In the early 80s, Talk Talk seemed destined to be remembered as one of many bands marketed cynically as New Romantics by record companies who were far more concerned with short-term gain than significant creative and commercial development. Third studio album The Colour Of Spring would change all that, and as Neil Crossley explains, it would propel the band from synth-pop wannabes towards boldly experimental territory…
The outpouring of tributes following the sudden death of Mark Hollis on 25 February 2019 was notable for the sheer depth of respect shown to the Talk Talk founder and frontman by his contemporaries. One of the most repeated and retweeted quotes in the hours and days following the 64-year-old’s death came from a 2012 interview with Guy Garvey in Mojo magazine, in which the Elbow frontman discussed Hollis’s enduring influence.
“Mark started from punk and by his own admission he had no musical ability,” said Garvey. “To go from having the urge, to writing some of the most timeless, intricate and original music ever is as impressive as the moon landings.”
It’s a sentiment reinforced by many. Over the course of five albums, Hollis would transform Talk Talk from an intriguing post-punk outfit to a band that created an extraordinary body of work, breathtakingly beautiful music with a spiritual power that could move listeners to their core.
The first real signs of what Talk Talk were capable of came with their third studio album, The Colour Of Spring (1986), on which they wrenched themselves free from the constraints of 80s commercialism and pursued a stunningly creative course.
Over three decades on from its release, this ethereal and enigmatic album still resonates as strongly as the day it was released.
From the outset, Mark Hollis’s musical touchstones were eclectic. Born in Tottenham, north London in 1955, he was heavily influenced by his elder brother Ed, a voracious collector of records who would go on to manage and produce Canvey Island pub rockers Eddie & The Hot Rods. Ed Hollis guided his younger brother towards sounds that he otherwise may not have encountered, from free jazz and prog rock to American garage bands.
One record that had a pivotal impact on him was the 1972 US garage compilation album Nuggets, which prompted him to form his first band, The Reaction, in 1977.
Like many, he had also been galvanised by the can-do DIY ethos of punk. “Up until punk, there’s no way I could have imagined I could get a record deal because I didn’t think I could play,” he told Jim Irvin in Rock’s Back Pages in 1998, “but punk said, ‘If you think you can play, you can play’.”
Mark and brother Ed co-wrote a single, Talk Talk, which appeared on the Streets compilation, credited to The Reaction. In June 1978, the band released the single I Can’t Resist, but in 1979 they split up.
Sign Of The Times
Spurred on by his brother, Mark wrote a new batch of songs and began forging a much broader sound. He put together a new band with keyboard player Simon Brenner, and two former members of Southend-based reggae band Eskalator, drummer Lee Harris and bassist Paul Webb.
Things moved quickly for the new unit. A demo recording found its way to Keith Aspden, A&R at EMI, who was so impressed that he left his job to manage them. EMI signed the band, now called Talk Talk, and set about trying to mould them into the next Duran Duran, one of the label’s major acts.
‘Up until punk, there’s no way I could have imagined I could get a record deal because I didn’t think I could play…’
The initial plan for the band had been a piano, bass and drums trio, with Hollis on lead vocals. But the synth-heavy sound of the times inevitably crept in. EMI teamed them up with producer Colin Thurston, whose credits included David Bowie, The Human League and Duran Duran. The result was Talk Talk’s 1982 debut album The Party’s Over, which yielded two singles, Mirror Man and a re-recorded version of Talk Talk. The album was a moderate success, reaching No. 21 in the UK Albums Chart.
Despite the encouraging start, the band became increasingly appalled by EMI’s efforts to market them as part of the New Romantic movement. When Brenner left in 1983, they made no effort to replace him on keyboards, keen to distance themselves from the whole synth-pop genre. The band had tired, too, of plush publicity shots that had them kitted out in garish white silken box jackets.
“It gets tiring to listen to the Duran comparisons,” Hollis told Noise! magazine at the time. “I can’t hear it myself. I get depressed about the whole thing [because] kids ought to know about music, not image.”
In a concerted effort to shed their pop image and to stretch themselves creatively, the band took a year out to record the album that would become It’s My Life (1984). At the same time, they rejected once and for all the image that EMI had foisted on them, abandoning the garish suits for donkey jackets, woolly hats and jeans.
They recruited producer and musician Tim Friese-Greene, which was to prove to be a key move in their development. Friese-Greene became the band’s de facto fourth member, their producer, keybord player and, critically, Hollis’s principal songwriting partner.
His impact was immediate. It’s My Life was the sound of a band transforming from the time-locked limitations of synth-pop into more mature and sophisticated music.
Lyrically, the focus was far more personal and emotive. And while synthesisers still dominated, the band were confident enough to introduce world-music rhythms and real, non-digital instruments into their sound, as well as animal noises recorded at London Zoo. The songwriting was far more assured than their debut release. This was a cohesive album, with a collection of songs encapsulated within warm, gently seductive grooves.
It’s My Life produced three singles: Such A Shame, Dum Dum Girl and the title track, the latter going on to become the band’s biggest hit, as well as spawning a hit almost two decades later, for US band No Doubt.
