Tuesday, 26 February 2019

Mark Hollis

Yesterday at 2.40pm, I got on a train out of Waterloo heading South West. I'd finished an edit and had just walked through central London, soaking up the glorious but unsettling weather. The sight of people in the sunshine, having lunch with smiles on their faces was enough to put me in a good mood.

I use music for many things - to motivate, help me think, send me to sleep, as a barrier to the outside world or as an aid to interpreting it.

Sitting on the train yesterday, I needed something which could help me concentrate on what I was writing which also matched a strange disjointed sensation of mild euphoria.

I reached for an old friend - Talk Talk's "Spirit of Eden". I've written on this blog before about Talk Talk and the effect they had on me growing up. They were a band I loved, but they consciously kept themselves away from the sort of personality cults other artists encouraged. The imagery, in particular, was poor and unwelcoming. As such, I never became a Talk Talk "fan", but the music was enough to keep me devoted to the songs for the best part of four decades.

I felt a physical pang of sorrow when I found out last night that Mark Hollis had apparently died at the age of 64. The idea someone so gifted should have his life stolen away so young seems wrong.

He was, by all accounts, an awkward bugger. Professionally, at least. It seems his main motivation for retiring in his early forties was to be a better father to his children. He was a tortured artist, too, which must have taken its toll - constantly pushing himself to change, achieve and create, despite having no formal training, dazzling voice or obvious musical talent.

Hollis knew he had something, though, and he was sufficiently motivated to make it as a lead singer of a synthesizer band signed to EMI in the early 80s. He collaborated with brilliant people, who could deliver his vision. At first it was downbeat but catchy pop songs, which by turn became gradually deeper, more complex and enriching.

Talk Talk's discography is worth exploring chronologically. The band's first album "The Party's Over" sounds dated, full of cheap synths and cheap dramatics. But every song is stunningly written. Have You Heard The News, about the guilt and depression brought on witnessing someone's death, is full of the unusual chord progressions and melodic twists which quickly set the band apart. The ability to do this within a synth-pop straightjacket made what Hollis was attempting even more impressive.

"It's My Life" was the album which gave Talk Talk their first proper hit. It was tonally slightly more uplifting than The Party's Over and it came with a sense of a songwriter really beginning to stretch his wings. The songs were still pop songs, but they sounded bigger, more epic.

"The Colour Of Spring" and "Spirit of Eden" are two sides of the same coin, to me at least. Years ago I started writing a list of my top ten albums (click here to find out what they are - full disclosure - I grew up in the 80s). "Spirit of Eden" and "The Colour of Spring" were going to be my number one and two. I just hadn't worked out which one would be which.

"The Colour of Spring" needs very little introduction. Pick it out of spotify and you'll be away.

"Spirit of Eden" requires more patience. Obtuse, but undeniably special. If you're not in the right frame of mind it takes a little effort, but it is extremely rewarding, especially the wonderful single "I Believe in You". I've embedded the video at the top of this post.

Then there's the final Talk Talk album "Laughing Stock", which is far more insular. As I said, you're better off starting at the beginning and working your way through.

Thanks for reading this far, and thanks, Mark, for the hours and hours and hours of my life you and your band soundtracked.

I wish you had come out of retirement and done the big set-piece interviews where you dissect and explain your motivations and techniques with the wisdom of years.

I wish you had gone on a series of tours, playing in venues with great acoustics and atmospheres. It would have given your audience a chance to say thank you.

But I suppose we were less important than your music and your family. And maybe that's the way it should be.

I can't believe you're gone already, though. I guess we're all getting old.


Monday, 24 December 2018

Quantative Easing

Got home on Thursday night to discover what looked a bit like pretend money sitting by the pile of loose change I keep near the kitchen radio. I thought this might be a noble gesture by Amy to help ease our way through the credit crunch. But on enquiring, Mrs Wallis told me Amy had finished the chocolate money she had in the fridge and was worried that I hadn't had any, so she decided to make me some pretend chocolate money. She put it by for me when I got in, asking "Do you think he will get it mixed up with his real money?". Today we took the pretend chocolate money to the shops with a view to seeing if we could pretend to buy anything, but while we were out we forgot about it. She might not make it as a forger, but her heart's in the right place.

Friday, 6 April 2018

Criminals: Caught on Camera, Series 5

I am delighted to have signed up to a fifth series of Criminals Caught on Camera for 5Spike. 

Filming starts in a couple of weeks. 

Expect some moody TX cards later this year.

Saturday, 26 August 2017

Top Ten Albums - The Head on the Door

I had intended to nominate The Cure's first singles compilation "Standing on a Beach" as my next top ten album. I found it through the pages of Smash Hits magazine and the JHQ Rheindahlen record library. From the rudimentary Killing an Arab to the accomplished performance of In Between Days, there was a strong and obvious strain of genius running through every song. In 1986, and for the next five years, I had found my New Favourite Band.

The joy of getting into the Cure just after the release of Standing on a Beach was that, until "The Head on the Door", Bob Smith had resolutely refused to release more than one single off any album. Punk, y'see.

