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The Genius of Talk Talk

Mark Holis’ band Talk Talk transcended their synth-pop (and punk!) roots to become, retrospectively, one of the most admired bands to have recorded in the 20th century. The band recorded from 1981 through to 1991. Hollis’s solo album followed in 98 and then, silence. When you listen to their music in chronological order there is often a feeling that that was the only place Hollis could go. 1BTN’s Steve KIW attempts to unravel the enigma for us. Image: Dr. Space

 

On 25 February 2019 Mark Hollis, the singer, guitarist and songwriter, known to most from his work with the band Talk Talk, passed away. In keeping with much of his career there was little by way of information; he remains enigmatic. Mark, born in Tottenham in 1955, had always been difficult to define. His reluctance to play the pop game, introverted appearance and awkward interviews, scattered with half-truths and monosyllabic answers gave little away. He allowed his music to speak for itself, music that, over ten years, transformed from punk to synth pop to something else altogether. Freestyle, jazz influenced, with oblique lyrics and cultural references, unusual time signatures and unconventional song structures. He was quiet, and often described as reclusive. Mark Hollis was also a genius. A man whose music is now, perhaps, more popular than ever. The time has come for Talk Talk to be recognised as One Of The Greatest Bands Of All Time and Hollis’ genius to be acknowledged.

 

Most people know of Talk Talk, the band. Casual observers know they had a few chart hits in the eighties and people with barely a passing interest in music will probably know the lyrics to It’s My Life, even if they only know it from No Doubt’s risible cover version. Fewer people are aware of the progression of Hollis or his band. It’s a story worth telling.

 

As 1989 came to an end you would have struggled to find Talk Talk in any review of the era and few, if any, ‘best of the decade’ chart found room for their albums Laughing Stock or The Colour of Spring, nor, as the 90s come to a close, did any list of a similar ilk include The Spirit of Eden or Mark Hollis as one of the greatest albums of that decade. It can, and did, take a while for the world to catch up. Back in the punk dominated late 70s, Hollis’ older brother Ed compiled an album for Beggars Banquet, Streets, featuring up-and-coming new wave acts. Martin Rushent, who a couple of years later would produce The Human League’s Dare, and the indie-darlings of Manchester, John Cooper Clarke and Vini Reilly were among the now-notable names who featured. The album also included Talk Talk Talk Talk by The Reaction. Punk fanzine Sniffin’ Glue and it’s “here’s a chord, here’s another, now start a band” manifesto had, of course, been picked up by thousands of kids across the country, including Hollis and his cohorts in The Reaction. Many of the acts on Streets fell by the wayside, as punk music’s limitations revealed themselves, and so did The Reaction’s. Most punk bands either broke up or sold out, or, over the years, did both. The Reaction never made it out of the seventies: Mark Hollis already had other ideas.

 

 

The eighties are close enough for many of us to remember and too colourful to be forgotten. Putting politics aside, they are (a) either the best decade ever (those of us too young to remember the sixties), (b) not as good as the sixties (everyone who remembers the sixties), (c) another decade in the past that’s not as good as the ones from my youth (almost everyone younger than me). I’m in the first group. The early eighties are the absolute golden era of pop music. The Jam, Adam and The Ants and Blondie with their roots in punk all topping the charts; The Specials were at number one on my seventh birthday; my estate buzzed with Bowie inspired Blitz kids and New Romantics who took their lead from club kids like Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet, Culture Club and Bananarama, with their fashions and incredible pop songs everywhere; there was the Sheffield scene with Human League (them again!), ABC and Heaven 17; and then, of course, there was Wham! Every week there was something new and exciting: Soft Cell, Orange Juice, Altered Images, The Mighty Wah, The Belle Stars. It made for an incredibly fertile pop scene… and beyond that the top stars were everywhere, from Top Of The Pops and Smash Hits to the news and tabloid press. Talk Talk were not. When synth bands were all the rage, Talk Talk were just another synth band.

 

Bass player Paul Webb, drummer Lee Harris and keyboardist Simon Brenner had joined Hollis in 1981. After shaping a few songs and performing a handful of gigs they had signed to EMI, the same label as Duran Duran. They supported them on tour, but they never caught the public’s imagination in the way Duran did. It wasn’t until third single Today, with cover art by James Marsh, that the band hit the, then all-important, top 40. The Party’s Over may seem like a curious name for a debut album but, when it was released, in 1982, it already hinted at the end of something: a phase, if not an era. Brenner left and producer Tim Friese-Green came on board to produce 1984’s It’s My Life album and, in time, became Hollis’ frequent songwriting partner and a semi-member of the band.

 

The combination of the band and Friese-Green with Marsh’s eye-catching and beautiful artwork distinguished them from their pop peers musically and aesthetically but their singles failed to reach a national audience. None of the singles made the top 40 – not even the album’s title track (it wasn’t a hit until reissued in 1990) but they did succeed in marking the band out as one heading in a different direction to their peers. Hollis was citing classical and jazz as his influences rather than Bowie and Kraftwerk. As the pop landscape shifted post-Live Aid into an unholy mess of crap cover versions, formulaic throwaway singles from the Stock Aitken Waterman stable and, astonishingly, breakthrough records from the acid house and rap scenes, they began work on their third album The Colour of Spring. When they handed the album tapes to EMI the label demanded they go back to the studio to record a single because “there are none on there” – weeks later, the hastily recorded Life’s What You Make It reached the top 20 and the album followed into the top ten.

