AN IMAGINARY COMPILATION ALBUM : #109 : TALK TALK

A GUEST CONTRIBUTION FROM COMRADE COLIN

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Those of you who have followed this blog for a while will be aware of the debt I owe to Comrade Colin. He. more than any other blogger, inspired and encouraged me to get things going. I never imagined all those years ago that it would lead to all of this but I also never dreamed that I’d become such good friends with someone whose talent for writing is right up there with the best of them. He’s also, being a Professor, by far the cleverest man I know.

He doesn’t too much in the way of writing about music these days – he once said, with conviction and brutal honesty, that he’s always found it a struggle unless he’s utterly miserable in life. Let’s just say that in recent years that the love of a good woman and seeing his kids grow up and become huge success stories have put a near permanent grin on his face.

But he was so impressed with Martin’s ICA on Radiohead (as I knew he would be which is exactly why I drew his attention to it) that he immediately threw himself into a piece on one of his all time favourite groups. And what he’s come up with doesn’t disappoint…..the title alone will give you an idea of the quality, thought and research on offer today. Oh and there’s loads of hyperlinks to click on….it’s very much the Comrade’s style.

Rage On Omnipotent:

an imaginary compilation album for Talk Talk

The late historian, Stanley Elkins, begins his 1959 book Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life by ruminating that: “But is there anything more to say that has not been said already?” Of course, over the following three hundred or so pages of his magnum opus, Elkins ably demonstrates that there is clearly much more to be said about slavery in American life. This was as true, perhaps, in 1959 as it is today. And the wider point is this, if there really is one: the past is as ever-changing and uncertain as the future.

Not to liken the two at all, or be unusually crass in making comparisons, but the reinterpretation, commentary and often heated discussion apropos Talk Talk’s body of work has taken similar twists and turns. There is always more to be said, it seems, when it comes to the work and legacy of Talk Talk. For many ‘serious rock’ journalists (and indeed musicians and record label owners) it all seems to be about two key albums: Spirit of Eden (1988) and Laughing Stock (1991). In some of the opinion pieces you can find lurking in dark shadows of the internet, it’s almost as if there were only two versions of the band, or at least distinct phases: the ‘Euro Pop’ Talk Talk (see The Party’s Over (1982) and It’s My Life (1984)) and the ‘Post Rock’ Talk Talk (the two albums previously mentioned). But, the missing album from this very uncomfortable and rather false dichotomy, sitting in the acoustic middle you might say, is arguably their finest recorded moment: The Colour of Spring (1986).

For me, at least, this landmark album helps connect the dots and is important in understanding the almost biblical journey and staggered evolution that Mark Hollis, Paul Webb and Lee Harris went through before, sadly, calling time on the band in late 1992. Also, it would be remiss not to mention the seminal impact and influence of others; such as Tim Friese-Greene who helped realise the ideas, ambition and sounds that Hollis came to the studio with. Also, as an example, the pioneering work of Phill Brown, as engineer, and a host of ‘guest’ musicians – including the likes of Danny Thompson, Robbie McIntosh, Steve Winwood, Nigel Kennedy and Mark Feltham – whose role and contributions cannot be underestimated. What transpired at Wessex Studios, in the main, is widely recognised as a kind of serendipitous, climatic magic; Brown talks in his wonderfully frank autobiography, Are We Still Rolling? (2011) about the faith placed in ‘chance’ and ‘accident’ (as well as the several hundred overdubs) that went into creating Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock. Darkness enveloped the environment and time seemed to stand still.

But… the spirit of Talk Talk (the title of a 2012 book capturing the appeal of the band as well as a rather hit-and-miss various artists ‘reinterpretation’ album) is not just about the ‘post-rock’. This reverential ‘truth’ that is so often written about the band cannot be complete without a suitable acknowledgement, appreciation and respect for the earlier period. As mentioned, the clues of what would follow are perhaps best found in The Colour of Spring; the shift (not departure) from It’s My Life to this album is arguably much more significant than the readily perceived shift in sound, texture and mood from The Colour of Spring to Spirit of Eden. But that’s just what my ears hear. What say you?

In producing this ‘imaginary’ compilation for The Vinyl Villain I’ve worked very hard to try and completely ignore the years and years of rampant EMI prostitution of the cobwebbed back catalogue. It needs to be said, honestly, that there are some truly horrific compilation albums in existence with the words ‘Talk Talk’ on the spine (at the last count fast approaching twenty or so). Only one I would say, the tellingly entitled Natural Order (2013), had any semblance of respectability – and this was only because Hollis himself took charge of the track choices, the running order, the mastering as well as the artwork (a ‘splice’ of various pieces produced by renowned artist James Marsh, a regular contributor to the visual imagining of Talk Talk in much the same way that Friese-Greene was an audio contributor).

