Let me just admit, I’ve been jealous of my excellent friend, Kevin McCormick (and fellow progarchy editor), for years. He’s been the proud owner of an original edition of Talk Talk’s special box set of b-sides from LAUGHING STOCK for some time. The set goes under a variety of names including LAUGHING STOCK CD SINGLES as well as AFTER THE FLOOD set. I’m guessing that Verve wanted it to be somewhat mysterious.
The cool thing–and remember, CDs were pretty new when this thing first came out 27 ago–is that the three CDs form a complete James Marsh picture.
Mark Hollis, MARK HOLLIS (Polydor, 1998). Tracks: The Colour of Spring; Watershed, Inside Looking Out, The Gift; A Life; Westward Bound; The Daily Planet; and A New Jerusalem.
If Mark Hollis wanted to show that he was no longer a member of Talk Talk, nothing could be quite so revealing as the album design of his first and only solo album, MARK HOLLIS. Gone was anything resembling James Marsh’s lush psychedelic landscapes, aching with sacramental if surreal beauty. Gone, too, were the hand written lyrics. Instead, if you find it attractive, the minimalist cover looks like something Apple might design as a part of its product line. If, however, you find it not so attractive, it looks like the label of some kind of generic grocery store product from the late 1970s: “Beer.” The white background supports a bizarre black and white photo. I’ve stared at this photo many times, and I still don’t have a clue what it is. Frankly, it looks a bit like roadkill on display in a museum. The label on the cd booklet merely states “Mark Hollis” in a plain font. On the actual jewel case, there are two stickers. One states “Made in the U.K.” The other states “Formerly of Talk Talk. 537 688-2.” I presume the latter stick refers to Hollis, not to the U.K.
As with LAUGHING STOCK, MARK HOLLIS came out on Polydor. When Hollis had originally signed to the label, the agreement was for four albums total. Considering that MARK HOLLIS came out in 1998, twenty years ago exactly, the chance of Polydor getting two more out of him seems more and more remote. As to what Polydor thinks of Hollis, it’s impossible to state. Clearly, the label knew what it was getting after SPIRIT OF EDEN. If they didn’t, they were fools, and I’m guessing they’re not fools.
Twenty-five years ago this fall, progarchist editor Craig Breaden and I were in Waterloo Records, Austin, Texas. There it was on the shelves—the final Talk Talk album, LAUGHING STOCK, in all of its James Marsh-esque glory. Of course, I purchased it as quickly as possible. After all, it had just come out, and Craig and I were living in pre-internet days in northern Utah. We had a music store nearby, but however good it was—and, frankly, it was pretty good—it wouldn’t have dreamt of carrying anything by a band so strange as Talk Talk.
So fortunate we were at a history conference in Texas at the same moment as LAUGHING STOCK’s release.
Craig and I were not only officemates and apartment mates, but we were best friends and music mates. How many hours flew by with Craig and I devouring music—old and new—and then discussing and analyzing every bit of it. I still cherish these nights and even weekend-days as some of the best of my life. Though I’d grown up in a house that respected nearly every form of music, I had never been introduced to some of the great psychedelic and experimental rock acts of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Unless it was by Yes, Genesis, or Jethro Tull, I really didn’t know it. Craig played Procol Harum, Soft Machine, Spooky Tooth, and Traffic for me. I fell in love with each. As the time Craig and I (and another close friend, Joel) were spending so much time together, the music scene itself was going through a bit of a psychedelic revival—with World Party, Charlatans, and others—and this only added to our excitement.
As soon as we returned from Austin, I recorded the full album of LAUGHING STOCK on each side of a double-sided TDK cassette and enthusiastically played this tape over and over and over and over. . . . Even though Craig and I had shared many enthusiasms with each other, this obsession with Talk Talk seemed more than a bit too enthusiastic to Craig.
By sheer force of will, I fear, Craig had to accept this or our friendship would suffer! Of course, here we are, a quarter of a century later, still very close friends and co-editors of progarchy. . . . You know the story ended well.
For nearly thirty years, I instantly answered the question of “what is your favorite band” with Talk Talk and Rush. If pushed a bit more, I would add Tears for Fears and, depending on my mood, Genesis or Yes or XTC. This rote answer became almost proudly knee-jerk on my part.
When challenged about this opinion, I rather haughtily pointed to THE COLOUR OF SPRING, SPIRIT OF EDEN, and LAUGHING STOCK. After all, who could top fourteen months a shot, recording in dark, deserted churches, challenging every single bit of corporate conformity in the music business.
Mark Hollis, Tim-Friese-Green, and Phill Brown were not just three more musicians in the industry, they lingered as demi-gods at the very edge of Valhalla itself, ready to release Ragnoräk at any moment. And, power to them! As far as I was concerned, the music industry needed and deserved a revolution.
Recently, I’ve realized that Talk Talk no longer holds top spot in my mind when it comes to bands (Big Big Train has finally replaced Talk Talk in my mind and in my soul), but it will always be in the top three for me. For too many years, Talk Talk was my go-to band, my comfort and my first love in the world of music. To this day—and, I presume, to the end of my days—the final three albums the band made will always be the three by which I judge every other release in the music world. Few albums or bands, then or now, can measure up to such heights. But, such is my mind and soul.
Part II to come soon. . . . In the meantime, enjoy 19 minutes of Hollis talking about LAUGHING STOCK.
I’ve become quite enamored of Wyndham Wallace’s writings over the past several days. Here’s a wonderfully insightful piece he wrote on the 20th anniversary of the release of Talk Talk’s Laughing Stock. Enjoy.
There are many remarkable aspects to the story of Talk Talk’s fifth and final album, Laughing Stock. It took a year to make, and most of what was put to tape ended up on the scrapheap. In London’s Wessex Studios, where it was recorded, windows were blacked out, clocks removed, and light sources limited to oil projectors and strobe lights. Around fifty musicians contributed to its making, but only eighteen ended up on the finished album. It was a commercial failure, critically reviled as much as it was praised, and was impossible to perform live. Then the band broke up, forcing fans to wait seven years before its central protagonist released any new music, something followed by almost complete silence. Laughing Stock is also shrouded in mystery: apart from limited comments made during brief bursts of promotional activity to promote their own even more limited work since, the three authors of the record – Mark Hollis (songwriter and founder), Tim Friese-Greene (producer and co-songwriter since their third album, The Colour Of Spring) and Lee Harris (drums, and the only other remaining member of the band’s original line up by the time of Laughing Stock) – have refused to discuss it for years. But the music remains, its reputation growing with each passing year since its release two decades ago: stark, bold, indefinable and the greatest testament to the band. . . .
“When asked to consider producing a cover for SOE, I recall being consciously aware of permeating undertones from the natural world that were somehow imbued on the album, as far as I had heard on the sample tracks, so it seemed quite apt for me to suggest something containing naturalistic imagery. I produced some visuals to discuss at the next meeting, along-side showing Keith a selection of transparencies of my personal, unpublished work, a painting titled “Fruit Tree” being one of them. It was a simple case of him saying “Oh, I like that image, I’d like to show it to the band”, or words to that effect, which he promptly did and shortly afterwards a unanimous decision was taken to use it.”