From Record Collector, December, 1991
JAMES NEISS LOOKS AT THE CAREER OF ONE OF THE MOST INTERESTING ACTS TO HAVE EMERGED DURING THE PAST TEN YEARS
Since 1982, Talk Talk have established themselves as one of the select few bands of the past decade who have succeeded in selling records on their own artistic terms. Indeed, since their "Natural History" collection caught the industry unawares by quietly selling more than one million copies worldwide in 1990, their new album "Laughing Stock" became one of the most keenly anticipated British releases in years.
Yet even as little as two years ago this situation seemed as unlikely as it did enviable. Having evolved from synth-pop lightweights into brooding progressives over just four albums, Talk Talk seemed a spent commercial force to many onlookers after 1988's demanding "Spirit of Eden". However, despite enduring press suspicion and serious record company conflict, the group have emerged - integrity intact - as one of the last decade's most wayward, wilful and fascinating bands.
At the core of Talk Talk is singer/writer called Mark Hollis. Born in Tottenham in 1955, Hollis quit Sussex University and a degree course in child psychology in 1977 deciding instead to return to London and concentrate on songwriting. His urge to pursue a vocation in music was no doubt partly inspired by his older brother Ed's role as manager-cum-producer behind perennial pre-punk favourites Eddie and the Hot Rods, and indeed Mark even roadied for that group before forming his own band, the Reaction. With Ed's assistance, the Reaction secured a deal for a lone 45 with Island, who released "I Can't Resist" in June 1978. The single has since proved popular with mod revival collectors.
Of even more interest is the track the group contributed to the "Streets" compilation on Beggar's Banquet the following year. This song, co-written by Mark with his brother, was none other than a prototype "Talk Talk", albeit in a very different arrangement to the track which would evolve into one of Talk Talk's finest moments.
Following the disintegration of the Reaction in 1979, Hollis took time out to concentrate on writing more sophisticated material. Finally, in 1981 Island Music were impressed enough to book him some demo time, and to help out on the sessions Ed Hollis recruited drummer Lee Harris and bassist Paul Webb. Rehearsals with Hollis's new material went well, and after Simon Brenner was introduced on keyboards the four-piece band duly became Talk Talk. A formal publishing deal with Island subsequently allowed the group to refine their sound through extensive demo sessions, some of them overseen by veteran Rolling Stones producer Jimmy Miller.
Keith Apsden left Island Music to manage the group, and after witnessing their live debut in London in October, BBC DJ David Jensen offered the band a session slot on his Radio One show. A version of "Talk Talk" from this session later emerged on a limited edition of the same song's commercial 12" release. Impressed by the Island demos and further live shows, EMI signed the group a month later, although unfortunately the company - still flushed by the runaway success of Duran Duran - were intent on moulding Talk Talk in the same image.
While they never completely embraced the fading New Romantic trend, Talk Talk's name drew unenviable Duran parallels, which were cemented by the hiring of Colin Thurston to produce the first album, as he had done with Simon Le Bon's band. Perhaps surprisingly, EMI's doppelganger strategy failed to break Talk Talk - although it took a pair of stalled singles for the truth to dawn. After "Mirror Man" had flopped, "Talk Talk" itself only managed a modest chart placing of 52 on the back of a national tour supporting - no prizes! - Duran Duran. Both critically and commercially it was hardly an auspicious start, although the two singles retain a measure of interest since they both feature non-album tracks on the flipsides.
The band's first album, "The Party's Over", appeared in July 1982, and reached 21 after a powerful third single, "Today", finally provided Talk Talk with a persuasive No. 14 hit. The LP went on to sell over a quarter of a million copies, although an extensive American tour supporting Elvis Costello produced only modest results. Unhappy with Thurston's production, the band themselves had taken control of the sessions halfway through, but despite this bold move the album contained little that suggested Talk Talk were a force to be reckoned with. Bathed in solid slabs of synth and thudding Linn drums, much of it now sounds naive and dated. While "Talk Talk" and "Today" are still fresh, several other strong songs were ill-served by their arrangements. Tellingly, this would be the first and last Talk Talk album on which writing credits were shared by the entire band. The group's new found success prompted EMI to issue a remixed single of "Talk Talk", the song this time climbing to No. 23 in October. "Another World" (backed with "Candy") also appeared as a single in Germany, an odd choice (even given its obvious disco appeal, and the term isn't used flatteringly) as this Paul Webb composition was easily the weakest track on the album. In any case, only completists need seek copies out, since neither side differs from the album versions.
