Talk Talk's visionary: Mark Hollis's ambition co-existed with commercial success

With enigmatic lyrics and aspirations to rival Shostakovich, Hollis considered himself the leader of a jazz band which should never stop innovating

The intricate orchestration and classical impulses of 1988’s Spirit of Eden and 1991’s Laughing Stock cemented Talk Talk as musical visionaries. But the driving force behind these albums showed flashes of iconoclastic brilliance even on the group’s most accessible, commercially successful early works.

At first, Mark Hollis and his Talk Talk bandmates – bassist Paul Webb, drummer Lee Harris and keyboardist Simon Brenner – employed subtle subversion. On Talk Talk’s 1982 full-length debut, the sophisti-pop totem The Party’s Over, the band assumed the role of new wave tastemakers indebted to Japan and Roxy Music, courtesy of moody bass lines, whimsical keyboards, and compact arrangements. Yet Hollis’s lyrics, which contained allusions to religious imagery, as well as ruminations on betrayal, social upheaval and identity, hinted at far darker and more substantial matters.

Talk Talk: Talk Talk – video

The stormy, wise title track expressed agony about the negative consequences of ageing and time’s unstoppable march, while the song Talk Talk crisply admonished an unfaithful partner. Hollis’s early band, the Reaction, had already released a gloriously bratty punk version of the latter under the title Talk Talk Talk Talk on the 1977 Beggars Banquet compilation Streets. But their 1982 take on the song adds nuance and depth, swapping out raucous guitars in favour of anxious keyboards, which temper the bitterness of the lyrics: “I’m not that blind to see that you’ve been cheating on me.” For good measure, Talk Talk also features a bridge driven by glassy, mellifluous piano and teeth-chattering drums: conveying uncertainty and anguish, both elements amplify the song’s turbulent emotions.

Despite obvious major differences – Talk Talk had no guitarist circa The Party’s Over – the band was often compared to Duran Duran, much to Hollis’s frustration. “People who say that obviously haven’t listened to us properly,” he told Smash Hits in 1982. “Duran Duran’s overall sound is just bass drum.” (After news of Hollis’s death broke, Simon Le Bon called him “one of music’s great innovators” in a Facebook statement.) Still, the association between the two groups wasn’t out of left field. The bands shared a label and toured together, and Talk Talk’s album was produced by Colin Thurston, who also helmed Duran Duran’s breakthrough, Rio. Plus, the murky synths creeping through Talk Talk’s Have You Heard the News and the pulsating disco-pop single Another Word are reminiscent of Duran Duran, while Webb’s nimble bass lines bubbled up to the surface of Talk Talk’s music much in the same way John Taylor’s did.

Hollis’s irritation makes more sense when considering that his actual musical inspirations (and aspirations) were much loftier. In early interviews, he discussed Debussy and Shostakovich in relation to his creative process; he frequently cited Otis Redding as a vocal influence (“he combines real power with tenderness,” he told Smash Hits in 1982), and heaped praise on John Coltrane’s arrangements and the songwriting skills of Burt Bacharach. “As for contemporaries, I can’t actually listen to things like the Human League because they’ve been played to death,” Hollis continued. “But I think they’ve made really good ground.”

Talk Talk performing in Rotterdam, 21 September 1984.
Talk Talk performing in Rotterdam, 21 September 1984. Photograph: Rob Verhorst/Redferns

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Hollis also didn’t necessarily consider Talk Talk to be a new-wave band. “You’ve got a rhythm section to provide the beat, and keyboards to provide the melody, which they can do much better than a guitar,” he told NME in 1982. “In a way, the line-up is closer to a jazz quartet than a rock band.” In a nod to jazz’s penchant for instrumental fluidity, Hollis was also deeply unsentimental about Talk Talk’s musical direction at any given time. “Each album should be a definite move on from the one before it,” he pronounced to Electronic Soundmaker & Computer Music in 1984.

As a result, Talk Talk welcomed new collaborators for the 1984 LP It’s My Life with open arms. After the departure of keyboardist Simon Brenner, Hollis and the band recruited guitarist Robbie McIntosh (then of the Pretenders and later a member of Paul McCartney’s band), pianist Phil Ramacon and keyboardist Ian Curnow. More notably, the band struck up a partnership with Tim Friese-Greene, whose songwriting and production contributions steered Talk Talk toward a fuller, more organic take on contemporary synth-pop. This emboldened Hollis to affect a sophisticated croon that exuded more emotional range – as on the sleek title track, a desperate treatise about being resigned to a doomed relationship that topped the US dance charts and ended up as Talk Talk’s only American Top 40 hit.

Yet although It’s My Life sounded of its time, with its funky bass hiccups, manipulated synthesisers and jagged guitar streaks, the album also pushed against contemporary limitations. Such a Shame starts with an extended instrumental intro marked by the sound of trumpeting elephants, sampled by the band themselves after-hours at a local zoo; overlapping vocals orbit Dum Dum Girl, creating a disorienting stereo effect; and muted trumpet adds shadows to the brooding, sparse ballad Renee. The lyrics are existential and fatalistic, if enigmatic, enhancing the vibe.

Talk Talk: Such a Shame – video

While 1986’s The Colour of Spring is often cited as Talk Talk’s sonic pivot, It’s My Life more obviously presaged and enabled Hollis’s future atmospheric explorations. Most notably, the album’s international success gave Hollis the financial means to pursue a more unorthodox sonic direction. “In terms of the first two albums and the live field, synths are simply an economic measure,” he told Home and Recording Studio. “Beyond that, I absolutely hate synthesisers. To me the only good thing about them was the fact that they gave you large areas of sound to work with: apart from that they’re really bad – horrible.”

Today, Talk Talk’s later work receives much more praise and attention; a 2012 tribute, Spirit of Talk Talk, largely shied away from the band’s first two albums. (One notable exception is No Doubt’s keyboard-drenched 2003 cover of It’s My Life, a massive international hit that amplified the original song’s seething melancholy and vocal drama.) Yet The Party’s Over and It’s My Life deserve a more prominent place in conversation about Talk Talk’s greatness. In hindsight, these albums reveal clearly that Hollis was playing a musical long game from the very start of his career, driven by a steadfast creative vision rooted in unwavering self-confidence and relentless forward motion.

Contributor

Annie Zaleski

The GuardianTramp

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