Saturday, 15 May 2010

Talk Talk

When I was 9, I used to record each episode of Top of the Pops off my parents' mono telly, through the in-built microphone on my mono tape recorder, which I had lobbied to get for my birthday for about a year.

Recordings would not last very long, because the number of tapes I could afford was limited, and tapes would not last very long, because I would generally play them to bits, or at least until my tape recorder got bored of playing the thousandth poor quality rendition of Tears for Fears' Mad World and chewed up yet another C90.

Although crappy pop music was fairly ubiquitious, decent pop music, for a boy of limited means, was very hard to find, and certainly wasn't available on the radio.

When we moved back to Britain (my dad was in the army, and most of my childhood was spent stationed in West Germany), my options for hearing decent music didn't change much. I would still have TOTP and my mono tape recorder, but waiting to hear a particular new song on the radio was torturous, and the only other option -  Dial-a-Disc from British Telecom, was equally frustrating as you had to listen to the top 10 songs in order, down a phone line. At 10p a minute. Pricey even now, come to think of it. If this sounds like the dark ages, it was.

In 1982, my baffled parents began to think that perhaps my addiction to pop music might be something that they could respond to, even if they couldn't quite understand it. So for my birthday or Christmas, they bought me a 7" record. This would have been a breakthrough event even if it was by the bloody Wombles, but it wasn't, it was Talk Talk's second single, "Talk Talk".

Largely dismissed by critics as derivative bollocks, I remember liking it at the time, but was unimpressed by the band's white suits, which they wore, uncomfortably, on the sleeve's back cover. To be honest, I also didn't like the big nose of the serious-looking singer, Mark Hollis.
Talk Talk. Mark Hollis second from left.
I had no further interest in Talk Talk for 4 years. I was vaguely aware of their second album "It's My Life" which came out in 1984. A cracking title tune, and a quite a few others, including "Dum-Dum Girl" and "Such a Shame". But as a band, they were a bit... meh...

Then the album "The Colour of Spring" came out, in 1986. I was 13. The repetitive piano refrain of the single "Life's What You Make It" was an instant hook. Building on the interest the previous album had stoked, it became a world-wide hit.

Talk Talk - The Colour of Spring
I loved the song. I didn't buy the album, but I do remember thinking, "Ooh. Good pop band deliver good pop record. Again. Despite big-nosed, serious-looking singer"

A year later, in 1987 (now 14 - and listening to a lot of Smiths and The Cure)  I took "The Colour of Spring" out from the RAF record library at JHQ Rheindalen, taped it, and for the next 6 months it soundtracked my life. Whatever I did, was done to the amazing songs on that record. It was a such a brilliantly-produced, perfectly-written and performed album, and it made me reassess everything I thought I knew about music. It was depressing, odd, uplifting, poppy, epic and weird all at the same time.

At the time no-one seemed to appreciate how good The Colour of Spring's second track "I Don't Believe In You" was, but I did, and over time it became my favourite song.

Years later, in 1997, I got a job at Xfm, and became a broadcast assistant to the producer Phil Ward-Large, who was a one-time John Peel producer at Radio 1. During an impromptu off-air natter in the studio he mentioned he rated I Don't Believe In You as one of his top 5 greatest songs of all time.

I had never heard ANYONE mention that song in company before. It was nice to hear one of John Peel's producers, who, let's face it, has probably heard one or two records in his time, laud that song so highly. I remember glowing with validation.

In 1988 Mark Hollis was about to play the trump card. The record that would take him (from hundreds of thousands of worldwide sales and mild critical acknowledgement) into a realm of his own, was "Spirit of Eden".
Talk Talk - Spirit of Eden

I was still at school, and Talk Talk had achieved that sense of a band who could go stratospheric. You could not listen to The Colour of Spring and not be aware that you were listening to a special talent - yet not that many people (relative to consumers of middle-of-the road chart pop) had heard of them.

But, because of Talk Talk's refusal to be remotely interested in the music industry, no one talked up the next release. In retrospect, it was probably because the record company knew it was unsellable, and ditched the promo budget.

We, the mug punters, at the time, did not know this. We just knew a band which kept getting better and better, was about to release their new album.

Spirit of Eden was a complete game-changer. I still maintain that as a cohesive artistic endeavour, it's not as successful as The Colour of Spring, but then I'm a pop tart, and will always love a good tune over a bit of self-indulgent bollockry*. That notwithstanding, Spirit of Eden contains a couple of moments which take it far, far beyond anything The Colour of Spring manages. And in their genius, those moments effectively redefine the parameters of pop. No, really. It's not just me saying it.

