Although he had been out of the public eye for over two decades and had all but retired from music, the sad passing of Mark Hollis, frontman and songwriter of TALK TALK, was a shock to many.
Also featuring Paul Webb on bass and Lee Harris on drums, TALK TALK released a series of highly regarded albums and even had several hit singles such as ‘Today’, ‘Life’s What You Make It’ and belatedly ‘It’s My Life’ which was later covered by NO DOUBT.
TALK TALK were originally dismissed by the press as DURAN DURAN copyists as they shared a label in EMI, producer in Colin Thurston and even had a repeated word name! Hollis was particularly irked by the DURAN DURAN comparisons, stating to ‘Smash Hits’ that their overall sound was “just bass drum” and citing Otis Redding as one of his own main influences.
Although their debut album ‘The Party’s Over’ released in 1982 was an impressive synth flavoured collection that very much captured the sound of the times with its thundering Simmons drums and fretless bass, the serious lyrical overtones of the title track and ‘Have You Heard The News?’ indicated that TALK TALK had more in common with artistically thoughtful collectives such as JAPAN and THE BLUE NILE. But despite his apparent dour persona, Hollis later revealed his sense of humour by employing Tim Pope to direct the band’s promo videos.
Following the departure of their original keyboardist Simon Brenner and an excellent interim single ‘My Foolish Friend’ produced by Rhett Davies of ROXY MUSIC fame, for their acclaimed second album ‘It’s My Life’ released in 1984, Hollis found his ideal collaborator in producer Tim Friese-Greene. On paper, he was an unlikely writing partner as his credits included STIFF LITTLE FINGERS and somewhat bizarrely TIGHT FIT, but it was to be the start of a fruitful partnership.
To give TALK TALK a unique aural template, Friese-Greene exploited the use of a Roland Jupiter 8 for the ‘It’s My Life’ album’s guitar solos. in particular on the solemnly emotive ‘Tomorrow Started’ which also featured jazz trumpeter Henry Lowther and the magnificently powerful ‘Such A Shame’. Although the album sold well in Europe, it was largely ignored in the UK but this overseas success allowed EMI to provide a bigger budget for their third long player ‘The Colour Of Spring’ in 1986.
Hollis had insisted around this time that he hated synthesizers apart from their use in live work and the band had only used them because they couldn’t afford traditional instruments or the session musicians to play them. Hollis strived for a more organic keyboard template, as well as expanding the palette to include electric guitar as on the progressive wonder of ‘Living In Another World’, a children’s chorus on the hypnotic ‘Happiness Is Easy’ and a full choir on the epic album closer ‘Time It’s Time’.
But despite a hit single in ‘Life’s What You Make It’, ‘The Colour Of Spring’ was TALK TALK in transition, mutating from a well-crafted intelligent pop rock combo into something much deeper. Even so, when ‘Spirit Of Eden’ came out in 1988, its uncommercial freeform nature where conventional song forms had all but disappeared was totally unexpected.
Jazz influences came to the fore with the intro of ‘The Rainbow’ sounding not unlike Miles Davis, while the tranquil artrock of ‘I Believe In You’ recalled THE VELVET UNDERGROUND despite being described by Hollis as an “anti-heroin song.” Totally uncompromising in its nature, the album also featured a chamber orchestra and Nigel Kennedy, using space and silence in its non-conformist construction.
While unhappy with ‘Spirit Of Eden’, EMI sensed the band had been ahead of their time and keen to recoup their financial investment, the label released a compilation ‘Natural History’ in 1990. This led to ‘It’s My Life’ belatedly becoming a Top 20 UK hit single. By now, EMI’s relationship with TALK TALK had completely deteriorated but keen to exploit Hollis, Webb and Harris further, a remix album ‘History Revisited’ was issued, with EMI charging the band for the privilege from their unexpected boost in royalties. TALK TALK sued their former label and won, leading to all remaining copies to be destroyed.
Despite Paul Webb leaving, TALK TALK released one more album ‘Laughing Stock’ in 1991 via the jazz imprint Verve revived by Polydor Records. Expanding on ’Spirit Of Eden’, despite the post-rock acclaim, sales were poor and any new fans acquired via ‘Natural History’ were totally confused; TALK TALK disbanded.
Hollis was left bruised and disillusioned by his experiences in the music industry, so he effectively semi-retired to study music composition. But in 1998, there was the surprise of a self-titled solo album where all the notes were written before any music was recorded. Sparse and minimal, it drew from 20th-century classical music and jazz. But it was to be Hollis’ final full length work as he withdrew to devote his time to his family.
