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.
If you have 10 extra minutes today or tomorrow or any day from here until the end of times, make sure you check out this stunning video tribute to the music of Talk Talk. James Marsh, master artist of all things Talk Talk, made the video. I’m finding the entire thing quite inspiring.
Here’s the link (sorry, I still don’t know how to embed videos):
Animation promo for the album ‘Spirit of Talk Talk’, available from Fierce panda Records.
All net profits going to the ‘Rare Bird Club’ of ‘BirdLife International’ for Conservation, UK Reg. Charity.
Sample tracks include music by – Nils Frahm, Jack Northover, Zero 7, Sean Carey, Lone Wolf, King Creosote, The Lovetones, Turin Brakes and more…
As some readers of Progarchy might know, I consider Talk Talk one of the greatest musical acts of all time with The Spirit of Eden ranking as one of the best–if not THE best–post-classical albums of all time.
“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.”
My introduction to jazz was through Weather Report in the late ‘70s, and I couldn’t have made a more fortunate choice. Led by Josef Zawinul on keyboards and Wayne Shorter on saxophone, my love for that group’s music opened the door for me to the mother lode of jazz: Miles Davis.
Miles’ 1969 album, In a Silent Way, is a cornerstone of progressive music. Consider this – it contains just three songs: “Shhh/Peaceful” (18:16), “In a Silent Way” (4:11), and “It’s About That Time” (11:27). These songs don’t follow any typical structure; they are mostly jams, albeit within a strictly controlled atmosphere. Hearing the album gives the listener a sense of time being suspended, while gifted musicians at the top of their game improvise with each other. Also, as with many prog classics, the studio was an integral part of the finished result.
In 1969, Miles’ group was in transition. Pianist Herbie Hancock was itching to go solo, drummer Tony Williams was starting up his fusion band Lifetime, and bassist Ron Carter was tired of touring. Miles recruited British bassist Dave Holland for the sessions, guitarist John McLaughlin, and electric pianist Chick Corea. At the last minute, he invited keyboardist Josef Zawinul to join them. So the sessions began with a unique lineup never before seen in jazz: three keyboards (Hancock, Corea, and Zawinul), bass (Holland), electric guitar (McLaughlin), soprano sax (Shorter), drums (Williams), and trumpet (Davis). Teo Macero, Miles’ long-time producer, was again at the controls.
Apparently there was very little actual composition written out beforehand. However, that doesn’t mean the songs are aimless noodling. Tony Williams is a master of restraint, playing a steady pulse on his cymbals almost the entire album. Here is how Ian Carr, in his biography of Miles Davis, describes the music:
There is great delicacy and finesse in the solos, great subtlety in the keyboards (everybody is listening to everyone else), and the music is pervaded by Miles Davis’ unique atmosphere of buoyant though melancholy reflection. Perhaps paradoxically, the total impression is powerful and seductive because the steady time with its occasional pauses (as if the music were actually breathing) creates the non-western climate of timelessness – and in a sense, it is music which should be inhabited rather than merely listened to.
Some of Miles’ greatest solos are in these sessions, as well as Wayne Shorter’s. By this time, they had played together so long they seemed to be one mind with their improvised interplay. When the sessions were over, they had about two hours of material. Teo Macero had learned to just let the tapes roll as soon as Miles began, and not stop until everyone quit.
Macero used editing to cut and paste together the final album, and he deserves most of the credit for making it such a satisfying listen. In “Shhh/Peaceful”, he includes a trumpet solo at 1:35 that states the theme, then he lets everyone trade solos for the next twelve minutes. At 13:31, he brings back the same solo to close out the piece.
“In A Silent Way”, which opens side two, begins with John McLaughlin alone on guitar. Miles famously suggested to McLaughlin that he “Play it like you don’t know how to play guitar”, and the result is a beautiful and simple tune that is charming yet challenging to listen to. It then segues immediately into “It’s About That Time”. Again, Tony Williams sets up a steady pulse over which the others can vamp and solo. Holland plays a repeated riff on bass that slowly builds tension while McLaughlin, Shorter, Corea, and Davis take turns soloing. The keyboards and guitar join Holland playing the bass riff until finally, at 9:00, Tony cuts loose and flails away on the drums while Miles solos. Then the exact same take of “In A Silent Way” that began the side brings the listener back to earth. No one had used tape editing in such a radical fashion before, but Macero makes it work.
