Seven Sacraments to Song: Talk Talk’s LAUGHING STOCK (1991)

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Talk Talk’s final album, 1991’s LAUGHING STOCK.

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.

Continue reading “Seven Sacraments to Song: Talk Talk’s LAUGHING STOCK (1991)”

Taking Stock: Talk Talk 25 Years Later

A personal journey, Part I.

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.

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Talk Talk’s last album, 1991.  A masterpiece at every level and in every way.  Arguably the single greatest album of the rock era.

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.

Understandably so.

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, 1986.  At the very edge of Valhalla.

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.

A Beginner’s Guide to Big Big Train

Dear Progarchists,

My apologies for the absence of posts yesterday, November 15.  I’m in the middle of round two of grading freshmen papers and midterms, and life overtook me this week.

It’s late Friday afternoon as I type this in Michigan, but I still have one more academic event today.  At six (in about 2 hours), I’m giving a lecture on The Killing Fields, the sublime 1984 movie about the holocaust in Cambodia, 1975-1978.  As I think about watching that movie for the first time, I get chills.  What horrors humanity creates for itself.  But, that’s a different topic.

As the sun streams into my office window, I’m in the mood for much more pleasant things.

In particular, I’m thinking about the majesty and wonder that is Big Big Train.  I saw a Twitter post two days ago from a friend who expressed shock at the intensity and greatness of BBT.  In a way, I’m incredibly jealous those who have yet to experience BBT for the first time.  So, for those who have not had the grand pleasure that is listening to BBT, here’s a guide.

And, just so I make myself as clear as possible: the new BBT album, EEP1, is the equal in greatness of Talk Talk’s 1988 “Spirit of Eden” and Genesis’s 1973, “Selling England By the Pound.”  This is, without question, a must own for any lover of music, progressive or otherwise.

As many times as I’ve heard it, there are several tracks that still make me what to blaze a path toward social justice and there are several that just make me smile, for the opening note to the last.

But, certainly, nothing on this album is frivolous.   Each track is fraught with meaning.


On September 3, 2012, Big Big Train released its latest best studio album, English Electric Part One.  It is a thing of truth, beauty, and goodness in every way.  Part Two arrives in March.  From what I’ve seen on the web and through brief correspondence, it looks as though Part Two will be every bit as intense and glorious as Part One.

Thank to the good will of webeditors, Winston Elliott, Josh Mercer, and Carl Olson (the last, being a full fledged citizen of Progarchy), I’ve had the joy of writing about BBT a number of times..  Last summer, the band released an epic single dealing with the life of St. Edith.  To see this, click here.

If you’re new to the genre of progressive rock, which its fans rightly consider every bit as good if not better than the best of jazz (equal in musicianship, but superior in inventiveness and, of course, lyrics, since jazz is generally without vocals), I’ve tried to explain and defend the genre to specialized audiences here:

And, here:

On my personal blog, Stormfields (, I’ve had the great pleasure of writing about some of my favorite bands: Big Big Train, Matt Stevens and his The Fierce and the Dead, Talk Talk, the Cure, Rush, The Reasoning, Arjen Lucassen, Tin Spirits, and XTC.

At my main professional site, TIC (founded by Winston Elliott, the main editor and brain behind it), I’ve also had the good fortune of writing extensively about Big Big Train:

While I couldn’t even come close to calculating how many words I’ve employed in writing about progressive rock over the years, the same would be even more true regarding my favorite, Big Big Train.

The latest BBT release, English Electric Part One, is not only BBT at its best, it is art at its absolute best.  Best described as pastoral, Georgian, and bucolic, the new album is also eccentric (without ever losing its center), intense, brooding, meandering, reflective, joyous, and deeply vernal.  This is something new, as BBT has traditionally explored the more autumnal aspects of life.

It’s also simply hard not to love these guys on a personal level.  I started corresponding with Greg Spawton several years ago, and he responded immediately and with what I quickly discovered was his characteristic wit and kindness.  After all, who was I–just some goofy guy from the U.S. who happened to fall over myself explaining why I loved BBT.  I once wrote something similar to Neal Peart.  I got a nice postcard back two years later.  But, from Greg, a friendship emerged.  Now, my kids even color pictures for him and ask how my “English rock star friend” is doing.  I have found that all of the members of this band are similar in this regard, and it’s very, very clear by their art that they love one another in a way only brothers can.  Indeed, they face the world not as individual artists, each pulsating with radical individuality, but as a band, ready to leaven all that is good in the world.

A quick look at the wide-ranging debates on the BBT FB page shows how many wonderful and meaningful folks gravitate toward this band and remain to talk some more!  Some of these people have also become good friends, though I’ve yet to meet a single one, face to face.

Greg Spawton and Andy Poole formed the band in the early 1990s, and they’ve since added some of the absolute finest musicians of our day: American drummer Nick D’Virgilio (rivaled in drumming only by Neal Peart of Rush and Mike Portnoy, formerly of Dream Theater), guitarist Dave Gregory (formerly of XTC and currently of Tin Spirits) and flautist and singer, David Longdon, a music professor and folklore and folk music expert.  Augmented by a professional team, in particular engineer and producer, Rob Aubrey, BBT makes music that reflects not only the woes, sufferings, and glories of this world, but without timidity, of the next world.  Imagine the three parts of The Divine Comedy come to life, and you’ll get a sense of what BBT is doing.

Spawton and Longdon, the two main writers of the lyrics, are clearly well read and articulate.  Listening to a 2-hour interview with David “Wilf” Elliott (no relation to the famous Texan cultural critic, Winston Elliott) this past weekend reminded me once again how excellent true conversation among friends and professionals can be.  I would give much for our loud talk show (Mike Church excepted, as always) and TV show hosts in this country to take notice of what educated and purposeful English gentlemen can do.  To here the interview, go here:  I would not be surprised if these five would’ve been welcomed in the Thursday evening discussion in the 1930s in C.S. Lewis’s rooms at Oxford.

It’s also worth calling Rob Aubrey, who engineered the album, a sixth member of the band.  Aubrey is the Phill Brown of our generation.

To conclude this late Friday afternoon piece, let me encourage you to purchase a cd from Big Big Train. This is a band that not only pursues, as mentioned above, the Good, the True, and Beautiful, but they are entrepreneurs, each trying to make his way in this rather fallen world.  For over twenty years, they have chosen not to pursue the commercial path of pop culture sensations and corporate conformity.  Every writer for and reader of Progarchy knows too well that the once successful system of patronage is long gone.  We must be willing to support culture and art where it emerges.  I promise you, the music of Spawton, Longdon, and Co. will not disappoint, and the band is well worth supporting.

If you’re still not convinced, try one of their many songs for free here:

They’ve certainly changed my life and only for the better.