A reclusive artist in the mould of Scott Walker and David Sylvian who each also had successful pop careers before venturing into more experimental territory, Mark Hollis leaves a legacy of artistic ambition over commercial success, standing up to the corruption of the music business. But ultimately, he was prepared to abandon everything for tranquillity and his own personal well-being.
Hollis’ songwriting capabilities were apparent from the first TALK TALK album and his varied output has been appreciated at various times by pop fans and serious music connoisseurs. But he was perhaps underappreciated by the wider public in his day… such a shame.
Alan Wilder has been acting as the musical and production supervisor for ‘Spirit Of Talk Talk’, a double tribute album celebrating the visionary band who released a series of highly regarded albums.
Led by the enigmatic Mark Hollis and also featuring Paul Webb on bass and Lee Harris on drums, TALK TALK were originally dismissed by the press for being DURAN DURAN copyists… they shared a label in EMI, producer in Colin Thurston and even had a repeated word name!
However, their first album ‘The Party’s Over’ was an impressive synth flavoured collection that indicated they had more in common with artistically thoughtful collectives such as JAPAN and ULTRAVOX.
Following the departure of their original keyboardist Simon Brenner and an excellent interim single ‘My Foolish Friend’ produced by Rhett Davies of ROXY MUSIC fame, their acclaimed second album ‘It’s My Life’ was released in 1984. This was the first time they had worked with producer Tim Friese-Greene; he was to become Hollis’ future creative partner. Although the album sold well in Europe, it was largely ignored in the UK.
However, this overseas success allowed EMI to provide a bigger budget for their third long player ‘The Colour Of Spring’. Hollis had insisted around this time that he hated synthesizers apart from their use in live work and the band had only used them because they couldn’t afford traditional instruments or the session musicians to play them. So with the benefits of extra finance, they went in pursuit of a more organic sound. This was expanded further with the release of the more freeform ‘Spirit Of Eden’ in 1988 which eventually led to the dissolving of their relationship with EMI.
Sensing the band were indeed ahead of their time, EMI released a Top 3 compilation ‘Natural History’ in 1990 which led to ‘It’s My Life’ belatedly becoming a Top 20 hit and a remix album ‘History Revisited’ which was issued against the band’s wishes.
The story goes that EMI commissioned a series of new remixes and then charged the band for the privilege from their unexpected boost in royalties.
TALK TALK sued EMI and won, leading to remaining copies of this blot in the band’s catalogue to be destroyed. TALK TALK released one more album ‘Laughing Stock’ via the jazz label Verve revived by Polydor Records before disbanding.
Due for release by Fierce Panda in September 2012, ‘Spirit Of Talk Talk’ features acts as diverse as WHITE LIES, ZERO 7, TURIN BRAKES, JOAN AS POLICE WOMAN and of course, RECOIL. There are also contributions from Ian Curnow, David Rhodes, Gaynor Sadler and Martin Ditcham, all of whom worked with TALK TALK.
The double CD package has been designed by original TALK TALK graphic artist, James Marsh, using his cover created in 1983 for a prospective album ‘Chameleon Hour’ which was never released. There will also be a richly illustrated, accompanying book by Chris Roberts, tracing TALK TALK’s evolution and reflecting on their unique journey from synthpop to near-silence.
Alan Wilder took time out from his schedule preparing the RECOIL Blu-ray to chat about one of his favourite bands..
Can you remember how you first discovered the music of TALK TALK and what your initial impressions were at the time?
By default I was exposed to the band’s music from the time of their very first singles and appearances on TV and radio in the early 80s. I liked the sound of the singles ‘Today’ and ‘Talk Talk’ but never heard the first album. In fact I still haven’t heard that album in full.
When their first album ‘The Party’s Over’ came out in 1982, you had not long been in DEPECHE MODE. As both acts were perceived initially as synthpop, did you consider them rivals or comrades-in-arms?
Neither rivals nor comrades, just one of many bands who were around during that period. It was a heady time for us, running about like headless chickens, rolling into town for endless promotion, live shows, guest appearances etc.
We did encounter Mark Hollis a couple of times. A seemingly more miserable person I couldn’t really imagine as we, as young Moders, would be met with a complete blank stare whenever we tried to make conversation. We would typically bump into each other at a European TV studio – I guess they would be miming to ‘Today’ or ‘Life’s What You Make It’ while we pranced around to ‘Stripped’ or ‘People Are People’ on the next stage.
One night I asked the other two why Mark never showed up to any of the clubs we would frequent after those appearances. Paul replied that he was in his room “thinking”. He said that Mark does a lot of ‘thinking’ and added that he himself also ‘thinks’ a bit, while the drummer Lee doesn’t ‘think’ at all 🙂
‘It’s My Life’ showed the band were ahead of their time, especially when the title track only became a hit single belatedly in 1990. Considering ‘synthesizer’ music was still very much in vogue in 1984, why do you think brilliant pop songs like ‘It’s My Life’ and ‘Such A Shame’ weren’t given the recognition they deserved at the time?
