The Sunday Times: 24th January 1999
Channel 4's new satire Boyz Unlimited presents a worrying picture of how boy bands are squeezing out grown-up music, says Andrew Smith.
Comedy writer Richard Osman decided that he wanted Boyz Unlimited, his six-part satire on the crazy world of boy bands, which begins on Channel 4 next Friday, to be played straight. After all, this was not an area that needed to be camped up. It was camp as a scoutmaster's tent peg already. The songs would thus be chosen for his hopeful quartet as if they were a real group - except for one, which, for the purposes of the plot, he wanted to be a mind-blowingly inappropriate cover version. He racked his pop-saturated brain, without finding anything quite horrid enough, until one day his joint musical director Ian Curnow called out of the blue with the answer.
The solution was to be found in Dr Hook, the insipid 1970s groaners whose baffling trademark was their singer's eyepatch and beard, and who are best known for the famously execrable When You're In Love With a Beautiful Woman. That was a bad song, but not their worst. Hook had another called A Little Bit More, a schmaltzy ballad that would make even Celine Dion cringe, and a very real contender for the title of Worst Song Ever, Ever . "It was perfect," Osman enthuses, sitting in a nondescript meeting room at the Soho headquarters of production company Hat Trick. "I thought, hell, this would be an awful thing to release - let's do it." So they did, and Osman was mighty pleased with the result. Until Curnow called again a few weeks ago to inform him that 911, a real boy band, were releasing their own reading of the same song and that it was likely to be at the top of the charts the following Sunday. To make matters worse, Osman contends that the fictional Boyz Unlimited's version is better. Reality: don't trust it, kids.
Interestingly, Boyz Unlimited is the second satire on the music business to appear on our screens in recent months. The other was Brian Elsley's racy The Young Person's Guide To Becoming a Rock Star, and the view it afforded of the business was remarkably of a piece with Osman's. Managers are clueless thugs, record companies staffed by cocaine-addled airheads. The would-be stars are likably deluded ingenues who are quickly denuded of all illusion and/or principles in the rush to fame and fortune. It's a funny picture, though not necessarily a pretty one, and for most of those entering the fray, it is reasonably accurate.
At 27, Osman has first-hand, or at least close second-hand, experience, because his brother is Mat Osman, the bass player in Suede. Although he claims not to have drawn directly on their career, he will allow that being around them has given him an insight into the way the industry works.
"It's different with them because they don't really play the game," he says, "but it has helped me to see the arbitrariness of it all. I mean, poor old Brett Anderson (Suede's singer), he's got this public image of being this foppish middle-class ponce, when all he is is this working-class boy who's worked his arse off and happens to be able to write brilliant pop songs. He's put through the wringer, when Damon Albarn, who is a foppish, middle-class ponce, is accepted as hard-working man of the people. There are many lessons learnt from the way Suede have been treated in my armoury."
Boyz Unlimited is acute and enjoyable, and far more barbed than Osman likes to admit. Some of us will be selfishly hoping that it serves another purpose, too. When the writer had approached Hat Trick and Channel 4 with his idea in 1997, their only concern was that, by the time it could be transmitted, the fad for teen pop would have passed. Osman assured them that it wouldn't have, and he was more right than he could have dreamt. The recently released list of last year's best-selling albums contains shockingly little original rock or electronic music. It is the blandest list of records anyone could have seen for at least 10 years, populated almost exclusively by the likes of the Corrs, Boyzone, Celine Dion, Steps, Savage Garden, B*Witched, 5ive and Billie. At the same time, someone must have been cloning boy bands. This year, you can't turn a corner without bumping into Another Level, E17, Bad Boys Inc, Ultra, 911, Backstreet Boys or Westside.
This appears harmless enough, until you look more closely. Let's start by noting that most of this stuff is abominable. The fascination with throwaway pop has always been that some of it mysteriously transcends its origins and lasts. The Beatles, Monkees, Motown, Wham!, and Stock, Aitken and Waterman all began with music that was considered disposable. The difference between then and now is that those songs were being written by the likes of Lennon and McCartney, Neil Diamond, Carole King and Gerry Goffin, Norman Whitfield and George Michael. They were forging the formulas that the faceless songwriting teams who provide hits for bands such as Boyzone and the Backstreet Boys at best ape, at worst parody. There is more to life than treacly ballads and damped-down disco. But not if you're a boy band.
De Gelderlander: 19th February 1999
Zwijmel Zwijmel had deze Britse bombast-band uit de eighties beter kunnen heten. Een hit als It's my life was altijd koren op de molen van de super-weemoedige geesten onder ons. Toch had Talk Talk meer kwaliteit in huis dan tien jongens-bands bij elkaar. Zanger en componist Mark Hollis wist als geen ander emotie zeer gecontroleerd in tekst en muziek samen te ballen. De beste nummers van Talk Talk waren knap geconstrueerde hoogstandjes, die net aan de goede kant van de kitsch bleven. Live moet zoiets bijna wel tegenvallen. Niet altijd even goed bij stem, met een band die teveel ruimte neemt, laat Hollis op deze concertregistratie horen waar het mis gegaan is. Such a shame. HW^ go back to top
De Gelderlander: 19th February 1999
Swoon Swoon would have been a better name for this bombastic British band form the eighties. Hits such as It's My Life were always grist to the mill of the super-wistful spirits among us. Nevertheless, Talk Talk had more home-grown qualities than ten boys-bands put together. Singer and composer Mark Hollis knew how to control emotion in words and music like no other. The best songs of Talk Talk were handsomely constructed delights, which stayed just on the right side of kitsch. Live performances must therefore be something of a disappointment. Not always in good voice, with a band that takes up too much space, on this recording of Hollis you can hear where it went wrong. Such a shame.^ go back to top
The Times: 6th March 1999
Despite the recent Eighties revival, it's still fashionable to view the music of Thatcher's decade with blanket disdain. It's a shame, because among the flimsy pop there were true mavericks who have never found a home in the renegade Nineties. Singer Mark Hollis guided Talk Talk from new romanticism to jazz-rock experimentalism and this, a record of their last live show, finds them at the half-way house. There's a taste of what's ahead in the exquisite piano prelude to Tomorrow Started, and in the extrapolation of Does Caroline Know? to a languid seven minutes. But listen to the close of Living in Another World and the deceptively simple Life's What You Make It and realise that only a band who had mastered the pop/rock idiom could retreat from it so magnificently.
(9/10)^ go back to top
The Sunday Times: 30th October 1999
After the success of 1986's The Colour of Spring, Talk Talk, leby Mark Hollis and Tim Friese-Greene, retreated to an abandoned church for 14 months and bizarrely, resurfaced as an ambient jazz ensemble.
The result of truely audacious, at various points recalling the modern classicism of Debussy, musique concrete of Eric Satie and gentle whispereing of Brian Eno. Their record Comapny, EMI, were horrified, byt time has vindicated the transformation.
^ go back to top
The Times: 4th March 2000
Wherever people rail against the incompetence of the corporate music industry or catalogue the injustices meted out to bands of quality, it is quite likely that Talk Talk will be used as a cautionary tale. In the first stage of their career, EMI took one look at their synthesizers and the choppy pop of their eponymous early single and dressed this elegant, literate band in white silken box-jackets to fill the support slot on the road with Duran Duran.
Later successes with It's My Life and Life's What You Make It forced them into the wildly inappropriate role of hit factory, and by the time they released their fourth album, the jazz-inflected pop experimentation of Spirit of Eden in 1988, singer Mark Hollis and songwriting partner Tim Friese-Greene were refusing to let executives have either advance tapes or singles. Needless to say, amid a legal storm, Talk Talk were dropped, and turned to Polydor to put out their final album Laughing Stock.
Originally released in 1991, you can only imagine the label managers' despair when they discovered they had been handed 45 minutes and six tracks of freeform ambience. The album was deleted after three months.
Grandly speaking, then - and after exposure to this record's measured melancholy, everything seems grand - Laughing Stock is an album produced from artistic struggle, the work of men fighting to claim the peripheries of their pop remit. Untouched by contemporary trends - you will find no indie-dance, grunge or shoegazing here - Talk Talk were quite simply doing their own thing, following dark paths that will surprise anyone who remembers them merely for their brush with chart fame and the long-coated appearances on Saturday Superstore's Video Vote.
This reissue on Pondlife chimes unexpectedly with many recent developments in today's rock landscape. In the instrumental richness and exploratory dynamics it is not fanciful to see connections with the world of post-rock, from Ariel M's pastoral drifting to the oblique jazz interests of Tortoise. However, it is still very sad music, a sense of dislocation eloquently expressed by Hollis's fragile vocals and his lyrics of sin and redemption.
From the opening Myrrhman - a haze of strings and guitar - to the improvisatory squall and swell of After the Flood, it's clear that the singer's concerns stretch beyond mere love and into the spiritual realm. You could see it as the deconstruction of the relatively conventional hook-driven pop of Life's What You Make It. Tracks such as the sparsely dissonant Taphead, the soulful Ascension Day and New Grass, with its string flurries, rise slowly from a mist of instrumentation, but the emotional heat here stops Laughing Stock from being mere academic indulgence.
Most vitally though, this is music brimming with ideas, unafraid to turn from populism to musical libertarianism. Simon Le Bon might not have had too much to worry about, but the rest of us should feel humbled - and in certain cases, ashamed - that such music could slip through the net. (Victoria Segal)
(8/10)go back to top
Uncut: April 2000
Talk Talk’s oblique yet blissful Laughing Stock represents a single-minded quest to achieve post-punk purity. By David Stubbs.
The musical journey undertaken by Talk Talk from centre-right pop to the far, far left of post-rock remains unique in music history. Mark Hollis started band life like anyone else in the late Seventies, in a post-punk combo known as The Reaction. His brother Ed was already in Eddie and The Hot Rods and when The Reaction disbanded in 1979 it looked like M. Hollis was destined to join the footnotes and also-rans of punk folklore.
When he hooked up with drummer Lee Harris and bassist Paul Webb, however, with a newer wave outfit by the name of Talk Talk and then caught the eye of esteemed arbiter of taste David ‘Kid’ Jensen, Hollis was back. EMI signed them up and divined in their smart, smooth poptones the ideal undercard to Duran Duran, then the leading lights of New Romantic. The release of an eponymous single, a shiny, synth-pop replication of the Duran sound, few imagined that this lot would be around for long, pre-destined to be Eighties, one-off curios a la Living In A Box.
Yet few reckoned with Hollis’ revulsion with the trappings of pop and his undeflected search for a “purity” in the practice and making of music. This last quality would ensure that Talk Talk outlasted the Durannies, Toyahs, Kajagoogoos and similar flossy pop flunkies. By the mid-Eighties, they’d amassed a solid international following, outranking the likes of Spandau Ballet on European bills. This, in spite of Hollis’ insistence that no photos of the band appear on their cover sleeves, only illustrations, so as to disconnect “image” from the music. Moreover, producer Tim Friese-Greene had been drafted in as co-songwriter and keyboardist, whereupon Talk Talk’s sound took on the more sophisticated hue of the likes of Traffic or Roxy Music, stylish rather than fashionable, reflective rather than glossy.
By 1986, these qualities of endurance and integrity earnt them massive sales with that year’s The Colour Of Spring and the single, “Life’s What You Make It”. Yet Hollis was visibly disgruntled. He made no secret of his distaste for fans who only came to Talk Talk gigs to hear the hits, while a truculent NME interview, in which he insistently referred to his music as “art”, demonstrated his discomfiture with having to sell his wares in the pop market place.
The NME were unimpressed but EMI were downright perturbed. In reward for the high sales of The Colour Of Spring, they had lavished on Talk Talk a generous budget for their next release, only for the band to disappear from view for a couple of years. When they re-emerged, it turned out that they had done what every megapop band talks about doing but so rarely does – i.e. what they fuck they wanted. And this turned out to be 1988′s Spirit Of Eden was a staggering, critic-pleasing, commercially suicidal foray into the amorphous arms of ambient jazz-rock. Taking its cue from the melancholy spirituality of Miles Davis’ “He Loved Him Madly”, its aqueous, oceanic odysseys into oblique spiritual introspection (ouch! – Ed’s note) blew gaskets in executive boardrooms. EMI tried to salvage something from what they regarded as the wreckage, issuing an edited version of the gorgeous “I Believe In You” as a single, under protest from the band. However, the intricacy of Spirit Of Eden’s arrangements was such that Talk Talk declared they would be unable to promote the album on the road.
Relationships between the band and the label deteriorated, especially when EMI issued an album of remixes of old Talk Talk singles in 1990, which they had to withdraw after legal action from the band. By 1991 Talk Talk switched to Polydor, who allowed them to release an album, Laughing Stock, on their reactivated jazz label, Verve. It was oblique. It further confounded the expectations of traditional fans. It sold poorly. It was the last we would hear from Talk Talk as a collective – end of story. Oh and it was brilliant. If Spirit Of Eden represented the first tentative unmooring of a band looking to go further inward/further outward than any band had gone before, then Laughing Stock saw them way out to sea.
“Myrrhman”, the opener, sets the tone, rising slowly into being from a sort of meditative silence, back into which it continually threatens to evaporate. It drifts like a ghostship off the furthermost Northern coast, with flugelhorns pealing, subdued, through the fog of indistinction and a harmonium droning in a faint echo of Shetland folk music. The odd burst of radio crackle is suggestive of the last blast of modern electrical equipment, or communication with dry land, finally petering out. The strings offer a melancholy reminder of Gavin Bryars’s The Sinking Of The Titanic as Hollis & co gravitate towards an uncertain grey area where sea and sky merge.
Our bearings are a little surer on “Ascension Day” – we’re located somewhere beyond jazz, beyond rock, beyond folk. Hollis’ tremulous, plaintive vocals are somehow so intimate, the vowels so intense that it’s hard to make sense of them (still less his lyrics as reprinted in his semi-legible handwriting on the sleeve). “Bed I’ll be damned/Gets harder to sense, to sail . . .”. There is, however, a non-specific urgency, a Beckettian determination, stressed in the single, clanging, sustained guitar chord which concludes the song before being chopped off. Fade from grey once more with “After The Flood”, whose swelling, organ-driven pulse is a thing of simple but ominous beauty, with Hollis’ vocals rising off its surfaces like mist off water. Again, the mood of the song intensifies, refusing solace, naturally broken up by an agonised, distorted “guitar solo”, running like a scratch through the track, sounding like a morse distress signal obliterated in its own crackle.
“Taphead” sets out sparingly, with Hollis almost prayerfully murmuring, “Will to wind and wander/Climb through needle neck to consent . . .”, before a brace of shrill horns and harmonica blasts arise, all squealing and agitated, like whales aroused from their slumber and communicating anxiously with one another in song.
Perhaps the finest track on Laughing Stock, however, is the somehow optimistic “New Grass”. From its subdued, sublime jazz-rock beginnings, through to its concluding bars, in which it reincarnates from near, dead silence, replenished with new colour and rising joyously again, it’s late Talk Talk at their finest. This isn’t “jazz-rock” in any pyrotechnical sense but “uncomplicated”, ebb, flow, overlap and retreat, as simple yet profound as the sea.
Finally comes “Rune II”, skirting the edges of silence, observing to the end the sheer naturalness, the musical correctness of Talk Talk.
Of course, to those who were trying to flog the thing, it was just a bunch of exasperating, incomprehensible rock bollocks showing all the advanced symptoms of career death wish. As far as the bloody-minded Hollis was concerned, however, this was simply his own, unique extension of the three-chords-or-less punk ethic. He sat out most of the Nineties, perfecting the studio conditions to release his first, eponymous 1998 solo album, a further, magnificent retreat from the “centre”, an Aeolian instrumental interplay of wood, metal, wind and strings.
As for Laughing Stock, now at last available once more on CD, it may not be lyrically easily understood but that’s not the point. On a subliminal, emotional, musical level it’s one of the most cogent records ever made, blissful yet troubled, oblique yet desperate to connect. It offered a sonic template to a host of subsequent post-rockers, from Bark Psychosis to Spiritualized, to Labradford. It showed that there is a vastness of possibility out there to anyone who wants to do more than just flog their product. It’s renegade albums like Laughing Stock, slipping through the commercial nets, which end up making the whole sordid music business worthwhile.^ go back to top
Tijd Nieuwslijn: 5th September 2001
Begin jaren tachtig liet Talk Talk voor het eerst van zich horen binnen de New Romantic-beweging. Dat was een androgyne modegril van een reeks bands die het doemdenken van de uitstervende punkbeweging een hak wilden zetten. De ingredienten zijn u waarschijnlijk nog bekend: een batterij synthesizers, veel make-up, gefoehnde haarlokken en een outfit waar ze vandaag nog beschaamd over zijn.
Talk Talk paste aanvankelijk perfect in het rijtje dat bands als Duran Duran of KajaGooGoo huisvestte en scoorde hoog op de hitladder met o.a. Talk Talk, Such A Shame of Its My Life. Met The Colour Of Spring - denk aan Lifes What You Make It - maakten voorman Mark Hollis en kompanen duidelijk dat er een ander tijdperk aangebroken was. Het geijkte popformaat ruimde plaats voor invloeden uit de minimalistische en klassiek-moderne muziek met heel wat ruimte voor jazzimprovisaties.
In 1992 verscheen op het jazzlabel Verve het uitmuntende Laughing Stock, een even bizarre als intrigerende geluidstrip met een hoog ambientgehalte. Het nieuwe Missing Pieces bestaat uit verschillende versies van tracks die tijdens de Laughing Stock-sessies waren opgenomen en wordt voor de fans aangevuld met twee voorheen onuitgegeven tracks, Stump en 5:09. Ook een zeer minimalistisch wat naar Satie neigend solopianostuk van Hollis moet de potentiele koper over de brug lokken. De compositie komt uit het album AV 1 dat in 1998 werd uitgegeven en een reeks audiovisuele installaties begeleidde van een zekere Dave Allinson. Missing Pieces laat zich bij momenten smaken als een indrukwekkend stukje soundscaping maar enkel doorgewinterde Talk Talk-liefhebbers zullen het van de eerste tot de laatste noot uitluisteren.^ go back to top
Tijd Nieuwslijn: 5th September 2001
At the beginning of the 1980s Talk Talk debuted for the first time as part of the New Romantic movement. That was an androgynous fashion whim by a series of bands that wanted to put the boot into the doom-mongering of the dying punk movement. The ingredients you are probably familiar with: a battery of synthesizers, a lot of makeup, over-hairsprayed hair and outfits which they are probably embarrassed about today.
Talk Talk initially fitted in perfectly with bands like Duran Duran and Kajagogo and scored high in the charts with Talk Talk, Such A Shame and Its My Life. With the album The Colour Of Spring-think of Life’s What You Make It- leader Mark Hollis and accomplices made clear that a new era was dawning.
The calibrated pop format gave way to influences from the minimalist and modern classical music with a lot of room for jazz improvisations. In 1992 the excellent Laughing Stock appeared on the jazz label Verve, a both bizarre and intriguing sound trip with high ambient sound levels. The new Missing Pieces consists of different versions of tracks that were recorded during the Laughing Stock sessions -and supplemented with two previously unreleased tracks for fans, Stump and 5:09. Also included to lure potential buyers across the line is a very minimalist Satie-esq solo piece from Hollis. The composition comes from the album AV 1 that was issued in 1998 to accompany a series of audiovisual installations by a certain Dave Allinson. Missing Pieces can be at times feel like an impressive piece of soundscaping but only seasoned Talk Talk-enthusiasts will be listening from the first to the last note.^ go back to top
PopMatters: 10th September 2001
“Something awful has happened; something terrible. Something worse, even, than the fall of man. For in that greatest of all tragedies, we merely lost Paradise—and with it, everything that made life worth living. What has happened since is unthinkable: we’ve gotten used to it”. —John Eldredge, The Journey of Desire
Mark Hollis bears a striking resemblance to the mosaic visage of the Byzantine emperor Justinian in Ravenna, whose arched eyebrows and stern face were set upon establishing a new code of law. After three successive (and successful) forays in the realm of early ‘80s new romantic synth-pop, Hollis and Talk Talk producer Tim Friese-Greene entered a musical cocoon—an abandoned church building in England—to reinvent the band and explore brave, new sounds. When Spirit of Eden slid from its chrysalis in 1988 it took the collective breath away from critics worldwide, and drew down the ire of Talk Talk’s label. The highly non-commercial nature of the album resulted the band’s dismissal from EMI, a company whose artistic straight-jacket is more confining than the BBC’s. Notwithstanding, Talk Talk—yes, the same group who were once the airbrushed acolytes of Duran Duran—floated away with what is arguably one of greatest achievements in popular recorded music. Mark Hollis made an album for the ages and, unlike many of his classical predecessors, has lived to see it appreciated.
When most people enjoy a record, they generally speak of the music’s vibe. It makes them feel good for no specific reason; it provides a pleasurable escape from the agitations of life. But sample the reactions of those who have listened to Spirit of Eden, and it’s immediately apparent that this record draws out the most private emotions. On Amazon.com the listener reviews include the following observations:
“It’s the kind of music that makes you want to cry or write poetry”.
