After a promising ‘anything goes’ start that had been the most fruitful flowering on the fascinating post-punk landscape, the soundtrack of the 1980s eventually homogenised into an insufferably bland template that sadly remains the lazy go-to summary of the decade when it comes to second-hand nostalgia. What this invariably tends to do is obscure the variety of individual voices on offer, voices that became all the more invaluable as the 1980s descended into a mainstream maelstrom of big hair, big shoulder pads, and Big Fun.
David Sylvian, Billy Mackenzie, Julian Cope, Marc Almond – all had at one time been ‘Smash Hits’ cover stars, yet by the middle of the decade they had drifted away from the spotlight to follow their own idiosyncratic paths, happy to take commercial success if it came but not desperate enough to chase it at the expense of their appetite for adventure. In a way, their journeys echoed those of similarly-minded mavericks of the previous decade such as Roy Harper, Richard Thompson, John Martyn and Peter Hammill. And one could add a band to the 80s inheritors of that admirable mantle, Talk Talk.
When Talk Talk first hit the Top 20 in the autumn of 1982 with ‘Today’, they appeared very much in the mould of the moment. Sharing a label and a producer with Duran Duran, the band led by Mark Hollis also supported the Brummie pin-ups on tour in 1981, and the promo for ‘Today’ features all the ‘Nice Video, Shame About the Song’ clichés characteristic of the era. It seemed Talk Talk were merely the latest in an increasingly long line of poster-boys for the New Pop look and sound, ticking all the requisite boxes.
For those of us not paying attention when the band failed to deliver a string of big hit singles thereafter, it came as something of a surprise to see them re-emerge in startlingly different fashion during the drab uniformity of the immediate post-Live Aid period. Gone were the synth-pop trimmings and airbrushed cheekbones of 1982, replaced by something far more interesting. The first public outing of this change – at least in the band’s homeland; other territories had been more receptive – was the 1986 single, ‘Life’s What You Make It’, arguably one of the greatest hits of the entire decade and a track that manages the unique feat for a mid-80s recording in sounding just as fresh today as it did at the time.
‘Life’s What You Make It’ was a trailer for the album ‘The Colour of Spring’, an organic soundscape at odds with the synthetic tapestry of mid-80s music and evidence that here was a band determined to do their own thing when corporate compromise was the order of the day. Critically acclaimed and (crucially) commercially successful, ‘The Colour of Spring’ gave Talk Talk the confidence to stretch their artistic wings even further. The result was 1988’s ‘Spirit of Eden’, now rightly recognised as one of the decade’s most significant and original masterpieces, yet its obstinate rejection of commercial considerations so panicked the band’s label EMI at the time that it provoked a protracted court case as the band sought to escape their contract and any obligations to the record-buying masses.
Signing to Polydor’s jazz offshoot Verve, Talk Talk then had to endure a familiar tactic from an ex-record label as EMI released a compilation album as soon as they’d gone; ironically, 1990’s ‘Natural History’ went on to become the band’s most successful LP in the UK, hitting the top three and prompting the re-release of ‘It’s My Life’, which became Talk Talk’s biggest British hit single. Whilst this belated celebration of the band’s recent past was going on, Talk Talk were busy delving into more minimalist waters, resulting in the release of their final recording, 1991’s ‘Laughing Stock’. Refusal to return to the touring circuit or promote their output on television meant the album largely passed the public by, though the final two Talk Talk LPs are now hailed as important signposts en route to the so-called ‘post-rock’ of Radiohead and others. Despite this, the band – by the end reduced to an effective duo – split shortly after the release of ‘Laughing Stock’; they remained true to their spirit by never succumbing to reunion-itis.
The band’s leader and creative driving force Mark Hollis released an eponymous and solitary solo album in 1998, one that drew upon his passion for the sparse classical music and avant-garde jazz of the 50s and 60s, and then he largely withdrew from music altogether, citing the old MP reasons of ‘spending time with his family’ as he disappeared off the radar. Even when his influence was acknowledged by the next generation, such as his contribution to the 1998 Unkle album, ‘Psyence Fiction’, Hollis preferred to have his name removed from the credits. In an age in which overexposure is a virtue, Hollis’s aversion to the spotlight seems incredibly refreshing, though the surprise announcement of his death at the age of 64 with only the ‘after a short illness’ explanation of his unfairly young demise seems characteristically obscure for a man who had long since come to the conclusion that the celebrity circus was not for him.
Now that the once all-powerful rule of the record companies has been laudably diminished by the rise of DIY bedroom recordings distributed by social media word-of-mouth, the likes of Mark Hollis and his aforementioned contemporaries and predecessors seem like prophets. Yes, the insidious corporate umbrella of UMG may well continue to churn out interchangeable and identikit fast-food marionettes for the kids, but the true artists survive on the periphery, as they always have and hopefully always will. Mark Hollis was one of them and his passing deserves to be marked.
© The Editor