Undoubtedly these tunes were underrated, as the band themselves always have been.
They didn’t court publicity and I guess often fell under the radar. I can remember sitting in Hansa’s mix room listening to ‘Such A Shame’ with Daniel Miller and the others – and we were really knocked out with the sound and atmosphere created using sampled animal sounds mixed with synths, sequencers and so on. It was an unusual sonic blend even then – quite different to anything else around at the time, especially with the tense Hollis voice adding to the effect.
Then there was an artistic jump with ‘The Colour Of Spring’ where they ditched most of the synthesisers for more organically derived keyboard sounds and sporadic use of jazz based players and guitars; very modern but traditional at the same time. How did this affect your thinking musically about a ‘keyboard’ player’s role in a band?
I was always bemused by this great need to differentiate between ‘types’ of instrumentation one could use to make records. In DM, we would employ ridiculous ‘no guitar’ rules which, thankfully, went out the window later. I think the directive was installed mainly through fear of being regarded as ‘rock’, or perhaps just ending up sounding like everyone else.
‘The Colour Of Spring’ album wasn’t specific in influencing me/us in this aspect but it was an extremely confident and focused record, with the emphasis still firmly on the songs, and with Mark’s voice maturing with its unique character.
Perhaps subconsciously we could see a group growing rapidly in its sophistication while still retaining a great pop sensibility, all of which would have rubbed off and encouraged the feeling that experimentation is okay, and can still produce commercial results at the same time.
‘Living In Another World’ and ‘Time It’s Time’ are just epic aren’t they? Did ‘The Colour Of Spring’ have any influence in inspiring you to start RECOIL?
No – I don’t really see a link to that. At that point, TT still very much felt like a band, although I was aware of the influence of Tim Friese-Greene and the important partnership which was obviously developing between Tim and Mark.
For ‘Spirit Of Eden’, the jazz influences came to the fore along with a chamber orchestra and Nigel Kennedy. The intro of ‘The Rainbow’ sounds like Miles Davis and conventional song form had all but disappeared. It wasn’t what EMI wanted and it sounds like a completely different band to one from 1984, let alone 1982. What were your first thoughts on this album?
As I said, ‘The Colour Of Spring’ was an excellent but transitional album where one could visibly see the band mutating from well-crafted, intelligent pop into something much deeper and more thought provoking. However, the revelation presented by ‘Spirit Of Eden’ was still totally unexpected.
My first reaction was astonishment to be honest – initially at the use of space and silence, and then at the sheer audacity of an approach which went so far against the grain. It was brutally non-conformist. This has to be one of my all-time favourite albums. Mind-blowingly brilliant in its diversity, atmospherics, musicianship and topped off with ‘that’ voice again which found its true position floating painfully over the top (in the best possible way). Whenever I’m stumped for something to listen to, I reach for this album to restore my faith in all that is good about modern music. It encompasses so many of the things I enjoy about sound, post-modernity, sophisticated arrangements, and eclecticism. Frankly, I’m jealous that I have never been able to make a record which has the confidence to be so exposed.
‘Laughing Stock’ must have confused the few listeners the band would have gained from ‘It’s My Life’ being a hit?
Sadly, ‘Laughing Stock’ was the last TT album (aside from one Hollis solo offering which appeared after). There was a direct correlation between the quality increase and the popularity decrease which says a lot about your average music listener. It was clear that Mark Hollis in particular was never comfortable wearing the cloak of pop stardom. We can all see, with hindsight, where his aspirations lay having now heard the later, definitive albums.
Here was a man clearly very frustrated working within the confines of the format – something I appreciate myself and which led me to start my own RECOIL project in order to alleviate the very same limitations – to explore other musical avenues. Sad to see that in the case of TALK TALK, there was obviously much less understanding of this creative need from their record company who must have panicked as the sales started to decline. I am given to understand that (apart from very recently) relations between Talk Talk and EMI never recovered, with disillusionment and bitterness the inevitable result.
What would you say are your favourite TALK TALK songs?
There are many but, off the top of my head: ‘Wealth’, ‘Inheritance’, ‘Living In Another World’, ‘Such A Shame’, ‘I Believe In You’.
How did you become involved in the ‘Spirit Of Talk Talk’ project?
My involvement began with a quote provided for the book and escalated quite quickly towards the music part of the project, to the point where over the last year I have become executive music producer, offering feedback and advice to many of the artists and to Toby Benjamin, our project leader. Toby kept asking my view on things so I said you’d better employ me as supervisor!