Whilst I had some idea that this was an amazing record, I was also 15, and when the Stone Roses came along, I left that strange, haunting, Spirit of Eden sound behind for many years. I followed Talk Talk in the music press, and listened with interest when the undeniably inferior "Laughing Stock" album came out, but detached and contemplative music is not what I really needed for my student years.

As I got older, I kept returning to Talk Talk, and The Colour of Spring, and the Spirit of Eden. With the advent of iTunes I re-connected with the music and started tracking down more Talk Talk material, whilst also trying to find out what happened to them.

I know that Mark Hollis effectively disbanded Talk Talk after Laughing Stock, releasing a spare and minimal album under his own name in 1998. As someone brought up on the epic pop of "Time It's Time" (the last, eight-minute track on The Colour of Spring) I had no desire to hear an artist quietly disappear up his own fundament. Unfortunately subsequent reviews suggested he had. In the course of writing this I've since listened to snippets of that last album online. It sounds amazing, so I'm going to buy it and spend some proper time with it.

Now, Mr Hollis, is that a smile starting there?
(Photo: Michael Ochs archives)
I also found a Talk Talk oddities album called "Asides and Besides" which is 70% horrible and 30% extraordinary. "John Cope", which was the b-side to the first single off Spirit of Eden is a better song than anything on Spirit of Eden. I can see why they didn't include it, because all the songs on Spirit of Eden relate to each other, but it's astonishing to find out they wrote and recorded a better song which didn't quite make the final cut, and it's just been floating around in the ether for the last 20-odd years.

Another good (if unsophisticated) song on Asides Besides is "?" which is the b-side to the original 1982 single "Talk Talk". I listen to it a lot now. There's also "Again a Game Again" which I think was an early one-off single, and then there's another b-side called "It's Getting Late in the Evening" which is so far ahead of its time, it makes you realise that if Mark Hollis had a more useful skill, he would have been picked up by a top secret government agency and pressed into the service of his country.

As far as I am aware, Mark Hollis is musically completely inactive. He "retired" more than ten years ago, and has remained retired ever since. No one seems to know why. In an era when people make it their business to track down influential recording artists to interview them or offer them vast sums of money to perform, it's odd that no real information about Mr Hollis has surfaced. I can't be the only person who wants to know.

If you only ever listen to one record by Talk Talk, make it the one below - "I Believe in You".

I sincerely hope you like it.


Postscript: I wrote the above post in 2010. In 2012 a Talk Talk tribute album came out, put together by those excellent people at Fierce Panda. The Guardian article to mark it takes the story on a wee bit, with information on Mark Hollis' latest movements.

2019 update: I've written a new post here, paying tribute to Mark Hollis on hearing he had died.

* Re-reading this 9 years after writing it, I've changed my mind and now prefer Spirit of Eden. Damn those critics for being right all along.


Wednesday, 12 May 2010

The Sonys 2010

Further to my last post, I think the above photo goes some way towards showing why I love doing the webcast reporter job at the Sonys. Yes that is Sir David Attenborough and me in the "winners interview area", which is basically a small area of branding next to the Grosvenor kitchens.

I have no recollection of the moment, I've listened back to the interview and can't identify it from the audio, but there it is, a photo which looks to all the world as if me and Sir David are sharing some sort of hilarious joke. He is, as you won't be surprised to hear, a very nice man.

The night itself was damnably hard work. It's usually tolerably hard work, but the new set up meant concentrating even more than usual. If you want to hear the interviews Marsha Shandur and I recorded on the night, have a gander at the Sony Radio Academy website.

Highlights include a long interview with Jarvis Cocker about 6Music. I haven't interviewed him since approaching him in a cafe at the Queen Elizabeth Hall a few hours before the John Peel tribute gig in 2005. He was lovely then. He was equally patient and gracious on Monday night.

It was also great to collar Moz Dee, the man who gave me a break when he was commissioning editor at 5live and who is currently steering TalkSPORT to new heights.

I interviewed a few other gold winners, a few celebs and a few people who we thought would have something interesting to say about their nomination or about the industry as a whole. I was chagrinned (is that even a word?) to miss Nihal, because he is a lovely bloke, a very talented broadcaster and now a Sony Gold award winner (getting admiring props from Victoria Derbyshire on 5live the following day for his wonderful acceptance speech).

Nihal and I were also once colleagues at the legendary Media Village offices in the late nineties before either of us had got anywhere near the BBC, and I haven't really had a proper chat to him since, other than to occasionally swap texts as his career has continued its meteoric rise. Nihal is one of the good guys and I am chuffed for him.