Meanwhile the first of several profound upheavals within the group was taking place. Eager for Talk Talk to become a looser, more flexible creative unit, and anxious to shake off EMI's marketing straitjacket, Hollis elected to abandon synthesisers as the musical foundation of the band. Exit the hapless Simon Brenner, and as his role was now obsolete, the reshuffle reduced the band to a nucleus of just three - another odd move, on paper at least, since it left Talk Talk consisting of a singer, bassist and drummer.
Several new songs were recorded with Rhett Davis soon afterwards, yet although the non-LP single "My Foolish Friend" made No. 57 in March 1983, and clearly showed that the band were maturing, nothing further was heard for almost a year. Instead, Hollis spent 1983 writing new material and assembling a floating pool of musicians to record the second album, a process completed by the recruitment of producer Tim Friese-Greene, whose arrival proved to be a watershed in the band's career. Friese-Greene (an engineer-turned-producer who had already guided Blue Zoo into the charts) was not just an accomplished keyboard player but also a compatible personality - which was useful, as the internal chemistry of the band was already proving to be more important to Hollis than mere technical prowess. So strong was the rapport between artist and producer, in fact, that the pair swiftly co-wrote two tracks which completed - and indeed made - the LP: "It's My Life" and "Dum Dum Girl". Although this writing partnership has been responsible for every Talk Talk track released since 1984, Friese-Greene chooses to remain officially outside the group, Hollis instead describing him as an "Al Kooper-type figure".
"It's My Life" appeared as a single in January 1984, peaking at a disappointing 46 despite being one of the finest songs in Talk Talk's repertoire - a fact underlined six years later when EMI chose it as the first trailer for "Natural History". The album, released a month later and also called "It's My Life", was a vast improvement on their debut, with the two Hollis/Friese-Greene collaborations and Hollis's own "Such A Shame" and "It's You" providing the highlights. "My Foolish Friend" was a notable absentee, an omission only made stranger by the inclusion of its inferior flipside, "Call In the Nightboy". More importantly, the album demonstrated that Talk Talk were becoming adept at slower, more pensive material, even if the featured versions of "Renee", "Tomorrow Started" and "Does Caroline Know" would all be eclipsed by subsequently-released live versions.
Friese-Greene's production imbued the material with an ambitious sound and arrangement which, though less obviously commercial than before, seemed far more natural for the band. Guitars also appeared on a Talk Talk record for the first time (courtesy of ace sessionman Robbie McIntosh), though in fact the distinctly Floydian solos were performed on treated keyboards. Despite its promise, however, the LP was still the work of a band in transition - no doubt one reason why it stalled at a disappointing No. 35 in the U.K. Another was that the group, already deeply embarrassed by EMI's past image-mongering, now began to cultivate a resolute non-image which would only deepen as time passed.
The second single from the album, "Such A Shame", drew heavily on Luke Reinhart's cult novel "The Dice Man" for inspiration, a fact flaunted on both the sleeve and video. EMI's attempts at charting it included a double-pack 7" in a poster sleeve, featuring a bonus single of Jimmy Miller demos dating back from June 1981. Frankly the three tracks ("Talk Talk", "Mirror Man" and "Candy") are unremarkable, though some may prefer this stringless version of "Mirror Man" to the take on the first LP. What really makes "Such A Shame" attractive on 45 is the flipside, "Again, A Game . . . Again", a superb track which, unaccountably, has never been reissued despite matching anything on the album.