This meant that on a compilation of 13 classics, there was a rich back catalogue of albums waiting to be excavated: "Three Imaginary Boys", "Seventeen Seconds", "Faith", "Pornography", "Japanese Whispers" (itself a sort-of compilation), "The Top" and The Head on the Door. All lined up and good to go.

So, for me, Standing on a Beach was the gateway drug to The Cure, and a world of adolescent hero worship which made Robert Smith the only person I've avoided saying hello to (when given the chance at the 1997 Xfm launch party).

Having devoured Standing on a Beach (and the legacy videos from  "Staring at the Sea"), I started working backwards - first stop: The Head on The Door.

This is the best Cure album, the best goth pop album and, in my indie-tainted eyes, one of the best albums ever made. The opener, In Between Days, is as joyous a song as you'll ever hear despite lyrics which begin "Yesterday I got so old, I felt like I could die..."

Close to Me is a finger-clicking, swinging pop tune about what appears to be an awkward drug comedown and A Night Like This is genuinely epic. Easily the best thing on the album despite never being released as a single in the UK. 

There's more - Push is the distilled sound of indie-guitar exuberance and Sinking, which ends the The Head on The Door, contains recurring Smith themes - existential angst, aging and drowning (cf La Ment, DisintegrationFaith, The Same Deep Water As You and, er, The Drowning Man), but deals with them in a very matter of fact, confessional style. The fillers (Kyoto Song, The Baby Screams, Screw) are all perfectly performed/produced pop turns.

It is a great album from a band whose time was just about to come. The Head on The Door's brilliance pushed me further back into The Top, "Concert", Japanese Whispers, Pornography, Faith, Seventeen Seconds, Three Imaginary Boys and then forwards into "Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me" and "Disintegration". And two excellent concerts on the Kiss Me and Disintegration tours in Köln and London respectively. And, very briefly, hair like this:

On a side note, last year I was trying to write a script and ended up initiating a facebook discussion about the best Cure album. I fought THotD's corner whilst battling many Disintegration all-comers. In the end a friend of mine whose knowledge of the Cure is far deeper than mine suggested I might have made him think again, and as he was involved with Bestival, which happened to have the Cure headlining that August, would I care to avail myself of a pair of complimentary tickets to watch Bob in action one more time. Yessir I would. I took a dear friend, met up with my old friend and watched a band winging its way through its fifth decade in style. Thanks to all involved.

The Head on The Door is the album I've chosen to represent my 31 year love affair with The Cure, and I'm pleased to do it on the 32nd anniversary of its release*. Thank you, Bob. I hope if we ever do meet, I won't mess it up.


* Thanks to Matt for reminding me.

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Top Ten Albums: The Bends

Two years after writing up my last top ten album, here is my next. If you want to read about the others, please have a look at the links at the bottom of the page. At this rate I might just finish by the end of the decade.

The Bends is too huge an album to sensibly review. You’d have to be pretty obtuse not to like it. You could call it slightly over-produced if you were being picky, or you could take issue with the angst threaded all the way through it. But The Bends’ angst is tempered by some incredibly tender moments and is nothing compared to the whiny, hectoring angst present on several subsequent Radiohead albums.

All of the songs on The Bends (bar one - “Just” - which I’ve never liked) are phenomenal. That’s 11 out of 12 phenomenal songs. 

You don’t get a hit rate like it nowadays. You didn’t get a hit rate like it then. The main criticism of The Bends as far as I can tell is that it seems to be too perfect, too well-engineered/arranged/produced with just the right amount of emotion, wigging-out and on-the-money songwriting to matter.

Yeah, but… what a record. Its release passed me by, for some reason. I think I was listening to a lot of Nick Cave at the time, and, er, Mansun*. Radiohead were there, on the peripheries of my consciousness, but so were Mudhoney. No one thought Radiohead were capable of pulling something as extraordinary as The Bends out of the hat, so when they did, no one really noticed.

Over the course of 1995, The Bends caught on by word of mouth. It was not a radio record so you didn’t hear it much on the radio. It wasn’t an indie nightclub banger, and it wasn’t really the sort of album you’d put on when you had people round. This was more or less pre-internet, so The Bends got heard because friends started telling their friends about it. And that process was not instantaneous.

Which makes sense. I cannot imagine listening to The Bends in company. Although you could hardly call it a naked or personal album, the range of emotion Thom Yorke produces from that weird, shrieking falsetto and the quality of songwriting and musicianship is transfixing.

By the middle of 1995, purely on the strength of The Bends (I’d never liked ‘Creep’), Radiohead were well on the way to becoming my New Favourite Band. 

Then in September 'Lucky', a song the band recorded in five hours, appeared out of nowhere. It was the lead track on the War Child HELP EP and was one of the best things I’d ever heard. Mysteriously, it completely flopped. 

Two years later Radiohead put out OK Computer and became one of the biggest bands on the planet. I still think The Bends is better. But that’s just me.

If you've never heard The Bends or any of the tracks off it (really?), click on the spotify link which you can hopefully see directly below. There's no bad place to start.


Love - The Cult

The rationale for doing this

Further rationale at the bottom of the This is the Sea entry.

* And Jane’s Addiction. And Britpop. Bloody Britpop.