The year is 1982. Punk is dead, or at least sleeping. In the meantime, other genres have stepped in to take the reigns and stimulate the youth of the time, albeit in a completely new, and different way. New-Wave, Synth Pop and New Romanticism; the new-found successors for the younger generations’ genres of choice. The contemporary incarnations of the spirit of Punk, with a bit less of the snarling this time around.
Sweeping the British Isles in particular, in the same way as Punk did before, the musical movement spawned the likes of Depeche Mode, The Human League, Adam and the Ants and The Cure, whilst in the States, it birthed bands like Talking Heads, Devo, Romeo Void and so on.
While all these bands are in their own right pioneers of the genres aforementioned, there’s always one band that strikes a perfectly placed chord for me; and that would be Talk Talk.
Hailing from London, England, at it’s inception, Talk Talk consisted of the self-contained Mark Hollis (vocals/songwriter/keyboards/guitar), Paul Webb (bass), Lee Harris (drums) and Simon Brenner (keyboards), with Tim Friese Greene playing a big part in the band’s sound after the first album, co-wrting a lot of the songs with Mark. The line-up over the years barely changed, just a few new names here and there to help out on studio recordings. What really did transform into something far greater over time, however, was the music itself.
Releasing their debut album, The Party’s Over, in 1982, the album showed promise but lacked the cohesiveness and the singular drive of Mark Hollis that would characterise their later albums. Spawning minor hits in the form of “Talk Talk” and “Today”, the album was far from a bad introductory mark, however it was far from original in the grand scheme of things, especially with the music being lumped into the same synth pop bracket as the likes of Duran Duran, which frustrated Mark Hollis and co, understandably. In an era where haircuts said more than words ever could, they found themselves masquerading as 80’s pop stars themselves. Deep down, however, they must’ve known that it wouldn’t last this way, caterpillars yearning for their metamorphosis. They certainly had something more to say, but hadn’t quite found their voice, or their wings, yet.
By 1984, they’d truly started the steady climb towards their musical utopia. The year saw them release It’s My Life (an apt title for future circumstances…). The album saw Talk Talk start to swing towards their desired sound, along the way producing even bigger hits, such as “Such A Shame”, and the mammoth title-track hit “It’s My Life” (later given a second wind in 2002 by No Doubt, with their cover). Instead of using synths as a means for only churning out poppy hooks, they also started to use them to add mulitple layers and depth to their songs, fusing synth pop with a progressive song-writing style. They didn’t stop at the synths though.
Their third album, and argubaly their most “popular” (it became the band’s highest-selling studio album), the resplendent Colour of Spring, released in 1986, saw the band head towards a fuller, more focused sound, with acoustic instruments, guitars, piano, organs and varied percussion playing more prominent roles, giving the songs a coherent, richer feel. Take for example “Life’s What You Make It”, with it’s agitated, gargantuan guitars and it’s persistent, enharmonic piano motif, “Give It Up”, with it’s use of flourishing organs and pianos, or “I Don’t Believe In You”, with it’s almost oriental-sounding acoustic guitar intro. If I were to suggest an album to someone wanting to start listening to Talk Talk, it would be this one. It’s their most accessible album dynamically, and you’ll find absolutely brilliant pop songs, but with a stimulating, audacious approach to them. To most critics and fans, Mark Hollis and co. seemed to have reached their peak here, somewhere at the summit of their musical ascent, and nobody would have batted an eyelid if they’d have picthed their tents here and churned out another two, or three albums of a similar essence. But Mark Hollis had other ideas, and had his sights on another mountain in the distance, with an even higher crest. I don’t think anybody at the time was prepared for the leap they were to take after Colour of Spring.
Talk Talk went on to birth two more gifts for the world; twins, so to speak. They were 1988’s Spirit of Eden, and 1991’s Laughing Stock. I’m going to talk about them as if they were releated; brothers and sisters concieved during a time of immense creative passion, their creators at the climax of their abilites during this period. We’ll start with Spirit of Eden, and it’s opening track, “The Rainbow”, the biggest statement of intent the band could ever have hoped to produce. The drop of the needle on the record feels like the musical equivalent of stepping onto a world other than Earth for the very first time, and within the first few bars you know you’ve stumbled across something special. The drone of strings, the calling horns, the foreboding feedback; it’s ambience and tone like nothing the band had ever attempted before. The chorus, with it’s sparse, thoughtful and impeccably-timed piano chords, offer a moment of musing; a glance at this new musical landscape they now walk upon. As is the album itself, it’s the soundtrack to a voyage across an alien landscape: beautiful, atmospheric, and enthralling.