‘Trying to stay fresh is the most difficult thing on such a long project’
The album also contained what was arguably the band’s finest recording to date, on the track Renée, a showcase for Hollis’s deeply soulful and melancholic vocals, a style defined by The Guardian as “full of pathos, restrained passion and a sense of struggle”.
The It’s My Life album reached Top Five in numerous European countries, but only reached No. 35 in the UK charts. This was possibly due to the band’s decision to distance themselves from the mainstream market, a move amply demonstrated by their choice of video for the It’s My Life single. Directed by Tim Pope and largely compiled from rushes from the David Attenborough-helmed BBC series Life On Earth, the video was rejected by EMI. The re-shot promo featured a dour-looking Mark Hollis declining to lip-sync to the backing track.
The recording sessions for the It’s My Life album also marked the beginning of an obsessively intense process of overdubbing, as Mike Oldfield’s bass player Phil Spalding found when he turned up for a session. Talk Talk bassist Paul Webb was an exclusively fretless bass player, so Spalding was drafted in to play fretted bass on the track The Last Time.
Spalding arrived at the sessions “disastrously hungover” and spent an entire afternoon and evening doing relentless retakes of the same bass part.
“We always had to go all around the houses to get next door,” explained Ian Curnow, session keyboard player on the album, “just in case there was anything that turned up on the other side.”
Buoyed by the creative success of It’s My Life, Hollis took a brave and radical decision: to banish synthesisers altogether from their next album and utilise only the natural sound and acoustic possibilities of traditional instruments such as piano, organ and guitar.
The band took a year out to record the next album and a welter of session players were drafted in, such as Steve Winwood, guitarist Robbie McIntosh, bassist Danny Thompson and harmonica player Mark Feltham. The result would be a far more organic sound, with a sonic direction that would come to dominate their music from that point on.
Hollis and Friese-Greene spent the first four months of 1983 writing the songs, with the band then joining them in the studio to start laying down parts.
‘I want to write stuff that you’ll be able to listen to in 10 years’ time’
“At first, we were spending 12 hours a day, six days a week in the studio,” Hollis told the Glasgow Evening Times in February 1986, “then towards the end we gave ourselves the weekends off. Trying to stay fresh is the most difficult thing on such a long project.”
During recording, Hollis was listening to music by impressionist classical composers such as Satie, Debussy and Milhaud. Bartok in particular had a profound influence on the album. “Bartok’s string quartets… I’d never imagined something so beautiful existed,” he said. “Bartok has an impact on the arrangements on The Colour Of Spring.”
Instrumentally, acoustic piano and Hammond organ would prove the mainstay of the keyboard work on the album, with the highest-profile guest musician on the album, Steve Winwood, contributing some stunningly atmospheric parts on the Hammond. Some more obscure instruments would also feature, such as the Variophon, an electronic instrument invented in 1975 by researchers at the University of Cologne. As the band worked on the album, they employed an eclectic range of keyboard instrumentation, such as Mellotron and melodica. But they resolutely drew the line at modern synth technology.
“In terms of the first two albums and the live field, synths are simply an economic measure,” Hollis told Electronics And Music Maker magazine in 1986. “Beyond that, I absolutely hate synthesisers… if they didn’t exist, I’d be delighted.”
It was a view reinforced by Friese-Greene, who was vehement on the subject of digital music technology. “To me, the idea of MIDI’ing up a piano is just plain sick. MIDI is a four-letter word, I can’t take it seriously at all. There’s really nothing printable I can say about it.”
The Colour Of Spring was released in February 1986 to widespread critical acclaim from all corners. For those who had already written off the band as bandwagon jumpers and derivative synth-pop has-beens, it was an unexpected revelation. Here was a genuine landmark release, ethereal and enigmatic with a haunting, fragile melancholy. Powerful, spacious rhythms combined with rich instrumental textures, all topped by Hollis’s pained and deeply moving vocals.
Talk Talk had created a sound that defied genres, drawing on jazz, classical, folk and pop, yet without ever falling into one distinct style.The Colour Of Spring went on to become the band’s highest-selling album, reaching No. 8 in the UK charts. Life’s What You Make It, with its rolling piano riff, was the album’s sublime highlight, and became an international hit, expanding the band’s global fanbase and earning Talk Talk their third US hit single.
‘It gets tiring to listen to the Duran Duran comparisons’
Commercially, The Colour Of Spring would prove to be Talk Talk’s most successful album, but for all its stellar achievements, their creative peak was yet to come. They would go on to release The Spirit Of Eden and Laughing Stock, critically lauded works that many regard as their finest creative achievements.
Talk Talk disbanded in 1992 and Mark Hollis retired from music, choosing instead to live quietly with his wife and family in Wimbledon. Save for a self-titled debut album and a handful of appearances over the years, that is precisely what he did.
In an interview in 1982, Hollis remarked that, “I want to write stuff that you’ll be able to listen to in 10 years’ time”. With The Colour Of Spring, and the two albums that followed, he produced a breathtaking body of work, one that will endure for a great deal longer than that.