Too Much, Too Soon: Ed Hollis and Speedball Records
By early 1978 Ed Hollis was Hot. Very much the Eddie in Eddie and The Hot Rods, under Hollis’ management these Southend proto-punks had delivered a run of hit singles and a brace of successful albums for Island Records. In addition to managing the Rods he co-produced their records and contributed lyrics. Ed was a cutting-edge networker and knew everyone. Island still wore flares. Offering Ed his own label gave Island access to the spikey musicians then carousing through London without waking up the cheesecloth fraternity. Sure enough Ed recorded some great tracks but Speedball released nothing. What went wrong? And what is the connection to Robert Palmer, Traffic, Johnny G, the Flying Lizards and Talk Talk?
Larry Debay met Ed in late 1975. “I was managing the Count Bishops and Ed was managing the five-piece Hot Rods (with Lew Lewis) so we met at gigs like the Red Cow and the Nashville. We connected straight away over music. I was into way out, avant-garde , free jazz music like early Magma and so was Ed. I liked him a lot. In 1977 with my partner Tim Crosby we opened Bizarre Records in Praed Street, Paddington which sold the music I was listening to – the Velvets, Stooges, German stuff, Groovies, MC5 and also Steve Reich and Terry Riley. After our record shop we wanted a record label. So we started Obnoxious Records which put out an EP of pre-Velvets tracks, the Roughnecks and the Beachcombers. So then we were talking to Ed about doing a label with him in late 1976 – early 1977. We actually gave him some money towards recording costs”
Sounds writer Peter Makowski first met Ed when he interviewed Eddie and the Hot Rods at Island. “Ed showed me photos of himself when he was younger, he was chubby with loads of frizzy hair like Mick Farren. By August 1977 that had all gone. He was like a mentor to me. Ed used to give me amazingly eclectic tape compilations – mixes of eight different versions of Two Sevens Clash, Dollar Brand, Stones bootlegs.”
Another key member of Ed’s inner circle was Only Ones guitarist John Perry. “The start is our residency at the Speakeasy in early 1978 where Peter Perrett met Ed. Another Girl Another Planet was recorded but not finished or mixed. Ed had the keys to Island’s St Peter’s Square studio, Hammersmith: Peter had a master 16 track, so late one night Peter and Ed did a very exciting remix – speedy and tinny with virtually no bass, adding an organ which made it onto the final version.” Ed would eventually receive an engineering credit on the Only Ones debut LP. John Perry again: “After that Ed became a mate. Everyone liked him – he connected a lot of people. He had an enormous record collection, 10,000 vinyl LPs of extraordinary catholic taste, he was the first person I knew with Manson’s album, he had 150 LPs from the New York loft scene (a fairly obscure live jazz circuit) and he really knew his music.”
“Ed wasn’t a musician, he was an enormous enthusiast and at that point a social phenomenon with lots of energy. He was a hugely likeable chap, very definitely in it for the music rather than the money. He was often with his wife Sheila, who ran the Rods fan club. Some people thought Sheila was crazy but I liked her.”
“At that point Island was still a very Fairporty sort of place. We didn’t sign with Island because they seemed a bit at sea, a bit lacking in direction. Ed started bringing in all these people to Island who they normally wouldn’t have signed – may not even have known about – like the Heartbreakers, the musical end of punk, people who could actually play. Someone at Island spotted that Ed could be a very useful conduit to parts of the musical world they didn’t know and they more or less offered him his own label. Call it what you want, issue some singles, albums we’ll talk about if the singles do well. Speedball was my choice of name – most of the recordings were first takes and the name was a bit like that.” Larry Debay points out that “the first Count Bishops EP was called Speedball so it was a name that was around.” Label design was by Michael Beal who had designed the Obnoxious Record sleeves. Often working out of Praed Street Michael was another key figure who connected the Heartbreakers to Steve Lillywhite and would later go to design artwork for the Only Ones. His design for the Speedball Records logo was clearly based on the work of San Franciscan counter-culture artist S. Clay Wilson and his Pirate Dykes.