Despite the relative failure of the "It's My Life" LP in the U.K., mainland Europe took the band to its collective heart and it went gold all over the continent. A remixed version of "It's My Life" also climbed to No. 35 in the States, allowing the album a five-month ride on the U.S. chart and helping EMI recoup the hefty £250,000 recording budget. The group capitalised on this success with an intensive touring schedule, reflected in a single issued on EMI Holland coupling two live-for-TV tracks cut at the Veronica Rock Night in September. Both "My Foolish Friend" and "Tomorrow Started" come highly recommended, easily outstripping the studio originals, though strangely EMI didn't release them in the U.K. Since several other countries did, however, neither track is particularly hard to find, with the German-pressed remix maxi-single of "It's My Life" remaining the best source. CD freaks can search out the Dutch 1990 reissue of "Such A Shame" (released in place of "Life Is What You Make It" in Europe), on which this version of "Tomorrow Started" appears as a bonus.
After a third single ("Dum Dum Girl") stalled at No. 74, all went quiet, and the group fell into a familiar pattern of releasing and touring albums in two-year cycles. Later in the year, however, "It's My Mix" appeared in Italy and America (ST 6542) and became a steady seller on import. This mini-LP featured the following extended and/or remixed versions: "Why Is It So Hard?" (Extended U.S. Remix); "Talk Talk" (12" Remix); "My Foolish Friend" (12" Remix); "It's My Life" (12" Mix); "Dum Dum Girl" (12" Mix); and "Such A Shame" (12" U.S. Remix). Though any such collection is of obvious interest, nothing here bar "Why Is It So Hard?" qualifies as a must-have. The track (recorded for Michael Apted's movie "Firstborn") is hardly classic Talk Talk but it doesn't deserve its current obscurity. As for the others, none even remotely improve on the originals, but sadly EMI weren't listening - as we shall see ...
After writing and recording throughout 1985, the band's stunning single "Life's What You Make It" appeared in January 1986. A Top 20 placing earned the band a memorable appearance on 'Top Of The Pops', and propelled their third album, "The Colour Of Spring", to No. 8 a month later. The LP, which eventually went gold, was a record of rich textures and rare emotional depth which featured eight brilliant Hollis/Friese-Greene compositions and absolutely no padding. After the widespread success of the second album, EMI allowed the group a bigger budget and an extended schedule, and by now their synths had been abandoned in favour of a rich Hammond organ sound courtesy of Steve Winwood, while the stellar supporting cast also included Danny Thompson, David Rhodes and two choirs, with Robbie McIntosh and Ian Curnow surviving from "It's My Life".
The extensive session credits for "The Colour Of Spring" belied the 'arranged freeform' approach to recording which Talk Talk were now able to indulge. With a certainty of approach that seems remarkable in the current musical climate, Hollis and Friese-Greene initially compose skeletal melodies together, after which Hollis alone pens the lyrics. The duo then lay down contributions from a diverse selection of guest musicians and select the best of these before constructing a final arrangement. This is a jazz ethic largely inspired by the likes of Ornette Coleman and Can, whereby distinctive elements meet and diverge many times over; and it's also a discipline very much dependent on the personalities of the musicians. Regardless of their ability, if a player doesn't seem in tune with Talk Talk's nebulous vibe - whether creatively or personally - their contribution is rapidly erased.
Both "Life Is What You Make It" and its successor, "Living In Another World", were issued in two different 12" form, "Life ..." gaining an "Extended Dance Mix" after the original version had charted, and the latter suffering an overblown "'U.S. Remix" as well as a limited 7" picture disc release. The album also spawned two more singles as the year wore on, though thankfully both "Give It Up" and "I Don't Believe You" escaped further studio tampering. The 12" format of the latter actually features an excellent remix of "Happiness Is Easy" by Paul Webb and Lee Harris, its funky-drummer backbeat and spaced-out ambience still sounding startlingly contemporary in 1991.