“It will cleanse you”.
“I don’t even need to play it anymore; it’s taken up permanent residence within”.
“. . . [it] caused me to ache, to sit still engrossed”.
“You can feel the surrender of a man”.
“If my house was on fire and I could save only one object, it would be this CD”.
“Take my freedom, for giving me this sacred album”.
“I played this album at my son’s birth”.
What’s going on here? Why would Spirit of Eden become a person’s most prized possession, an object that would be invited into the most intimate moments? It is one of those rare works that causes the listener to get in touch with the inner self—safely. It drags us by the ear to regions of the heart we would not voluntarily visit on our own. Spirit of Eden has been labeled prog, ambient, experimental; I prefer to see it as a soundtrack. As such, it suits those quiet moments when, deprived of all the devices and distractions we fill our lives with, we come precariously close to the sickening feelings of our ontological lightness. When life begins to lose its artificial meaning and contrived purpose, when we feel our complete aloneness and despair, when we realize something dear is lost, that’s when a record like Spirit of Eden speaks to the soul and says, “the fear is excruciating, but that is where your deliverance lies”.
Spirit of Eden was fueled by Hollis’ own life and death struggle. Having been addicted to heroin, he arrived at the conclusion that this prop, too, had to be kicked away. The terror of letting go of the one thing that gave a false sense of control inspired the cavernous sound of the record, and within those echoing canyons Hollis pushed through to resolution.
“Take my freedom, for giving me a sacred love”. (“Wealth”)
Ditching the taut tones of Casio keyboards, Talk Talk utilized a wholly organic sound for Spirit of Eden: real drums and real guitars augmented by harrowing improvisations on woodwinds and brass. Sustained, irregular piano chords announce thematic changes while swells from a church organ cause the record to draw deep, labored breaths. The falling and rising of the music, from thick silence to cacophony, is the main characteristic of this album. Techno? New romantic? MTV? Although this music has no direct antecedents, as a matter of reference it feels like Thelonious Monk, Dmitri Shostokovich, and Iron Butterfly meshed together. Yet, there is a timeless if not ancient character to the sounds that reaches across varied traditions. The tracks sprawl to an average length of nearly seven minutes. The lyrics are appropriately cryptic and non-specific. Spirit of Eden bypasses the head and sets a mood directly for the heart.
I was impressed by the fact that one amazon.com contributor played this album at his son’s birth. I recently had a very different but no less dramatic association with this music. About a month ago I received a phone call at work. My wife’s voice on the other end was gripped with terror and grief. Her brother had been in a serious fall, which fractured his skull. Shortly after being admitted to the hospital he went into cardiac arrest and had no heartbeat for about three minutes. The doctors feared the loss of oxygen had caused substantial brain damage. Within a few days his vital organs began to shut down, and the family was called in to expect the worst.
The day he was expected to die, the intensive care unit was filled with a procession of people, most of them young, most of whom I didn’t know, coming to tell this young man goodbye. While the sound of life support machines droned in the background, one by one these grieving people made their approach to his bedside, trembling, eyes and noses red, some of them clutching at their sides as if to hold themselves together. I remembered reading an Irish mystic, J.B. Stoney, who had said that there was nothing more dignified than the solitude of grief. Many were there, but each was alone with his or her own inexplicable feelings. As I watched, it struck me that the song “I Believe in You” was playing in my mind.
“On a street so young laying wasted
Enough ain’t it enough
I just can’t bring myself to see it starting….”
It was the song on Spirit of Eden that signified Hollis surrendering his control through addiction, allowing himself to fall into the hands of raging omnipotence. I thought it strange that, out of the hundreds of songs and hymns I know, this particular piece by a distant British rock band would rear up in my mind. But as the people around me quietly wept, I could hear the sound of Tim Friese-Greene’s church organ and the Chelmsford Boys Choir building inside.
“It’s taken up permanent residence within”.
Those voices resonating within me were like a comforting, heavenly choir. For a moment I had new eyes to see something most precious. These people were silently acknowledging that death is not what should have been, that no matter how we try to kill the desire, there is a demand for something eternal that only moments of loss such as this can stir. These were people jarred from the numbness of routine, becoming human again.
Spirit of Eden is a record that cuts to the marrow, challenging our resigned contentment with the way things are. It’s a spirit that slides under the gates of time and genre, reaching up to haunt us out of a stupor. Like any great art, it defies analysis and can only be experienced at the most individual level.
Heaven bless you, Mark Hollis.^ go back to top
The Sunday Herald: 20th October 2000
What happens when the torch song chanteuse from Portishead teams up with a former Talk Talk member? They make beautiful music together, finds Graeme Virtue, as he tracks down Beth Gibbons and Rustin' Man
My first exposure to the sullen, sour strains of Portishead left an indelible mark on my memory. At the time - late August in 1994 - their single Sour Times really was unlike anything I'd ever heard before, certainly light-years away from the brewing Britpop scene. The musical backdrop - a blend of cinematic atmospherics, scratched beats and emotionless beeps - has since moved slowly from otherworldly to commonplace. But there's still something obdurately unique about the voice of Beth Gibbons - a raw, confessional frisson that can make the hairs on the back of your hands bristle.
But Portishead appear to be on an unending sabbatical - not a Theremin peep has been heard out of them since a shivery live album in 1998. The reclusive Gibbons, however, has re-emerged in a low-key collaboration with Rustin' Man - aka Paul Webb, founder member of 1980s art-rockers Talk Talk. Listening to the new material, it's almost like hearing Portishead for that first time again. Even in a musical landscape that stretches from the Technicolor choir-rock of The Polyphonic Spree to the crammed, sci-fi beats of modern R'n'B via the vinyl collage of DJ Shadow and The Avalanches, this is a record that still sounds like it's been recorded in some alternate folk-tale dimension: sparse, echoing and hypnotic, the songs linked by Gibbons's lacerating vocal delivery. It's a thing of uncommon beauty. But, according to Webb, we're lucky we're getting a chance to hear it at all.
NME: 15th November 2003
During the most difficult times at the back end of adolescence I clung to Talk Talk’s album ‘Laughing Stock’ like a life raft. It comforted me and was just a very, very important part of my life.
It’s perfect music to drop off to at night, or to spend b a window on a simmer’s day, or to have on your headphones on a long journey. You can escape into your own world with it. The dynamics, sensitivity and facility of it just makes it very fresh, organic and pretty tieless. I also like it because it’s very easy music to listen to on one level, yet there are so many tiny intricacies.
The first time I heard them was in 1985. My sister had one of their records and I remember it echoing from her bedroom into mine. I used to love it when it was on. I always used to open my bedroom door and make sure I caught it. It was kind of embarrassing that my big sister was influencing my taste – at the time anyway. NO chance would I have let her know she turned me on to anything.
When I was 21 my first love left me for a Venezuelan lawyer. So there’s me on the dole in Lancashire feeling really miserable. But I snapped out of it one Sunday afternoon. I put ‘New Grass’ (from Laughing Stock) on really loud and my housemate Alan wandered into my room, sat down, smoked some rollies and didn’t really talk.
I ran into him three months ago and we talked about music and Talk Talk and ‘New Grass’ in particular. I said ‘You were there when that track meant the most to me’ and he remembered: the same time and the same moment, so there must have been something in the air. Peter, our bassist, is under strict instructions to play ‘new Grass’ at my funeral if I go before he does! It’s beautiful, so delicate and fresh and very hypnotic. The name is perfect – it sounds like new growth, something blossoming, and no doubt some of my relatives could think it’s a drug reference!
It’s probably only their last three records that I like. They were marketed as a Duran Duran copy band and when they realised what was going on they withdrew into themselves. In the latter stuff there’s a jazz influence and blues in the guitar style. You can hear on certain tuned the sound of someone desperately looking for something. I don’t know what it was, but you’ve got to go somewhere to come back with that music. They’re the closest I’ve heard somebody come to hitting a pure, original angle. I bet they weren’t happy with it but I can’t fault any of it. They gave me something to aim at…which I’ll probably never achieve.
What to Buy:
It’s My Life: The transition, as they tentatively began to shed their Duran Duran wannabe mantle. The title track has been covered confidently by No Doubt.
Spirit of Eden: Dropping keyboards for minimal orchestration, Hollis was a perfectionist inspired by everything from ambient music to jazz Ambitious and stunning.
Laughing Stock: The final album and their greatest statement. Extraordinary hypnotic music that remains nothing less than crushingly beautiful throughout.^ go back to top
Independent on Sunday: 4th January 2004
In the wake of No Doubt's cover of "It's My Life", EMI have wasted little time in inviting a reappraisal of Talk Talk, one of the lesser names of the New Romantic era. Twenty years ago, the label tried to market TT as another Duran Duran, but foghorn-voiced singer Mark Hollis didn't have the looks or the larynx for pop stardom (it has to be conceded, grudgingly, that "It's My Life" is improved by the replacement of Hollis' vocal with a female one, with the rider that one wishes it did not have to belong to Gwen Stefani). After two albums in a similar vein, TT finally found their own sound with 1986's The Colour of Spring, acknowledged as the band's masterpiece by anyone who was still listening. This randomly era- hopping compilation doesn't help the listener to follow their chronological progression, but hearing the elegant "Life's What You Make It" immediately after the sub-Spandau "Strike Up The Band" is a stark indicator of how far Talk Talk travelled.^ go back to top
Broadcast Music Inc: 19th October 2004
BMI songwriter/artist Mark Hollis (PRS), who was unable to attend this year’s London Awards stopped by the BMI London office to pick up a Pop Award for his song “It’s My Life.” Originally a hit for 80s synthpop band Talk Talk of which Hollis is a member, the 2003 No Doubt remake is still enjoying international success.^ go back to top
Portland Mercury: 4th March 2004
It's gotta be hard to shoot for the sublime. Mark Hollis has been doing so since 1981, ever since Island Music helped him book demo sessions with his industry-connected brother. From that moment on, Hollis' recordings have documented his inspirational, sometimes-obsessive passion for recorded sound. By Joan Hiller
I remember the first time I heard Talk Talk's Spirit of Eden--a friend of mine, flabbergasted and appalled that I'd never spent time with Hollis' records, gave me his copy--to keep. He said I'd need it. I'd been having a shitty year--bad decisions permeated by worse consequences, overworking myself, overextending myself, lending too much energy to the tending of other people's circumstances that were beyond my control--and I took it. Went home. Roommates were asleep. I grabbed my headphones (the big, shitty, old headphones that used to belong to my dad; the same headphones that filtered Steely Dan's Can't Buy a Thrill and Linda Ronstadt's Greatest Hits II into my prepubescent ears years ago), kept the lights off, and sprawled out spread eagle on the hardwood floor. The opening movement of "The Rainbow" trickled in, and I cried.
Noting, of course, that definitions of perfection are abstractly objective, few disagree that Spirit of Eden is anything less than exactly that. Hollis' climb towards Eden and beyond, of course, wasn't a short or easy one. After Talk Talk signed to EMI and released their debut, The Party's Over, in 1982, it was apparent to both critics and contemporaries that the label was using the group to ride the New Romantics wave straight to Hitsville. EMI was rakin' it in with the similarly double-monikered Duran Duran; and Talk Talk's first two bubbly yet sexy, broody synth-pop singles ("Mirror Man" and "Talk Talk") flopped like the rip-offs they were, while the punchier "Today" charted well. Hollis, happy with the success but unhappy with the way in which he was being artistically corralled, brashly replaced most synth sounds in his outfit with organics. That's when he met producer Tim Friese-Greene and started handpicking session players to meticulously realize his lofty intents.
Colour of Spring (1986) was a remarkable turning point for Hollis, and served as a model for the next record, Eden, and a near total abandonment of his earlier style. Filled with experimental textures and sprinkles of small sounds that sound so big throughout, the record's punchy, gorgeous opener, "Happiness is Easy," slowly folds through pinpoint-sharp classical guitar washes into a chorus sporting a children's choir, swelling synth strings, and unbelievable emotional release. Hollis' songwriting process now intentionally channeled improvisational and loosely formed compositional ideas into tight, organic structures. These compositions were brilliantly free, but still founded on pop. He and Friese-Green turned sketches into blueprints, then allowed session musicians to contribute ideas until they had enough material to pick from. (The December 1991 issue of Record Collector notes this same technique was popular with Can and Ornette Coleman.)
Eden was formed largely using that same painstaking process, but due to the final version's microscope-like attention to the minutiae that defines the most perfect, lonely, full moments on the album, its intensity level is far greater. It's really the little bits of Hollis' work that get me--the über-micing of an egg shaker, the hint at Hollis' inhalation before his warbly, delicate vocals tiptoe into a verse. He's continued with it through his unbelievably brain-blowing 1998 self-titled solo album, released on Polydor and available on Blueprint. It features a lot of Talk Talk alumns, but is distinctly Hollis' own--he sounds solitary, effervescent. A quarter of a decade later, Hollis still searches for that which he achieves time and time again--the creation of works that epitomize what he can do at the pinnacle of his creative power at any given time. And God bless him for that.^ go back to top
the Birmingham Post: 24th August 2005
Pop music has always had an unquenchable obsession with the fresh and new - something marginally different that could be marketed as genuinely original, or the heirs to an irrefutably successful act.
This is more prominent now than ever before - we're told that Kaiser Chiefs are the new Blur, Coldplay are the new U2, Keane are the new Coldplay, as if everything can be traced backwards on one spindly timeline.
But it's hardly a new phenomenon. Even during the 1980s new acts were being touted as 'the new Duran Duran'. Among these collectives was Londonbased quartet Talk Talk, who didn't exactly assuage comparisons with Simon Le Bon and co when they hired Colin Thurston, who had worked with Duran Duran, to produce their debut outing.
The four-piece, with songwriter Mark Hollis at the fore, are perhaps most keenly remembered for their early singles, drawing on the insouciant glamour of the New Romantic movement.
The spangly synthpop of It's My Life - popularised recently thanks to a cover version perpetrated by the Gwen Stefani-fronted combo No Doubt - remarkably fell outside of the top 40 on its initial release, later becoming a hit in 1990, by which time the music industry and Talk Talk themselves had changed irrevocably.
By the time Talk Talk made 1988's Spirit of Eden, they had moved out of the shadow of their contemporaries - all hair spray, shoulder pads and dodgy synthesisers - to tread an altogether more singular path. Focusing on slow-building, intense yet airy chamber rock, Spirit of Eden is best described as a collection of compositions, sparse and spacious, than an album of conventional pop songs.
Adorned with glacial organ washes and almost neo-classical textures, it reveals elegant arrangements and eerily evocative timbres; the kind which have obviously influenced Doves, Elbow and Sigur Ros, while the visceral jazz-rock of opener The Rainbow must surely have been a touchstone for Jason Pierce when creating Spiritualized's heartbreak-andheroin opus, Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space.
Even the concept of the traditional rock line-up is subverted on a record of such hushed beauty. Built upon layers of piano, organ, bass and guitar, it nevertheless takes in bassoon, oboe and clarinet, while I Believe in You features the Chelmsford Cathedral choir. Listening to its six tracks now, Spirit of Eden is still markedly alien-sounding; a feat which Radiohead have clearly tried to emulate, while coming nowhere near the spectral grace imagined by Mark Hollis.
While the Cocteau Twins and various other 4AD bands have been roundly praised for their dream-pop collages, Talk Talk's contribution to the British rock canon has long been ignored. Interestingly, the organic, autumnal atmosphere of Spirit of Eden can be spotted in the work of leading avant-rock musicians.
Certainly, their combination of jazz, classical, rock and the spacey echoes of dub, using silence almost as an instrument in its own right, lends itself to the vernacular of post-rock, and there can be little argument that Tortoise and their Chicago-based compatriots would hardly sound the same were it not for the staggering achievements of Hollis and Tim Friese-Green, presented on this near-faultless record.
Like Brian Eno's experiments with ambient pop melded with a rich sense of melody, Spirit of Eden is minimal, left-field rock at its finest; a peculiar record which rarely reaches more than a whisper, but its occasional crescendos serve as moments that accentuate the sense of quiet calm.
Spirit of Eden is an otherworldly masterpiece - icy yet inviting, unsettling but oddly compelling, not least on the closing track. The enchanting Wealth, resonating with all the gentle warmth of a lullaby, adds to the cohesive, consistent mood. As it drifts slowly out of earshot, it's almost impossible to tell when it has actually finished.
In confronting one of the clich»s of rock, namely the desire for artistic freedom, Talk Talk found themselves isolated from their peers, and dropped by their record label EMI for daring to produce something so uncommercial. The disparate themes and sounds which form Spirit of Eden were taken even further on its follow-up, 1991's impressive Laughing Stock, although it didn't quite match the heights scaled by its predecessor.
After the commercial failure of Laughing Stock, Talk Talk split, although some band members have continued to release music. Hollis' solitary solo album to date, belatedly released in 1998, has received huge critical acclaim despite incredibly modest sales. Bassist Paul Webb, recording as Rustin Man, has since collaborated with Portishead torch singer Beth Gibbons - rather appropriate, given that her group have recalled the exquisite melodies of Talk Talk's most accomplished production.
Listening to Spirit of Eden remains a limitless pleasure - it won't have you singing along in front of the mirror, but instead stands as a hugely enriching record, which has aged far better than the efforts of any of their peers.^ go back to top
Mojo: January 2006
In July 1994 we were on one of those Guinness-fuelled tours of Ireland in an old Mercedes van. I’d just played at the Warwick Hotel, Galway, and on our way back to Dublin, we stopped at this brilliant old pub, Morrissey’s, in Abbeyleix. They sell Corn Flakes and groceries behind the bar, and farmers roll up in horse-drawn carts. After a few beers we set off again and my mate Donal Dineen played me Spirit of Eden in the van, and this astonishing harmonica sound just blew me away. I realised I’d completely missed the point of this album and I’d have to go back and listen properly. It came out in 1988 when I was 16, but I didn’t buy it until I was 20, living in Liverpool on the dole. Even then I hadn’t really got into it.
Most of the albums I love, like Astral Weeks or Nebraska, are performance records, but Spirit of Eden took endless hours of editing, layering of sounds, to create this astonishing soundscape.
Mark Hollis doesn’t have an instant voice, but the more I listened, I realised he was using it like an instrument, like a trumpet. I could see similarities to Miles Davis in the way they used the gaps between the notes to create this astonishing amount of space and silence. They’d thrown away notions of traditional song structure, like verse-chorus-verse. You could barely make out what Mark Hollis was singing half the time, but what comes across is that the mood of the music is darkened by some dark, personal experience he must have been through.
Everyone else at the time was using lots of processing and electronics, but they achieved all their effects by the way they miked up the recording space, so all the echoes and reverberations are natural. I’ve never heard better sounds than that screaming harmonica and the distorted guitars.
On the track Inheritance, a boys’ choir sings this beautifully uplifting melody – it gives me shivers to think of it. It came to mean even more to me when my father died a few years later because, just as the choir starts Hollis half-whispers the word ‘spirit’ and you can sense a spirit, almost as if a ghost is appearing out of the music. Spirit of Eden definitely affected how I did my new album. I actually asked Tim Friese-Greene of Talk Talk to produce it, but he couldn’t. I haven’t gone as far as they did, but I’m leaving more space in the music, Spirit of Eden was, and is, fruit for the ears.^ go back to top
The Independent: 3rd March 2006
Talk Talk began life as the poor man’s Duran Duran – which, if you think about it, is some achievement. Yet by the time of their demise in 1991, the music being made by Mark Hollis and his collaborators was without precedent.
The success of 1986’s superior pop-rock effort, The Colour of Spring, meant the band had a free hand recording the follow-up. Spirit of Eden (1988) was the result and it left the record company aghast. This was outer-limits stuff: white-boy blues haunted by the spirits of Olivier Messiaen and Miles Davis. It was music of enormous power and dynamic range, hushed soundscapes giving way to guitars that Suede’s Bernard Butler has likened to “doors crashing open”.
Laughing Stock (1991) began where Eden left off, months of improvisation resulting in a rawer, even more diffuse opus that flitted between rock, jazz and classical. It was hard to imagine how such music, veering from the maelstrom of “Ascension Day” to the beatific “New Grass”, could be taken any further, and it was seven years before Hollis was heard from again.
His eponymous solo record was smaller in scale and wholly acoustic. Very beautiful and very quiet, this was the musician’s final word; according to his former manager, Hollis has now “retired from active duty”. (James Finn)
The Michigan Daily: 25th October 2006
True story: An English rock band establishes itself as a pop icon by releasing a series of international hits and garnering worldwide acclaim. Suddenly, the band decides it's bored with pop altogether - it releases records filled with minimalism, improvisation and experimentalism. What appears to be commercial suicide only solidifies the group's place as forerunners of (albeit loosely titled) post-rock genre. Any guesses?
Thanks to Gwen Stefani's rehashing of 1984's "It's My Life," there should be little or no doubt in the mind of educated listeners that Talk Talk were true masters of synth-pop.
