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.
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.
In the late spring of 1982, as I completed 8th grade, I met one of those kids who is always at the height of cool. But, it was a calm, somewhat cynical, real cool, not the show-off cool of the wealthy socialite kids. It was the Bohemian cool of the Beatnik not contrived cool of the Hippie or the Yuppie.
Only a few of us belonged to his circle.
Except for moments of ecstatic outbursts about an idea here or there, he radiated coolness. He read the Great Books and knew lots of poetry, he worked out in his room (he had the whole upstairs of a late 19th century house to himself) and studied Japanese martial arts, he knew everything about men such as Bill Buckley and Jack Kerouac, he owned the best stereo system of anyone our age, and he possessed an amazing record collection. He was the youngest of a large family, and his parents were much older, pretty much leaving Ritchie to raise himself.
It was Ritchie who introduced so many of us–in a medium-sized town in the wheat belt of the Great Plains–to English New Wave. Growing up a progger–addicted from an early age to Yes, Genesis, and Kansas–New Wave was a bit eye opening for me. It seemed to hold much of the complexity of prog, but it did so with computers and keyboards, often one or two musicians, where prog might have included eight or nine. Ritchie introduced me to ABC, Kate Bush, The Smiths, Oingo Boingo, Tears For Fears, and, most importantly for me, Thomas Dolby.