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Original members include Mark Hollis (born 1955 in Tottenham, London, England), vocals; Lee Harris, drums; Paul Webb, bass; and Simon Brenner (left band, mid-1980s), keyboards.
The English act Talk Talk is best remembered as low-key but successful players in the 1980s Britpop scene. Label executives signed the unassuming musicians in an early Eighties effort to locate and profit from what they thought could be the next Duran Duran. At this time, punk and disco had given way to a return to catchy pop melodies played by photogenic musicians, and a synthesizer-based sound came to predominate. Grouped around the "New Romantic" tag, bands such as Duran Duran and Reflex were topping the charts with the combination of drum-machine rhythms and a definite sense of fashion. Talk Talk, while initially going along with this program, moved farther and farther away from such single-fueled pop success with every one of their releases during the 1980s. After being dropped by EMI, the band attracted notoriety and set legal precedent for suing the label over the re- issue and remixing of its previous work.
Talk Talk was formed in the early 1980s when Paul Webb and Lee Harris did some studio work with a producer named Ed Hollis, who suggested the two should meet his younger brother. Mark Hollis had already tried his hand at songwriting, and the trio immediately clicked and began arranging Hollis's tunes and even writing their own together. Recruiting a keyboardist, Simon Brenner, the group coalesced as Talk Talk after mining their growing roster of new song titles for a name. They had no guitarist, a purposeful omission, and EMI expressed interest and signed them. The ironically title name chosen for their debut record, The Party's Over, reflected the band's wry humor. Released in 1982, the work contained the aforementioned "Talk Talk" single as well as the debut single, "Mirror Man" and "It's So Serious." Reviewing the release for Melody Maker, Ian Pye faulted the production of what could have been a more dynamic album, he opined. "Hollis' plaintive and sometimes richly melodic songs deserve much more than the sterile setting they've been coldly placed in."
Talk Talk's second album came two years later--a very long stretch by pop standards of the day-- after Hollis spent several months writing new songs and recruiting a roster of studio musicians to add more complexity to the band's sound. It's My Life would be their most successful record. Paul Strange, reviewing the 1984 release for Melody Maker, declared that he originally loathed the group--"but this second Talk Talk album is a surprise--a delight that has made me change my opinions." Strange lauded such tracks as "Dum Dum Girl," which he termed "dashing and dangerous," and the trumpet employed on "Rennee." Talk Talk had also taken a hiatus from performing in public, after one particularly disastrous 1982 outdoor concert during which the audience threw plastic bottles at them, but returned to the stage in 1984 to support their record. They also crafted a well-received video for the song "It's My Life."
After another two-year hiatus, Talk Talk returned in early 1986 with the acclaimed Colour of Spring. Accompanying the band in the studio at various points were Steve Winwood and David Rhodes, a guitarist with Peter Gabriel. Barry McIlheney of Melody Maker termed it "ambient, timeless music." Fellow Melody Maker writer Strange noticed and lauded the "more provocative, more accessible, and above all more direct material" than contained in their two previous works. Strange termed the album's debut single, "Life's What You Make It," "haunting and utterly infuriating," and also heaped praise upon the video for it. Directed by Tim Pope, best known for his work with nearly all of the videos for The Cure, the film montage included sequences of foxes and beavers.
Melody Maker's Steve Sutherland explained that at this point EMI held high hopes for Talk Talk, envisioning them "filling stadia around the world." But when confronted in a 1988 interview by Sutherland's question as to whether Hollis felt comfortable as a pop star, the lead singer replied "No, absolutely not. This is the perfect situation for me--I just go in and make the albums I want to make and that's it. There's nothing more I want. I have no ambition to do anything else." In other interviews, Hollis seemed reluctant to talk about the creative process and unwilling to share any details of a life lived outside the studio. He did, however, cite such jazz greats as Ornette Coleman, Miles Davis, and John Lee Hooker as inspiration, and confessed to enjoying artists as diverse as Frank Sinatra and 1970s German art-rock ensemble Can.
With their fourth album, Spirit of Eden, Talk Talk ventured as far from Duran-like sensibility as possible. The six cuts on the 1988 release segue into one another, inciting Melody Maker's Sutherland to pin it "nearer the free jazz ethic of vintage Miles Davis than the soaring inanities of Simple Minds." At the time of its release, Harris tried to explain his vision to Sutherland, and decried the overcommercialization of popular music via technology at the same time. "If I have any impression it's that, where technology has entered, it's actually divorced people from music," Hollis said in Melody Maker. "It's funny because, when the synthesizer first became popular, it looked to me as if it could be something that made music more accessible for people but I think it's actually done the opposite and got people over- concerned with the technicality of what a good sound it."