But if we were to only remember the band's past contributions to pop music, we wouldn't be getting at half of Talk Talk's real legacy: musical innovation that has influenced almost every independent rock artist performing today. Their fifth and final artistic statement - their Pet Sounds, their Sgt. Pepper's; dare it be said, their A Love Supreme - is 1991's Laughing Stock.
Many die-hard fans suggest Laughing Stock is merely a spin-off of 1988's Spirit of Eden, an album that foreshadows a similar experimental concept, a similar array of instrumentation and even a similar album cover: a tree decorated with exotic birds. In reality, Laughing Stock crystallized the sound that Talk Talk was searching for and helped complete their artistic vision. Flawlessly.
While the album marks the group's baptism into a new realm of musical vision and pushes it beyond the Duran Durans of the day, Laughing Stock remains a six-song structure. Granted, a few of the tracks exceed the nine-minute border line, but theirs is no simple accomplishment. From the first strummed tremolo chords of "Myrrhman," a clear intention is revealed - these songs are meant to be listened to in succession.
On "Myrrhman," the soft, welcoming pluck of acoustic bass also introduces the listener to the band's exploration of unique instrumentation. Delicate strings and trumpet gradually enter the scene as lead singer Mark Hollis whispers "Place my chair at the backroom door / Help me up I can't wait anymore." The subtle and often dissonant trumpet lines echo composer Charles Ives, the forefather of minimalism. On this track and throughout the record there are several moments where the ghost of one of Ives's greatest works, The Unanswered Question, appears. The lesson is clear - Talk Talk did their homework.
The following track, "Ascension Day," begins with a deep drum and upright bass groove before baring its teeth through openly raucous distorted guitar chords. Ever heard of a guitar player named Johnny Greenwood? Yeah, this might be where he got it. And while we're alluding to rock styling, how about the Mars Volta? Mark Hollis was experimenting with a signature vocal style long before Cedric Bixler entered the scene. Even defunct, indie icons The Dismemberment Plan owe a debt to the more chaotic moments of "Ascension Day."
The fittingly titled "After the Flood" has a successive entrance that blends piano, organ, guitar and Lee Harris's grooving ride cymbal, which starts up after the musical downpour. Highlighted by suddenly gorgeous minor cadences of the warm, comforting organ lines, the track moves along steadily, like a wave receding from a beachhead. Here, even Hollis's lyrics (perhaps more muddled than usual) take a backseat to the wide sonic sound of the track.
The simplistic, occasionally tri-tonal guitar intro to "Taphead" makes for a unconventional duet between guitar and vocals. As Hollis faintly utters the phrase, "When do you know, y'know, you know you learn," it's probable that the singer's intent is to create a mood or feeling, rather than to form a proper sentence. More dissonant trumpet lines follow, which are quickly relieved by the album's seminal track: "New Grass." It's the sound of Talk Talk at its minimalist best. Not many bands can create such exquisite piano chords (although, in recent years, the group Rachel's may come damn close). Subtly bent three-note guitar voicings roll with the repetitive drumming as the vocals toy with a kind of staggering grace.
The album's final track, "Runeii," opens up like an Indian raga. With slides and a few muted strings, the electric guitar sets the modal mood for the piece. It's a precursor to Jeff Buckley's "Dream Brother," but with a much looser vibe. Just as the listener begins to get a feel for things, the song is quickly swept away.
Considering many of the religious overtones (not completely dissimilar from records like A Love Supreme) in Hollis's lyrics, references to "Christendom" and even the Apocalypse, it's no surprise that Talk Talk chooses to end their masterpiece in such a sudden and graceful manner.
Quite possibly, Laughing Stock personified all that the band had set out to accomplish, it marked the natural end of things. What else could the band possibly have to say? And what more can be said of such an album? (Derek Barber)^ go back to top
The Western Mail: 3rd March 2007
Way back in 1982, Talk Talk established themselves as a 'boy band' but, unlike some of the others, they had an individual sound and artistic merit.
They weren't in-your-face and full of self-importance like many who fell neatly into the New Romantic category.
We loved them because they were innovative and experimental. People in the music industry continue to agree they never really got the success they deserved.
Although they started off in the mainstream with the singles Talk Talk and The Party's Over, the band later veered off in a different direction, taking fans with them into areas of musical incandescent brilliance.
Tracks such as It's Getting Late in the Evening and Happiness is Easy from 1986 never got the popular recognition they deserved but showed how their output was to become increasingly esoteric.
Their popularity grew quietly, though, and their Natural History album sold more than one million copies worldwide in 1990.
James Marsh, who illustrated Talk Talk's sleeves throughout their career, helped promote their unique style using eye-catching flying jigsaw pieces on It's My Life and a variety of Natural History Museum-style moths on The Colour of Spring.
The band's frontman, singer/writer Mark Hollis , has been described as an eccentric genius.
Born in Tottenham in 1955, he quit Sussex University and a degree course in child psychology in 1977, to return to London and concentrate on songwriting.
His older brother Ed was manager/producer of Eddie and the Hot Rods and Mark had even roadied for them before forming his own band, The Reaction.
With Ed's assistance, The Reaction secured a deal for a single I Can't Resist with Island in June 1978, which is popular with mod-revival record collectors.
After The Reaction's short-lived success, Hollis moved onto his trademark more sophisticated material. In 1981 Ed recruited drummer Lee Harris and bassist Paul Webb. With Simon Brenner on keyboards the four-piece band formed Talk Talk.
Nudged along with help from Rolling Stones producer Jimmy Miller and BBC DJ David Jensen, who offered the band a session slot on his Radio One show, Talk Talk emerged at the same time as their label mates, Duran Duran, who they supported on tour.
Incidentally, Duran Duran's producer Colin Thurston produced the album The Party's Over, that appeared in July 1982 and reached 21 shortly after their third single, Today, had reached Number 14. The LP went on to sell over a quarter of a million copies and they toured America, supporting Elvis Costello.
The fresh sound of It's My Life, with producer Tim Friese-Green, appeared as a single in 1984 but only reached a disappointing Number 46. After the single Dum Dum Girl stalled at Number 74, the group fell into releasing albums and touring in two-year cycles.
But in 1986, The Colour Of Spring finally introduced a much more expansive Talk Talk sound, with the focus moving from synthesisers to more natural instruments. The album spawned a top-20 UK hit single with the first release of the superb Life's What You Make It.
A Top 20 placing earned the band a memorable appearance on Top Of The Pops and propelled the album to number eight a month later.
Mark Hollis said he wanted to write songs that people would be listening to in 20 years' time.
The tracks, I Don't Believe In You and It's Getting Late In The Evening still make great listening - more than 20 years after they were released.
Sally Williams So who are Talk Talk?: Between 1982 and 1991 Talk Talk released a series of five increasingly esoteric albums.
They moved from an upbeat synth-drenched debut to emerge into a band with a unique sound that, by the time of Spirit of Eden, defied all genre pigeonholes to the point of being unclassifi- able.
The Sunday Times: 25th March 2007
EMI has just reissued Natural History, the very best of Talk Talk, with a bonus DVD containing the videos to their nine original chart singles.
Mark Hollis and Tim Friese-Greene's band travelled on one of the most fascinating and challenging journeys in pop history, from Duran Duran soundalikes in 1982 to experimental post-rock pioneers by the time they split in 1991.
1 Happiness Is Easy: A band on the cusp: grandeur, passion, rage, anticipating...
2 Taphead: An extraordinary collage from their final album; but looking back, too, to...
3 It's My Life: Their biggest hit; and casting a sideways glance at...
4 It's Getting Late in the Evening: One of their most beautiful, fragile songs, a B-side in 1986.
5 I Believe in You: From Spirit of Eden, the sublime album that befuddled many after The Colour of Spring.
6 After the Flood: Though it had nothing on this mesmerising track from Laughing Stock.
7 Dum Dum Girl: Still unsure where to turn in 1984, but the mixed message beguiled.
8 The Rainbow: Spirit of Eden's "What-was-that?" opening song.
9 Living in Another World: A searing, harmonica-streaked portent from The Colour of Spring.
10 Again a Game... Again: Another superb B-side, from 1984.
NonAlignmentPact.com: 24th April 2007
I came of age in the horrible, tragic nightmare of the eighties. My partner in crime for the most influential of my formative years was none other than the man himself, Mike Gunn. Everyone take out their Awkward White Doofus manuals and flip straight to the High School chapter, in case you are unfamiliar with our particularly pathological fauna. Being like I was back then — which is to say, painfully shy, gawky, lonely, and bored stupid — didn’t do much to help my inability to comfortably assimilate into suburban Houston teen life. In fact, on the contrary, Texas holds the dubious honor of being the place in which I found out just how mean kids were capable of being.
I spent five years living in a northwest Houston suburb called Jersey Village before my parents finally made their mutual hatred for one another official, and my mother moved the rest of us way south of town to the Clear Lake area. The school I walked into in the fall of 1983 was also the school for about 3000 other kids, and it was this fact coupled with my personal foibles that made my fitting in a near impossibility. I languished in this setting for a full school year before I really made any friends. My first real friend was a guy named Reese who was a true-to-heart Texas cowboy. He had the whole get-up: the ridiculous accent, big truck, critter he raised for his Future Farmers of America class, affinity for guns, and burgeoning love for the Dead Kennedys and the Sex Pistols. I can only take credit for the last part. He was a really great guy, and for the record, I really wish I could locate him and say hello today.
In the lunchroom, Reese and I would sit around, bored, thinking up ways to be a nuisance to the people around us. Since sitting at a cool-person table was out of the question, we were relegated to the dork quadrant of the lunchroom. To amuse ourselves, we would waste lots of time and lunch money flicking boiled vegetables at those geeks that we found to be beneath us on the totem pole of dorkdom. Of course it’s all relative, since flicking veggies on your peers in eleventh grade isn’t exactly going to thrust you into the arms of popularity.
Our most frequent and most pliant target in the veg toss — was Mike Gunn.
I guess you should know that all of this happened before Mike and I actually got to know each other. That event came about through the interloping of my friend, Clinton.
Clinton and I were well versed in the joys of excessive beer drinking, but I was hell bent on as much negation as I could get my hands on, and knowing that Clinton was friends with a guy who could take care of this little desire of mine was an attractive prospect. It didn’t matter that I had, just months before, made a practice of flinging boiled carrots into Mike’s own carrot-hued mane. He probably forgot that anyway, I surmised (I was wrong).
Mike’s implement of choice at the time was a tiny green plastic bong, and once we were done smoking it I knew what would become my best friend for the foreseeable future. Dope.
In our cerebral travels, Mike and I visited many states of altered consciousness, all well known to other explorers of the inner world. And as any stoner will tell you, listening to music while being high is about as good as it gets. It was in this frame of mind that I discovered the music of Mark Hollis and his band, Talk Talk.
There were so many good reasons to do drugs with Mike over at his mom’s house. The pot was almost always free. Mike’s mom was notoriously lax in her enforcement of anything vaguely resembling discipline, not to mention the fact that she was almost never home. Mike had a killer stereo and a growing selection of good vinyl. The fridge was always stocked with stoner munchies. The Gunn’s had MTV.
MTV was a great way to burn away your baked hours. In retrospect, watching as many videos for songs we both hated was a real exercise in masochism, but at the time it was more like a slightly annoying diversion. So, nestled among the Bryan Adams, and Phil Collins, and MC Hammer, and Whitney Houston, was Peter Gabriel’s inventive and somewhat trippy videos, and the occasional Camper Van Beethoven, Sonic Youth, or other token hipsters, and that made you feel like things were getting more interesting when they really weren’t.
On top of that, there were the times when you would be watching MTV at like three in the morning, already convinced that aliens were running the earth, and that we were pawns in some sort of extraterrestrial cattle-wrangling ploy. Often during these nights, we would be somewhere in the ether, fried on acid, thinking our way through great circles of sophistic garble, thinking we were approaching the absolute, when all the while we were simply chasing our tails. At these times would come up the artifacts of the eighties that were actually worth a shit, things like the movie, Fandango, or the Coen brother’s first feature, Blood Simple, or Apocalypse Now, or the stray Talk Talk video.
When you have slipped the surly bonds of sanity, and left this world for another, there are often the slightest tendrils that tether you to reality that make the whole adventure one upon which to return to this world with a new understanding. This sort of revelation often comes to me cloaked in the guise of song.
One night, while roasting our synapses – I on one of my improvised piano excursions, and Mike no doubt lost in his dungeon master fantasies – we paused our travels to take a small sojourn into the bowels of MTV. We caught the video for the Talk Talk song Life’s What You Make It. For those who are unfamiliar with Mark Hollis, he has an incredible unique voice, and his music is as good an example as any of the very best in eighties pop. Talk Talk, while still plying the pop trade, was very much catchy, smart, melodic, mature, and slightly more formal than your average new romantic pop band. There is an unforced anthemic quality to Talk Talk that always takes them out of the dated quagmire and into a more timeless space. Life’s What You Make It revolves around a little four or five note melody played on the piano. The video for the song repeatedly shows a hand playing the piano part, and this image is still stuck in my mind these thousand years later. For the rest of that night I was the bitch of this song, which in some undoubtedly perverse way had become my guide through not just the night’s activities, but the untended overgrowth of the eighties. And though it has a certain Dr Phil ring to it, the passage “life’s what you make it. Celebrate it,” is really not a bad way to approach things.
So, several years later all I knew of Talk Talk was their greatest hits CD (buy it). On it was a decent selection of what made them so adept at writing pop songs for their era. In my opinion, it really is unmatched in its quality. Eventually I began to catch snippets of information about a little known “difficult” Talk Talk album that had come out and how no one knew about it but that it was a slice of multi-dimensional genius. I knew I had to hear it, so I eventually hunted it down online. Actually what I got was probably not the one I was looking for. That honor is saved for the album Spirit of Eden (which I have yet to inexplicably hear). What I got was Laughing Stock. Without reviewing it in too much depth I’ll just say that you need to check out the album, it’s beautiful.
I spent a growing amount of time wondering what the story was behind this wildly diverse band, and in particular, I wondered what the story was behind its main creative force, Mark Hollis.
To be honest, there isn’t a ton of pertinent information about Mark Hollis out there. There’s the usual biographical data, but there is little depth to what you can stumble across beyond the basic data. Hollis is someone who falls into my favorite category of artist: the uncompromising, exploratory outsider. Pegged (probably fairly), for his bristling façade, Mark Hollis is really a bit of an English treasure. Even when Talk Talk was at its most accessible peak, Hollis’ individuality and intelligence kept them from ever being another cookie-cutter eighties outfit. If you go back and listen to their output from their relatively brief tenure, you will hear a band that is constantly pushing against the boundaries of rock/pop, and occasionally jazz/ambient to arrive at something truly unique. Starting out, Hollis quickly displayed an adept ear for melody and catchy yet elaborate pop. This gave the band an early measure of financial success. As Talk Talk’s music began to leave the accessible and obvious behind, so did they leave behind their charting ability. This meant that in the depth fearing eighties, Talk Talk was bound to clash with their label, and that’s exactly what happened following the release of their seminal album The Colour of Spring. When Hollis brought his cohorts into the studio to record the follow-up, it took them an unexpectedly long 14 months to complete the project. To make matters worse, the label had no clue what they were about to hear, and in fact fully expected more along the lines of Colour. What they got was Spirit of Eden, an exploratory, heavily instrumental album that abandons the short termed concision of the pop song for the more fertile, but less commercial, fields of experimental rock and jazz-tinged ambient meandering. The controlled orchestrations of the past gave way to a much more organic and fluid sound. As you can imagine, EMI was not amused. In fact, the story goes that once one of the thugs at EMI heard the final mixes he actually cried. The album set in motion a legal battle that effectively ended both the classic line-up of the band and their time with their label. And while Spirit of Eden was widely loved by critics and a new, smaller contingent of fans, sales were poor.
Landing on Polydor after the legal wrangling with EMI, Hollis began work on his next release. By now, Hollis was working almost entirely with guest musicians, and the recordings were, by most accounts, a strange and strained series of events. There were reports of working in total darkness, of never actually seeing Hollis in person, of incredibly difficult demands placed on all involved, and ultimately of a generally high level of peculiarity surrounding Hollis’ behavior. Whatever the circumstances, Laughing Stock is a masterpiece and a creative breakthrough for a man who was soon to completely extricate himself from the public eye.
After the release of Laughing Stock, and following the refusal from Hollis to tour, citing the impossibility of reproducing his dense work in a live setting, Talk Talk finally made it official and called it a day. In 1998, Mark Hollis released his first and only solo album to more critical acclaim and more poor album sales. By now he had cemented his image as the impossible and crazy loner, which no doubt is a mix of truth and exaggeration. If you go back and read the available interviews, you can see for yourself how he is almost painfully, and quite deliberately, removing himself from the world around him. His bandmates tell of great difficulties getting through the idiosyncrasies of his demeanor. I would imagine that he is simply a man who decided that going with the flow was simply no longer an option, and that listening to your inner voice is sometimes the only way to go in order to preserve some measure of sanity in an otherwise totally insane world. What is known about him now is that Hollis lives at home with his wife and children, is a loving father, and is not sad about retreating from the public eye. He still plays and records music at home, but none of it will probably ever see the light of day. Clearly I am drawn to people like this. My best friends share these traits and so do I. And I think that Hollis going out in a blaze of glory is the ultimate “fuck you” to the shallow, vampiric vagaries of popular culture. And while I can certainly relate to his desire to make a quiet exit, as a fan, it is a shame to lose a talent as strong as his.
Picking up on Talk Talk in the way that I did those years back reminds me of the ways in which I tie narrative threads to the screenplay of my life. I have learned to define myself through the perception of that which I find important. While I share the common practice of paying less attention to the undesirable influences on my life, I am also a total whore for the exultation of my heroes (in my own internal, and practically private way). I use the story of guys like Hollis, or Paul Nelson, or Florain Fricke, or John Coltrane, or Werner Herzog, or Jandek, or Tom Carter, or any of a whole endless list of others to help shape where I want myself to be as a person. And while I can’t actually dream of approaching the genius of these people, they serve well as a guidepost in the murk that always lies ahead. As for the forced imposition of your standard fireman, or cop, or priest, father, and typical macho hero types, you can have them all. I’ll just stick with my own personal brand of expressive and highly emotive heroics. Life, after all, has to have some mystery and magic, and god knows there’s sometimes so little of it just lying around.
And for the record, I’m sorry for flicking peas at Mike Gunn.^ go back to top
The Independent, Ireland: 30th May 2007
'Status Quo and the Kangaroo', an hilarious book from British pop culture writer Jon Holmes, collects some of the funniest - and wackiest - true-life stories to happen to rock's great and good. Here are some that tickled JOHN MEAGHER's fancy
A number of years ago, Bob Dylan decided to drop in on Eurythmics mainman Dave Stewart. The voice of a generation knocked on what he thought was the right door and was greeted by a kindly old lady who confirmed that Dave Stewart lived there, but had popped out and would be back soon.
The great documentarian agreed to wait and was led into the sitting rom where he sat on the sofa chatting to the lady and sipping tea.
The cosy scene was shattered when Dave Stewart arrived back an hour or so later. Largely because this was not the home of Dave Stewart the rock star, but Dave Stewart the plumber.
No doubt this Dave Stewart got the surprise of his life when he found one of his musical heroes chatting to his mother.
In 1994, the Rolling Stones' never-ending World Tour wound up in Toronto. But before the band took to the stage, all hell broke loose.
Guitar god Keith Richards was furious when he discovered that the shepherd's pie specially made for him had been eaten. An inquest was held to discover the culprit, but nobody came forward. Richards insisted he would not play as a result.
Finally a compromise was reached when a top chef was summoned to the venue with the express purpose to cooking Keef's favourite meal.
Half an hour after the band were supposed to have started the gig, the pie materialised. Richards ate one mouthful, then picked up his guitar and headed to the back stage area where the rest of the band were glaring at him waiting to go on.
"I think he just did it to annoy Mick," according to one crew member.
The Manic Street Preachers guitarist went missing in 1994 and was never found. The band have never been quite the same since.
But six years before his disappearance, and in an interview with a UK music mag, the socially conscious rocker decided to make a point about Aids at the height of the epidemic's scare. And he reckoned he knew how best to do it.
Taking a razor blade and carving the letters HIV into his chest, he reckoned it would be a bloody message of awareness for "the kids".
He disappeared into his dressing room and emerged 10 minutes later with the blood soaked letters VIH.
Yes, you guessed it. He had carved the letters while looking in the mirror.
The Italian tenor is on the rotund side and, whenever he plays live, he has it in his contract that he most be no further than 50 metres from a toilet at any time. He also has a penchant for a special double-size disabled portaloo to be placed behind the percussion section.
The grumpy Belfast singer used to share an accountant with Bob Dylan in the 1970s. Once, when the pair happened to be in London, their money man thought it would be a nice gesture to invite them out to dinner in his favourite restaurant.
