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45 at 33: Talk Talk reckon Life’s What You Make It

Routes to the loot, part one: allow a major label to hammer all your quirks, noise, mistakes, inspirational innovations, ‘uncommercial’ sounds, arhythmic breakdowns, unsummarisable sentiments, into a conveniently marketable musical krush. Let market forces be the sandpaper that stops you chafing. If that’s what pop groups are supposed to do, Talk Talk did it wrong. 

They began in the early Eighties happy to be moulded as an airbrushed, prinking-and-preening pop outfit, but gradually extricated themselves via the blooming organica of 1986’s The Colour Of Spring, which even wheeled in Steve Winwood’s Hammond organ to burnish their granular grooves. 

Giving rise to the band’s memorable moniker, Talk Talk (from 1982’s The Party’s Over) announced a run of impressive singles, through to 1984’s under-sold title track It’s My Life (inexplicably, a UK No.46 hardly hit), that blended equal parts Chic-like groove and raw New Order-ish electronica over Mark’s utterly unique almost muted trumpet-like vocals. Not to mention that Vienna-esque piano interlude.

Looking back over the lyric sheets of those first pair of Talk Talk albums and you’ll find the word “change” repeated passim. Although stylistically those records are likely to remain locked in time, with their Simmons drum pads, bendy synth solos, guitar synthesizers, Fairlight sequencing and Athena poster-style paintings by James Marsh, there weren’t many pop groups at the time capable of confessional stanzas such as…

“Happiness can often bleed/Beggars lay among the sheep/Let me take the choice/The sermon pleads”; “Take this punishment away Lord/Name the crime I’m guilty of/Too much hope I’ve seen as virtue/Name the crime I’m guilty of.”

Talk Talk were a refreshing take on the fad musical styles of the day, and signalled to their record label EMI —who were coining it in with their other new signings Duran Duran, Kajagoogoo and a resurgent David Bowie — a more blue-collar edition of other more fey and foppish artists of the day. Inevitably, the band soon found themselves struggling to break out of the New Romantic box the label had put them into, who’d even paired them with Duran and Human League producer Colin Thurston (“Heroes”, Lust For Life).

Put on a little make-up, make-up, implored Adam Ant. Well, not exactly.

So-called contemporaries such as Eurythmics and ABC wrote widescreen, straight-to-video poetic contrivances. But by rejecting shiny synthpop in favour of more mature and more reflective works as early as their sophomore set, TT were, if anything, closer to dark space that Soft Cell and Depeche Mode had started to explore, or perhaps the earnestness of Tears For Fears, who later revealed the disturbing truth that they’d embarked on a pop career in order to fund their own psychoanalysis sessions.

Hollis and Talk Talk, though, never allowed themselves to slip into the smug certainties and flash lifestyles of the ’80s pop nouveaux riches (they didn’t take part in Live Aid, for a start). Hollis’s early songs struggle with notions of fate versus faith, with imagery swinging from the Bible to Luke Rheinhardt’s cult novel The Dice Man.

When the songs for perhaps which they’re best known, Life’s What You Make It and Give It Up, hit the charts in 1986, they sounded like Cassandra baying In the wilderness – a lone, moral voice railing against the backdating of experience by mass media exposure and the tragedies of drug abuse. On top of that, their own travelling circus became too much to bear, you could hear it in Hollis’s blasted shreds of vocal. Fame, doing the press rounds, being the least bit genial: none of the trappings of the music industry really suited an intense introvert like Hollis during those airbrushed synth-pop years, who always had the look of a squirrel in the headlights.

Mark Hollis was a university dropout and former frontman of The Reaction, a Jam-like punk/mod affair who produced a solitary single on Island Records in the summer of 1978. Pale and gaunt in look and voice, and obsessed with the comminuted, metaphysical side of art, in interviews, he would point to Miles Davis and Gil Evans’ orchestral jazz masterpiece Sketches of Spain, or the zen experiments of John Cage, or Vittorio De Sica’s avant-garde film The Bicycle Thieves as touchpoints for his inspiration. 

A Tottenham native, Hollis was given to speaking like a Buddhist in a cockney accent — or a young Bowie under sedation — conjuring up sentences that seem born of some kind of guru algorithm (“I’ve always been of the belief that to play one note well is better than to play two notes badly.”). A truculent and surly self-loather, Mark once got into a fist fight with Spandau Ballet’s Tony Hadley at an awards show because he referred to everyone in the room, including himself, as scum. Playing the game? With his brutal candour, Hollis was playing with fire.

Meaningful excursions can often lead to ever more rewarding avenues, and by 1985 Hollis was a man with a mission, somehow spearheading shifts into abandoned territories, a pathfinder at the cusp of realising his full potential. A new kind of folk music was ready to spring in a wake born out of the fertile soil someone, anyone could rejuvenate again simply by taking the time, both figuratively and literally, to till the land. 

Maybe as a counter-balance to all the previous excesses of the 1980s, the latter part of the decade had some gems trying to explore a certain distance and silence they couldn’t before. There was something about this period that saw more than a few artists trying different ways to get to some neo-folk spectre that was hovering in the air. Few though, would quite find the blueprints for a future destination like Hollis, who was unavoidably detained at London Zoo on the way.

Taking stock of this sonic change wouldn’t be too far off for a former punk rocker such as he. Following a similar script still being written by Mike Scott and David Sylvian, this antagonistic East Ender had started out with a spirited punk point of view, quickly shifting its eye to New Romanticism and dance music. Then, the band was wrapping themselves up in electronic instruments searching for a purpose to their increasingly more sophisticated sound. Something changed though. As 1985 mutated into 1986, one surprising single showed hints of the more abstract, modal direction they wanted to take. 