So, what were the adopted rules of this imaginary compilation album and the self-imposed restrictions? With only ten tracks, I was firm and resolute in the need to include two tracks each from the five studio albums (at least partly explained by my OCD nature, as well as the point I made earlier about the mistaken notion, in my view, of there only being two ‘versions’ of Talk Talk – the Euro-Pop and the Post-Rock). Also, as tempting as it was to consider tracks from the various live albums, the bootlegs and the b-sides, I thought it best (important?) to stick to the five ‘official’ Talk Talk albums. This would make things relatively easier in sticking to just ten tracks (or so I thought). Similarly, I have chosen to ignore the solo work of Hollis and his various offerings (whether as vocalist, piano player or producer) to other artists. For much the same reasons, I have also spurned the latter work of Harris and Webb (performing as Orang) and Friese-Greene (whether performing as Heligoland or recording under his own name). This disregard might be considered rather contemptuous and cruel but those selections are best left for another time, maybe.

As an aside, I have added some limited personal commentary to each track selection, in a vague attempt to justify inclusion (fingers crossed).

Side A

1. “Happiness Is Easy” (from The Colour of Spring)

The opening track from the album that, I have argued, holds the key to the multi-dimensional tale of understanding and appreciating what Talk Talk were – and what they would become. Featuring ‘children from the School of Miss Speake’, as well as some seminal Steve Winwood organ and delightful acoustic bass from Danny Thompson, this composition reminds us how good it can be to feel alive. As a cure for melancholia and uncertainty, I can recommend no better song. ‘Gather us in love’, as the children plead.

2. “New Grass” (from Laughing Stock)

For a ten minute song rich in Christian imagery and religious metaphors this track, for me, still counts as one of Hollis’s most direct love songs, full of eternal longing but also restrained desire. Guy Garvey of Manchester band Elbow has spoken unusually eloquently about his love of Talk Talk and especially New Grass (his funeral song of choice, it seems). It is easy to see why. Featuring a beautiful accompaniment, with Harris’s jazzy brushstrokes both fleeting and mesmerising, as well as a treasure of woodwind instrumentation and low-key percussion, this personifies the hope, peacefulness and quiet that can be found in much of the later work of Talk Talk and acts as a cue for Hollis’s future solo work (1998).

3. “Such a Shame” (from It’s My Life)

There had to be, of course, a faint nod to the ‘hits’ and I couldn’t think of a better track to give this obvious concession to. Performed live, for example at the Montreux Jazz festival in 1986, Such a Shame would often grow wings and sprawl to a good eight minutes and more. In truth, it could last a further eight minutes and not lose its often improvised welcoming appeal. With lyrics based around one of Hollis’s favourite novels, The Dice Man by Luke Rhinhart (aka George Cockcroft), it deals with themes close to much of the later work of Hollis, such as fate, destiny, belonging and faith although here there are far less direct religious and spiritual metaphors at play. Best played loud with Webb’s bass turned up.

4. “The Rainbow” (from Spirit of Eden)

“Jimmy Finn is out. Well how can that be fair at all?” To this day I’ve no idea who Jimmy Finn is – or what he did to merit his release from incarceration – but this track, I think, is probably one of those ‘pieces’ that actually merits being called a ‘piece’ (and not sounding too pretentious about it). Again, as with I Believe in You, this song has been covered by other bands in a live setting (such as Shearwater, Jonathan Meiburg another devotee of Hollis), and it illustrates all too clearly what might have been witnessed by fans if touring had been considered an option by the band for the Spirit of Eden or Laughing Stock albums. There is wonderful use of space and silence here, but propelled by Lee Harris’s plodding drums and Mark Feltham’s beautiful effects-laden harmonica. At times it has the narrative of a Sunday School hymn, at other moments it’s a statement of perpetual torment (‘the trial goes on’).

5. “The Party’s Over” (from The Party’s Over)

To close Side A, the gloriously paranoid title track from the first album for EMI, featuring an imploring refrain from Hollis asking us to “Name the crime I’m guilty of”. But what makes this track so special and worthy of inclusion is the devastating chorus where there is a step-change in both tempo and emotion, with Hollis demanding us to “Take a look at the kids…”– there is a feeling of a come-down like no other. On the face of it, the song is an upbeat, almost soulful, New Romantic take on the ‘morning after’ but this belies a deep-rooted uncertainty and the dripping demons of personal doubt. What happens next, you wonder? What happens when the music stops?