Credit: Nina Antonia
Speedball was not the first boutique label to be funded by Island. It’s predecessor was Ghetto Rockers, used by the Hot Rods youthful A&R man Howard Thompson in August 1977 as a vehicle for a single by the Snivelling Shits, featuring Pete Makowski on guitar and fellow Sounds writers Giovanni Dadamo (vocals), and Dave Fudger (bass) plus Hot Rod Steve Nicol on drums. The single ‘Terminal Stupid’ was produced by Ed Hollis, and engineered by a youthful Steve Lillywhite. When sent as white-label to NME it was made Single Of The Week and now sells for upwards of £50. This was going to be the first release on Speedball, to be followed by The Reaction, a band that featured Ed’s younger brother Mark (later to find success with Talk Talk). Ed produced their only single ‘I Can’t Resist’, issued by Island in June1978.
Following in Howard Thompson’s footsteps Hollis rapidly built up a very happening roster drawn from the very best London’s happening musicians. According to Pete Makowski “loads” of bands sent in demos, including the Flying Lizards. Then there were numerous all-night sessions at St Peters Square. Pete Makowski remembers that “Chris Wood from Traffic was the caretaker at the studios which meant he was forever recording a never-ending solo album. Ed used to record over Chris’ masters.” First up were the Heroes, otherwise Walter Lure and Billy Rath from the Heartbreakers, plus Henri Paul Tortosa and Steve Nicol. They recorded Too Much Monkey/Junkie Business (Chuck Berry) and Seven Day Weekend (Gary US Bonds), Walter Lure finding the duplication of the riotous party sounds in the background of the latter a considerable challenge. “There was an emergency exit with a long stairway, we brought a bunch of empty bottles and metal and plastic chairs to the top of the stairs with a microphone and started hurling everything down the stairs and screaming. It is barely audible on the finished track but we all had a great time doing it.” In 1983 these two tracks were finally released as a 7” single by Skydog International.
Other tracks recorded for Speedball can be found on the Skydog LP “Punks From The Underground”, also released in 1983. Whilst misleadingly labelled (“Ed didn’t want anything to do with punk” – Pete Makowski) and appallingly packaged, it is the only record of the Speedball sessions thus far. Both Heroes tracks are included, together with ten others. NME writer Nick Kent contributed two tracks, ‘Chinese Shadow’ and ‘Switch-Hitter Dub’. John Perry was invited to the session ”Nick already had his band the Subterrraneans, he is playing some basic guitar parts and I am jamming over the top of it live.” The Snivelling Shits offered a sub-Velvets I’m Waiting For My Crossroads (ITV not Robert Johnson) plus Bring Me The Head. The Shits also recorded a fractured version of Syd Barrett’s Vegetable Man as The Vegetables.
Deeno’s Marvels were a Southend band formed by Rods roadie Deano and his brother Warren: their autobiographical Oil City Rockers is the chanted title and little more. Pink Fairies off-shoot The Lightning Raiders achieved a personal best with Didja, sounding like an English Burritos playing the first Faces LP. The Phantoms included Henri Paul Tortosa and the omnipresent Steve Nicol performing a tough and spirited version of the MC5’s High School. Mark Hollis recorded the track I’m Flying, which for years has mistakenly been credited to the Shits. The arrangement is very freakbeat, with Pete Townshend guitar and Who Sell Out harmonies.
Similarly the Small Faces-style instrumental Speedball Jive was rumoured to be Ducks Deluxe hiding under the alias of the Speedballs. More recent research has revealed it to be John Perry and Mike Kellie, the drummer in the Only Ones. Mike Kellie remembers the session in great detail. “Ed was recording Johnny Thunders in the basement. John Perry and I were there waiting for either Perrett or Thunders to arrive and meanwhile we got a sound and began playing. John Perry “It’s all done on the fly. At the end you can hear the shout of “That’ll do won’t it?”. This has got to be August 1978, something like that.” A version of Cream’s NSU was recorded by Kellie and Perry the same night, but this not surfaced thus far.
