In memory of Mark Hollis. 4 January 1955 - 25 February 2019.
TALK TALK & MARK HOLLIS
Words by Fenner Pearson. Portrait by Mick Clarke, as ever.
I can forgive myself for my early doubts about Talk Talk. For a start, their name appeared to be a ham-fisted nod to Duran Duran, whom they supported on tour in 1981 before they’d so much as released a single. Here, it seemed, was another Classix Nouveaux. Their second single, ‘Talk Talk’ was the first to trouble the charts, a reworking of song released by Hollis’s first band, The Reaction, five years earlier, now refashioned to a formula apparently based on OMD’s early releases. I quite liked it nonetheless.
The follow up, ‘Today’, was a stronger offering, led by Paul Webb’s fretless bass, which anticipated Pino Palladino’s era defining sound (most popularly heard with Paul Young but also Gary Numan). What caught my attention, though, was the middle eight: here was something a little different, less out and out pop, more atmospheric and melancholy. I played that single a lot more. The parent album, ‘The Party’s Over’, gathered dust on my shelves.
The next album, ‘It’s My Life’, was far better, despite leading its assault on the singles chart with the title track. Its seven inch successor, however, was a much stronger proposition, from its sampled opening – taken from animals at London zoo – to its driving synth arpeggiation and chest-tightening chorus, it was backed up by a standout pop video made with Tim Pope that gives a cracking insight into Hollis as a performer. This in turn was followed by ‘The Dum Dum Girl’, which demonstrated Hollis’s deft hand with both melody and dynamic. Watch the video – specifically that part before the music starts – to see the (possibly chemically-assisted) flipside to his artiness.
Talk Talk hit their stride with their third album, ‘The Colour Of Spring’, which announced itself with their finest single, ‘Life’s What You Make It’. Driven by a pounding, repetitive piano figure, the song was adorned with yearning harmonies and David Rhode’s sublime guitar sound. Suddenly Talk Talk had their own sound and swagger, and live concerts from this period reveal a muscularity to the band that had not always been evident in the studio. The third single from the LP, ‘Give It Up’, best represents the album that spawned it, managing to be both thoughtful and passionate. The album itself is almost perfect, opening with the beautiful ‘Happiness Is Easy’ and closing with the epic, climactic ‘Time It’s Time’.
But this evolution in the band’s sound gave no clue as to the truly quantum leap they made to their next release, 1988’s ‘Spirit Of Eden’. The first time I heard this was at my friend Bill’s house/borderline squat in Twickenham. I’d gone ‘round with two new albums: Wire’s ‘The Ideal Copy’ and ‘Spirit Of Eden’. (Given that thirty years later these remain two of my favourite albums makes that quite an evening.) We put on the latter as we were settling down to sleep, slightly stoned. The CD player must have been on repeat; every time I woke during the night, the album was still playing.
It’s the ‘A’ side that is truly groundbreaking, despite Hollis’s assertion that had it been released twenty years earlier, no one would have batTed an eyelid. It starts with hovering strings and tentative brass. Notes push their way forward and retire. Silence almost returns. We are more than two minutes in before the guitar asserts itself, a harmonica howls, the bass and drums ease in. There is, oddly, a groove. And then Hollis sings. It’s a hair-raising, scalp-tingling moment. A verse, and the piece almost crumbles before reasserting itself. We are somewhere that is both simple and unknown. A harmonica solo. Whatever next?
But after nine minutes, we segue seamlessly from the opener, ‘The Rainbow’, into ‘Eden’. You wouldn’t notice. And then the drums come in, reinforced by deep piano chords, tension sustained on the guitar until Hollis’s vocal returns, subtly punctuated by Webb’s bass. The song spirals up to what amounts to a chorus before dropping down into a section that sounds like the darkness before dawn. Yet there is an extraordinary suppressed violence to the song, intermittently apparent and conveyed only on an understated guitar.
For me, thought, the high point of this side of the album comes with its close, ‘Desire’. Starting with a simple, insistent musical figure, Hollis joins in with sparse lyrics, underpinned by Harris’s menacing toms. It is here that the dam bursts as the violence hinted at on ‘Eden’ finally breaks through. By the end, we are spent. The second side could never match the first but that’s not to dismiss it. I just find it’s best appreciated in isolation. The best part is ‘I Believe In You’, which was released as a single. Watch the video. Despite Hollis’s doubts about it, his inner beauty shines through. Incidentally, the b-side, ‘John Cope’ is the only non-album track featured here.
Personally, I would have been tempted to call it a day after ‘Spirit Of Eden’ but Hollis and long-time collaborator and producer Tim Friese-Greene pressed on, releasing ‘Laughing Stock’ three years later. It’s no ‘Spirit Of Eden’, that’s for sure but it is still an amazing piece of work. I’d suggest that ‘Ascension Day’ is the best track on the album although the protracted, atonal, distorted middle section of ‘After The Flood’ is the undoubted highlight.
And that was it as far as Talk Talk was concerned. Webb and Harris released two albums as ‘O’Rang before Webb repurposed himself as Rustin’ Man and recorded an excellent album with Beth Gibbons. Mark Hollis appeared only twice more. Once in 1998, when he released an eponymous album, which featured the wonderful ‘The Daily Planet’ and frail ‘The Colour Of Spring’, and then in 2012 when he recorded the 53 second long “ARB Section 1” for the TV series ‘Boss’.
So there we have it and I don’t think there is much more to say. The heavy music industry manipulation of Talk Talk around the time of the Duran Duran tour and first album resulted in a lot of resentment and anger on Hollis’s side, but one has to respect the fact that the label gave the band time to develop and find their own way. I think what will never cease to astound me is the transition between their second and third albums, followed by the indescribable leap up to making ‘Spirit Of Eden’, which rightly stands alone in the pantheon of great rock albums.
Playback notes: Play in order to tell the story of Mark Hollis through Talk Talk’s recording catalogue, or shuffle and sit back. But never skip genius.
Fenner Pearson is presenter and curator, Electronic Ears. And Talk Talk fan.