Side B

6. “Time It’s Time” (from The Colour of Spring)

An eight minute track that originally closed the 1986 album, The Colour of Spring, but here it opens Side B of our imaginary compilation album. Featuring the collective talents of the Ambrosia Choir, a well-known London choral group, this track is perhaps the definitive clue to the suggestion that what would follow The Colour of Spring would be a record such as Spirit of Eden. Indeed, if you play Time It’s Time and then The Rainbow back-to-back you can almost hear the continuation of unforced notes, jazz melody and classical substance. As with so many other Talk Talk tracks from around this time, the percussion work of Arbroath-born Morris Pert is compelling and vital. The acoustic ‘natural’ state of the musical landscape owes much to Pert, as well as fellow percussionist Martin Ditchham. Playing this on headphones, eyes closed, you can almost see a new dawn rising and the yellow-orange daffodils in bloom on the hillside.

7. “Mirror Man” (from The Party’s Over)

The opening sections of Mirror Man, Talk Talk’s first single, would be later used in the live setting as an acapella pathway into Does Caroline Know?, from the later album It’s My Life. But, as a song in itself it is a rather brilliant (but admittedly not understated) critique on the whims of New Romantic fashion and some of the absurdities with ‘self’, consumerism and 80’s pop vanity. “SEE THE STATE SHE’S IN”, capitalised, of course, in the lyrics booklet, also tells us where Hollis is coming from on such matters. As track 7 of this compilation, I’d argue it’s worthy of inclusion as the first Talk Talk single, but also on account of it’s beautiful live transformation via Does Caroline Know? Quite stunning in showcasing Hollis’s vocal range.

8. “Tomorrow Started” (from It’s My Life)

“Don’t look back until you’ve tried…” After selecting Such a Shame for Side A of the compilation, it could only be Tomorrow Started for the flip side. Again, this song is one of my favourites on account of the way it was interpreted in the live setting (such as in Rotterdam, 1984). The use of space and silence, as well as Webb’s emphasised bass, is sublime and a sign of things to come. Hollis’s intonation and vocal flexibility was taking form here and lyrically there was further evidence of self-doubt and a need for reassurances…“See my eyes, tell me I’m not lying”. Finally, the trumpet solo towards the end is tear-inducing.

9. “After The Flood” (from Laughing Stock)

This is less of a song and more of a religious experience (or as close as I may get to such a conversion at least). Just shy of ten minutes long it features what may qualify as the best malfunctioning Variophon solo you are ever likely to hear (just listen in from about the four minute mark). Almost meditational in nature, the lyrics are rooted in themes of faith, nature and desire, each note strung out in an almost lisp-type fashion. This is possibly the one piece of music I’ve played the most from all my collection, by any artist, yet each time it plays on the turntable I hear something new and vital in it. Each moment, or movement, just isn’t repeated and it isn’t known through familiarity. It takes on new forms at each play, exactly as Hollis intended it seems.

10. “I Believe in You” (from Spirit of Eden)

This is arguably one of the most discussed Talk Talk songs, due to the lyric ‘I’ve seen heroin for myself’, but this misplaced focus rather misses the point. Apparently, the working title of the song was ‘Snow in Berlin’ and this best captures the icy feeling and dark mood of the track. Deliberately pushing and embracing jazz and classical influences, the fragmented approach of Hollis to improvisation, as well as facilitating the use of space and silence, would entirely come into its own landscape here. Also notable is the fact that it has been performed live by the likes of Bon Iver and this has illustrated how it might have sounded if Talk Talk had dared to tour after The Colour of Spring. A mimed video of their last TV appearance is here, playing I Believe in You for a rather startled Dutch audience, if you can possibly bear it.

In closing, I fully acknowledge that your favourite song is likely not featured here, whether that’s Life’s What You Make it, Talk Talk or It’s My Life. But, for me, it has always been the album tracks, on the periphery so to speak, that make Hollis et al ring so true. Taken together, over two sides, I hope this OCD ‘two-tracks-per-album’ compilation does some justice to their rich body of work. It’s a legacy that continues to grow as new musicians take inspiration, and this is reassurance enough perhaps. It’s a pointless and futile exercise of course, but what would we give to hear a new Mark Hollis record? It’s almost too much to bear.

“So effortly blessed…”

COMRADE COLIN