The same session produced the highspot of the Speedball Sessions, the still unreleased “Tall Stories (38 and Conscience Stricken)” recorded by Perry, Kellie and Robert Palmer. The late Mike Kellie explains
“At some point Robert Palmer came down to say hello, he and I had been friends for a while as we were both part of the Island family – he was in Vinegar Joe whilst I was in Spooky Tooth. I remember we ordered a small package to lift the atmosphere, expecting a bill of around £60. When it arrived the dealer only wanted £38. Having tasted his presentation I remember clearly coining the phrase “38 and conscience stricken” to describe his actions. I remember it so clearly because I was really quite proud of the line and never forgot it”.
John Perry again. “Kellie and I were in the studio just bumming around and Palmer wandered in and picked up a bass. I just started playing a basic riff in A. What I didn’t know is that Robert wrote on bass. My guitar part had lots of room for a strong bass part which we put down in a single take. Five minutes later Robert’s got this lyric about “giving me gear with the best parts missing”. It could have just been a placeholder lyric. But it fitted the song nicely and his bassline was lovely. In this instance Kellie’s kit sounded glorious and he plays it straight. Completely a first take. I added a lead guitar over the top.”
“I liked the records Robert Palmer had done with Little Feat but I thought they were a little bit fussy and I thought a more Free style would suit him as another avenue. Robert loved the track too, as did all the secretaries at Island, because it was a bit rougher than his usual style. I think Island would have released it under the Speedball label with or without Robert’s name but his manager nixed it because he saw Robert as much smoother.” Perry’s enthusiasm is totally justified. The track turned up on a cassette earlier this year and some form of release can only be a matter of time.
The start of the sessions for Johnny Thunders first (and best) LP, So Alone coincided with the end of Speedball. John Perry was there “I believe Ed Hollis was due to produce So Alone but some time in the first two days of the sessions Speedball collapsed and Lillywhite leapfrogged over Hollis to be the producer of So Alone. I am not sure if Ed did any sessions or whether he was lined up to do so. There were whispers about Ed being too doped, too crazy. He needed a straighter business partner. By the autumn Island had pulled the plug on Speedball. It was a summer thing, basically ‘What we did on our holidays’. Plus someone cottoned on that Speedball was a drug reference.”
“Ed’s energy got too much and sort of shook him apart. Ed clearly had wanted to be in the Rods rather than just the manager – choosing their material, writing songs – and I think that’s difficult for a band to take after a while. He very quickly started running amok. He did without sleep practically that whole summer but as long as he had a structure it was workable, without the structure things started falling to bits.” Matters were not improved by the Rods beginning to falter commercially. Ed was big into speed (as were all the Rods) but now he started drifting into junk.” Pete Makowski concurs “By the time the Rods released Life On The Line Ed had developed a bad smack habit. At his best he could get things out of people that no other producer could. But towards the end his Wall Of Sound had become a Wall Of Drugs.”
According to Larry Debay “there was a backlash throughout the industry over drugs, fuelled in part by stories of the Heartbreakers.” I was working with Nico at the time and we were just about to sign to Arista when at the last minute there was a call from Clive Davies saying he didn’t want anything to do with artists who were involved with drugs. The failure of Speedball was a disaster for Ed musically but we were all much too high to worry about it for long. Everything happened so fast in those days that there would be another opportunity along in a minute.” Pete Makowski agrees “1976-1978 felt like about ten years, so much happened.”
