made! And ‘Trailblaze’ too, even though they both went to video!! Only kidding!!

What’s your opinion on the hugely successful years the label had with Oasis. Did you enjoy that time?

I was glad I’d opted out of the office when I had the chance. Making solo records gave me something to do for the rest of the century. As a close friend of Alan’s, and coming close to understanding the psyche of the man, it was inevitable that he’d eventually find the band who matched his ambitions. Most groups on the label pre-Oasis had a problem with any kind of success, which had alot to do with some old indie ethic or other. Too many cosmic socialists, really. It was the most honest success that any independent label ever had, because most other large profile indies traded on an English middle-class currency that would chastise itself feeling dirty for its success, the same old intellectual bullshit.

Were you dissapointed when Creation came to an end?

Not for Alan I wasn’t. He’d definitely had enough and wasn’t enjoying it anymore. I knew long before anybody else he was going to chuck it. We’ve remained the best of friends to this day. I knew it couldn’t last forever, and was fascinated to know what the after-life was like. And it wasn’t so bad really, the after-life, apart from the odd medium and board tapping merchant trying to make contact. But I’m happy to be amongst the living again.

Given that the dust has really settled on Creation now, what are your favourite releases on the label now?

Of my own? Probably ‘Pure’ The Times 1991 for being so anarchic and disrespectful. Recorded on a £600 budget, it sounds like a mental breakdown waiting to happen. Not surprising given the amounts of LSD I was ingesting . . . far beyond ReCreational doses. (Alan maintains that in hindsight, I’d suffered a minor breakdown around this time). Also ‘Star’ Teenage Filmstars 1992 which appeared only months after “Loveless” for achieving that intangible vagueness. As for everybody else who made records on the label, I’ve adopted Joe’s view that they were all brilliant.

I’m not sure that’s true though, about the dust settling. Creation was the brainchild of a man who had 20 ideas a day, some of which changed thousands upon thousands of people’s lives. Some are timebombs still waiting to go off. The mid-period of the label is currently in vogue and there’s alot of fascinating music and madness to discover therein. The last quarter of Creations music history is largely overshadowed by Oasis’s staggering success and the change in the company’s working mechanism, but it was still mostly Alan’s idiosyncratic vision. That period wasn’t always about trying to occupy all 40 positions in the charts every week . . .

You’ve recently reformed the Television Personalities. Is it strange being reunited with Dan Treacy after his time away?

No, not at all. It’s the same old musical (or anti-musical) shorthand between us, composing beautiful songs only to subject them to the tyranny of structurelessness. If you really need a contemporary simile for the dynamic between us, then I’ll be Barat to Dans Docherty, Innes to his Gillespie. George to his Gilbert. Or Hardy to his Laurel. Right now we’ve got that ‘artist, audience, zeitgeist’ thing going. Invaluable stuff, really.

I’ve done everything thing from playing a bit of drums to slide guitar on this set, but the real show stoppers have been Dan’s piano songs, perhaps the most touching he’s ever written. And as if sensing there was another war to be fought, John and Gerard have been there too, reinforcing our old Physics teacher Mr Shaida’s theory that all TVPs really do gravitate towards each other. check out www.reacta.net for their fascinating adventures post TVPs and O Level.

Joe’s not in the band this time, was there any particular reason for that?

Yes, It’s a bit difficult to arrange something like that. we’re all such large presences. But it isn’t so surprising when you consider that the only time Dan, Joe and I performed together was the glorious “Cloud over Liverpool” Teenage Filmstars recording sessions in ’79, and the infamous Victoria Venue ‘soft drugs trolley’ event of ’81. Like all the very greatest bands its never easy to balance 3 planet-like egos.

When can we expect the new Television Personalities, is there any progress in getting a suitable deal?

There is a suitable deal in place with Domino Records right now – signed, sealed, done, dusted and both parties driving each other nuts. I’ve been present at all the meetings and it’s going to be one helluva campaign, with a Jan ’06 album release date, preceded by a single or two.

Don’t get me wrong, we’ve not changed all our evil, perverted ways, but with our case histories, you’ll more likely catch us propping up the snug bar drinking like tin legs than looking through Yellow Pages for the local dealers – you can’t have us wild and domesticated at the same time, chief!

You’ve recently done some gigs as a solo artist again, can we expect a new album?

I’m on fire, man. A bush fire at that. Expect a solo album and the rest. It’s a good scene at the moment.

What music are you listening to these days?

Well, today I’m mostly rotating between Neutral Milk Hotel ‘In the aeroplane over the sea’ on Domino, London Oratory new boys Dustins Bar Mitzvah ‘Dial M for Mitzvah’ private recordings, and best of all, the Projects, a listening copy of their upcoming ep ‘Voice is glue’ on Track and Field.

Finally, have you got a message for the kids today?

Edward Ball and Daniel Treacy say: Remember kids – DON’T DRINK AND WRITE! Last judgements please, lazan-gelman!

There! And I didn’t mention the Beatles once!

Interview: August 2005