Magic Jewball

all signs point to no


Turns out, it IS his life, don’t you forget

Filed under : Music
On June 6, 2010
At 12:00 pm
Comments :Comments Off on Turns out, it IS his life, don’t you forget

Hey, you know what’s better than one random post about Talk Talk? Two. Yes, we’re giving Talk Talk the Depeche Mode treatment this week here on JBall. But see, I wasn’t satisfied after the last post. I realized I know so little about a band I like very much. For starters, I don’t own any of their records and while I know now that their lead singer had the kavorka, I didn’t even know his name until I looked it up for that post. Why do I know so little about them and what should I know about them?

Let’s start with what I do know. I know that they have lots of songs I like but none of them sound the same. That’s pretty amazing, isn’t it? I mean, Talk Talk (the song) doesn’t sound like It’s My Life which doesn’t sound like Dum Dum Girl which doesn’t sound like Life’s What You Make It which doesn’t sound like…. wait, what came after that?

That’s the really important question with Talk Talk. If you’re a student of pop music (well, a pretend student), you can probably name ten or twenty bands that had big hits and then there was that one album that didn’t sell and maybe one more that sold even less and then they started fighting and then their label dropped them (or in reverse order) and they they broke up. But that’s not really what happened to Talk Talk. I mean, ostensibly it did, in a literal sense, but the story is more complicated than that. And after extensive research in the wee hours of the morning, I have the answers, as much as we know them, anyway.

So Mark Hollis turns out to be a pretty interesting guy. And the reason Talk Talk songs don’t sound the same from one album to the next is the same reason Radiohead songs don’t; because the writers want to try new things and they progress. And that’s not a coincidence because lots of people think Radiohead were influenced by Talk Talk. Now personally, I try not to take everything I read about labels vs. bands at face value because I’ve worked at labels and quite often, in fact most of the time, the goal of the bands and their labels is the same: to sell a lot of records. So when the label gets blamed, as they invariably do, I take that with a grain of salt. But this time, it seems like the band did get the short end of the stick.

Talk Talk had troubles with their label from the start. The label, EMI, who happened to be Duran Duran’s label too, thought they had another band in that vein and tried to fit Talk Talk into the same mold. They brought in Duran’s producer, sent them on tour with Duran, and molded their image into one they didn’t especially recognize. But after that early experience, each album Talk Talk made was a little more experimental and moved further away from the band EMI thought they were getting. They dropped the synthesizers in favor of organic instruments. They made their sound a little jazzier. Life’s What You Make It, my favorite song by them, if you recall, has no chorus and is actually just the same bassline repeated over and over. But it worked and was a hit so no one seemed to mind too much.

In fact, that album, The Colour of Spring, was such a big hit around the world that the label gave them a lot of money and all the freedom they wanted to create the next record. If you know the scene in 24 Hour Party People where the label has sent the Happy Mondays abroad to record their next hit album and after much time and expense they send back a cassette with a rambling, vocal-free tune and the label people go bonkers, well, I can only imagine what it was like for the staff at EMI. See, Talk Talk went away for fourteen months and recorded a haunting, glacially-paced, multi-instrumental, freeform, genre-busting, unclassifiable, single-free suite of six long tracks (imagine a Yes album, but even less commercial). I mean, have you heard It’s My Life? No Doubt covered it! I certainly couldn’t have seen this coming. And I can’t imagine any label in 2010 allowing an artist to have free reign in a studio for over a year on the company’s dime without any sort of feedback of what they were doing. Amazing.

Now if you’d asked me what happened to Talk Talk after the Colour of Spring last week, I think my answer would have been, “I believe they put out an album or two that were really bad and then they got dropped and now work at carwashes.” But in fact, they put out an album that’s considered a huge, genius masterpiece! If you look up reviews both formal and by regular joes, you get things like “a singular experience,” “one of the greatest albums of all time,” “sounds like no other record ever,” “the most remarkable piece of recorded music in my experience,” “the album I listened to while my child was being born,” “changed the way I listened to music forever,” and so forth. Pretty freaky, huh?

But you know, EMI weren’t all that entranced. And as a person who was part of the formula of marketing records (single to radio, video to MTV, etc.) I absolutely know why. I think I love this line from a review best, “it is the kind of record which encourages marketing men to commit suicide.” They say the A&R guy cried when he heard it, and not in that good way, more in that “I’m going to lose my job” way. And one of the things you count on is the band’s promotional efforts and this band didn’t want to promote it at all. I read lots of interviews with Mark Hollis from that release and mostly he answers with things that all mean, in effect, “the music speaks for itself and I have nothing to say.” And he didn’t want to have pictures taken or to do videos or tour either (Talk Talk never toured again after 1986).

This is all really staggering to me. The record didn’t stiff because it was bad, but because it was too good! It was gorgeous but simply unmarketable and maybe a little difficult for the casual listener. In fact, I’m listening to it right now for the third time in a row. It’s hard to describe and I am not a reviewer by nature. I point you instead to all the rapturous reviews on Amazon. One person even came back a year later to say he still listened to it every day.

Later, as you might have predicted, Mark Hollis and Talk Talk went through several lawsuits with EMI (including one suit by the label on the basis that the delivered album didn’t sound enough like Talk Talk) and eventually moved to another label. They then put out another, even less commercial record which some people say is better but others say is not quite as good. After that, they broke up. In 1998, Mark Hollis put out a solo album and then was never heard from again. Well, maybe not that dramatic but apparently, he no longer makes music, lives in obscurity with his family, and almost no current pictures of him exist.

What I think is amazing about Mark Hollis is that, more than Frank Sinatra or Sid Vicious, he did it his way. And when people asked him about his old music, he wasn’t ashamed of it, he just had moved on and had new things to say. And when he felt like making music, he made brilliant music, and when he didn’t, no commercial pressure has made him do it. When the label made him make a commercial video, he lip-synched ridiculously. When they put out greatest hits and rarities packages without his approval, he made the artwork a bird in a cage and a bird in a noose sitting on a golden egg.

Everywhere I looked for things about Talk Talk, places like Rolling Stone and Mojo and other critics would all say, “one of the most underrated bands ever” and “we pray they come out of retirement.” Lots of bands of that era are: the Pixies, Yaz, PiL, OMD, etc. But somehow, I don’t anticipate that Talk Talk will be hitting your local shed this year or next.

So what do I think of Spirit of Eden, the unmarketable Talk Talk masterpiece? On the third listen I will say that it’s not like anything I’ve ever heard and I certainly wouldn’t have dated it to 1988. It’s really, really beautiful…. we’ll see if it changes my life.

We all know the usual level of commentary on YouTube, but I swear to you, the comments on the below six tracks are different. And man, this post is a lot longer than it looked in my text editor. To explain this, I quote the following YouTube comment on the last track: “Anyone else think its funny that Talk Talk videos have an inordinately high concentration of posts that essentially make an attempt to provide some musical-historical analysis of Talk Talk’s growth as a band? Talk Talk really has scholars for fans.” I guess I throw my hat in that ring.

Stream Spirit of Eden on YouTube: 1. The Rainbow, 2. Eden, 3. Desire, 4. Inheritance, 5. I Believe In You, 6. Wealth