All four singles feature excellent B-sides, in fact, with 'Life ..." carrying the best of them in the haunting "It's Getting Late In The Evening", easily one of the best pieces the group have recorded and one that clearly pointed the way towards their next album. Equally stunning was the live version of "Does Caroline Know?" on the flip of "I Don't Believe In You", recorded at the Montreux Jazz Festival in summer 1986, on which the extended eight-man line-up fleshed out this previously unremarkable song quite beautifully, even adding a verse of "Mirror Man". Interestingly, this track also documents the only concert to date at which Tim Friese-Greene has performed with the group.
Talk Talk launched a major world tour to promote the "Spring" album in April, and one ultra-collectable item is a BBC transcription disc recorded live in 1986, although a price tag of £200 makes any copy something of an indulgence. Strangely, for a band so popular in mainland Europe, no vinyl or CD bootlegs have yet appeared; and while an '86 show at London Hammersmith Odeon appears to have been filmed with a view to commercial release, to date only one track, "Give It Up", has emerged on the "Natural History" video.
Although "The Colour Of Spring" brought the group to the brink of a major international breakthrough, Talk Talk again retreated into seclusion. During this period Mark Hollis quit urban London for rural Suffolk, and it was to be another two-and-a-half years before EMI took delivery of "Spirit Of Eden", an album which sent blood-pressure soaring sufficiently at the label for it to be transferred onto Parlophone instead. "Eden" was the first album for which Talk Talk had been given an open budget and schedule, yet although it took a year and a small fortune to record, the results were far from commercial. The six tracks were edited down from many hours of improvisation to form a suite which defies categorisation - the solemn atmospheres and free-form dynamics evoking comparisons as diverse as Miles Davis, Debussy, Neil Young, Delius and Eric Satie. Ultimately, however, it sounds like nobody else, and though to these ears "Eden" is both a bold artistic statement and brilliant music, its dark-night-of-the-soul ambience presented a stern challenge to casual listeners. Mainstream it wasn't, but then chart placings and rotation airplay were the very last considerations for a group whose promotional plan initially included no single, no video and no tour. Finally Hollis relented to all but the last, though that didn't stop the album peaking at 19 and sliding rapidly after that. Sadly, the eventual single, an edited version of the moving anti-heroin song "I Believe In You" failed to chart, though the inclusion of an otherwise unavailable flipside in "John Cope" ensured that it sold to the faithful.
To many onlookers, it seemed that Talk Talk had committed commercial suicide with "Spirit of Eden", and that in ploughing their lonely furrow so deep they had also buried themselves. Though EMI were keen to retain the band, their contract had now expired, and so when the band left for Polydor it was hardly surprising that their former label chose to cut their losses by issuing a singles collection in May 1990. What was a surprise, however, was "Natural History" quickly taking up residency in the Top 40 and logging up over a million sales in less than a year.
Beyond the fact that it contains much music of rare craft, it's difficult to pin down quite why the album should have taken off so spectacularly, though the prevailing musical climate of "anything goes" must certainly have worked in its favour, with Talk Talk's music now praised as timeless instead of being damned as unfashionable. Also, OMD's 'Best Of' package had been a similarly unexpected smash two years earlier, and the fact that too many of Talk Talk's singles had proved to be near-misses in the U.K. possibly provided some perverse foundation for their belated success. More useful was the hit status enjoyed by a re-released "It's My Life", which made the Top 20. Yet while the compilation served the band perfectly well, it sadly contained no surprises. Completists can check out the American CD (which adds the two live tracks from the "It's My Life" single reissue), but it's a pity that EMI didn't add any outstanding flipsides to the European running order. Indeed, the fact that several of these are not available on CD does the group a grave injustice.
Also worthwhile is the video counterpart to "Natural History" a fascinating and frequently humorous document thanks to Cure confederate Tim Pope's extensive involvement. Considering that the band seem unlikely to play live again, however, it is a shame that "Give It Up" was the only in-concert clip that the compilers saw fit to include, for sadly the nature of "Spirit Of Eden" and the new "Laughing Stock" material effectively precludes any future live performances. Since Hollis has no desire to simplify the material, or tour on the back of oldies, Talk Talk currently look like being about as regular an attraction on the live circuit as the Beatles after Candlestick Park.