Spirit of Eden was disastrously unsuccessful, and EMI released them from their contract. However, to make up for some of the financial losses it had suffered, the label released a compilation album in 1990 without the band's consent. Members of Talk Talk were less than thrilled about Natural History: The Very Best of Talk Talk, especially when the record, full of their Eighties hits from It's My Life and Colour of Spring, did well on the charts. When EMI released a second album of their previous work, History Revisited--The Remixes, Talk Talk became doubly incensed. The work was the result of label executives at EMI allowing producers then currently in vogue to remix and rework the original singles. As Hollis told Melody Maker's Sutherland, "To me, it's unbelievable they could do that. To have people overdubbing stuff you've done and putting it out." Hollis had learned of the project prior to its release, and sent letters threatening legal action, which EMI ignored. The bastardized record even earned the unwilling Hollis a nomination for a Brits Award, the English equivalent of a Grammy. For the ceremony, "they showed film of us from 1984," Hollis told Melody Maker's Sutherland. "It was just insulting.... I wasn't happy with it."
Hollis forged ahead with a lawsuit against his former label, but also sunk his energies into recording a new work for a new label. Talk Talk had signed with Verve, a subsidiary of Polydor and known home to avant-garde styles and jazz artists. But Laughing Stock, the band's Verve debut, seemed to be an exercise in showing their new label just how expensive the recording process could be. The band swelled to 18 musicians, who were instructed by Hollis to improvise around a basic theme rather than learn a specific song; thus the sessions went on for over a year. Recording in a converted church in Wessex, Hollis recruited a gospel choir and recorded them, then purposely erased the tapes the following day. A string quartet was brought in and recorded over a two-day period, but only one brief section of the tape was used--when the cellist made an error.
Jim Arundel reviewed Laughing Stock for Melody Maker and noted how the arduous recording process is still evident in the final product. "Talk Talk records breathe," Arundel wrote. "The detail is everything. Often, the tracks sound as if all the superstructure has been removed, like paint separated from its canvas, just a tissue of colour." Arundel also went on to note the evident change in the band's sonic mood. "Where previous albums have been CD clean and icy pure, Laughing Stock is bruised and grimy," Arundel declared. "Guitars buzz on the edge of screaming feedback, the strings flirt with discord, the brass is cracked and broken."
In 1992 Talk Talk won legal victory in their suit against EMI. The label was ordered by the court to reimburse the band for the production costs of the original work, costs which under most contracts between artists and labels are normally deducted from revenues of album sales. The second part of Talk Talk's suit charged "false attribution of authorship," or in other words, releasing an album of Talk Talk's music that the band members did not consider their creation, and they were also successful in a precedent-setting legal victory. Yet instead of freeing the group's creative abilities, the lawsuits seem to have exhausted them. Hollis was still signed to Verve according to a 1995 report, but was mired in another arduous songwriting/recording process. Meanwhile, Harris and Webb formed a band called Orang, and released Herd of Instinct on the Echo label in 1994. Hollis explained that such lulls have occurred before. "When I finished Spirit of Eden, there was a long period where I never thought I would make another record because I just didn't know where to go or anything," he told Melody Maker in 1991. "It's never anything I can predict. It's like, I say I'm in a four album deal [with Verve] but there's no way of knowing that I can ever do four albums. I do not know. The only thing I can ever hope is that I would never make an album for the wrong reasons and just stay with that ethic. I can't see the point of making an album for the sake of it. There's nothing that I would get from it."
by Carol Brennan
Talk Talk's Career
Signed with EMI, early 1980s; released debut LP The Party's Over, 1982; left EMI, 1989; signed with Verve/Polydor, c. 1990; released Laughing Stock on new label, 1991.
- Selective Works
- The Party's Over, EMI, 1982.
- It's My Life, LP, EMI, 1984.
- It's My Mix, EMI, 1984.
- The Colour of Spring, EMI, 1986.
- Spirit of Eden, EMI, 1988.
- Natural History: The Very Best of Talk Talk, EMI, 1990.
- History Revisited--The Remixes, EMI, 1991.
- Laughing Stock, Verve, 1991.
- The Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music, edited by Colin Larkin, Guinness Publishing, 1995.
- Periodicals Melody Maker, February 27, 1982, p. 16; July 31, 1982, p. 17; March 3, 1984, p. 26; May 5, 1984, p. 28; February 22, 1986; May 10, 1986, p. 18; September 24, 1988, p. 8; September 7, 1991, p.
- 33, p. 40; April 11, 1992, p. 5; November 18, 1995, p. 52.
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