John Perry remembers that “when Speedball was finally stopped Ed cleared his desk and took all the cassettes and quarter-inch tapes home. The masters would have remained at Island and would probably have got lost in the shuffle.” Larry Debay last saw Ed in late 1979 “then I left England and didn’t see him again. I had a fire at my place in Highgate which destroyed my record collection and my underground magazine collection. So what tapes I had I gave to Marc Zermati of Skydog, and he eventually put them out as Punks From The Underground. Ed also sold some tapes direct to Marc. The album didn’t sell because nobody really cared about this type of music any more. Marc didn’t include Tall Stories on the LP only because he did not have the tape.”
Rods bass player Paul Gray remembers Speedball as heralding the end of the bands relationship with Ed. “Ed was an operator, and a very good one. Hugely likeable but sadly untrustworthy with the Hot Rods finances, as we were to find out to our cost once he’d departed. Large amounts of money went missing, mainly up his nose.” After Speedball Ed went on to work with Johnny G, who had a minor hit with The Hippys (sic) Graveyard in 1978 for Beggars Banquet. Pete Makowski “If Ed had carried on he would have been a real icon. When punk ended his work would have begun. Ed was game for anything – very much in the mould of Guy Stevens” (another charismatic producer associated with Island). In late 1978 or early 1979 Ed produced demos for the Damned, his versions of Noise Noise Noise and Love Song finally emerging on the 25th Anniversary Edition of Machine Gun Etiquette
Hot Rods guitarist Graeme Douglas received a phone call from Ed just before he died. “We arranged to meet up and write some more songs – I was so pleased that he was lucid and coherent.” It was not to be. “I Believe In You” from Talk Talk’s album Spirit Of Eden was written by Mark Hollis about his brother Ed as a final plea. By the time the album was released in September 1988 Ed had died as consequence of long-term heroin addiction. If the masters still exist, a proper Speedball Records compilation would be a worthy tribute to the fine artistic vision of Ed Hollis.
Ed Hollis / Speedball Records Discography
7” Vinyl Singles
Eddie And The Hot Rods – Writing On The Wall / Cruisin’, February 1976 Island WIP 6260
Eddie And The Hot Rods – Wooly Bully / Horseplay, June 1976 Island WIP 6306
Eddie And The Hot Rods – Teenage Depression / Shake, October 1976 Island WIP 6354
Eddie And The Hot Rods – I Might Be Lying / Ignore Them, April 1977 Island WIP 6388
Eddie And The Hot Rods – Do Anything You Wanna Do / Schoolgirl Love, July 1977 Island WIP 6401
Snivelling Shits – Terminal Stupid / I Can’t Come, August 1977 Ghetto Rockers Pre 2
Eddie And The Hot Rods – Quit This Town / Distortion May Be Expected, December 1977 Island WIP 6411
Eddie And The Hot Rods – Life On The Line / Do Anything You Wanna Do (live), March 1978 Island WIP 6438
The Reaction – I Can’t Resist / I Am A Case, June 1978 Island WIP6437
Heroes – Seven Day Weekend / Too Much Junkie Business,1983 Skydog International SKI 6101
Eddie And The Hot Rods – Live At The Marquee, August 1976 Island IEP 2
Eddie And The Hot Rods – Live At The Sound Of Speed, June 1977 Island IEP 5
Eddie And The Hot Rods – Life On The Line 12”, March 1978 Island 12WIP 6438
The Damned – Machine Gun Etiquette Promo Sampler 7”, 2009 Devil’s Jukebox DJB66630PRO-7 (blue vinyl)
Eddie And The Hot Rods – Teenage Depression, December 1976 Island ILPS 9457
Eddie And The Hot Rods – Life On The Line, November 1977 Island ILPS 950
The Only Ones, May 1978 CBS 82830
Various Artists Punks – From The Underground, 1990 Skydog 62243-2
Machine Gun Etiquette (25th Anniversary Edition) – The Damned, November 2004 Chiswick CDWIKD 250
My thanks to everyone who was interviewed for this article (especially John Perry) and to Pedro Mercedes, Nina Antonia, Steve Hooker, Alan Hauser, Steve Crancher, Jay Rathbone, Marc Zermati and Howard Thompson.