/ Life’s what you make it, EMI, 1986
I couldn’t put my finger on just what was it that I heard in Elbow which bit by bit lured in me to their soundworld, until I read of Guy Garvey’s affection for the work of Talk Talk. That was it – Elbow had something of The colour of spring about them, if not yet Laughing stock. That spiritual element, given an earthier crust, a secular and neighbourly affection for the part of the world in which the song writer has grown up. An eye that sees the beauty in the ordinary and everyday, and kindred minds and hearts which jointly strive to communicate that beauty in the music they create together.
Elbow are on a musical journey, and I’m optimistic that they have some considerable distance still to travel. But how did Talk Talk’s metamorphosis from New Romantic grub to avant-garde butterfly come about? And was it in fact such a jump? I’m still inclined to think that it was, for while many musicians journey to places far from their starting point, the best comparison in Mark Hollis’ case is probably the travelling done by Scott Walker, from fashionable pop stardom through artistic seriousness and then on all the way to the end of the line – avant-garde pioneer taking in influences from French chanson and the sinewy ends of 20th century classical music. We might even venture to suggest that Talk Talk’s voyage from ‘Mirror man’ to ‘Runeii’ is comparable with the one made by the Beatles in journeying from ‘Love me do’ to ‘I me mine’. Of course the Beatles changed the musical landscape as they moved across it, while Talk Talk’s influence has necessarily percolated down the years slowly, latently. They themselves had as guides or cautionary tales all the examples of artists subsequent to the Beatles who had kept or lost their integrity along the way, and yet they still managed to make a false start. Barely anyone else has managed to attain ever-increasing levels of veneration after to all intents and purposes sacrificing their self-respect at the outset. But strip away the New Romantic garb and musical dressing, and you have in the early singles songs not a million miles from ‘Such a shame’ and ‘Life’s what you make it’. And from those songs, it’s a small step on to ‘Time it’s time’ and ‘I don’t believe in you’ on The colour of spring, and from there to ‘I believe in you’ and ‘The rainbow’ on Spirit of Eden, and finally to ‘Myrrhman’ and ‘New grass’ on Laughing stock. ‘Talk Talk’ and ‘Today’ are certainly juvenilia, but having decided not to be A&R puppets, and having made the all-important acquaintance of Tim Friese-Greene, Hollis and his new partner relaxed into their song writing and allowed themselves to mature, despite the ongoing distraction of a series of battles with EMI, well-documented in this Record Collector piece from 1991, and arising with grim inevitability from their determination to control their own destiny.
Of course this is assessment in hindsight. While to the group it must have been a case of increments worked for at a much slower pace than was visible to the listening public, to the latter it appeared that the group were making astonishing jumps with each subsequent LP. I first heard Laughing stock on the first evening of my first visit to Paris, as accompaniment to a meal with my hosts; I found it hard to speak much French that night, so astonishing was the music (and so intoxicating the wine). Even the sky conspired to play its part, the colours of the summer sunset visible from the west-facing 5th floor window of my friends’ appartement like those washing the sky behind the tree of exotic birds on the album’s cover. ‘Lifted up…’, as Mark Hollis sings on ‘New grass’. His voice moves effortlessly from whisper to proclamation on ‘Myrrhman’, while the musicians star sail and Albert Ayl’ through ‘Ascension day’, and the whole is as unique and other-worldly as Robert Wyatt’s Rock bottom. Lyrically Hollis wrestles with doubt, belief and sin as might a saint before he or she grounds his or her conviction and attains a state of grace. There is a mood similar to the fevered asceticism that John Crace gave to his fictional recreation of Jesus’ forty days and nights in the wilderness in his novel Quarantine. Certainly there is something biblical about the record, what with the aforementioned songs and ‘After the flood’. In a 1991 interview with Les Inrockuptibles Hollis rather contradicted himself by saying that yes, his words were religious, but weren’t born of any specific religion, only humanism. Perhaps something got lost in translation, but since he also said ‘it’s the heart that sings’ we have a clearer sense of where he’s coming from. Notably released by new record company Polydor on Verve, an imprint usually reserved for jazz, it is the culmination of the Hollis – Friese-Greene partnership, recorded in a way that would have made Joe Boyd and John Wood proud, keeping in the ambience of the room, the moment, the process.