It would be hard to overstate the influence In A Silent Way has had on music. Pink Floyd, Frank Zappa, King Crimson, Brian Eno, Joni Mitchell – all display hints of this music. Talk Talk’s Spirit Of Eden is heavily indebted to it, as well as a lot of Steven Wilson’s latest work (Grace For Drowning and Storm Corrosion). Practically anything that has “space” in it can trace its roots to this album.
Once again, Miles proved himself to be a visionary artist, building the bridge between traditional jazz and the newborn genre that would soon be known as progressive rock.
The sound experience which I prefer to all others, is the experience of silence.
A shared pleasure among some of the writers of this blog is an appreciation for the 1980’s British group Talk Talk. They began as a slick synthpop band, but quickly outgrew that genre. By the time they released Colour of Spring, their third album, their music had become something unique and very special.
Spirit of Eden came next in 1988, and the music press was utterly befuddled when confronted with a real work of art that had an almost sacred feel to it. In my 1992 edition of Rolling Stone Album Guide, J. D. Considine rated Spirit of Eden one star, saying, “Good bands usually improve over time, while bad bands generally just fall apart. But Talk Talk took a different approach with its musical growth; instead of getting better or worse, this band simply grew more pretentious with each passing year…..by Spirit of Eden, Mark Hollis’ Pete Townshend-on-Dramamine vocals have been pushed aside by the band’s pointless noodling.”
What Considine and other critics didn’t get was Mark Hollis’ and producer Tim Friese-Greene’s desire to pare the music down to its absolute essentials. This included the use of silence as a compositional element. Spirit of Eden works, because everything extraneous is ruthlessly stripped away, and we are left with the beauty of the bare structure of the melodies. Just as the most effective way to get an audience’s attention is to speak softly, Talk Talk used space and “pushed aside” vocals to draw the listener into their music. And a funny thing happened. As the years passed, the reputation of Talk Talk grew in stature, and Spirit of Eden is now seen to be the visionary and influential work of art it was back in 1988. Case in point: it’s hard to imagine Radiohead’s Kid A ever being released without Talk Talk’s groundbreaking work.
Which brings me to the topic of this post: a Talk Talk tribute album that has recently been released by Fierce Panda Records. Spirit of Talk Talk is a 2-disc collection of Talk Talk songs interpreted by 30 different artists. Alan Wilder, of Depeche Mode and Recoil fame, is the executive music producer and supervisor. James Marsh, the artist whose distinctive visual style was as much a part of the Talk Talk experience as their music, has done the cover art (Marsh loves visual puns: look for the clock in the cover shown above).
Tribute albums can be dicey affairs, often being attempts by deservedly obscure artists to get some attention. Spirit of Talk Talk is an album of respectful and sensitive interpretations of the original songs, while providing new insights into them. Imagine how even the poppiest early songs from The Party’s Over would sound if they were done in the style of Laughing Stock, and you get an idea of what this collection sounds like. The song selection favors tracks from Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock, with some songs getting two different interpretations.
The first track, “Wealth”, performed by Lone Wolf, sets the tone for the album with a beautiful rendition that is almost liturgical in its plea to
Create upon my flesh
Create approach upon my breath
Bring me salvation if I fear
Take my freedom
A sacred love
Create upon my breath
Create reflection on my flesh
The wealth of love
Bear me a witness to the years
Take my freedom
Let my freedom up
Take my freedom for giving me a sacred love
Other highlights include a smoldering Duncan Sheik/Rachael Yamagata duet on “Life’s What You Make It”, King Creosote’s folk-polka performance of “Give It Up”, an intimate acoustic jazz performance of “April 5th” by the Matthias Vogt Trio, and the final song, “I Believe In You” by Arcade Fire’s Richard Reed Parry, whose hushed, multi-tracked vocals conjure up echoes of Thomas Tallis.
One of the most pleasant surprises for me has been hearing the Laughing Stock songs in a new light. I had not fully appreciated their beautiful melodies and lyrics until these interpretations showed me new facets of them. It’s been like seeing an old friend after several years’ absence, and discovering even more reasons for the friendship.
Even though it has been more than twenty years since Talk Talk has recorded, it is nice to see them finally get the praise and respect they deserve. Since it seems unlikely we’ll ever hear Mark Hollis sing again, we’ll have to make do with Spirit of Talk Talk. Fortunately, Fierce Panda has offered us an excellent and worthy substitute.