I took on more responsibility just to help him along while he juggled with so many artistes and their management people. I kept out of most of the direct communication and reported my musical findings to Toby, particularly about where versions could be improved, tweaked or edited, and then how they might all fit together to form a cohesive album. Not an easy task with so many to keep happy. He and I didn’t always see eye-to-eye and, personally, I would have included less tracks. Or maybe we could have spread the contributions over 3 discs instead of 2 – which would have reduced the fatigue factor of listening to all in one go. It was an intricate process, and being a charity record, Toby wanted to be ‘charitable’ and keep everyone happy as far as possible. We also had to be aware of costs and assure that the project was affordable and workable for all.
RECOIL has recorded covers of ‘Dum Dum Girl’ and ‘Inheritance’, why did you choose those two songs in particular and what was your approach?
When I was first presented with the cover version idea, ‘Dum Dum Girl’ just kept popping into my head – which I took as a sign – and I could immediately hear a way it might be re-fashioned.
In fact Toby tried to talk me out of that choice and suggested other songs. He wanted me to tackle ‘Time It’s Time’ but I didn’t have any thoughts on that track, or to be more accurate, I couldn’t really imagine a way to re-work it. It can be quite a daunting prospect attempting to do justice to some of the most inspirational music ever produced. I felt ‘DDG’ offered greater scope for re-interpretation (with a female voice this time).
A group of musicians all connected with TALK TALK were placed on hand to help out, so it almost felt like a collective even though I was in charge of the production. Shara Worden came on board and sent me her vocal stems after I provided a quick demo of my initial idea, and then I went about collecting various performances from others in order to put it all together.
With ‘Inheritance’, this came about when Toby suggested getting Linton Kwesi Johnson involved in the project. He asked me how we might incorporate Linton’s voice on the album, so I started thinking about it. It was a pretty left-field idea which I was unsure about for a long time, but I said I would try a few ideas (with no promises) to see if I could make it work. Again – a real challenge. No-one had come up with a decent version of that song at that point, so I dived in.
We recorded Linton up at RAK studios – in record time. He wasn’t actually interested to hear what I had prepared musically but just preferred to recite the words in solo – so I extracted as many variations from him as possible before he shot off to find some sushi for his lunch (LKJ was distracted by hunger that day!). I still have no idea what he thinks of the results but he gave his blessing for the inclusion. The problem was I also needed a voice for the chorus – someone who could really carry off the soaring melody for those sections. I’d already heard Paul Marshall’s voice on ‘Wealth’ and was determined to get him involved on this one. Luckily he was up for it and did a great job…
Was there one you wanted to do but couldn’t because someone else was already down to record it?
I feel we are missing a great cover of ‘Such A Shame’. It was attempted by one artist but rejected (rightly). That is a key song which should have appeared ideally.
One of the biggest names apart from yourself on the album are WHITE LIES who have covered ‘Give It Up’. How has that one turned out?
Kind of electronic pop, if you like that sort of thing…
What are your own favourites on the ‘Spirit Of Talk Talk’ album?
My personal favourites are by Feiner / Dangerfield / Wilson, Jack Northover, Joan As Police Woman, Nils Frahm / Peter Broderick and ZERO 7 – all of whom thought really carefully about how to re-interpret the originals in a completely fresh and exciting way. This is the approach I tried to take with my own submissions too. I am also a big fan of Lone Wolf’s haunting cover of ‘Wealth’.
Have Mark Hollis, Paul Webb or Lee Harris said anything about this project?
Not that I know about. I think they are all aware of it. Mark apparently gave it his blessing but that’s about it.
Do you think this tribute CD and book might go some way into reviving interest in TALK TALK’s music?
One would certainly hope so – this is a really interesting and impressive collection of heartfelt covers, submitted with genuine affection and respect for the TALK TALK legacy. As such, despite any flaws it may contain, it is well worth exploring and seeing how the influence spreads far and wide. It also makes you realise what a great singer Mark Hollis was (is) and how difficult it can be to emulate that aspect. In fact the best versions don’t really attempt to copy the originals in any way but rather re-interpret them.
ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK gives its grateful thanks to Alan Wilder
‘Spirit Of Talk Talk’ is released as a 2CD set and download by Fierce Panda on 3rd September 2012. All proceeds from the release will be going to The Rare Bird Club charity.
A 2019 reprint of the ‘Spirit Of Talk Talk’ book by James Marsh, Chris Roberts & Toby Benjamin will be available in July – featuring a preface by Simon Brenner, additions include new interviews with Paul Webb and Lee Harris; it can be pre-ordered from direct from http://spiritoftalktalk.com/