The most annoying aspect of the night was seeing loads and loads of friends and ex-colleagues and being unable to do anything other than give them a quick hug/kiss, garble something about doing an interview with Frank Skinner or whoever and then run off, promising to trying and find them afterwards.

Usually there is the prospect of relaxing with a few drinks afterwards and catching up with people then, but as I had to be up at 4am to gear up to the show I got a cab back to Walton as soon as I had finished. I arrived home at 12.46am.

Just as I was walking out with my coat, I saw my best man, my former agent, and one of my radio gurus standing near the bar engaged in what looked like the mother of all gossip sessions. I solemnly shook their hands and made my way outside. Next time..!

One final word about another interviewee - Trevor Nelson was given Sony Broadcaster of the Year.  It is the main award of the evening. Before being asked to the stage the winner has to endure the screening of a film which takes the audience through every significant moment of their career, complete with dodgy publicity shots and fawning quotes from their peers.

Trevor apparently had no idea he was going to get the award, and after watching his entire working life pass before him, he gave a very moving speech, right off the cuff. He described his early radio days, which involved allowing the then pirate station Kiss FM to move into and broadcast from his flat. This, unsurprisingly, led to his then girlfriend moving out. He paid tribute to the significant people in his life before revealing that whilst he was getting ready for the Sonys his mum told him she had just been given the all-clear from cancer.

In between fielding multiple congratulations Trevor gave me an interview in which he revealed his love for The Goon Show and (like Jarivs Cocker earlier) paid tribute to his inspiration (and I suspect, still the inspiration for many music broadcasters in the room) John Peel.

Thanks to Alfi Media for their great production job on the webcast (and taking both the above photos), Marsha and Sam for being there, and profound thanks to Zafer, the event producers.


Wednesday, 5 May 2010

The Sony Radio Academy Awards 2010

I'm working at the Sonys again on Monday 10 May. For the last 4 years I've helped with the live webcast, variously presented by Emma B, Kevin Greening, Margherita Taylor and Richard Allinson. This is what I wrote after last year's event.

In the past, the presenters would do the set piece interviews before the awards were being handed out, and during the dinner breaks. They would also commentate, Eurovision-style, on the proceedings as they happened.

My job was to go and report from the floor, interviewing various Gold winners and the telly celebrities who often show up.

In previous years the all-round radio/podcasting/talent-wrangling/tune-spotting genius that is Marsha Shandur from Xfm has looked after the interactivity - reading out emails and texts into the webcast.

Radio 1's equally gifted Sam Bailey has also been there for as long as I have, working on updating the awards website as the gongs are handed out, and making sure none of the computers on site fall over.

Given the amount of equipment which spends an evening whirring away in one of the Grovesnor House Great Room antechambers, Sam often has quite a task on his hands.

This year the organisers are taking a different approach. Reflecting the phenomenal rise of twitter and the way we now use it to participate in events, our focus will be on the interactive element of the webcast. Sam will be taking over the twitter feed and working the emails and texts. I will still be reporting from the floor, primarily to take photographs and record interviews which will stay up on the awards website.

As it is pretty simple to take the interviews live on the webcast feed (which is up for people to listen to and watch the awards themselves), my interviews will go out live.

This year Marsha will also be live reporting from the floor. Between the three of us we will keep tabs on everything that is happening at the Sonys and become the eyes and ears of the webcast audience participating online. 

I've always had the best of both worlds with the Sonys. It's a wonderful opportunity to see many many old friends and colleauges who are making their way in the industry. My working brief has also given me the opportunity to buttonhole the most interesting people in the room and ask them annoying questions which they have always, very generously, made time to answer.

My favourite interviewee ever was Mark Radcliffe, but for a surreal vignette I will never forget being backstage in 2007 trying to interview Paul Gambaccini about his Sony Gold whilst a (presumably) very drunk Carla Bruni (then a completely unknown singer/songwriter with an album to flog, now wife of the President of France) draped herself all over a flummoxed Gambo, alternately sticking her tongue in his ear and proclaiming to everyone in the duskiest of voices how "bay-ooti-fool" his voice was.

The vibe she gave off was pure and simple attention-seeking ambition (albeit devastatingly sexy attention-seeking ambition) and even at the time I remember thinking "He's not playing hard to get, love, he's er... genuinely not interested."

Ten years before that, my first ever proper boss, Shabs (then MD of a small music PR firm, now UK President of Virgin Records - see the second number 8) in this blog post), took me to the Sonys when I was a starry-eyed rube straight out of student radio. He knew how much it would mean to me just to be in the same room as people I'd been listening to for years.

I want to continue working at the Sonys for as long as they want to have me, but now I have a radio show of my own, nothing would give me greater pleasure than being there on merit, as a nominee. That's the hard part.