Even for those die-hard Talk Talk fans among us, the band’s final album, LAUGHING STOCK, gets only a rating as “SPIRIT OF EDEN II.” It’s not that folks don’t absolutely love it. They do. But, when it comes to the history of Talk Talk and the history of rock, 1988’s SPIRIT OF EDEN is better remembered as the innovating album, the heroic but not so polite one in and on which Hollis told EMI and the commercial world where to go and what to do when they got there.
Begin obsessed with Talk Talk since 1986’s THE COLOUR OF SPRING, I, too, am guilty of ranking LAUGHING STOCK somewhere in the band’s top three, but never number one. Of course, I’ve always loved LAUGHING STOCK. No question there. What’s not to love? Yet, it’s always been—at least in my mind—a kind of final moment, a release, an innovative remake of SPIRIT OF EDEN, featuring the core that made the 1988 album so successful: Hollis; Friese-Green; and Brown.
I first purchased the CD of LAUGHING STOCK (even before I owned a CD player) at Waterloo records in Austin on the day it came out. Craig Breaden (also of Progarchist infamy) and I were attending a history conference there, and Waterloo was across the river from our hotel. Stunningly, when it came to the band, I actually knew far more than Craig. Believe me, this is important, as no one knows the history of rock from the early 60s to the early 90s better than does Craig.
When we returned home from the conference, much to Craig’s surprise, I recorded LAUGHING STOCK on both sides of a 90-minute Maxell cassette so that I could listen to the album non-stop in my car, not having to wait for the tape to rewind.
I first bought the album in September 1991. Now, on June 15, 2018, I might very well have to admit that I’ve been ranking the albums of the band incorrectly. It is quite possible that LAUGHING STOCK is the finest album of the band, and, if true, consequently, the single finest album of the rock era.
In his extraordinary confessional memoirs, ARE WE STILL ROLLING, Phill Brown offers excellent detail on the techniques, the equipment, and the atmosphere of the recording of the album. I won’t repeat what he writes there, as he has already stated it so beautifully. Suffice it state, though, the band wanted a 1967 psychedelic feel for the studio. Located in the old parish church of St. Augustine’s (how appropriate—but too much to get into for this piece), the band employed only lava lamps, a projector, and a strobe to provide lighting. The band recorded almost every day from 11am to midnight, never really knowing what time of day it was outside of the building. Additionally, the band had incense burning continuously for the seven months they, essentially, lived in the studio.
In an October 1991 Melody Makerinterview, Phill Brown explained:
I thought the sessions for ‘Spirit’ were intense until we got into the latest one. The whole thing was incredibly disorienting. We were working to create a vibe most of the time, and although that sounds very 1967 there were elements that were very psychedelic in the true sense of the word. On ‘Spirit’ we worked with oil projectors in the studio and a great deal of darkness. For the new one it was like that from the start. Oil bubbles breaking on the walls, candles, incense and definitely no daylight. You’d get to the studio and within an hour be totally unable to remember what time was or how long you’d been in there. Very subdued, very strange.
A month later, in International Musician, he added a few more details:
We went into making these albums in a very sort of ’67 way, but with all the advances in technology since to help us create something unique. IN a way, the way in which Mark and Tim choose to work was very reminiscent of the whole ‘60s ‘vibey’ thing – psychedelic, in the true sense of the word. We got into the whole intense atmosphere approach on Spirit, using oil projectors, strobes and candles in the studio to give this very dark, floating environment. On Laughing Stock it was like this from day one. We immersed ourselves in darkness and it was extremely subdued and moody. It was usually 11am to midnight, and that went on for seven solid months. You would walk in from bright sunlight, and within an hour you were so disorientated that you didn’t know what time it was, what day it was, or how long you’d been in there. You could only think about the music.
Granted, it’s not difficult for any of us in 2018 to imagine the scene as something of an opium den (and marijuana, it seems, was not absent), but it should be equally easy to imagine something deeply Catholic and gothic: lots and lots of smells and bells. Psychedelic, yes. Spiritual, yes as well. Full immersion and sacramental spring to mind, too.
When asked about the lyrical meaning of the album, Hollis himself grew incredibly impatient. Why ask this, when, he thought, he had spent considerable time on the lyrics? Just listen to the album, he told several people.“In my lyrics is my life,” he told Oor Magazineon October 6, 1991. “They say a lot more about me than any interview. They are the result of my observations and represent the values I believe, on the humanitarian level.”
Pushed a bit more, Hollis said LAUGHING STOCK is
. . . just about virtue, really, just about character, that’s all it is. I can’t think of any other way of being able to sing a lyric and actually sing it and feel it unless I believe in what I’m singing about. That goes back to the gospel thing. I’m not saying all lyrics have to be about religion but, in a way, there must be that kind of thing in it. (Melody Maker, September 7, 1991)
Additionally, for Hollis, one could never separate the meaning of the lyrics from the integrity of the music. In his explanation of the excellence of both, Hollis might very well be echoing every western great from Socrates to Petrarch to Thomas More.”For things to endure, they need to be in their most pure form,” says Hollis. “I mean, it wears on you if you’re hearing all this echo or something all the time. You just think, ‘Let me hear this thing for what it is’.” (Melody Maker, September 7th 1991)
In my previous two articles on Mark Hollis, I questioned those who thought Hollis’s lyrics to be ironic, not to be taken seriously at all, except as some kind of negative comment on the Christian church.
Let me just cite lyrics from track five of LAUGHING STOCK, “New Grass.”
Reflective in returning love you sing
Errant days filled me
Fed me illusion’s gate
In temperate stream
Welled up within me
A hunger uncurbed by nature’s calling
Seven sacraments to song
Versed in Christ
Should strength desert me
If this is not a confession and a call for forgiveness—through unearned grace—nothing is. Dare I write on a negative note: Hollis has defined the Catholic faith perfectly in 40 words. No modern hymn writer—from dreadful Dan Schutte to the equally dreadful Marty Haugan—has better understood the mystery of grace itself than has Hollis in this one song.
Reflected in returning love you sing
Someday Christendom may come
Evening sun recedent
Set my resting vow
Hold in open heart
Art, not propaganda. Maybe this really is the greatest album of the rock era.