 

The Colour of Spring marked the end of another phase for Hollis. He had transformed Talk Talk’s music into something joyful, something unique. And his voice… his voice, his voice – fragile, wonderful, transcendent, somehow peaceful; uplifting and sad at the same time, singing lyrics that offer optimism and hope but somehow recognise the futility of it all. Listen to Give It Up, “gotta give it up, gotta get a second chance”, or I Don’t Believe In You, “I’m trying to find the path ahead, any way you say it, the charade goes on”. Hollis’ voice is honest and true.

 

The Colour of Spring is one of the best albums of the best decade in pop music. With Life’s What You Make It, Living In Another World, Give It Up, and I Don’t Believe In You it was promoted by one of the greatest run of singles released by any band, ever (although their diminishing chart returns don’t support me on this). Their live performances, especially the show captured at Montreux Jazz Festival (you can watch it on YouTube) show a band at their peak, but also on the cusp of something even more incredible… Despite this, they never played live again after 1986.

 

 

The success of The Colour Of Spring gave Hollis and Friese-Green the opportunity to spend longer in the studio, increasingly free of record label interference. Work on what would eventually become Spirit Of Eden has become legend. Attendant musicians had no idea if their contributions would be used, or how. Mistakes would be kept in and virtuoso playing set to one side, unless there was a note or mistake that Hollis chose to keep. Ambient textures and orchestral arrangements feature heavily in a six-song suite “that is as downbeat as it is breathtaking” – the BBC. The Times described Eden as “the kind of recording Pink Floyd never became heavy enough to make.”

 

Arrangements, time signatures and song structures all took on new shapes. Silence and passages of quiet were as important as the notes being played. “Before you play two notes, learn how to play one note”, Hollis said, “and don’t play one note unless you’ve got a reason to”. He held himself to account. Jazz-like in its adaption of freeform improvisation, the compositions take on unconventional structures. In a rare interview to support the album, Hollis described Myrrhman, a song with no repeating passages, as “a movement like this” and drew a straight line with his hands. On Ascension Day, traditional arrangements are replaced by descending verses of ten, nine and eight bars. Hollis’ voice is, of course, integral to everything, although it is used more as an instrument than for conventional singing.

 

Silence became increasingly important after Laughing Stock. By stepping away from the pop merry-go-round and attendant media circus Hollis, deliberately or otherwise, cultivated a reputation as a recluse and a maverick. Seven years passed before his solo album emerged. Mark Hollis picked up where Laughing Stock left off but it barely registered with the general public, instead it became a lost classic. The first 14 seconds of the album, preceding lead track The Colour Of Spring, are intentionally silent. It is a record that demands the listener listens. It is delicate and beautiful and quiet; the sound of a man reaching for something he can’t quite hold on to. It proved to be Mark Hollis’ final album. “I can’t imagine not playing music”, Mark said, “but I don’t feel any need to perform music and I don’t feel any need to record music” and so it proved.

 

 

In the years following Laughing Stock the influence of Talk Talk on other artists revealed itself. Radiohead are probably the best example of a band who expressed their love for Hollis’ work, cited the band as a touchstone for their own progression and whose catalogue really testifies to it. The likes of Nils Frahm, Joan as Police Woman and Hot Chip have all spoken of their love for the band and covered their work.

 

Talk Talk’s legacy continues. Paul Webb, as Rustin Man, recorded the stunning collaboration Out of Season with Portishead’s Beth Gibbons and a solo album Drift Code in 2019. Lee Harris and Webb work together as O.Rang, Friese-Green continues to produce and issued a one-off single as Heligoland. Hollis’ solo album, as with Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock attracts far more attention now than it did at the time; it was reissued again at the end of last year.

 

In November 2019 I was invited to present a posthumous celebration of Mark Hollis’s life at the Royal Festival Hall at London’s Southbank Centre. The event was organised by Toby Benjamin, who, alongside Chris Roberts and James Marsh, co-authored The Spirit of Talk Talk book and album project from 2015. The musical director on the evening was Phil Ramocon, who worked with Mark on his solo album and co-wrote The Colour Of Spring (the song, not the album). Talk Talk collaborators Ian Curnow and Rupert Black (both keyboards), guitarists David Rhodes, Jeep Hook and John McKenzie and percussionist Martin Ditcham, collectively known as The Spirit of Talk Talk band, performed Talk Talk classics for the first time since 1986 and later material from all of the post-86 albums for the first time ever. The show ended with a ten-minute standing ovation that was, undoubtedly, as much for Hollis in his absence as it was for the performers on stage. It was a fitting tribute to a wonderful musical legacy.

 

The final two Talk Talk albums and Mark Hollis’ eponymous solo release continue to set the band apart from their 80s peers. These are records of beauty, grace and timelessness, they scream and whisper, they resonate every time I hear them. They are everything. If you only know Talk Talk from It’s My Life or maybe one of the singles from Colour Of Spring, or worse, perhaps you have been known to muse that your favourite is that one that goes “Letting the days go by” (this happens far too often to be a joke!) – if this is you, get a decent pair of headphones on, dim the lights, find yourself somewhere peaceful to listen to this holiest of recorded trinities and discover the genius of Mark Hollis and Talk Talk.

 

 

Steve KIW can be heard on 1BTN on Thursdays 5pm-8pm

 

 

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