But what the accountant didn't realise is that the men weren't on speaking terms. In fact, for the duration of the meal neither spoke a single word to the other or to their host.
Eventually, Bob Dylan looked at his watch and left. When he'd gone Van Morrison leaned across the table and spoke for the first time that night: "I thought Bob was on pretty good form tonight, didn't you?"
The writer behind such tunes as Wichita Lineman and MacArthur Park was in studio working on a solo album with Beatles maestro George Martin in 1977.
Never the most conventional of songwriters, Webb had come up with a tune about gliding. It turned out he had a love for this aeronautical activity and felt his song was incomplete without actual glider noises being added to the song's recording.
Anxious to appease him, his record company hired a 2,000-yard-long airstrip for the day and rigged it with stereo microphones every six feet. This required several tons of outside-recording equipment, including three trucks, 8,000 metres of cable, wind mufflers, a mobile studio, and a state-of-the-art glider.
The ever versatile Webb decided the man the craft himself and proceeded to glide down the length of the runway exactly as planned.
Despite the money and time spent on this spectacular sound effect, the end result was exactly like someone going "ssssshhh".
The album bombed.
English new wave synth band Talk Talk were inexplicably popular in Eastern Europe in the 1980s. But that didn't stop them getting stopped by East German custom officials and being strip-searched.
Frontman Mark Hollis was taken by officials into a clinical room where he was gruffly informed that he would be given a full body search.
Hollis was told to assume the position, and bending over, he heard the snap of rubber glove being administered to a hand.
"So," said the cold German steely voice from behind him, "you're in a pop band? There is one question I wish to know the answer to."
Hollis tensed and said he would help any way he could. The probing finger was slid in. As it reached in as far as it would go, and quite possibly as uncomfortably as could be, the customs officers asked the question he had been building up to during the whole experience.
With his finger firmly ensconced in a pop star and with no trace of emotion whatsoever he simply asked: "Do you know Peter Gabriel?"
The bafflingly popular Status Quo were on tour in Australia in the mid-1980s. They had recently played Live Aid and were selling millions of albums.
They were 300 miles from the nearest town when their tour bus hit a kangaroo. Unsurprisingly, the marsupial came off second best and as the band members trooped off the bus they found the 'roo lying still on the ground.
It was then that they did what any self-respecting rock band would do: they dressed the kangaroo in a denim jacket, a pair of sunglasses and a bandana and lined up with it to have their photo taken.
Startled by the flash, the only-concussed kangaroo woke up, pushed the Quo aside with its fists and bounded off into the desert. It was soon lost over the horizon, still dressed like a Status Que roadie.
The band roared laughing as the climbed back on board the bus, but their guffaws came to an abrupt halt when they realised that the bus ignition keys were in the pocket of the jacket.^ go back to top
The Guardian: 22nd November 2007
Mark Hollis turned his back on synth-pop stardom for the haunting, unclassifiable beauty of Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock. This is where you can hear him turning. Even as Chameleon Day points toward the avant-garde hush to come, Life's What You Make It is an irresistible farewell to the charts.^ go back to top
The Guardian: 9th April 2008
The story of Hollis and his band Talk Talk has to be one of the more interesting of the synth pop era. by Alan McGee
Wherefore art thou Mark Hollis? The story of Hollis and his band Talk Talk has to be one of the more interesting of the synth pop era. Initially hailed in the music press as a poor man's Duran Duran (they shared the same producer, a similar name and toured with their new romantic counterparts), they took Neil Young's comment about travelling off of the middle of the road straight to the ditch more to heart than their peers.
At the time when the pop interview consisted of total inanity, Hollis veered towards insanity. Instead of being preoccupied by synths, haircuts and cocaine, he told everyone who listened that his favourite singer was Otis Redding, his favourite songwriter Burt Bacharach and his favourite band Can. Hollis immediately got a reputation as a misery guts, but didn't care. He was entirely focused on the music.
It's My Life, recorded in 1984 (complete with video originally mocking lip-synching by a dour Hollis, which when reshot at EMI's request became a total piss-take of lip-synching) established Talk Talk as a massive band in Europe. In 1986, Talk Talk's album The Colour of Spring gave them their first bona-fide UK hit with Life's What You Make It, a circular piano riff influenced by Can's Tago Mago, stapled onto a Steve Winwood-style organ. The hit provided EMI with money and they in turn gave Hollis total financial freedom to pursue whichever artistic avenues he wished.
With that in mind and an unlimited studio budget, Hollis proceeded to record his masterpiece Spirit of Eden. Released in 1988, it was purely improvised and took a year and a half to record. Musicians would come in and jam for hours at a time in a darkened studio lit with incense and candles. Phil Brown, the engineer who would later produce Hollis' solo album, was hired on the strength of one sentence. When asked what was his favourite memory of engineering he responded: "Recording Dear Mr Fantasy, one o'clock in the morning, November 1967." They recreated that memory 20 years on.
Spirit of Eden has not dated; it's remarkable how contemporary it sounds, anticipating post-rock, the Verve and Radiohead. It's the sound of an artist being given the keys to the kingdom and returning with art. Yet upon completion it was seen as utter commercial suicide, as if Duran Duran had released a krautrock, free jazz, gospel album after Notorious. EMI responded by suing Hollis for being wilfully obscure and un-commercial, much as when David Geffen sued Neil Young for not sounding Neil Young enough. This ridiculous case was eventually thrown out of court yet it had a long lasting impact on the music industry. The lawsuit set the precedent for the clause that a band's recordings have to be of a commercially satisfactory nature.
With tensions between EMI and Talk Talk at an all time high, Hollis left and signed with Polydor. EMI responded by re-releasing It's My Life, which not only became an absurdly big hit but won a Brit award, at a time when Talk Talk were moving light years beyond that particular sound. EMI then put out a remix album of the band's material called Natural History Revisited. Hollis retaliated by suing EMI; the album was pulled and the remaining copies were destroyed.
I find the whole story of one man against the system in a bid to maintain creative control incredibly heartening. After the EMI debacle, Talk Talk took up with Polydor who revived the jazz label Verve to put out Laughing Stock, which was even more loose and experimental than Spirit of Eden. Yet the band ceased soon after its release. No particularly reason was given for the split. Stories of hedonistic, opium-laced sessions did the rounds though nothing was ever proven.
Hollis released one solo album in 1998 and then retired from music, only briefly reappearing to play piano on the Unkle track Chaos from the 1998 offering Psyence Fiction and providing musical accompaniment to Anja Garbarek's 2001 album Smiling and Waving. It's a shame that there was no real fanfare for his retirement, but that's probably the way he liked it. With a legacy that includes Spirit of Eden, perhaps there was nothing more he had to prove.^ go back to top
The Observer: 12th October 2009
I have a terrible, terrible confession to make,' says James Naughtie. 'I mean, really, this is dark stuff.' Naughtie, co-host of the Today programme, the man who interrupted William Hague 27 times in a single interview and whom Neil Kinnock once accused of trying to 'bloody kebab me', takes a fortifying sip of his white wine, throws a handful of nuts into his mouth and steals a nervous glance at his fellow drinkers in a cosy Covent Garden pub. ' The X Factor ,' he says quietly, clearing his throat. 'I was quite hooked in the early days. Here were these kids who could do things that were remarkable. I would go into the office the next day and say, shame-faced, "Erm, did anyone watch X Factor ?" There would be a shuffling of feet and then, suddenly, we'd be off, analysing someone's take on a Madonna song.'
Few people, surely, do analysis like Naughtie, who is as happy scrutinising populist TV shows as he is the brilliance particular to composers. In short, the 56-year-old author, presenter, and former Guardian journalist, likes to talk. And talk. 'Sorry,' he says, after an immensely entertaining riff during which he touches on Placido Domingo, Bob Dylan, Arlo Guthrie, Radio Luxembourg, Mozart, Pete Seeger, Schubert and Paul Simon, 'that was a 35-minute answer, wasn't it?'
Naughtie, who is both interesting and interested, the twinkle in his eyes betraying a mischievous streak, derives considerable joy from music, as his new book, The Making of Music , indicates. An illuminating study of the classical tradition, it is dedicated to the late Ronald Center, 'a slightly eccentric, extraordinary man' who for 12 years, until Naughtie went to college, was his piano tutor.
'In his spare time he was a composer, too,' he says, 'and that experience, in retrospect, opened my mind not just to classical music in some academic or overbearing way, but to a palette of colours that was important.'
Naughtie had needed little schooling in folk, having grown up near Huntly, Aberdeenshire, where traditional Scottish songs were sung in school. 'I loved that stuff, and still do, very much,' he says. Like most people, though, whose adolescence mirrored the emergence of the Beatles and the Stones, he spent his teenage years in thrall to pop, thrilled to be alive 'at the moment when it all changed'.
'I remember reading, much later, that when I was at school the Beatles had gone on their last tour before they became the Beatles. I looked it up and, on 22 May 1962, they'd played a church hall near where I lived.' He stops and, for the first time in 15 minutes, reaches, absent-mindedly, for his glass of wine. 'And of course nobody knew,' he says, shaking his head.
He would have remained equally oblivious to opera had he not moved to London in the early 1980s and, driven more by curiosity than desire, queued for Otello at the Royal Opera House. 'I found the whole business of drama and music intoxicating. Could be boring, could be awful - but at its best, when it all worked, it was fantastic .'
Now, he says, he would find it hard to choose between, say, Don Carlos at the ROH, a folk night in a pub or a gig by Radiohead ('They're very interesting'), to whom he was introduced by his sons.
'I remember when one of our children's friends said, "Oh, I never listen to anything after Schubert." I just think' - he sighs dramatically, raising his eyes - '"Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. Get a life." In all worlds, whether it's rock or classical, there's this tendency for people to set up armed camps from which they repel all invaders. And I hate that,' he says, slapping the table, as he does from time to time to emphasise a point.
He hates, too - nay, loathes - the expression 'dumbing down', 'the most hideous phrase in the English language'. Particularly when it's uttered by fiftysomethings who insist that music was far better in their day.
'People have always said that. The truth is the iPod generation has got the broadest musical soundboard of any generation ever. The idea that because some of them have never been in a concert hall means they're musically illiterate is absolute crap. And yes,' he says, quickly, 'you can quote me on that. Crap.'
Anyway, he adds, borrowing Noel Coward's maxim, cheap music can be the most potent sound of all. 'If you want to make me happy, take me to a New York bar, buy me a decent drink and make sure there's a nice singer and a good pianist playing some right-down-the-middle stuff from Cole Porter or Rodgers and Hart. The fact is,' he says, choosing his words carefully, juggling his remaining peanuts in one hand, 'I am capable of terrible - terrible yet lovely - conventionality.'
'The Making of Music' is published by John Murray
The Symptoms: His Favouties
Like a Rolling Stone (Columbia)
'A song that catches the Sixties for me, because it's mournful and strangely optimistic at the same time. Dylan was - is - utterly individual, often copied but never bettered.'
Falstaff: Act 3
'When it comes to choosing a piece of opera, I hardly know where to begin. It could be Handel or Mozart or Wagner or Strauss. But it's Verdi in the end, and the climax of his last opera. It's brimming with Italian romantic fire, but it looks forward to the 20th century too.'
George Gershwin/ Ella Fitzgerald
Someone to Watch Over Me (Universal)
'How do you define jazz? I don't really know, but I recognise it when I hear it. Gershwin's voice is unmistakable and when you add Ella, you have the perfect mix.'
Piano Concerto No 27 in B Flat, K595 played by the English Chamber Orchestra (Sony)
'Mozart's last piano concerto, full of longing and a sort of melancholy understanding of life. I can never listen to it without wondering how someone could conjure such magic with such apparent ease.'
As the Patient is a fan of classical music and rock, the Doctor felt duty-bound to send him, first, a track by former Talk Talk singer Mark Hollis , 'A Life (1895-1915)', a hushed, unsettling post-rock prototype in which very little happens beautifully
The Doctor was convinced, too, that the Patient would be impressed by Yeasayer ('2080'), the Brooklyn-based art-rock quartet who share Radiohead's restlessness, if not their sound.
Their fellow countryman the Magnetic Fields, aka singer-songwriter Stephin Merritt, acquired the odd comparison with Cole Porter on the back of the audacious 69 Love Songs , from which 'The Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side' is taken.
Scotland's Alasdair Roberts ('Two Brothers') and James Yorkston ('When the Haar Rolls In') are endearingly odd folk traditionalists who would evoke the Patient's youth. Or so the Doctor thought.
Equally rustic, if rockier and American, are Fleet Foxes, whose 'Tiger Mountain Peasant Song', from their eponymous debut, has yet to elicit one ill word. What, then, could go wrong?
'I found a lot of this music quite. . . enticing ,' said the Patient, who had kind words for everyone, even Stephin Merritt, despite the fact that 'if you're singing that kind of stuff it helps, I find, if you can sing. But ,' he added, 'while I didn't like this track, there is something there.'
The Patient was most surprised by Yeasayer, right, having learnt that they make 'Middle Eastern-psych-snap-gospel'. 'Which doesn't make me want to rush out to see them, but I really enjoyed their track. I suspect I couldn't listen to a lot of their stuff - more sips than gulps - but "2080" made me prick up my ears.'
Ditto James Yorkston's 'When the Haar Rolls In', which he found 'very interesting. Some folk artists can be too predictable, but I think he's trying to escape that sound a bit.' In contrast, Alasdair Roberts proved 'over-reverential', albeit 'intriguing' and 'contemporary in spirit', while Fleet Foxes promised much but never quite delivered. 'But I'm going to investigate further - it was quite well done.'
As for Mark Hollis , 'I suspect that I'll have a brief dalliance with him, then find him quite annoying. He's quite weird, isn't he?'
De Gooi en Eemlander: 25th October 2008
Niet lang voordat Talk Talk zich afwendde van de (commerciële) popmuziek trad de band op tijdens het muziekfestival van Montreux. Dat concert uit 1986 van de laatste tournee is nu te zien op de eerste live-dvd van deze Engelsen. Talk Talk was op het hoogtepunt van z'n roem, vlak na het verschijnen van het derde album 'The colour of spring'. Alle hits komen voorbij, met als smaakmakers 'Living in another world', 'Give it up', 'Such a shame' en 'Renée'. Mark Hollis is ook hier de wat mysterieuze zanger, die zich verbergt achter zijn microfoon, eeuwige zonnebril en haarlokken. Maar ondertussen haalt hij met zijn klagerige stem wel het onderste uit de kan. Op het podium staan liefst acht man, die erin slagen de melodieuze popmuziek van de studioplaten volledig tot z'n recht te laten komen. Een mooie herinnering aan een speciale band, die daarna vooral een atmosferisch geluid opzocht en vervolgens in het niets leek op te lossen.^ go back to top
De Gooi en Eemlander: 25th October 2008
Not long before Talk Talk turned away from (commercial) pop music, the band performed at the Montreux music festival. This concenert from 1986 – their last tour – can now been seen on the Englishmen’s first live DVD. Talk Talk was at the height of their fame, just after the release of the third album ' The colour of spring '. All the hits are there, with the trendsetting "Living in another world", "Give it up", "Such a shame" and "Renée". Mark Hollis is also here, the somewhat mysterious singer, who hides behind his microphone, eternal sunglasses and straggly hair. But he also has his plaintive voice. On stage, the eight-man band manages to do justice to the melodic pop music of the studio albums. A beautiful reminder of a special band, who then visited a particular atmospheric sound and then seemingly dissolved into nothingness.^ go back to top
Algemeen Dagblad: 5th September 2009
De live-concerten op het vermaarde festival te Montreux hebben al vele juweeltjes op dvd voortgebracht. In die categorie valt ook het optreden van het Britse trio Talk Talk in 1986. De groep werd vooral gedragen door het schuurpapieren, pathetische stemgeluid van Mark Hollis. Niet bepaald de cliché-rock-'n-rollzanger, maar veeleer een schuw type dat zijn ogen steevast achter een zonnebril verborg. De muziek van Talk Talk (1981-1991) viel weliswaar onder 'de Nieuwe Romantiek', maar het drietal onttrok zich met gedreven, soms puur emotionele nummers als Life's What You Make It, It's My Life en Such A Shame aan de gestroomlijnde synthesizerpop van groepen als Ultravox, Duran Duran en Spandau Ballet. Een fraai tijdsbeeld.^ go back to top
Algemeen Dagblad: 5th September 2009
The live concerts recorded at the renowned festival in Montreux have already spawned many gems on dvd. In this category we can also include the performance of the British trio Talk Talk in 1986. The group was mainly carried by the sandpaper, pathetic voice of Mark Hollis. Not exactly the clichéd rock’n’roll singer, but rather a shy type that invariably hid his eyes behind sunglasses. Although the music he music of Talk Talk (1981-1991) fell under the ‘New Romantic’ heading the threesome drew away from the sleek synthethizer of groups such as Ultravox, Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet, to create passionate, sometimes purely emotional songs like Life's What You Make It, it's My Life and Such A Shame . A beautiful portrait.^ go back to top
The Guardian: 28th February 2011
Often overlooked in favour of their contemporaries, Mark Hollis and co were one of the most influential English bands of the 80s By Ben Myers
In his weighty 2010 tome Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain's Visionary Music, Rob Young charted a century's worth of musicians who helped define British folk. In the latter stages he rightly identifies and aligns the often-overlooked Talk Talk with the likes of Kate Bush and Julian Cope as genuine outsiders whose music belongs to a deep-rooted British tradition – artists who "sought to kick their way free of expectations and create hybrid, idiosyncratic sound environments ... [to] maintain a distinctively British voice".
It was a reminder of a band who, though they may have slipped from public consciousness in the two decades since their split, are being felt more as an influence than ever. Talk Talk are one of a few genuine pioneers of their era not to have succumbed to the oxymoronically named Don't Look Back reunion circuit. Though their name may now be more synonymous with a broadband package, there was time – the 80s – when Talk Talk were surging forward into experimental new territories. This is also a band who divide opinion and remain nigh-on impossible to categorise; canvassing opinions online this week, retrospective reactions ranged from "Amazing!" to "Humourless, wafty and loved only by Balearic DJs".
A reminder of such influence came via an unlikely source in 2003, when Gwen Stefani's Californian ska-pop crew No Doubt scored a chart hit with a fairly faithful cover of It's My Life. But the band's influence is most obviously evident in the output of Wild Beasts. Like Talk Talk, Wild Beasts are an inherently English band preoccupied with the possibilities of space and atmospherics (and falsetto) in their sounds. "All the best bands change shape," says Wild Beast's Benny Little of their love of Talk Talk, ahead of the Beasts' new album, Smother, released in May. "The best parts are unquantifiable," agrees bassist/singer Hayden Thorpe.
A rarity in the 80s pop milieu, Talk Talk treated pop not as a shallow medium through which to get laid/rich/a sports car but, thanks mainly to frontman Mark Hollis, a conduit through which to explore uncharted waters, often in painstakingly detailed production. And unlike contemporaries such as Scritti Politti, who went from politicised squat-dwelling post-punk to lightweight wine bar soul music of the mid-80s, Talk Talk went in the opposite direction: from new romantic synthpop to the avant garde by way of chart success.
Though EMI had hopes for them to follow the success of tour mates Duran Duran, Hollis was less inspired by the staple early-80s influences of Bowie and/or punk that had gone before and instead preferred everything from Satie to the Seeds to the modal jazz of Miles Davis. This was cerebral pop that refused to stand still, and as the decade progressed – and producer/keyboard player Tim Friese-Greene joined – Talk Talk released a series of wilfully diverse records that drew on jazz, classical, folk and pop without falling strongly to any one camp.
With its rolling piano riff, 1985's Life's What You Make It remains their best known song and has since been covered by various people (including Weezer). The success of the subsequent 1986 album Colour of Spring gained them enough commercial success for EMI to stump a hefty budget for their next album. Retreating to a church in Suffolk, Talk Talk lost themselves in their music, overshooting all deadlines and budgets. The result was 1988's Spirit of Eden, now considered a classic, albeit one that was initially commercially unsuccessful.
The influence of the layered texturing (the close-miking of individual instruments ensured an air of intimacy) and ambient leanings of the album is now evident in a disparate array of artists: from the post-rock of Tortoise and others that emerged in the 90s to associated Talk Talk bands such as Bark Psychosis and Catherine Wheel, through the trip-hop of Portishead, DJ Shadow and Unkle (whose 1998 debut Hollis played on) to the vocal fragility of Antony and the Johnsons and the natural world references of British Sea Power, finally arriving at latter-day Radiohead – and Wild Beasts.
