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.



  1. Your comments are really interesting. I bought The Party's Over when it was first released - I think I was about 13 and loved it. Talk Talk have stayed with me since but I somehow could not get into Laughing Stock and Mark's solo album (am obviously not cultured enough!) I could send you the solo album if you haven't already bought it. Could send to business address.


  2. Thanks Andrea - that's a very kind offer, thank you. I'll download it though, I have some iTunes credits to spend.

  3. No problem.