Perversely, the runaway success of "Natural History" resulted in more strife than celebration for the group, for as sales rocketed skyward so too did EMI's avarice. When "It's My Life" was reissued it seemed only natural to commission a contemporary remix to appeal to the all-important club audience (though radio stuck by the original), yet even a brief glance at the discography printed below reveals a case of marketing gone mad. EMI subsequently commissioned a slew of remixes for each successive single, and while these new versions doubtless stimulated sales, few them did the band any creative favours. Certainly Talk Talk were quick to disassociate themselves from them, and since they're not sanctioned (and since the list seems endless) I'll gloss over them here, except to say that easily the worst of the bunch is the "Talk Talk Recycled" medley a crass segue of four reissued singles which suggests since it appeared on the flipside of "It's My Life" - that EMI had their masterplan prepared long in advance. Promo-only CD copies (TALK 90) currently fetch £10.
Another wasted opportunity was the multitude of 1986 vintage live tracks used to pad out the CD singles. Though the programme began well enough with excellent versions of "It's My Life" and "Renee", the quality soon dropped, with several cuts even being faded prematurely. Though this was no doubt in keeping with the BPI's 20-minute guideline on singles, why we have to suffer, say, a truncated live take of "Living In Another World" in favour of 10 minutes-plus of Julian Mendelsohn's yawnsome remix of the same song is anybody's guess.
Worse was to come the following year with "History Revisited", a remix album with which the band were so disgusted they promptly sued EMI. "It's a distortion - more like History Reinvented", manager Keith Aspen commented, yet if anything he's being generous. "History Revisited" is a shabby collection which has about as much to do with Talk Talk as any posthumous, re-tooled Jimi Hendrix LP, and its appearance makes a mockery of Parlophone's 1988 claim in "Q" magazine that "Talk Talk require sympathetic marketing". While the idea of a remix album isn't bad in itself, the fundamental flaw is that Talk Talk got most of their complex originals right first time around. The songs simply don't work with a different beat slung underneath, regardless of the BPM factor. At best the results sound like bizarre jams, and at worst like S/A/W flipsides. Indeed, "History Revisited" almost smacks of revenge on the part of their former label, the only creative remixes present being Gary Miller's "Such A Shame" and "Talk Talk" and BBG's "Life Is What You Make It", while the only sound reason to invest is the inclusion of the Harris/Webb mix of "Happiness Is Easy", which still sounds more contemporary than many of these latter-day reworkings.
If EMI really couldn't resist squeezing more money from the back catalogue then surely a collection of quality live tracks and B-sides would have made a more than adequate alternative. Better still, they should have let Talk Talk release "Laughing Stock" and get on with their career.
On a more positive note, "Laughing Stock" appeared in September on the Polydor offshoot Verve (nominally a jazz imprint), swiftly confounding those punters who were expecting material similar to Talk Talk's 'recent' hit singles. Indeed, the album is, if anything, even further removed from the mainstream than "Spirit Of Eden", sounding far rougher and frequently bordering on the very furthest reaches of free-form abstraction. The LP again features just six long Hollis/Friese-Greene pieces: "After The Flood" stands out as the most immediately accessible track, with the press quick to pick on Hollis's already infamous one-note guitar solo as a neat encapsulation of the band's working methods.
Also like its predecessor, "Laughing Stock" features nothing even remotely resembling a hit single. Nonetheless, Verve have bravely released a clutch of three limited edition picture CDs, all featuring at least one new song or alternate take. And while it's doubtful that either these or the album will match the astonishing sales enjoyed by their back catalogue, it's a safe bet that Hollis and Talk Talk - now apparently minus Paul Webb - will continue to create innovative, challenging and genuinely moving music for a long time to come.
Thanks to Keith Aspden and Mark Hollis for their help in the preparation of this article, and also to EMI for supplying the discography.