There's always something reassuring about a band whose ending really is a full stop; this way, there is no opportunity to taint the legacy. Hollis retired from music in the late-90s – explaining: "I can't go on tour and be a good dad at the same time" – and has shown little wish to return. Perhaps the best thing he can do is sit back and watch as the small shoots that he helped plant now blossom in strange new forms.^ go back to top
The Quietus: September 2011
A triumph of art over commerce or ruthless, selfish exploitation? On the 20th anniversary of its release, Wyndham Wallace looks at the complex story behind Talk Talk’s final, legendary album
There are many remarkable aspects to the story of Talk Talk’s fifth and final album, Laughing Stock. It took a year to make, and most of what was put to tape ended up on the scrapheap. In London’s Wessex Studios, where it was recorded, windows were blacked out, clocks removed, and light sources limited to oil projectors and strobe lights. Around fifty musicians contributed to its making, but only eighteen ended up on the finished album. It was a commercial failure, critically reviled as much as it was praised, and was impossible to perform live. Then the band broke up, forcing fans to wait seven years before its central protagonist released any new music, something followed by almost complete silence. Laughing Stock is also shrouded in mystery: apart from limited comments made during brief bursts of promotional activity to promote their own even more limited work since, the three authors of the record – Mark Hollis (songwriter and founder), Tim Friese-Greene (producer and co-songwriter since their third album, The Colour Of Spring) and Lee Harris (drums, and the only other remaining member of the band’s original line up by the time of Laughing Stock) – have refused to discuss it for years. But the music remains, its reputation growing with each passing year since its release two decades ago: stark, bold, indefinable and the greatest testament to the band.
What’s even more remarkable, however, is the legend that has grown alongside its reputation, best summarised by Alan McGee in a blog written for The Guardian in 2008. “I find the whole story of one man against the system in a bid to maintain creative control incredibly heartening,” he wrote of Talk Talk’s central pillar, Mark Hollis. It’s a popular opinion, reflective of the fashionable belief that the exploitation of corporate powers for the sake of art is a laudable act. Everyone loves David and Goliath-style tales of the little man taking on the giant and winning, and those who care deeply about music recognise in Talk Talk’s story the triumph of art over commerce. In every note and every second of silence in their final two records lies the sound of a man who refused to compromise and took perfectionism to an extreme. The fact that Spirit Of Eden, their fourth album from 1988, and Laughing Stock, 1991’s grand finale, stiffed – relative to 1986’s world-conquering The Colour Of Spring, at least – means nothing alongside their artistic accomplishment and the fact that so many people talk about them in tones of hushed reverence. The record labels, the prevailing wisdom goes, were at fault: they didn’t have the imagination and intellect to recognise these albums were works of genius.
Certainly the argument sits well with romantic sensibilities. Major labels are villains and true artists are heroes. But is the story really so black and white? According to Talk Talk’s manager, Keith Aspden, who battled to secure the future of the band amidst increasingly difficult circumstances, it would seem not. Confronted by McGee’s statement, his response is as uncompromising as Hollis’ art. It is, he says, “Complete invention and wishful thinking by Alan McGee. Mark was always free to do whatever he wanted musically. There was no battle against any system. He created and performed what he could, without obvious reference to others artistically and, as time went by, without reference to commerciality. It was the freedom financially and lack of interference which allowed Mark to indulge himself in Spirit Of Eden, Laughing Stock and the Mark Hollis albums.”
In other words, Talk Talk’s labels were enablers of Hollis’ work. Their financial support, their willingness to support him in his endeavours and their belief in his talent are the very reasons that these albums exist. It’s a surprising, provocative response that goes against the grain of our very understanding of those records, but it’s also an honest and intriguing perspective worthy of closer examination. To do that, it’s necessary to consider the story of Talk Talk’s career in more detail.
Talk Talk had started out as a synthpop band, groomed to follow the success of label-mates Duran Duran by EMI with the pop pleasures of songs like ‘Dum Dum Girl’ and ‘It’s My Life’, later covered by No Doubt. They’d only used synths, Hollis would later claim, because they couldn’t afford real instruments and the musicians required to play them, so, following the chart success of their first two albums, The Colour Of Spring saw them pursue a more ambitious goal with the benefits of the cash they’d accrued. A far more organic sounding record, it birthed further hit singles, but these, it turns out, were not originally part of the plan. According to manager Keith Aspden, “I suggested they didn't have tracks recorded which could be played on the radio. In order to promote the album effectively they wrote ‘Life's What You Make It’ and re-worked ‘Living In Another World’.” The result was worldwide chart success and sales in excess of two million.
The band’s hearts, however, seemingly lay elsewhere, in the album’s two considerably more abstract tracks, ‘Chameleon Day’ and ‘April 5th’. It was further in this direction that they chose to travel when EMI sent them into the studio, unchecked, to record its follow-up. The label were hoping for another global chart smash, but instead, as David Stubbs memorably put it in Uncut in 2002, “when they re-emerged, it turned out that they had done what every megapop band talks about doing but so rarely does – i.e. what the fuck they wanted.”
“I think of the final two albums by Talk Talk as siblings very close in age. If Spirit of Eden is the older, pretty & sophisticated big sister who got all the A grades, then Laughing Stock is the wayward, grubby wee brother who got kicked out of school for skiving.” Kenny Anderson aka King Creosote
EMI’s response was inevitable: they freaked. Spirit Of Eden, like Laughing Stock, is now considered a cult classic, but it’s only six tracks long, defies all notional conventions of pop structures, contains no single – though the label cobbled together an edit of its highlight, ‘I Believe In You’ – and was impossible to tour. Unable to be marketed by EMI’s traditional methods, it floundered, despite some highly complimentary coverage (amidst a fair amount of considerably more confused responses) and a UK Top 20 peak. Relations between the band and the label subsequently became so strained that Aspden began legal action to get them released from their contract. “There has been inaccurate speculation and comment about the court case with EMI,” he says today in an attempt to put the record straight, “but in essence our motivation in the court case with EMI was all about money and an opportunity to secure a better deal with another record company. EMI in our view had misinterpreted the meaning of the clause which specified when they should exercise their option. They lost the case on appeal.”
It’s here that the mythology of Talk Talk starts to take concrete shape. EMI responded by releasing a Best Of, Natural History, followed by an album of unauthorised remixes, prompting the band to sue. They won the case, forcing the label to withdraw the latter from sale, and Aspden went on to secure a new deal for the band with Polydor’s Verve imprint that, he says, “guaranteed full funding for Laughing Stock, without interference from the record company. They took full advantage of that situation and locked themselves away for the duration of recording.”
What went on in that studio strengthens the belief that Hollis was on a crusade to push boundaries and perfect his art on an even grander scale than Spirit Of Eden. Furnished with the opportunity to fulfil his most extreme creative instincts, he bedded down with Friese-Greene and Harris in a working environment inspired by recollections of working with Traffic in 1967 that engineer Phill Brown had shared with Hollis during their first meeting. “There was an effort to create a vibe in the studio sympathetic with the feel of the album,” Aspden remembers, and though Brown’s summary of its ingredients as “oil projections on the walls and ceiling, and no other light apart from a strobe” might be less notable under different circumstances, the duration of recording was to be a long one. “It took seven months in the studio,” recalls Brown, whose previous engineering credits also included David Bowie, Harry Nilsson, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and Bob Marley, “but we took a three month break in the middle. I guess from getting involved to studio recording, mixing and mastering took up a year of my time. It was a unique way to work. It took its toll on people, but gave great results.”
Hollis’ working methods were as intense as the surroundings, driven by his desire, as Aspden puts it, “to try and capture a sense of passion and spontaneity of a performance”. “There’s no way at the point when we go in (to the studio) that we know what this album will sound like,” Hollis commented in an interview recorded for a promotional cassette by journalist John Pidgeon for Verve around the album’s release. “All you ever know – and this would be true of the previous album – is you just go in knowing what the attitude is you want and that’s it. There’s no way I think you can go wrong on that because there is no right or wrong; the right and wrong is an internal thing.”
Hollis believed – according to Pidgeon’s interview – that “the first time something is played it is at its finest, and the minute you try to recreate that it becomes an imitation of something that was originally better… But… the problem with a lot of improvisation is that it meanders away from the point too much. So the thing that this time afforded us was to go in with people that we wanted to play with almost from an attitude point of view, give them absolute freedom in terms of what they play, so that everything they do play is free form, but then to construct an arrangement by taking little sections of that and building that up from there. But that takes a large amount of time because… ninety percent of what you play will be rubbish. If you’re improvising, if you get 10% which is any good then I think you’re doing really well. I think you’re doing amazingly well if you get half a percent!”
Laughing Stock was painstakingly assembled from sessions in which a vast cast of musicians were brought in “to improvise on sections without hearing the full track,” Aspden says. With just a basic chord structure at most, they were encouraged to try out anything their hearts encouraged them to, and then, thanks to the emerging digital technology, any results felt appropriate were employed, sometimes in places for which they had never originally been envisioned. Most of it never made the cut. “It takes a strong discipline to erase 80% of the music you record,” Brown observes. “Few have the discipline to get rid of ‘stuff’.” It is this, as much as anything, that gives Laughing Stock – like Spirit Of Eden, which had used similar methodology – its otherworldly, abstract, innovative character, but, though the procedure sounds random, Hollis himself was a perfectionist, precise in every choice he made, and the album retains a coherent structure, albeit one very different to what his former pop peers were employing.
“The creative route of all the Talk Talk recordings was decided by Mark, even when Mark mentions that Spirit Of Eden was a collaboration or cooperation of musicians, inferring that there was some democracy at play,” Aspden continues. “The choice of what to use and in what context was ultimately decided by Mark alone. I think there might have been difficult moments when whole recordings were scrapped and thrown away, for reasons not always apparent, which some people were attached to. (It was) probably a very bruising and discouraging process to endure at times.”
Anecdotal evidence suggests that this was true. “I had never had this massive psychological overload that the others did,” Friese-Greene told Penny Black Music in a rare interview in 2006. “I don’t think that Mark did either. I can understand why Phil in particular did, though. It took a long time to record. He was in a darkened room for a year listening to the same six tracks. There are albums that have taken longer to make but it must have been a particularly intensive experience and probably what forced him to have a period of readjustment afterwards.”
“There was divorce, breakdown”, Brown recalls. “It was intense. I have never worked on more focussed sessions though. And no – I wouldn’t work in the dark again. It was difficult getting back to ‘normal’ sessions.”
“As I listen to it, I more and more get the sense that the whole album is a mutation of a single idea; that a song is an uncertain thing. I could never imagine the album to be carefully rehearsed and reproduced. Rather, it's the sound of never-ending process. Not being a progression towards an ultimate end, the whole point is in the doing, of the present moment. Songs begin in silence, and then cut off mid-sentence, guitars and pianos are played VERY slowly and deliberately, Mark Hollis' voice is almost buried behind the (very quiet) instruments. Laughing Stock is simultaneously more serious, and more fun than Spirit of Eden, and with even fewer nods to convention, even less regard to what people might want. I think it's Talk Talk's most confusing album, their cleverest, their most vulnerable, and their best.”
Tom Fleming, Wild Beasts
Hollis had another obsession alongside his desire to capture the magic of spontaneity. “I think silence is an extremely important thing,” he told BBC Radio 1’s Richard Skinner in an interview around Laughing Stock’s release. “It isn’t something that should be abused. And that’s my biggest worry because of the whole way that communications have developed, that there is a tendency just to allow this background noise all the time rather than thinking about what is important.” He elaborated further while talking to John Pidgeon. “The silence is above everything, and I would rather hear one note than I would two, and I would rather hear silence than I would one note.”
This helps explain the fifteen seconds of amplifier hiss that open the record’s first track, ‘Myrrhman’, the huge amounts of space left in final track ‘Runeii’, and the overall sonic concept perfected by Friese-Greene and Brown, who declares second track ‘After The Flood’ to be “probably the best engineering for me in the past forty years.” Drums were miked far from the kit, sounds were allowed to echo through the studio space, mistakes were an integral part of the performance, and the album’s dynamics are entirely genuine, the live feel of a jazz recording combined with the abrasive qualities of rock and the instrumentation of classical music. Hollis was especially fascinated by the sound of Can’s Tago Mago, John Coltrane’s In A Perfect Mood – where “it sounds like the bloke’s setting his kit up” – and Bob Dylan’s New Morning, “because there, if you’re talking about sounds being honest, I don’t think you can get much more honest than that. It just sounds like the band’s in the front room with you.”
Its influence on the emerging sound of post-rock, as well as a whole host of acts since then – from Elbow to Bon Iver – is undeniable. “I hear Mark’s influence in Radiohead and Coldplay, and I think a bunch of young producers have adapted some of the ideas today,” argues Brown, citing Florence & The Machine as another example. But when they delivered the album to Polydor, the label, like EMI before them, were distraught, despite the fact that it was due to appear on their jazz imprint, Verve, which might have seemed well suited to Hollis’ experimental tendencies. The natural kneejerk response from those who applaud Hollis’ aesthetics is to condemn the label: they’d seen what had happened at EMI, so they must have known what they were in for. But Aspden reads things differently. “Polydor were quite reasonably hoping for a more commercial record than Laughing Stock,” he says, “and one which could be played by the band live. They got neither, but they did try to market the album as well as they could, given that there were no radio friendly tracks and no live element to hang any campaign on.”
At this stage, it’s worth remembering McGee’s testament that this is “the story of one man against the system in a bid to maintain creative control”. In fact, there doesn’t seem to be a huge amount of conflict in evidence: Hollis, funded by his label, was once again left alone to record his masterpiece, the label did their best to market it in order to recoup their investment, and bar a handful of interviews grudgingly endured – Vox magazine’s Betty Clarke quoted Hollis around Laughing Stock as saying “If you understand it, you do, if you don't, nothing I say will make you understand it. The only thing I can do by talking about it is detract from it. I can't add anything. Can I go home now, then?" – they did little to support its release. One wonders whether McGee’s reaction would have been so magnanimous had Talk Talk been signed to Creation. His label, after all, was nearly brought to its knees when My Bloody Valentine spent two years attempting to record Loveless. Less than two years after Laughing Stock’s release, furthermore, he would force Slowdive to scrap most of their second album – according to singer Rachel Goswell in an interview with Melody Maker’s Ian Watson – after telling them that, “I see you’ve got no songs. They’re all shit.” McGee was protecting his investment, and simultaneously interfering with the band’s creative process. To characterise EMI and Polydor as philistine brutes for defending their right to a commercial product that would reflect the level of their outlay is therefore, one might argue, a little hypocritical.
“Laughing Stock is an incredibly intuitive and bare recording - some songs feel like vapour trails. To me, every sound on the album is about death, like the songs are about to die, like a band of Beckett characters. But at the same time the album is so emotional. ‘After The Flood’ is like crying. After July 22 (the day of the 2011 attacks on Oslo), Laughing Stock was one of two records I wanted to listen to.”Jenny Hval
Had Polydor’s confusion been unique, it might be easier to understand McGee’s summary of established views about Laughing Stock. The truth, though, is that many people were left baffled. Given the nature of Spirit Of Eden, the album should perhaps have come as less of a shock to anyone who was even half familiar with the band, but Laughing Stock divided critics right down the middle. “Most of the reviews and comments were hostile and negative,” Aspden says, and certainly David Quantick’s 4 out of 10 review for the NME was damning: “The whole thing is unutterably pretentious and looks over its shoulder hoping that someone will remark on its 'moody brilliance' or some such. It's horrible.” There was praise elsewhere, however: “Possibly the most important group we have,” concluded Jim Irvin, then of Melody Maker, while Ian Cranna observed that, while it might “put Talk Talk heavily at odds with the commercial charts where instant success is everything… it will be valued long after such superficial quick thrills are forgotten".
Cranna’s views were prescient. Laughing Stock is now considered to be a masterwork by many, its commercial shortcomings more than adequately justified by its artistic leaps. It’s difficult to listen to, but only initially, due to its alien, groundbreaking characteristics: sounds emerge from nowhere, guitar solos are made up of one solitary note, Hollis’ vocals are often mumbled, even murmured, it leaps from moments of quiet quasi-ambience to rushes of angry noise. It’s also breathtakingly beautiful, uncannily bewitching, unlike almost anything else recorded before or since, and full of moments of melodic, poignant wonder. But if it was an uncompromising album, it also made uncompromising demands of its audience.
“The record is meant to be listened to in one sitting and you can't appreciate it totally unless you do that,” Hollis told Steve Sutherland in an interview with Melody Maker. “I don't think it's asking too much to expect people to at least concentrate on what's there, actually listen with a totally open mind. I'm not in the position where I need to make the sort of album other people want any more, I can decide what to do and how those ideas get developed, but I hope in the end to be understood for the music I do decide to put out and meaning and sense the music has.”
Hollis emphasised the same theme with Pidgeon, telling him, “I think there’s an amount of work you have to do to actually realise what’s within those albums. Maybe “work” at it is wrong, maybe that’s not the right word. No, all I mean is, you actually need to listen to it. That’s all it is. That you don’t do it while you’re doing other things because I think you’re just not going to pick up on it. It doesn’t require any intellect. You’ve just got to listen.”
Whether these were justifiable expectations is irrelevant: audiences rarely respond to records with the attention that their creators desire, and Hollis knew this. He didn’t care, one suspects, as long as he had pleased his creative muse. He’d made his magnum opus, and that was as far as his responsibilities went. On many levels this is an admirable stance: there are far too many compromises in the world of ‘popular music’. But speculation about his label working against him and contributing to the record’s failure is arguably inaccurate. Hollis himself failed to contribute much to its shelf life once he’d handed it over, and can’t have been too unhappy about what followed given that he returned to the label seven years later with an equally difficult solo album.
Sales, inevitably, were poor, especially in comparison to the band’s commercially glorious days (though an attempt by The Quietus to collect hard data for just how few it has shifted proved fruitless – the record is no longer included in the sales systems of Universal Records, who now own Polydor). Laughing Stock peaked at number 26 in the UK charts and by the end of the 1990s the label had handed the rights back to the band. (Aspden believes the record remains un-recouped). Hollis released a solo album in 1998, and since then not one new song of his own has seen the light of day. Some like to say that this is because the music industry ground him down. Aspden disputes this too: “It's tempting to blame others for Mark's retirement,” he states, “but I believe he just ran out of ideas and inspiration and had a chance to lead a comfortable and stress free life with his wife and children. Can't fault him for that.” Asked what Hollis is up to now, Aspden merely adds that, “the only thing I can say about Mark is that he doesn't seem to want to be associated with this part of his life at all. Perhaps he always needed a collaborator to realise his musical ideas, but could never allow a true collaboration because he was always determined to have his own way, no matter what.”
“Both The Colour Of Spring and Laughing Stock were so unique in their musical journeys, especially for that period, closer to records by artists like Miles Davis and Terry Callier than the synthpop success they had previously crafted. What blew my mind was the way the records sounded, and the sonic journey, both vocally and instrumentally, you were taken on. They felt so unique, strange, abstract, creating these beautiful eclectic musical collages. The way there are so many layers to the records made you go back and listen time after time, always discovering new parts along the way. Combined with the mythical recording processes they went through to make the records, it's everything I love in a band and album.” James Lavelle, UNKLE
The idea that Hollis had battled the system and won perhaps comes from wish-fulfilment on the part of those who see his bankers as even more exploitative than Hollis himself. It’s a projection of our own yearning to see art victorious over commercial blandness. Talk Talk may have needed to protect their legacy from EMI’s attempts to milk the cash cow with a questionable set of remixes – though Aspden points out that “up to that point they (EMI) had been a very accommodating and easy company to work with” – but otherwise the band’s labels don’t actually seem to have been greatly at fault.
“I was more than frustrated by what went on,” Aspden admits. “It was an opportunity which few are given, squandered remorselessly. None of the band speak to each other and there is no contact between Mark or Tim Friese-Greene, something I find particularly sad.” He makes it clear that he still loves Laughing Stock, but adds that, “I felt sorry for (Polydor’s UK Managing Director) David Munns, who had put so much faith and money in the band to be handed something so genuinely artistic but totally unmarketable. (His) honest enthusiasm was ruthlessly exploited, and he was delivered records Polydor had no hope of recouping their considerable investment (on). I think if you take a lot of money and control from someone, even if it's a record company, there is an unsaid understanding that you should give them something they can sell in return and this wasn't done. Mark had his cake and ate it all himself.”
Sympathy for the record industry is a rarely expressed emotion, but that doesn’t make Aspden’s take on what went down any less perceptive. The mythology propagated by McGee and those who subscribe to his doctrine is more to do with the Blakeian extravagance of a band who immersed themselves in a darkened recording studio for the best part of a year, bringing at least some of the participants to the edge of a breakdown; who boasted that their improvisations were successful even if only “half a percent” of their musicians’ improvisations were useable; and who then chose to provide virtually no explanation for the record’s existence. “One man against the system” is far too simplistic an analysis, even if it does provide a convenient, familiar narrative, and it’s perhaps time to acknowledge that, as guilty as major labels are of shovelling shit on a daily basis, there are people within their walls who truly believe that they are fostering the making of valuable music and who put their careers on the line for those musicians’ sakes. Hollis’ actions, meanwhile, could even be considered foolhardy: having fed off his paymaster’s generosity, he offered them records that were next to impossible to sell, and the legal battles that followed, in the case of Spirit Of Eden, caused contracts to be adjusted so that (according to an interview Phill Brown conducted with Tape Op magazine) bands and producers would in future be responsible for delivering masters that could be considered “commercially satisfying”. Hollis’ artistic freedom came at a price to others.