Phil Brown, an engineer on the album, recalls in an interview an ‘endlessly blacked out studio, an oil projector in the room’ with ‘strobe lighting’ in effect. It was clear from the start that Mark wanted to create a certain mood in the studio, often avoiding any communication with musicians drafted in, wanting them to play whatever their surrondings and mood stirred them to play, with almost no concern or worry over structure during recording. In fact, musicians would often improvise hours of music, only to find that Mark wanted just a fragment of it, possibly only ten seconds or so, in the final mix. ‘Twelve hours a day in the dark listening to the same six songs for eight months became pretty intense.’ says Brown. This meticulous approach could have proved disastrous, but the end product is a spliced work of beauty; something even Frankenstein could never dream of piecing togther. It was the birth of “Post-Rock”, heavily influencing bands to come, like Radiohead and Mogwai.
“Spirit of Eden was definitely the album where I thought, ‘This is it. This is what we’ve been reaching for.'” – Mark Hollis
With the true nature of the album taking form, it was understood by all that it bared no immediate, cut-choice singles, which obviously sent thier record label EMI into a state of panic. They asked if they’d consider recording some more “radio-friendly” tracks, but Mark flat-out refused. In a last ditch attempt to market the album in any way they could, they released the track “I Believe In You” as a single, much to Mark’s disapproval. In turn, they left the label, freeing themselves from the shackles of contractual obligations. Hollis knew they were onto something, and wasn’t going to let anyone stand in the way of his creative vision.
Three years later, with their new record label, Verve, they released Lauging Stock. Laughing Stock, what would become Talk Talk’s final album, was not so different to it’s predecessor. Already a comparison can be drawn just by looking at both their album covers. The artwork (by brilliant artist James Marsh, who designed all of Talk Talk’s album art) featured on Spirit of Eden depicts a lone tree rising up out of the sea, with blossoming leaves and various froms of life decorating it, with a bird perched on it’s branches, and sea life draped everywhere. The cover for Laughing Stock is the exact opposite, with the tree standing on parched earth, the branches almost bare, and frail. The music still reaches the aforementioned dizzying heights of Spirit of Eden, containing the same ethereal, in essence almost spiritual songwriting, that was full of a life of it’s own. You only have to look at Mark’s abstract, sometimes philosophical and theological style of poetry within the songs here (take “New Grass” for example: ‘Seven sacraments to song/Versed in Christ/Should strength desert me/They’ll come/They come’), compared to his youthful, straight-to-the-point cries of ‘It’s my life!/Don’t you forget’ in the past, to get the sense that the music was orchestrating and dictating the band more than they were orchestrating it.
What we are left with is a body of work that is completely void of the stress and strain of recording under pressure from the outside, or just because it’s simply “time” to fork out another album. It’s free to grow into something much more than it’s sums, becoming simultaneously modern but archaic in feel; it’s untainted and pure, grandiose and proud, as it stands alone from the rest. Even now, to write about these albums in the highest of praise, is to not do them any justice. Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock have become almost mythological within the world of music, and the myth was only further enhanced with the subsequent disappearance of Talk Talk, and in particular Mark Hollis, after the release of Laughing Stock. Mark did re-surface with an eponymous solo album seven years later, which is almost as equally stunning as Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock, however, he then again submerged himself below the waves of the media and prying eyes, with only one known photograph of him appearing in 2004, and him making only a handful of low-key guest appearances on other albums.
Although still largely unknown to lots of people, you can guarantee that many musicians will site these albums as having a massive or profound impact on them, such as Robert Plant, Charlotte Church and Guy Garvey, the latter once quoted as saying: ‘Spirit Of Eden and Laughing Stock have comforted me in my darkest times and inspired me to my brightest times. They are stunningly intricate works of breathtaking imagination, generosity of spirit and timeless art’. Why the albums are not revered and talked about on a grander scale can only be speculated. However, in this day and age, even The Bible finds it hard to be the topic of conversation. The albums evidently stay with those that hear them, becoming special to many, and are only spoken about in hushed voices full of respect and awe.
From miming their dainty pop hits on countless tv shows, to recording their jazz-influenced, post-rock behemoths in candle-lit rooms for months on end, the tracjectory of Talk Talk as a band is undeniably breathtaking. Their discography is a spectrum of learning and improvement, with the final two albums being pools of sheer musical perfection, a culmination of progressively honing their sound over the years, taking the best bits of all their previous efforts and mixing it with what they had learned and what they dared to ahcieve, to mould something new, exciting and truly wonderful.
Kurt Cobain was once quoted as saying ‘It’s better to burn out than to fade away’. Mark Hollis and the music of Talk Talk would beg to differ, and with a sustained piano chord, they faded out for good; slowly, but surely.