Mark takes a look at a New Wave classic from one of Britain’s most underrated bands.
Who made it?: Talk Talk, Tim Friese-Green (Producers), EMI.
Who’s on it?: Mark Hollis (Vocals/Piano/Keyboards), Paul Webb (Bass), Lee Harris (Drums), Tim Friese-Green (Piano/Keyboards).
Recorded at: N/A.
Release date: March 1986.
The list is both distinguished and exhaustive and includes the likes of U2, Madonna, David Bowie, Bjork and – latterly – the Arctic Monkeys. Got it? Yep, we’re talking the ability to reinvent. But whilst all of the above have developed a knack for surfing the zeitgeist, none evolved with the astonishing scope of Talk Talk, who went from common or garden synth-poppers to inventing a new genre in just six years and four albums.
Having formed in 1981 from the remnants of writer-vocalist Mark Hollis’s embryonic punk project The Reaction, Talk Talk soon came to prominence as part of the New Wave movement. Very much the bridesmaids, they were denied the same profile as their more celebrated contemporaries, most of whom never strayed too far from their roots, pitching camp within the relatively narrow confines of synth-pop, industrial and Euro-disco. Debut album The Party’s Over was typical of its genre, although both the title track and “Candy” hinted at more sophisticated songwriting tendencies. The band imported influences from further afield for follow-up It’s My Life, which seamlessly assimilated elements of funk and jazz into what was a less synth-reliant recording, due in part to original keyboardist Simon Brenner having been replaced by multi-instrumentalist Tim Friese-Greene (whose songwriting and production skills would see him gradually become – with Hollis – the band’s creative hub).
It was with the release of The Colour of Spring in 1986 that the band’s conformist shackles were fully shaken off. The pressure to avoid alienating existing fans with a head-scratching opening track must have been substantial, particularly as (other than perhaps the sultry “Tomorrow Started”) there wasn’t an obvious spoiler on its predecessor. To their credit, “Happiness is Easy” was pure statement of intent. No bold pronouncements here, though, the opening half-minute consisting solely of a sparse, repetitive drum pattern with occasional percussive intervention, before Webb’s bass slides in, flanked by minimalist piano chords and barely-audible organ. As with all the best recipes, ingredients are added only at the appropriate times and in the optimum quantities; strings fade in to take the pathos up a notch, joined by a children’s choir which lends an innocent air to a track heavy on religious connotations and later accommodating a brass-funk workout. The “less-is-more” approach continues with “I Don’t Believe in You” which – despite being a more formulaic arrangement, still soars to heavenly heights. “Life’s What You Make It” was a top twenty single and consequently one of the better known tracks, with its hypnotic, low-register piano riff and accompanying video of the band serenading assorted bug-life in a forest in the dead of night.
As you do.
“April 5th” is a work of fragile beauty and essentially an alternatively-named title-track, as Hollis implores “come gentle spring/come at winter’s end/gone is the pallow from a promise that’s nature’s gift”, backed by further exhibits from their now-signature collection of “instruments that most people have never heard of” (dobro or variophon, anyone?). The up-tempo “Living in Another World” also charted (#48) and amply demonstrates why I will never accept that there is a finer writer of a bass-hook, living or dead, than Paul Webb.
“Give it Up” keeps the standard high, with penultimate track “Chameleon Day” most heavily hinting at the more organic arrangement processes to come on later albums. But closer “Time It’s Time” is a fitting sign-off; eight-and-a-bit minutes of magnificent opulence, replete with choral chanting that wouldn’t sound out of place in an Omen film. Never has a collection of a mere eight tracks proved so satisfying, yet never once does it encroach on the extraneous or indulgent. The album reached #8 in the UK charts and remains their biggest-selling album (outside various collections, remix albums and live recordings) and explains the admiration of future luminaries such as Radiohead, DJ Shadow, Portishead and Elbow’s Guy Garvey. Far from being simply a staging post, The Colour of Spring is a highly accomplished recording in its own right.
Both Talk Talk and The Colour of Spring are, respectively, in my top ten bands and albums of all time, for reasons I will explain by revisiting the Arctic Monkeys’ parallel via the opinion-cleaving AM. Because, behind every fan who considers its West Coast-infused R&B leanings to have produced a ground-breaking piece of work, stands another who deems Alex Turner’s LA affectations a betrayal of the band’s “trackie-bottoms and trainers” Northern working-class roots. The concept of comfort in familiarity will be embraced by anyone who holidays in the same resort every year, or always orders the sweet and sour pork balls. But as heartbreaking as it is to look on forlornly as a cherished artist grows apart from us, it’s a two-way street; sometimes it is the fan whose tastes evolve and, if you develop a fondness for shrimp foo yung and can’t get it from the “Peking round the corner”, then you find another takeaway.
Talk Talk was one of the bands which contributed heavily to my immersion in early-80s synth-pop and – as my own tastes developed – they stayed with me all the way. Crucially, by the time they’d cultivated the genre-defining Spirit of Eden (itself followed by the even more heavily-improvised Laughing Stock), I realised not only that the band would never have completed that journey without making The Colour of Spring, but that – in all probability – I’d never have discovered post-rock without Talk Talk.
Sometimes you need to trust your heroes to take you somewhere you never knew existed.
- The band broke up in 1991. Singer Mark Hollis released one solo album before retiring from the music industry. Founding bass player and drummer Paul Webb and Lee Harris played in a couple of bands together; de facto fourth member Tim Friese-Greene continued in the business as a musician and producer.
- The bands Weezer and The Gathering covered their song “Life’s What You Make It” and No Doubt scored a hit with a cover of “It’s My Life” in 2003. Lights recorded a cover of “Living In Another World” in 2012.
- A tribute album and anthological book, both titled Spirit of Talk Talk, were released in 2012. The book includes all the artwork James Marsh did for the band, and hand-written lyrics (by the band). The album (a double CD) includes covers by various artists, proceeds going to the conservation organization BirdLife International.