Ultimately, it’s unimportant whether or not Hollis was a visionary battling ‘The Man’. Laughing Stock, like Spirit Of Eden, is a magnificent, courageous record that has broadened the horizons of countless fans and musicians, mainstream and underground alike. The story of its making certainly adds colour and mystery to the context in which we hear it, but there’s no need to invest into it undue allegorical weight. The music itself is remarkable enough, and the more we presume to know about it, the less likely it is that the notoriously publicity-shy Hollis – now 56 years old and last heard on UNKLE’s Psyence Fiction in 1998 and Anja Garbarek’s Smiling & Waving in 2001 – will ever return to making music.
“I think without question it would be nice to think maybe someone might hear this album in ten years time and think it was a good album,” Hollis told John Pidgeon back in 1991. “But that’s nothing I would spend time worrying about. I would only think about that when I was making the album… but even then I don’t know if I would think about it. Because you just work within the present…”
And that, perhaps, is how best to hear it: in the present, in one sitting, in gratitude to those who made it and to the people who enabled its creation…
With thanks to Keith Aspden, Phill Brown, Kathy Welch, Paul Sandell, John Pidgeon, Within Without and The Next Big Thing.^ go back to top
Music Tech: December 2011
This one and only solo album by the former Talk Talk front man attracts praise and criticism in equal measure. Huw Price tells its story.
After an inauspicious art as 80s also-rans, Mark Hollis’s band Talk Talk released a bona fide masterpiece, Spirit of Eden. Laughing Stock followed in 1991, by which time Talk Talk was essentially a musical partnership between Mark Hollis and Tim Friese-Greene.
Hollis soldiered on alone to produce his eponymously titled final album. Again he assembled a cast of stellar studio musicians to create another hushed masterpiece that effortlessly encompasses free jazz, gospel, soul and classical music. Hollis once said, “I think albums, in order to work properly, should work throughout. You shouldn’t look at one track.” Out of respect, therefore, we’re focusing on the whole album.
Hollis cited 50s jazz recordings as a major influence and a recording plan was conceived accordingly Many albums from that era were made with only one mic, and a mic balance was achieved by adjusting the position of the musicians in relation to the mic.
In concession to modern expectations, Hollis and Phill Brown elected to record in stereo to achieve a great sense of air and space. After auditioning various mics they settled on a crossed cardioid pair of Neumann M49s set at head height for a seated listener, as Brown explains: “We recorded everything on these two mics, moving the musicians around the room to the required location in the final stereo.” The M49s were placed in front of the control room window of Studio 1 at Master Rock Studios and remained there for the four-month duration of the recording.
Brown routed signals through two channels of Master Rock’s prototype Focusrite desk and a pair of stereo linked Urei 1176s set for just 1dB reduction on peaks. They also elected to make no equalization or gain changes to the mic signals because Hollis and Brown “wanted al the natural dynamics of the instruments.”
The largely improvised and freeform playing was reassembled to provide structure. Everything was recorded onto a Studer analogue multi-track which was then sync’ed to a digital Mitsubishi 32.track. Rather than using audio-editing software or samplers, single notes as well as entire parts were spun into the fixed sections of pieces using tae machine offsets. Brown explained: “Mark and I prefer this way of working, as you judge where to position things by listening and feel, and not by a visual cursor.”
Hollis’ last two albums with Talk Talk had been created almost entirely in the studio. This time Hollis arrived equipped with demos and scores for most of the songs. Effects were restricted to an old spring reverb, and EMT reverb plate and a DDL. Since all of the instruments were recorded individually, the mixing process at AIR Lyndhurst mostly entailed balancing stereo pairs for “levelling and continuity.”
Despite the sparse arrangements, unorthodox instrumentation, obscure lyrics and absence of formal song structure, the album isn’t difficult listening. You can put it on in the background as you drift off to sleep, or use it to create a relaxed atmosphere when friends visit But if you take the time to really listen, Hollis’ music has the spiritual depth and power to change your outlook on music forever.
It may appear that, from Spirit of Eden onwards, Hollis was following an inexorable path to silence. In 1998 he said ‘before you play two notes, learn how to play one note, and don’t play one note until you’ve got a reason to play it.” Hollis continually appeared to refine and distil his musicality to leave only its very essence. Everything superfluous was discarded.
There was no tour after the album was released, it received little promotion and Hollis himself quietly withdrew. The album’s last track, A New Jerusalem, fades into the silence of an empty studio that lasts for two minutes and Hollis the recording musician has been silent since. Sadly there may never be another Mark Hollis album, but this enduring silence seems a poignant conclusions to the career of a musical artists that many regard as the finest of his generation.^ go back to top
The Word: April 2012
It was only when Talk Talk dropped the pop and headed into the ether that they created the template for serious modern rock. By Stuart Maconie.
Anyone desiring a brisk lesson in how times change and how strange influence works could do worse than google for ‘Talk Talk’. What you’ll find initially is not a reference to these four albums, their makers curious evolution and their lasting allure, but how to get great deals on evening and weekend landline calls.
Which is in itself a kind of tribute to the ban Talk Talk’s statute. But there are other ways in which they continue to resonate. If you’ve enjoyed the music of Elbow or Radiohead or Wild Beasts or much of what gets termed post-rock, then you can thank the mature Talk Talk. Here, then, is a chance to repay the, or so EMI will be hoping since citations and respect butter no parsnips in these straitened times.
What we have here are the first four Talk Talk albums, plotting an arc away from their gauche new-romantic beginnings to a shadowy yet radiant place somewhere between folk, chamber jazz and ambient. The re-masterings have been ‘overseen’ by singer and de facto leader Mark Hollis and it’s surprising, given his single-mindedness that he hasn’t disowned some of his earlier work. Not that it’s irredeemably terrible (though ever über-fan Guy Garvey has opined that ‘their early stuff is awful’) but more tat it is so much of its period, namely the early 1980s: perky ringtone keyboard melodies, portentous washes of Yamaha DX7, moody fretless bass splashes and the kinds of drum sound that blight the first Aztec Camera album. The videos are archeologically fascinating too. In the one for the debut single Talk Talk, the jerk about in anguished attitudes of alienation and despair in what seems to be a giant Ikea cheese grater.
But even on The Party’s Over and It’s my Life, amid the OMD hand-me-downs and designed angst, there are kings of the satisfying oddness to come. The curious sombre conclusion of Such a Shame, say, or the ghostly off-camera noises on Renee. But nothing here really hints at what would happen when Hollis and Time Friese-Greene stopped bothering trying to be pop stars.
Ironically, what happened first is they had their biggest hit. Life’s What You Make It is at once rousing enough for a small arena but also quirky, based around a repetitive piano groove and organ from a guesting Steve Winwood. From the opening moments of Happiness is Easy, it’s clear something’s changed. Jazz tropes were ubiquitous in much 80s pop but there’s a sparseness and opacity that sets this apart. It’s as if The Style Council had suddenly discovered Messiaen or Bitches Brew. Oh, and there’s a children’s choir: more Village of the Damned than St Winifred’s. April 5th is a diaphanous shimmer that constantly blossoms and dissolves but has running through it a lovely vocal melody from Hollis. The best come last with Time It’s Time. Hollis’s cry of ‘Now that it’s over’ both exultant and melancholic over fat, funky bass, Philip Glass chorales and what appear to be a primary school recorder ensemble (to name but three).
Buoyed by The Colour of Spring’s commercial success, Hollis and Friese-Greene decamped to an abandoned Sussex church (long before this kind of hair shirt approach had become de rigueur), jammed by candlelight for a year and a half and recorded every ensuing note. EMI were allowed to hear precisely nothing and were brusquely informed there’d be no promotion, singles or any such frippery. They hired engineer Phil Brown purely because when asked what his fondest memory was he replied “Recording Dear Mr Fantasy, one o’clock in the morning, November 1967.”
What emerged, 1988’s The Spirit of Eden, is more Paul Hindemith than Paul Young, more Debussy than Durannie. No synthesizers, no samplers, indeed not much in the way of contemporary sounds or song structures. Instead we get organic improvisatory mood pieces moving at glacial speed but occasionally exploding into fiery rage or stark, spotlit grief; a sobbing harmonica, a woodwind duet, a shard of electric guitar. Individual songs are largely irrelevant. Dynamics and tension are everything. It was something else. But it was commercial suicide.
The label was bemused, the public nonplussed and the hacks largely hostile. As is the manner of these things, ten years down the line, it was turning up in lists of the best albums ever made. After 20, it sounds like the template for most serious modern rock. But the sort that sells and wins prizes. Talk Talk would go even further out with Laughing Stock, Mark Hollis would make a griping Scott Walkerish solo set and Tim Friese-Green continues to make daring, fascinating music under various names. But all concerned will rightly be remembered for The Colour of Spring and The Spirit of Eden – self-possessed, a little precious, slight nuts and wholly unforgettable.^ go back to top
Der Spiegel: 6th April 2012
Genial: Das Album "Spirit of Eden" der britischen Band Talk Talk gilt als so rätselhaftes wie meisterhaftes Opus. Nun kommt das historische Werk frisch restauriert als Neuauflage auf den Markt. Von Christoph Dallach
Es gibt Platten, deren Namen weitergegeben werden wie ein gutgehütetes Geheimnis, wie das Losungswort zu einem elitären Geheimbund, wie ein Versprechen auf ein Erlebnis der ganz besonderen Art. Oft sind das Platten, die nie im Radio laufen.
Das 1991 erschienene "Spirit of Eden" von Talk Talk ist so ein Werk. Das Album sieht schon rätselhaft aus; es ist eingepackt in eine Hülle, auf der ist ein gemalter Baum abgebildet, an dem allerlei Schnecken und Muscheln hängen. Von den verantwortlichen Musikern keine Spur. Auch kein Hinweis, was für Musik in dieser Verpackung stecken könnte. Das perfekte Mysterium also.
Interessant sind auch die heftigen Reaktionen der Hörer, was sich sehr schön an den Nutzer-Kommentaren bei "Amazon" ablesen lässt, wo "Spirit of Eden" nahezu ausnahmslos mit Höchstwertungen bedacht wird: "Ich spielte dieses Album bei der Geburt meines Sohnes". Oder: "Wenn mein Haus brennen würde, und ich könnte nur einen Gegenstand retten, wäre es diese CD". Oder: "Es kann kein anderes Album geben, das diese Intimität erreicht."
Erst nach den Hits wurde die Musik spannend
Für Menschen, die nur die Radio-Hits von Talk Talk kennen, ist diese Euphorie wohl kaum nachvollziehbar. Kein Wunder, denn auch Talk Talk begannen mal ganz konventionell. "The Party's Over", das erste Album der Londoner Band um den Sänger und Songwriter Mark Hollis, erschien 1982 und klang eher unauffällig nach New-Wave-Pop. Der große Erfolg kam zwei Jahre später mit dem Nachfolger "It's My Life" und Hits wie "Such A Shame", die Hollis vermutlich bis heute ein entspanntes Leben bescheren. Erst danach wurde es spannend: Auf "The Colour of Spring" begann Hollis, mit Stilen und Genres zu experimentieren, aber letztlich war das auch nur das Vorspiel zu seinem Meisterwerk "Spirit of Eden".
Die Musik auf "Spirit of Eden" klingt, gut zwei Jahrzehnte nach ihrem Erscheinen, noch immer rätselhaft und atemberaubend. Sechs kunstvolle Songs, von denen die ersten drei ineinander fließen, die über einen Zeitraum von eineinhalb Jahren in einem abgedunkelten, nur von Kerzen erleuchteten Studio als Resultat ausgiebiger Sessions entstanden.
Da wird deutlich, was Mark Hollis meinte, als er immer wieder Can, Miles Davis, Bartok, Debussy, John Coltrane, Otis Redding und Burt Bacharach als musikalische Helden nannte. Und nach Hits wie "It's my Life" hatte er endlich das Budget, die Freiheit, die Musik zu machen, von der er immer träumte. Die Melodien sind hier verschachtelt, die Stimmung: Moll! Es erklingen schwelend Trompeten, Klarinetten, ein Kirchenchor und die alles zusammenhaltende, faszinierende Klagestimme von Mark Hollis.Vielen Spezialisten gilt "Spirit of Eden" längst als Ausgangspunkt dessen, was heute als Post-Rock bezeichnet wird. Nachgewachsene Bands wie Radiohead oder Elbow haben ihre Begeisterung für die Platte betont. Nur die zuständige Plattenfirma hörte keine Radio-Hits und war entsetzt. Mark Hollis scherte das überhaupt nicht. Für ihn war es der Beginn eines Dauerkrieges mit der Musikindustrie. Es folgte das noch rätselhaftere Talk-Talk-Album "Laughing Stock", sowie ein Mark Hollis Solo-Album, das 1998 erschien.
Seitdem ist Mark Hollis abgetaucht. Auf Tournee war er seit Jahrzehnten nicht mehr, Interviews gewährt er nie und reiht sich so ein in die Galerie der großen, stoischen Verweigerer des Pop wie Scott Walker, Kevin Shields oder Kevin Rowland. Vollkommen isoliert lebt er mit Frau und zwei Kindern in London. Weil die Nachfrage nach seiner Musik eher steigt, sind seine Talk-Talk-Wunderplatten nun mal wieder restauriert neu aufgelegt worden. Elbow-Sänger Guy Garvey gab mal zu Protokoll, dass Mark Hollis' Musik "so beeindruckend wie die Mondlandung" sei.
Dem ist nichts hinzu zu fügen.^ go back to top
Der Spiegel: 6th April 2012
Ingenious: The album "Spirit of Eden" by the British band Talk Talk has proved to be as enigmatic as a masterful opus. Now, the historical work is freshly restored as a new release on the market. By Christoph Dallach
There are records, the names of which are passed on as a well-kept secret, as the password of an elite secret society, as a promise of an experience of a very special kind. These are often records that will never receive radio play.
Released in 1991, "Spirit of Eden" by Talk Talk is one such work. The album seems quite enigmatic; it is wrapped in a sleeve on which is shown a painted tree, on which all kinds of snails and shells hang. There is no trace of the musicians responsible. Also no evidence of what kind of music could be hidden in this package. The perfect mystery.
Also interesting are the strong reactions of the listeners, which can be very well seen in the user comments for "Amazon", where "Spirit of Eden" is almost exclusively awarded top marks. "I played this album at the birth of my son." Or, "If my house was to burn down, and I could save only one item, it would be this CD." Or: "There can be no other album that achieved this intimacy."
Only after the hits did the music become exciting
For people who only know the radio hits of TalkTalk, this euphoria is hardly comprehensible. No wonder, since Talk Talk began rather conventionally. "The Party's Over", the first album of the London band based around singer and songwriter Mark Hollis, appeared in 1982 and sounded rather unremarkably like New Wave pop. The big success came two years later with the follow-up "It's My Life" and hits like "Such a Shame", which probably still bestow upon Hollis a stress-free life. Only after that did it become exciting. On "The Colour of Spring" Hollis began to experiment with styles and genres, but ultimately that was only the prelude to his masterpiece "Spirit of Eden".
The music on "Spirit of Eden" sounds good two decades after its release, still mysterious and breathtaking. Six artful songs, the first three of which merge into one another, originated from extensive studio sessions and were created over a period of eighteen months in a dark studio, lit only by candles.
From this, it becomes clear what Mark Hollis meant when he repeatedly named Can, Miles Davis, Bartok, Debussy, John Coltrane, Otis Redding and Burt Bacharach as musical heroes. And after hits like "It's My Life", he finally had the budget and the freedom to make the music that he had always dreamed of. The melodies here are convoluted, the mood: Minor! Sounds of smoldering trumpets, clarinets, a church choir and, holding everything together, the fascinating, lamenting voice of Mark Hollis.
To many specialists, "Spirit of Eden" has long been regarded as the starting point of what is now known as post-rock. Bands that followed, such as Radiohead and Elbow, have emphasized their enthusiasm for the record. Only the record company at the time heard no radio hits and was horrified. Mark Hollis couldn’t have cared less. For him, this was the beginning of a long-standing war with the music industry. The even more enigmatic Talk Talk album "Laughing Stock" followed, also a Mark Hollis solo album, released in 1998.
Since then, Mark Hollis has disappeared. He hasn’t toured in decades, never gives interviews and is ranked in the gallery of the great stoic objectors of pop like Scott Walker, Kevin Shields and Kevin Rowland. Completely isolated, he lives with his wife and two children in London. Since the demand for his music ever increases, his Talk Talk wonder-albums have now been restored and reissued. Elbow singer Guy Garvey is on record as saying that Mark Hollis’ 'music is “as impressive as the moon landing "was.
There is nothing more to add.^ go back to top
Mojo: May 2012
How grudging New Romantics took flight and then went missing. By Danny Eccleston
‘Remastering overseen by Mark Hollis!’ Poor fanbait you might think, for a reissue of some albums that have never not been available. Then again, it is typical of the intensely private Talk Talk mainman not to overshare, and if there’s no wealth of bonus material to tempt us then that is to be expected to. During their span (the 80s basically) Talk Talk were notorious for the high quality of the material they simply wiped.
From the beginning there was magic, and truculence, about the core trio of Hollis, drummer Lee Harris and bassist Paul Webb, although EMI – pairing the group with Duran Dura producer Colin Thurston for their synthpoppy 1982 debut album, The Party’s Over – did their best to conceal it. ‘Duran for nerds’ rather sums of jerky lead single Talk Talk, although the albums buzz-kill lyrics (“Take this punishment away Lord!”) were a warning to pop-pickers and It’s So Serious betray the epic instincts surging within. Meanwhile Hollis’ extraordinary voice, sacrificing diction to a unique, high-tensile anguish, cut through like a Ne Pop Johnny Ray.
It’s My Life (1984) was a step sideways, more adventurous, but fussier too, as if the group and new producer Tim Friese-Greene had made a best to see how many setting on a Fairlight they would use, Hollis had talked about Miles Davis, Delius and Bartok, but this wasn’t them. “That whole synth side – get it in the bin” he decreed and the result was The Colour of Spring, an album full of ideas, but space too (the wiping, again). Church-bashing opener Happiness is Easy updated Pink Floyd, even down to the kids’ choir, while pre-empting Massive Attack. Talk Talk had risen to the Bush/Gabriel/Sylvian rank of high-concept pop-art but their horrified label begged a single. They got the atypical groovy and ecstatic Life’s What You Make it, a Euro-smash in 1986 and an anthem on the early Balearic scene.
For all The Colour of Spring’s charm, it is for what they did next that Hollis and Talk Talk are now revered. Nurtured for nine agonising, expensive moths, mostly in the dark (the only lighting for sessions at north London’s Wessex studios were an oil projector and some sound-triggered lights around Harris’s drums) with Friese-Green and engineer Phill Brown, Spirit of Eden traded pop for impressionistic intercessions, intense surges and musique concrète.
Henry’s Lowther’s trumpet stands in for Hollis’s beloved Miles, Mark Feltham’s metallic harmonica razors in from space. The Velvet Underground’s Heroin haunts second track Eden before it shatters, guitars splintering to leave Hollis bereft. “I’ve seen heroin for myself” he sings on the extraordinary I Believe In You, and he had, sapping the life from his older brother Ed, who had managed Eddie & the Hot Rods but died soon after Spirit’s completion in 1988.
Spirit split the critics on release (The words ‘wafty’ and ‘pretentious’ were used). But over time its aura has blossomed in intensity, hymned by Guy Garvey, Wild Beasts and Radiohead. They know that there will never be another album life it, since the demise of the profligate old-school record industry means that no one will ever spend so much money making anything so left-field again. After Spirit Hollis and Friese-Greene went to Phonogram and made 1990’s Laughing Stock – great, but more amorphous and occluded – and after an eight-year gap, a beautiful, minimal solos album entitled Mark Hollis. Then: silence.
Hollis does not do interviews, but in his last one, he claimed he’d not once listened to Spirit since completing it. So if there is something tantalising about his remaster – beyond the gorgeousness of what was there in the first place – it’s the thought of Hollis slipping on the headphones and pressing play. What did he feel and think? And might the urge to better it be awoken?^ go back to top
Pitchfork: August 31st 2012
Talk Talk's Mark Hollis Resurfaces With New Music for the Kelsey Grammer TV Show "Boss". First new music from the elusive genius in 14 years. By Amy Phillips, Pitchfork Magazine
For decades, Mark Hollis of Talk Talk has been one of the most mysterious figures in pop music. After hitting it big as new wave stars in the early and mid-80s, with massive singles like "It's My Life" and "Life's What You Make It", Talk Talk abandoned synth-pop and went experimental. Their 1988 album Spirit of Eden and its follow-up, 1991's Laughing Stock, are cult classics, steeped in the kinds of jazz-influenced sounds that would later be known as post-rock.