With its hypnotic drum pattern inspired by Kate Bush’s Running Up That Hill, Life’s What You Make It presented something unheard of then for this group. Visually, gone was their buttoned-up Newer Wave style, in turn they now appeared with longer hair and style more befitting a band with fire in the belly starting up. 

Almost as if realising the musical iciness of their quirky past had to give way to a warmer reborn sound, Talk Talk started to move away from the group’s heavily synthesised instrumentation. Their new material combined more traditional instruments with the few remnants of their early electro-pop sound, in doing so serving as perfect entry points for the far more exploratory sound they wear after. It’s something hinted at during their on-stage performances. It could be Mark’s more abstract vocals, or the ability to improvise over these same tracks but something was certainly changing in their sound.

Life’s What You Make It peaked at No.16 in the British charts on 8 February 1986, giving the band their third and final Top 40 hit*. A fragile, autumnal collection of dense synth-pop shaded with knotty impressionism, the attendant third album The Colour of Spring propelled Talk Talk’s rise, selling over two million copies worldwide. 

Hollis and co were experimenting with more ambient textures, and together with on-loan Pretenders guitarist Robbie McIntosh and producer and shadow band member Tim Friese-Greene, they were taking steps to actually creating overground pop music that took more of its cues from the spectral sound of free-jazz, ambient Krautrock, and the experiments with space that Brian Eno, John Martyn and dub styles had procured. Mark now willing to treat his voice as another beguiling instrument was a formidable sea change.

What happened next would signal a sacrifice for a greater cause. Or more affirming yet, a palette cleanser for some new more fulfilling discovery. For Mark Hollis and Talk Talk, it would be experiencing their trading all their superficial worth in exchange for a spirit that truly matters more.

It was the gruelling world tour that year that sealed it for Hollis. After a televised show in the Spanish city of Salamanca on 13 September 1986, the singer, then only 31 years old, said he was done playing live forever. He couldn’t get the intricacies of the songs from The Colour of Spring to sound right on stage, not to mention six shows a week and all the cliches of tour life that led to a blur of disillusionment and detachment. 

Besides, he and the other two core members of Talk Talk had become fathers. The bell of a quiet adulthood was sounding. He decamped to the country; a farm near Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk where he surrounded himself with the idylls of family life and a large menagerie of domestic animals, “Tons of ‘em, 18 at the peak, all running loose.”

Eventually, fourth and fifth albums, The Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock, followed in 1988 and 1991 respectively. Acclaimed as the band’s masterpiece and a seminal work in the then fledgling genre of post-rock, Spirit featured six improvised pieces full of space and unhurried rhythm, stitching pastoral jazz, contemporary classical, folk, prog rock and loose blues into a single, doggedly uncommercial musical tapestry. The record label, naturally, had a seizure.

With his dogged refusal to tour, Hollis was utterly indifferent as to who was supposed to buy the album, how it was going to be made available or the effect it might have. Amid heavy-shouldered shrugs and staunchly monosyllabic pleas of ignorance, the band left it all to Tony Wadsworth, Capitol and Parlophone Records’ general manager who was responsible for the marketing of, among others, Queen, Morrissey and Pet Shop Boys. “Talk Talk are not your ordinary combo and require sympathetic marketing,” Wadsworth explained diplomatically. “They’re not so much difficult as not obvious.”

It would be their final album for EMI.

In the climate of nostalgia, irony and postmodern mimicry that characterised the culture of the times, Talk Talk’s later output pricked the bubble economy of the Thatcher years like no other. But was it made for the same reasons that caused the group to form in the first place? Their manager Keith Aspden best surmised the situation: “Mark was always free to do whatever he wanted musically. There was no battle against any system. He created and performed what he could, without obvious reference to others artistically and, as time went by, without reference to commerciality. It was the freedom financially and lack of interference which allowed Mark to indulge himself in Spirit Of Eden, Laughing Stock and the Mark Hollis albums**.”

Successfully negotiating the tricky transition from New Romantic come latelys to pioneers of ambient spiritualism, Talk Talk were a band of unqualified beauty who mastered and transcended quality pop music with a promising commercial future, but nevertheless pursued a completely esoteric direction with next to no promotion, presaging so much to come. In many ways, they were a prime progenitor to the recherché acts of the 2000s indie-pop explosion, for example, Radiohead, Coldplay, MGMT and Animal Collective, to name a few.

Vox magazine’s Betty Clarke quoted Hollis around Laughing Stock as saying “If you understand it, you do, if you don’t, nothing I say will make you understand it. The only thing I can do by talking about it is detract from it. I can’t add anything. Can I go home now, then?” An intriguing case study in the history of pop music, then, even if it is to discover that the once clearly defined path has gradually disappeared into a thicket of brambles and honeysuckle. It’s a dream away.

Steve Pafford

*Yes, I know It’s My Life was reissued in 1990 to promote Talk Talk’s contract fulfilling Best Of album and reached No.13, the band’s highest chart-placing single in its native country. Going three better, No Doubt’s kooky cover gave Hollis and co their only top tenner on America’s Billboard Hot 100.

** UPDATE Mark Hollis released just the one solitary self-titled solo album, in 1998. On 25 February 2019 he was reported to have died, aged 64. RIP Mark.

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