Guy Garvey’s nod to Talk Talk specifically mentions ‘It’s getting late in the evening’, with which song Hollis and company were on the verge of turning into the group that made Laughing stock, though it was recorded at the time of The colour of spring, before they’d even got to Spirit of Eden. It starts out like the Flying Lizards’ version of ‘Money (that’s what I want)’ played on a ukulele and more rudimentary percussion than even the Lizards used. (Looking up the spelling of ‘ukulele’ I discover that the word is derived from the Hawaiian, and its literal meaning is ‘jumping flea’, which is perfect.) The Lizards-esque loop plays underneath the song, bleeding into it, or creating a collision between parts of two songs that the group might have recorded at various stages of their history. It reveals a group pushing for a future artistic breakthrough even at the very moment that they were realising their first.
‘It’s getting late in the evening’ is one of the songs which makes the Asides and besides collection worth the investment. Admittedly listening to the first disc in full means wading through extremely tedious extended versions and remixes of Talk Talk’s singles up to and including those culled from The colour of spring, the group having no answer to the record company marketing wisdom of the time (short of recourse to law, a route they eventually took), that everyone wanted a really long version of a four minute pop song, one that stretched it way past breaking point and left it bereft of any heart or dynamic.
Selective downloading may well be the answer, as the songs towards the end of the second disc are those which bring most joy. It begins however with a demo of their second single, ‘Talk talk’, which reveals a considerably more organic sound than the finished product, one that makes it much easier to connect the early steps of the group with their later progression, their throwing off of record company shackles. The colour of spring offcuts include ‘Pictures of Bernadette’, a throwback to the group Talk Talk no longer were, and the meandering melodiousness of ‘For what it’s worth’ and ‘John Cope’. The chiming guitars of the latter in particular run ‘It’s getting late in the evening’ close; notes are sustained church organ-style on an inexpensive-sounding keyboard against a slow heartbeat rhythm on the drums, and the whole has the sublime mix of acoustic richness and space that became Talk Talk’s signature.
‘That’s the key — space — it helps to build and resolve the tensions. Silence is the most powerful instrument I have.’ In interviews Mark Hollis spent a lot of time talking about silence. It’s a preference that informed his music-making and led inevitably to the penultimate silence of retirement, a state to which Hollis effectively gave himself after his solo record in 1998 and a couple of subsequent appearances on the records of others. Written and recorded without Tim Friese-Greene, Mark Hollis goes beyond what was achieved with Laughing stock; indeed the song writing partners went their separate ways because together they didn’t believe they could make any further progress. Whether you enjoy Mark Hollis will depend on your regard for Laughing stock as unsurpassable, your tolerance for musicians blowing random or unexpected notes on wind instruments, and for pieces with whispered introductions that rarely rise substantially above those whisperings. Lyrically Hollis is more elliptical than ever. ‘A life (1895 – 1915)’ – in spite of the clue as to subject matter in its title – makes the Sea And Cake’s Sam Prekop look verbose and given to stating the bleeding obvious; in total there are only fourteen words and only half of those help to confirm that the subject is a soldier who died in World War I. Silence was winning out, and this was Mark Hollis signing off. But before he went he treated us to ‘The gift’ and ‘The daily planet’, songs which would not have been out of place on Laughing stock, with their cyclical rhythms, improvised playing and spontaneous takes within the confines of considered arrangements, and that yearning, reaching voice, proving the truism that the voice is the first instrument. And the last.
Aside from Elbow, and Tim Friese-Greene’s subsequent music under the Heligoland moniker, it’s difficult to assess the scale of Talk Talk’s legacy. While Spirit of Eden and Laughing stock were out on their own back then, Talk Talk’s musical spirit is now something approaching one kind of artistic norm, while the side of Talk Talk that was uncompromising and pioneering is to be found in the radically different musical universe of Portishead. In the long hiatus between Portishead and Third, it made some kind of weird sense that Beth Gibbons should team up with Talk Talk’s bass player Paul Webb a.k.a. Rustin Man to create the autumnal beauty of Out of season.
More than anything Talk Talk were instrumental in freeing pop music from its own constraints, and serve as one of the prime examples of where vision and sheer bloody-mindedness can take you. Many who wish to follow Hollis in rejecting rather than accepting the constraints of pop may not ever be aware of him, but he has undoubtedly helped make their lives a little easier, and the infinite possibilities of music more realisable.
- It’s getting late in the evening
- Within Without – a website dedicated to the music of Mark Hollis and Talk Talk