Talk Talk broke up after Laughing Stock, but they'd stopped touring, making videos, or even giving interviews long before. Hollis released a self-titled solo albumin 1998, made brief guest appearances on a handful of albums in the late 90s/early 00s... and then nothing. For the past 10 years, he's been pretty much off the radar.
So it was very, very surprising to learn that the first new music we'll hear from Hollis since his solo album 14 years ago will be a track included in an upcoming episode of the TV show "Boss:. "Boss" airs Friday nights on the Starzchannel, and stars Kelsey Grammer as a ruthless mayor of Chicago. (T.I. is also a member of the cast.) The September 21 episode will feature a new instrumental piece by Hollis called "ARB Section 1" that will play during the show's final scene and closing credits.
How did this happen? We have music supervisor and composer Brian Reitzell to thank. Reitzell, a former member of Redd Kross, has been working in film since the late 90s, doing the music for Sofia Coppola's movies, as well as Friday Night Lights (the film), Thumbsucker, The Brothers Bloom, and more. "Boss", now in its second season, is his first TV work. (He's also currently working on music for Coppola's upcoming film The Bling Ring, as well as Gus Van Sant's upcoming Promised Land.)
Chatting with Pitchfork yesterday, Reitzell said, "Mark's one of my heroes... I've tried to work with him many times before." Over a decade ago, Reitzell and collaborators Roger Joseph Manning Jr. and Justin Meldal-Johnsen (then both playing in Beck's band) approached Hollis with an offer to make an album with him for free. Reitzell said that Hollis turned him down, saying he only made an album every seven years, and his solo album had been released in 1998.
Reitzell has worked with this kind of private genius before: he coaxed the notoriously elusive Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine into making music for the Coppola film Lost in Translation in 2003, as well as remixing Bow Wow Wow for Coppola's Marie Antoinette in 2006.
Reitzell said, "Everyone told me I was crazy for trying to get Kevin Shields, that it wouldn't work." But after becoming friends with Shields while Reitzell was touring with Air (who he played with on 10 000 Hz Legend), he convinced Shields to work on Lost in Translation. So, Reitzell figured, "If I could entice Kevin Shields, maybe I could entice Mark Hollis."
Several years ago, Reitzell was hired to helm the music for the fil Peacock, directed by Michael Lander and starring Cillian Murphy, Susan Sarandon, and Ellen Page. He sent the script to Hollis. Reitzell said that Hollis was inspired by the story of the film: Murphy plays a man with a split personality, who believes he is both himself and his own wife. Hollis wrote several pieces of music for Peacock, as did Air. But all of it remained unused, and Reitzell ended up scoring the film himself.
Reitzell also scored the first season of "Boss" by himself. But for the second season, he wanted to collaborate with different artists, to help "paint the picture" of the show. He went back to the music that Hollis and Air had created for Peacock, and discovered that it worked well with the feel of the second season of "Boss". Like Cillian Murphy's character, Kelsey Grammer's Chicago mayor Tom Kane is dealing with a mental disorder that he must keep hidden.
Reitzell said that "ARB Section 1" is only part of the music that Hollis created for Peacock; he hopes to use the rest at some point.
This season of "Boss", each episode features new end title music from different artists. In addition to Hollis and Air, there are also contributions from My Morning Jacket's Jim James, Oneohtrix Point Never, Shearwater, Air, and Red Red Meat/Califone's Tim Rutili. (Explosions in the Sky's Michael James contributed music to the second season's first episode as well, while Robert Plant and Band of Joy's version of the traditional "Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down" is the show's theme song.) Reitzell says that he's hoping to record more music for the show with Jim James soon.
A full soundtrack album collecting all of the end title music is in the works. Aside from the Hollis' track, all of the music is in collaboration with Reitzell. And every track except for the Hollis one will be available to stream on Starz.com (under "Featured Music") following each episode. (You'll have to watch the show itself to hear the Hollis one.)^ go back to top
The Quietus: 13th September 2012
Sometimes it’s hard to believe that Mark Hollis didn’t script the entire story in advance: Talk Talk’s tale is, in many ways, the reverse of what happens with most bands that become successful. They didn’t start out making difficult music, slowly winning over an audience with their brave, critically acclaimed steps into the unknown before drifting into the mainstream, their rough edges softened by the necessity to survive at the top, their musical ambitions sacrificed to commercial interests.
Nor did they work their way up the ladder with endless touring or allow themselves to be pimped to the marketplace until they became so ubiquitous that they could afford to rest on their laurels and revel in the rewards that those who play it safe get to reap. Instead, they began by making pop music of an apparently commercial kind, charting in their home country’s Top 20 with their third single, enjoying considerable international success with their second album, and going supernova with their third.
Then they retreated into a world of shadowy, sublime but distinctly complex music that alienated many of their fans, before refusing to tour altogether, suing their record company, antagonising their new label and splitting up. In the years that followed, the band’s members released little music of their own, and their leader – the aforementioned Hollis – disappeared from public view entirely, refusing all interviews after his only solo album hit the stores seven years after their split, leaving a void in which only speculation and mystery could survive.
This is how legends are born. Not the kind of legend that allows an act to fill arenas and forces them to set up offshore bank accounts. Not the kind of legend that ensures that each album of pale imitation is greeted by reviews which trumpet “a return to form”. And certainly not the kind of legend that ensures that every utterance earns them headlines, enabling them to sway public opinion on political, social or environmental matters. No: Talk Talk are the kind of legend that matures with age, the lack of information and explanation enhancing their inscrutable status as uncompromising pioneers, the unanswered questions contributing further to the mystery of how and why they pursued their remarkable, fanatical journey towards a sound that no one has ever quite managed to replicate or classify. They’re the kind of legend whose reputation is built almost entirely upon their music.
Now, after almost fifteen years of silence from the band’s central figure – production of two tracks on Jan Garbarek’s daughter Anja’s 2001 album, Smiling And Waving, notwithstanding – come the inevitable book and tribute album. That they’ve taken so long to arrive is perhaps a surprise, given the exponential rate at which Talk Talk’s stature has grown over recent years: they’re cited by other acts with increasing frequency, referenced by reverential critics on a regular basis, and their songs have been compiled on Best Of albums countless times in order to milk a cash cow that had formerly refused to be corralled.
The problems begin, however, with the fact that none of the band’s members have participated in the publication of Spirit Of Talk Talk meaning that it’s left to The Quietus’s Chris Roberts (over the book’s first eighty pages) to gather information already available in order to piece together their history while trying to encapsulate their musical appeal and influence. Another fifty pages of personal impressions concerning the band’s music, delivered by a diverse selection of ‘talking heads’, confirm that they continue to hold a wide range of musically inclined individuals in thrall, and a third section allows illustrator James Marsh to discuss the idiosyncratic artwork that he provided for almost every single record the band released.
But interviews with session musicians, an engineer on their third album and the man responsible for EMI’s handling of the band’s catalogue are hardly required reading, and nor is a reprint of a less than revealing questionnaire the band filled in for Look-In magazine. The full transcript of Mark Hollis’s final interview (with Rob Young, author of Electric Eden and editor-at-large of The Wire) is perhaps more valuable – but even this sees questions longer than answers, leaving only a discography and a significant number of pictures and items of memorabilia to justify a price tag of £40 (for the classic edition) and a mighty £150 (for the deluxe edition).
It is a labour of love, of course, beautifully designed and packaged to complement the band’s own work. However, those already fascinated by the band and looking for further enlightenment are likely to be disappointed. To be fair to Roberts – one of the country’s best, if underused, music writers – the book never sets out to be an in-depth critical assessment of the band’s output. And if, as the cliché goes, writing about music is like dancing about architecture, then writing about Talk Talk, especially their last two albums, is like synchronised swimming about the stars in a pool of mud.
It is a point even Roberts concedes, saying of their final album, Laughing Stock, that it’s “one of the toughest albums to describe…” before simply stating, “it is righteous”. Fortunately, while his descriptions of the music are unusually restrained, he does an impressive job of piecing together their biography from the fragments of information he has collected. He also succeeds in drawing attention to their early work’s strengths, often overlooked in favour of the music that followed, even if he is at times a little defensive, unwilling to admit that it wasn’t as ground-breaking as perhaps we’d like, and suggesting a little over-excitedly that, in comparison, their contemporaries, Duran Duran, were merely “sub-glam pop-tartlets”. Still, while he doesn’t reveal anything especially revelatory, he does marshal together pretty much everything that’s known about the band into one place, and fleshes out the narrative satisfactorily. In the circumstances, perhaps we should expect little more.
James Marsh’s contribution is maybe more illuminating, given that the band chose early on to present themselves to the world in as obtuse a fashion as possible. A friend of their manager, Keith Aspden, and a designer and illustrator of books, records and advertisements since the mid 1960s, Marsh was tasked with creating art that captured the band’s music in an original and effective fashion. As time passed, his work became increasingly singular and far from predictable, especially as the complexity of the group’s music developed. The covers said nothing about the band, and yet somehow defined them perfectly. Marsh’s recollections of his methodology are therefore intriguing, and shed a great deal of light upon how a band’s image can be created, reinforced and controlled.
To begin with, Talk Talk’s early synth-pop was reflected in the Hunky Dory paper, airbrushed Athena poster stylings in which their records were packaged. But, over time – and perhaps with Marsh’s growing familiarity with the journey upon which the band had embarked – it added an extra dimension to their craft. The subdued autumnal tones of The Colour Of Spring's cover, with its striking, delicate moths, hint at the fragility within, at the music’s far more organic qualities, and at the metamorphosis which the band were undergoing. His images for the final two albums, often thought of as a pair, are equally fitting: Spirit Of Eden depicts a solitary tree emerging from an empty ocean, draped in shells and providing sanctuary for sea-birds, while Laughing Stock repeats the motif; the tree’s leaves now shed, its branches filled with endangered birds, the earth beneath it scorched. These covers don’t immediately tell you much about what is contained within – and yet they match the music perfectly. That Marsh achieved this often without anything other than an album title, as he explains, is testament not only to the power of his and the band’s imagination but also to our own.
Less valuable are the contributions from fans of the band who try to articulate why Talk Talk’s music continues to flourish. These days, endorsements are sometimes the only way to cut through the superlatives of a world dominated by marketing: we trust the voices of those we respect, and there’s a certain pleasure to be gleaned from knowing that we share a passion with folk as diverse as Robert Plant, Guy Garvey and Mark Radcliffe. Unfortunately, there perhaps isn’t much to be gained from the input of such lesser luminaries as Toad The Wet Sprocket’s Glen Phillips, David ‘Kid’ Jensen or Pink Floyd keyboardist Richard Wright’s daughter, Gala, let alone the webmasters for Talk Talk’s fan site and Facebook page or a slew of musicians whose reputation is so slight as to fall worlds short of ‘cult’ status. These merely suggest the motivation behind its existence is less to provide something that seeks to answer the many questions that committed fans have about the band, and more to fill enough pages to transform this from a softback pamphlet into a coffee table book whose physical weight matches the music’s density even when its pages can’t.
Released the same month, Spirit of Talk Talk- the album – is a double CD of cover versions compiled by Toby Benjamin and former Depeche Mode/Recoil synth player Alan Wilder. Tribute albums are notoriously difficult to pull off – I should know, having attempted one of my own to celebrate the work of Lee Hazlewood – and sympathy should always be extended to those who try to navigate the minefield of band schedules, budgets and rights. So, like the book, the compilation is flawed, perhaps due to its ambitious intent to offer thirty interpretations rather than simply a single album’s worth. But there’s another issue at stake here, in that, when people refer to songs, they often fail to distinguish between writing and performance, and there is a crucial difference between the two: a great piece of songcraft will always be a great piece of songcraft, whether it's butchered or beautified, but a great performance can rarely be outshone. It stamps a definitive identity on a song.
Talk Talk wrote great songs: this compilation is a splendid reminder of that fact. But they were also an extraordinary bunch of musicians who cannily surrounded themselves with further great players and a manager who somehow preserved their integrity as their intent shifted from great music to great art. To attempt to match them at their own game, let alone beat them, is dangerous, especially when referring to later work. While it’s not so true of the earlier material, most of their releases after 1985 featured recordings where the songcraft and the performance were inseparable, inextricably intertwined, and the results were transcendent. Covering Talk Talk is therefore as fraught with the likelihood of failure as covering My Bloody Valentine – the originals contain a secret ingredient, so one’s only hope is to come up with an entirely new recipe that doesn’t even try to compete.
Nonetheless, there are valiant attempts, like Lone Wolf's opening interpretation of ‘Wealth’, Bon Iver drummer S. Carey’s ‘I Believe In You’ – a song that has always seemed impossible to cover but which he interprets with subtle sophistication, as does Arcade Fire’s Richard Reed Parry at the album’s close – and Nils Frahm, Peter Broderick and Davide Rossi’s dewy-eyed take on the oft-forgotten but majestic B-side, ‘It’s Getting Late In The Evening’. King Creosote’s brave conversion of ‘Give It Up’ into an accordion-led waltz is also commendable, as is Duncan Sheik’s transformation of ‘Life’s What You Make It’ into an acoustic lament. In addition, Joan As Policewoman takes a worthy stab at ‘Myrrhman’, and Do Make Say Think emphasise the stratospheric magic of 'New Grass' with some success.
But always in the background is the distant, haunting echo of the originals: Hollis's remarkable voice, the innovative arrangements, the hauntingly engineered sound. As a result, many of these readings sound at best like failed attempts to breathe life into something that never needed resuscitation. Zero 7’s ‘The Colour Of Spring’ twinkles but still sounds like a soundtrack to a soap commercial; Zelienople’s attempt to reduce ‘The Rainbow’ to a sparse, droning soundscape is deeply troubling; The TenFiveSixty’s ‘It’s My Life’ sounds like it was commissioned by a Hollywood film director to soundtrack a club scene with an edgy, Barbie Doll-fronted band in torn jeans and tight T-shirts and renders No Doubt’s version – against all the odds – bearable; and Turin Brakes’ whiny, trebly ‘Ascension Day’ may make the original impossible to enjoy ever again. Like the book, the tribute album sheds little new light on its subject but, then again, arguably neither actually attempts to do that. They are celebrations of Talk Talk’s work, after all, and both succeed in erecting huge signs back towards the stuff that inspired them: the band’s original recordings. The question is whether they’re entirely necessary.
Talk Talk are now pretty much established amongst the canon of undervalued and yet vital acts whose influence grows with each passing year and for whom respect cannot fail to continue growing. They are, despite the restrictive synth pop sounds of their juvenilia, very close indeed to being filed alongside the likes of Nick Drake, My Bloody Valentine, Can, David Axelrod and Lee Hazlewood – I, of course, would say that – and they are on the cusp of joining (if they haven’t already joined) the list of artists whose work is spoken of in hushed tones by those who truly love music and are prepared to step beyond the boundaries of the known. Neither Spirit Of Talk Talk (the book) nor Spirit Of Talk Talk (the double album) is capable of capturing the elusive, mysterious, alchemical qualities that made Talk Talk’s work and recordings so frequently, immaculately perfect. But if they turn people on to the idea that even the quietest music, even the most superficially simple songs, even the biggest hits and the least successful of albums, can contain depths that our current listening habits prevent us from recognising and that we should nonetheless explore, then they have proved worthwhile.
Their existence, however, is likely to be forgotten long before Talk Talk’s. Prophets may rarely be recognised in their own time, but their disciples are rarely remembered at all. Talk Talk’s music has become a religion of sorts, and their legend keeps on growing, with or without artifacts such as these. Despite Mark Hollis’s and Talk Talk’s claim that they had always intended to make music as challenging as that with which they ended their existence – Hollis is often said to have attributed the band’s early use of synthesisers in place of real instruments to nothing more than financial necessity – there’s no way that they could have foreseen just how far the band would journey. But, though the story of the band was far from orchestrated, it has the happy conclusion Hollis always wanted.
“I hope in the end to be understood for the music I do decide to put out and meaning and sense the music has,” he told Melody Maker’s Cliff Jones in 1991. “It's almost useless asking me questions about it. The music speaks for itself.“
EXCERPT from The Spirit Of Talk Talk by Chris Roberts
It’s perhaps hard to convey now how thoroughly the ‘New Romantic Movement’ took over pop in the early Eighties. And how pop thus stole back some ground from rock or New Wave or what would now be called ‘indie’, suddenly and briefly becoming the go-to forum for intelligent, ‘serious’ debate and aesthetic expression. Of course, every generation brings its new thing, its ‘new look’, sometimes several. But as the Eighties dawned, this splash of colour was shocking to some, a eureka moment to many – especially to those a dash too young to accept punk as Year Zero. A mix of chancers and romancers and in-crowd dancers soared to commercial and critical ascendancy with cutting-edge synthesizers, sharp tunes, and sharper clothes, often if not always quoting Roland Barthes as they flew. From reinvented punk-rocker Adam Ant to Islington’s kilt-sporting Spandau Ballet to Beau Brummel-worshipping Visage, not forgetting Soft Cell, Culture Club, The Human League, and a stream of lesser lights, the New Romantics dressed to kill and pressed play to thrill. As punk fizzled out, they insisted the show go on and move forward.
With MTV launching in late 1981, how you looked became almost as important as how you sounded – some would argue more so. “Ridicule is nothing to be scared of,” declared Adam Ant, and the new kids on the block donned warrior stripes, head-dresses, and gender-bending garb to prove the point. At first, the tabloids feigned outrage at men wearing eyeliner while earnest, out-moded, rock critics bemoaned the lack of ‘authenticity’, guitars, and random railing against Thatcher. Eventually they cottoned on, or caved. The era remains one of British pop’s weirdest and wildest.
It’s both easy and difficult, then, to understand why EMI saw fit to push the young Talk Talk into this boom. Easy, because they wanted another Duran Duran cash-cow. Difficult, because Talk Talk were not vacuous pretty boys. They were, it would seem, just naïve enough to go along with whatever advice they were being given by those more experienced in the business than themselves, and so their debut album was given a topical-typical sheen and loaded to bursting point, by Duran producer Colin Thurston, with tropes and techniques then in vogue. Much of the sound of the album slavishly imitates the breaking-big new bands of the time (drum pads, Fairlight sequencers), and all but disguises the fact that in Mark Hollis there was a singer of rare emotive power and a writer with a clear individual vision. As h2g2 has written, “The result sounds incredibly dated now – the motto of the production appearing to be: why use a real instrument when there is a crude-sounding synthesised version available? Only the title track and ‘Candy’ escaped with a treatment that comes anywhere close to realising the potential of Mark’s songwriting. This is one of those albums that is difficult to love, unless you loved it when it first came out.” And as Jim Irvin has opined, “The hollow airless sound of The Party’s Over, with its glutinous fake strings and clumping drums, put Talk Talk squarely in the place he [Hollis] despised most: the disposable end of New Romantic pop.”
Yet, for all those truths, some of us did love it. It hasn’t aged well, sure, and it could have lived with a guitar or two (hindsight’s a wonderful thing), but we were young(er) then and it was the sound of the times. (As were, to be fair, a Flock of Seagulls.) And always, despite the plastic rhythms and insanely frenetic fills, there is that voice – a sound apart, an emotion above.
“The Party’s Over” was of course the title of a famous Jules Styne song, first publicly sung by Judy Holliday in the 1956 musical The Bells Are Ringing, and later interpreted by Nat King Cole, Doris Day, Shirley Bassey, Dean Martin, Lesley Gore, and many others. It’s a staple of the resilience-through-melancholy genre, a not-quite-heartbroken torch song. “The candles flicker and dim... take off your make-up... it’s all over, my friend...” One can hypothesise about its appeal to Hollis.
The album of the same name opens with the self-referential three-minute anthem, “Talk Talk”, a big surge of keyboards and treated drums curling into a memorable synth motif, and the first words Talk Talk as a band were to utter: an unlikely “hey! hey!” Talk Talk were not The Monkees, but you have to give this single its pop props. The lyrics work nicely against the gregarious grain, phrases like “anxiety was bringing me down” and “I’m tired of listening to you” reiterating Hollis’s separateness from the sound of the crowd. And yet the refrain, repeating the band’s moniker, became an unwittingly productive mnemonic, an assertion of a brand name. There’s a clever breakdown of fragile piano droplets, the first glint of period slap bass (there’s a fair bit of that on the album), and a gentler third verse in which the voice is allowed to reveal its tenderness – “I’m not so blind to see that you’ve been cheating on me...” – before a robust build back into the chorus. And now every cry of ‘talk talk’ is answered by a ghostly echo: remember their name, they’re gonna live forever...
But why had Hollis named his band after one of his songs? “The track was up there round about the same time as the band was actually formed,” he told Sounds. “We went through the dictionary, had all the novels out like William Burroughs and things, and finally ended up with Talk Talk because, partly, I like the idea of a track with the same name as the band, and it’s really instant in terms of memorising it. Plus it didn’t in any way categorise us. The third reason was from a graphic point of view – it would look good. The fourth one, purely from a personal hang-up I’ve got, is that I don’t really like it when people abbreviate a name, like The Stones.”^ go back to top
The Guardian: 13th September 2012
Mark Hollis's group started out as poppy hitmakers, then lost most of their audience as they invented a musical vocabulary of their own. Now a new tribute album is celebrating their legacy. By Graeme Thomson
"You mention Talk Talk and people either go 'What, that 80s pop group?' or they freak out and say, 'Those are some of my favourite ever records!'" Joan Wasser, AKA Joan As Police Woman, pauses. "They are a really confusing band."
Confusing, mysterious, beautiful and – at least until recently – largely overlooked, Talk Talk's journey from early 80s synth-pop to late 80s post-rock has resulted in a diffuse and tangled legacy. Tracing the line from perky hit singles such as Today, Talk Talk, It's My Life and Life's What You Make It to their final albums, 1988's Spirit of Eden and 1991's Laughing Stock, is to discover that a clearly defined path has gradually disappeared into a thicket of brambles and honeysuckle.
It's taken two decades, but their music has started permeating the wider culture. Wasser is one of 30 artists contributing to Spirit of Talk Talk, a tribute album curated by ex-Depeche Mode keyboard player Alan Wilder and designer, entrepreneur – and rabid fan – Toby Benjamin. Contributing artists range from Linton Kwesi Johnson to King Creosote, White Lies to Peter Broderick, while the musical settings encompass dubstep, folk, industrial, electronica and jazz.
Although each stage of the band's evolution is represented – "We wanted to show that through subtle and sensitive arrangement the entire catalogue justifies serious re-evaluation," Wilder says – the main focus falls on 1986's rootsy but relatively accessible The Colour of Spring album and their final two records. "What was so unusual about Talk Talk is that they experienced a career in reverse," says Wilder. "There was a direct correlation between the quality increase and the popularity decrease. I hope this album can reignite an appreciation of the influence of those last two records."
Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock are shrouded in mystery, partly because that's the way they are built, but also because the people who made the records are reluctant to discuss them. Talk Talk's singer and creative mastermind Mark Hollis hasn't released any music since 1998 and doesn't interact with the media, while his co-writer and producer Tim Friese-Greene politely but firmly declined an interview on the grounds that "I don't talk Talk Talk talk any more. It was such a long time ago." Former band members Lee Harris and Paul Webb also observe a dutiful vow of silence these days.
Phill Brown is a little more forthcoming. Brown engineered Spirit of Eden and recalls an "endlessly blacked-out studio, an oil projector in the control room, strobe lighting and five 24-track tape-machines synced together. Twelve hours a day in the dark listening to the same six songs for eight months became pretty intense. There was very little communication with musicians who came in to play. They were led to a studio in darkness and a track would be played down the headphones." Asked whether Hollis is an awkward genius or a regular Joe, Brown replies: "All of the above! Stubborn, focused, but humorous. In some ways a genius, but it was a team effort – and it was a big, talented team."
The resulting album featured six improvised pieces full of space and unhurried rhythm, stitching pastoral jazz, contemporary classical, folk, prog rock and loose blues into a single, doggedly uncommercial musical tapestry. The record label, naturally, had a seizure. EMI's director of repertoire, Nigel Reeve, is now the main point of contact for all things Hollis. Back in 1988 he was in a relatively junior position at the label when Spirit of Eden landed. "There was real nervousness and misunderstanding about that record," he says. "Nobody got it. There wasn't a hit single and they didn't know how to sell it. It caused problems."
The band subsequently left EMI to make the equally uncompromising Laughing Stock for Polydor. Both albums sold poorly and were largely overlooked at the time of their release. Slowly, however, they found their constituency. Many of the artists on Spirit of Talk Talk vividly recall being turned on to these records by fellow musicians. For Wasser it was Antony Hegarty's violinist Maxim Moston; Peter Broderick remembers "a couple of the Efterklang guys sitting me down in 2007, playing me Spirit of Eden and telling me how much of an influence it had been"; Lone Wolf's Paul Marshall acted on a tip-off from Wild Beasts. "I could not believe I'd missed these albums. They shot to the top of my list of all-time favourite records."
Just what is it that makes this music so compelling? "It's uncompromising," says Guillemots' Fyfe Dangerfield, who covers The Rainbow, in collaboration with Thomas Feiner and Robbie Wilson. "In one way it's slow and quite laid-back, but there's this uncomfortable, abrasive quality. They were doing such poppy stuff before, but this was obviously what was inside Mark Hollis's heart, and it feels like it. There's no notion of the outside world at all."
Like a puzzle no one really wants to solve, late period Talk Talk stubbornly refuses to give up its secrets and is therefore endlessly open to interpretation. For Dangerfield, the music feels quintessentially English. For Wasser, who covers Myrrhman, "it has a blues thing that makes me think of New Orleans. Like a big, old house full of ghosts and swirling memories. The spectrey vibe." Then there's Hollis's voice: unsettling, intense, not pretty but oddly beautiful. "There's an effortlessly devastating and passionate tone to it," says White Lies' Charles Cave. "It sounds like he's always struggling, and I love to hear that."
Covering these distinctive, amorphous songs throws up a series of challenges to any musician. "You almost need to take the atmosphere as being as much part of the track as the melody and lyrics," says Dangerfield. "In the end it became about interpreting the feel of it." King Creosote, who turns Give It Up into a sprightly squeezebox number, wanted "to pick a song that I could somehow make ring true. It's not my favourite. I wouldn't go near my favourite Talk Talk songs with a bargepole!" Toby Benjamin mutters wryly that some fans will regard the whole idea of a covers album as "sacrilege".
The band's impact on modern music is palpable but hard to quantify. Reeve acknowledges the irony that, not long after Talk Talk were kicked off EMI for delivering Spirit of Eden: "Radiohead produced a similar kind of record and nobody batted an eyelid." Elbow are huge fans, while members of Arcade Fire and Bon Iver appear on the tribute album. "Judging by the feedback and the general level of interest from everyone who wanted to be involved, their influence is massive," says Wilder, who suggests artists are drawn not so much to a sound as a sensibility. "The meticulous and sheer bloody-minded, anti-establishment approach speaks to musicians who care passionately about their craft but find themselves diverted from their vision by outside influences."
Hollis's distaste for image-building and promotion worked against the band at the time; now it's become an advantage, feeding into the perfect myth of an artist who achieved all he wanted and then walked away. Although Hollis chose to play no part in the project – "We got feedback from a friend saying he wished us luck and that he liked the Matthias Vogt Trio's version of April 5th, but that's it" – Wilder says that his guiding criteria when listening to each cover was "to try and place myself in the head of Mark Hollis and imagine if he would enjoy what he heard". According to Reeve, however, "I'm not sure Mark will ever get around to listening to it. We've played Talk Talk stuff in the office when he's been there and he won't listen to more than 30 seconds before he wants it turned off." Last month, however, news emerged of his first music for 14 years, which will feature on the US TV drama Boss on 21 September (though not on the stream of its soundtrack).
Having sued EMI following the unauthorised release of the 1991 remix album History Revisited, relations between Hollis and the label are now cordial. He and Reeve have been collaborating on the tracklisting for a new Talk Talk compilation, Natural Order, due later this year. "Mark pops into the office every few months," he says. "We have a coffee and a chat, mostly about football. He's a bit of a Spurs fan." The mythology surrounding his retreat into silence apparently bears little relation to the day-to-day reality. "He lives a very normal life, it's just like he changed jobs," says Reeve. "There's nothing in Mark driving him to make a new record, I don't think. In all the conversations I have with him he says: 'I did it. Full stop.' He got to where he wanted to go." Finally, the rest of the world is catching up.^ go back to top
NRC Handelsblad: 13th September 2012
Mark Hollis leeft! De voormalige zanger van Talk Talk weerstaat al ruim tien jaar de roep van een devote groep volgers om weer muziek te gaan maken. Nu blijkt die muziek al een paar jaar op de plank te liggen. Op 21 september zal van Hollis ARB Section 1 te horen zijn, in de VS, tijdens een aflevering van Boss, de tv-serie rond Kelsey 'Frasier' Grammer.
Hollis werd eind jaren tachtig een cultheld nadat hij en zijn band een drastische ommezwaai hadden gemaakt. Van een synthesizerband, met gesoigneerde pophits als Such a shame en Life's what you make it, werd Talk Talk een melancholiek, akoestisch combo. Debussy en Bartók waren zijn inspiratiebronnen, verklaarde Hollis. Hun platenmaatschappij EMI spande na verschijning van Spirit of Eden (1988) zelfs een rechtszaak aan tegen de band wegens het opzettelijk maken van obscure muziek.
De stukken op Spirit of Eden waren jazzy schetsen, sferisch en lang. Het album wordt nu gezien als het experiment dat de postrock van Radiohead aankondigde. Talk Talk zette het proces van verstilling voort op Laughing Stock (1991), een puristische, bedachtzame plaat. Daarna viel de groep uiteen.
Hollis beende zijn muziek verder uit op een soloalbum (1998). Pianoakkoorden domineren het klankbeeld, waarin gitaar, ruisende bekkens en trompet opduiken. En zijn indringende, gekwelde stemgeluid. Magnifiek blijft Hollis' hoge, naar woorden tastende zang met plotse felle uithalen.
Sindsdien werd niets van hem vernomen. Zijn 'terugkeer' blijkt te danken aan Brian Reitzell, een muziekcoördinator voor films en series, zo meldt muzieksite Pitchfork. Op zijn verzoek componeerde Hollis de soundtrack voor Peacock, een thriller uit 2010. Maar de muziek bleef ongebruikt. De track van Hollis is vooralsnog alleen te horen tijdens de uitzending van die ene aflevering van Boss.
Hollis blijft zich afzonderen, want anders dan andere muziek van de serie wordt het nummer niet streaming aangeboden. Reitzell hoopt later meer van Hollis' soundtrack te mogen gebruiken.
Dat Hollis niet vergeten is, blijkt uit het Spirit of Talk Talk-project. Onder die noemer verschenen zojuist een herdenkingsboek en een cd met covers. De groep White Belt Yellow Tag doet op de cd een gejaagde gitaarversie van Today en Joan as a Policewoman een ijselijke remake van Myrrham. Een feestje voor die hard-fans, die daarna snel het origineel opzetten. Mark, kom gauw weer onder de mensen!^ go back to top
NRC Handelsblad: 13th September 2012
Mark Hollis is alive! The former lead singer of Talk Talk who’s withstood more than ten years of pleas from his devoted followed, has started making music again. However that music appears to have been on the shelf for a few years. On 21 September will of Hollis’ ARB Section 1 can be heard, in the US, during an episode of I, the TV series about Kelsey 'Frasier' Grammer.
Hollis was a cult hero in the late 80s after he and his band had made a drastic change of musical direction. A synth-band, with well-groomed pop hits as Such a shame and Life's what you make it, Talk Talk later became a melancholic acoustic combo. Debussy and Bartók were his sources of inspiration, said Hollis. Their record company EMI fled after appearance of Spirit of Eden (1988) and even issued a lawsuit against the band accusing them of making intentionally obscure music.
The pieces on Spirit of Eden were jazzy sketches, spherical and long. The album is now seen as the experiment that announced the post rock of Radiohead. Talk Talk continued the process of stillness on Laughing Stock (1991), a purist, thoughtful record. After that, the group fell apart.
Hollis staked his music further out on a solo album (1998). Piano chords dominate the sound, in which guitar, rustling cymbals and trumpet emerge. And his penetrating, anguished voice. Magnificently, groping for words Hollis' vocals lash out with sudden fierceness.
Nothing has been heard from him since then. His ' return', reports the music site Pitchfork, is due to Brian Reitzell, a music coordinator for movies and TV series. At his request, Hollis compsed the soundtrack for Peacock, a thriller from 2010. But the music remained unused. Hollis’ soundtrack is as yet only to be heard during the broadcast of that one episode of Boss.
Hollis continues to be isolated, not least because, unlike the other music in the series, the track is not offered for streaming. Reitzell hopes to be able to use more of Hollis’ soundtrack later.
Hollis is not forgotten, as evidenced by the Spirit of Talk Talk-project. Under that umbrella a commemorative book and CD of cover version has just appeared. The group White Belt Yellow Tag does a haunting guitar version of Today and Joan as Policewoman an icy remake of Myrrhman. Followed by party for die-hard fans, who miss the original set-up. Mark, come back to us soon!^ go back to top
The Irish Times: 21st Spetember 2012
Mark Hollis and Talk Talk are having a moment. With acts from Wild Beasts to Radiohead tapping the beautifullysculpted and enigmatic corners of the band’s back catalogue for inspiration, the timing of this tribute album (and accompanying lavish art book) is on the money. Nils Frahm, Peter Broderick and Davide Rossi combine for a evocative, tender reading of It’s Getting Late in the Evening; Arcade Fire’s Richard Reed Parry finds interesting threads to unpick in I Believe In You; and Grandaddy’s Jason Lytle’s Tomorrow’s Started is a sturdy, robust reading. It’s also interesting to hear what Zero 7 do to The Colour of Spring, providing evidence that Talk Talk’s visions provided fuel for all sorts of future pastoral electronica moves and feints. facebook.com/spiritoftalktalk
Download tracks : Zero 7, The Colour of Sping; Nils Frahm, Peter Broderick and Davide Rossi, It’s Getting Late in the Evening^ go back to top
The John Peel Centre for Creative Arts: 26th September 2012
Perhaps some people on reading the title of this week’s ‘hidden gem’ will question how ‘Spirit of Eden’ warrants that classification. For some people it is an album, a bit like the musical equivalent of the favourite book you thought no one else knew about, discovered by chance, passed amongst close friends and held dear ever since. ‘Spirit of Eden’ and it’s challenging, but equally captivating, follow up ‘Laughing Stock’ have been the subject of some excellent pieces of writing over the last few years, and the story of their recording and the abrupt end of the band have fascinated music critics and discerning fans alike. However the LP never made a commercial impact, was widely panned by critics on it’s release and, apart from a limited press re-issue this year, is still relatively hard to come by in it’s original format. So for that reason I think many people out there are still unaware of this ‘hidden gem’ and the spotlight needs to be shone on one of the finest and most underrated albums of the last 30 years.
Talk Talk are probably best remembered for new wave classics like ‘It’s My Life’, ‘Such a Shame’ and the later anthemic hit ‘Life is What You Make It’. Riding the wave of the synth pop movement with the likes of Duran Duran, for the first part of the 80s Mark Hollis and co. were a likeable, commercially successful but arguably relatively unremarkable group. 1986’s ‘The Colour of Spring’ was a distinct change in direction for the group with a move towards more organic textures and bold arrangements and in it’s own way is a great piece of pop music. It was also their most commercially successful release shifting over 2 million copies, but it was merely a hint in the direction of things to come.
The success of the ‘The Colour of Spring’ afforded the band a great deal of space and creative freedom from their label Parlophone although no one there expected what was to come. In 1987 Mark Hollis, Tim Friese-Green and a multitude of session musicians set themselves up in London’s Wessex Studios which was formed out of an old converted church. The process was over seen by respected engineer Phil Brown, and for the best part of a year the band were- recording, overdubbing, re-recording, overdubbing new instruments and eventually emerging with ‘Spirit of Eden'.
The first thing you notice about the album is it’s spaciousness and silence. The first minute or so of the album you can hear strings, the occasional mutterings of a trumpet then in the background what sounds like running water and then a meadow, with insects hopping around, and suddenly out of nowhere a guitar shatters the silence and so the rest of the album continues. Any allusion to the bands previous sound doesn’t emerge until during ‘Desire’, about 18 and a half minutes in, out of nowhere a riff explodes, there’s a flurry of cowbells and Hollis cries “that ain’t me babe”... and then it’s over before it really started.
Taking it’s cues from the spiritual and free jazz of the likes of Alice Coltrane, Pharaoh Sanders and Miles Davis as well as the noisy experimentalism of Pink Floyd and early Velvet Underground (is it just me or is the start of Eden and Heroin remarkably similar?), rather than the structured, slightly clinical sound of their earlier releases. Listening to ‘Spirit of Eden’ from start to finish feels like a voyage through an ocean of distant unidentifiable sounds, whispered voices and instruments drenched in reverb interspersed with islands of melody and song. It has been cited as a key influence on the likes of Radiohead, The Verve and more recently Wild Beasts as well as the post-rock sound of Mogwai, Explosions in the Sky and countless others.
It was an album, as EMI/Parlopone apparently identified early on, not suited to singles or splitting up (although ‘I Believe in You’ was attempted with little success). To appreciate it’s true majesty, much like reading a good book, it needs a reverence we rarely give to music, 40 minutes out of our busy lives to listen, absorb and appreciate.
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Record Collector: October 2012
In lieu of a straightforward biography, Spirit Of Talk Talk is a kind of literary patchwork by the fans, for the fans. The first half of the book is a novella-length history of the band by journalist Chris Roberts. It’s a good story well told, but the truly devoted – always the primary audience for lavish books such as these, which also comes in a £150 deluxe edition – won’t learn a great deal from it. The second half of the book offers a gallery of artwork – much of it unseen – by James Marsh, creator of the band’s iconic album sleeves. As brilliant and striking as much of his work is, however, you can’t help but feel that some of it has aged in ways that the music – particularly those maverick final records – hasn’t.
The middle part of the book is framed around a series of reminiscences by friends and admirers of the group – and, inevitably, some are more interesting than others. Engineer Phill Brown sheds some tantilising light on the Spirit Of Eden sessions, and Graham Sutton of Bark Psychosis offers a wry tale of what can happen when you meet one of your musical heroes (or at least think you have), but you do start to wonder whether you really need to know what the members of Turin Brakes – or Sigur Rós’ sound manager – think about the band. What you really want, of course, is to hear from the band’s long-silent founder, Mark Hollis but, for now, Rob Young’s “final interview” with him from 1997, reprinted here in full, is as close as we’ll get.
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The Independent: October 8th 2012
According to Brian Eno, the first Velvet Underground album didn't sell many copies in 1967 but everyone who bought it formed a band.
Reading the wonderfully evocative Spirit Of Talk Talk book while listening to the similarly named tribute CD featuring Bon Iver's Sean Carey, Fyfe Dangerfield, King Creosote, Joan As Police Woman, Jason Lytle and White Lies reinterpreting Talk Talk's brooding, magnificent repertoire, you get the impression that the 1980s group led by Mark Hollis have become Britain's answer to the Velvets.
Unlike them, Talk Talk scored a handful of hits during their decade-long existence, including the resplendent title track from 1984's "It's My Life" – revived by Gwen Stefani's No Doubt in 2003. However, while the yearning in Hollis's voice on 1986's "The Colour Of Spring" struck a chord across Europe, the ECM-like jazz minimalism of 1988's "Spirit Of Eden" and 1991's post-rock-shaping "Laughing Stock" were perceived as commercial suicide.
Yet, over the last two decades, Talk Talk have become a touchstone of the alternative scene. In the book, the Elbow frontman Guy Garvey says, "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," while Robert Plant states that "what Hollis was doing was spectacular".
The Talk Talk-obsessive Toby Benjamin, the driving force behind both Spirit Of Talk Talk projects, was 14 when he heard their debut, 1982's The Party's Over. For my part, I first saw them supporting their EMI label-mates Duran Duran the previous year, and instantly knew there was more to them than the synth-pop of "Today". Born in 1955, Mark Hollis is the younger brother of Ed Hollis – the late mentor of the pub rockers Eddie and the Hot Rods – who helped him form his first group, The Reaction, and co-wrote "Talk Talk Talk Talk", which first surfaced on Streets, a 1977 punk compilation, alongside The Members and John Cooper Clarke.
Benjamin knew unravelling the Talk Talk story would be tricky without the participation of the reclusive Hollis, who gave his last interview to The Wire in 1997, his former bandmates, drummer Lee Harris and bass player Paul Webb – "they tend to follow Mark's lead" – or Tim Friese-Greene, the keyboard-playing producer and co-writer of their last four albums, who simply told him: "I don't do Talk Talk anymore".
Thankfully, as well as gathering tributes from a hundred-plus musicians, he enlisted the writer Chris Roberts and James Marsh, the artist whose iconic designs for Talk Talk have become as important to their oeuvre as Storm Thorgerson's cover concepts are to Pink Floyd's. "Marsh's artwork and the music seem intertwined," says Benjamin. "I cannot imagine The Colour Of Spring without the beautiful moths."
The CD launch in London attracted fans from as far afield as Denmark, while Hollis has reportedly enjoyed the Matthias Vogt Trio's jazz revisiting of "April 5th" but there's little hope of him rekindling the Talk Talk flame. "He was telling a story, he was seeking a kind of minimalistic perfection in his own mind and I think he hit it. His 1998 solo album was a full stop," explains Benjamin.
"Apparently, he can just sit there and play a note on his piano and let it resonate and listen to that note fade away. I don't know where else he could go. Most Talk Talk fans are desperate to hear more but I'm not. I think Mark Hollis gave everything. Talk Talk went as far as they could."^ go back to top