Talk Talk - Biography
By Scott Feemster
Talk Talk were a band that seemed to shape-shift with every release, even though the band only released five albums during it's career. What started as an ordinary early 80's British synth-pop band became, over the course of a decade, an influential free-form band that took on elements of jazz, blues, rock and classical and sculpted albums of great beauty and emotional resonance that continue to inspire and delight serious music fans to this day.
The band formed after singer/songwriter Mark Hollis quit Sussex University in 1975 and relocated to London to pursue a career in music. Hollis' older brother Ed was the manager and producer of the proto-punk band, Eddie and the Hot Rods, and the young Mark roadied for the Hot Rods before forming his own band, The Reaction. The band were punk-inspired mod revivalists in the mold of The Jam, and released a one-off single with Island Records called “I Can't Resist” in 1978. The band also contributed a song co-written by Hollis and his brother called, “Talk Talk,” to a compilation entitled Streets, which came out on the Beggars Banquet label in 1979. The song was the same tune that would become the band's namesake and first hit single, though with a vastly different musical arrangement.
After the band split up in 1979, Hollis continued writing songs, trying to get away from the power-pop sound of his old band into something more sophisticated. No doubt through his association with his brother, Island Music heard a basic demo of some of Hollis' songs and were impressed enough to book him studio time. Ed Hollis knew of a great young rhythm team that had played together in local reggae bands, drummer Lee Harris and bassist Paul Webb, and introduced them to Mark. The trio clicked, and soon hooked up with keyboardist Simon Brenner and became Talk Talk. A publishing deal with Island allowed the band extra time to rehearse and refine their sound, and the band recorded extensive demo sessions, some overseen by Rolling Stones producer Jimmy Miller.
Talk Talk debuted live in London in October of 1981, and one of the members of the crowd that evening was BBC DJ David Jensen, who offered the band a chance to record a session for his BBC Radio One program. The band continued playing live, and on the strength of their shows and their demo, which was being circulated amongst record companies, where signed by EMI. Signing with EMI was both good and bad for the band; good in the sense that they had a major label deal, bad in the sense that EMI's biggest act at that moment was Duran Duran, and the company saw a chance to mold Talk Talk into a Duran Duran clone. The label even went so far as hiring the same producer who had helmed Duran's first album, Colin Thurston, to produce Talk Talk's first two singles, and even booked the band to open for Duran Duran's 1982 UK tour. Talk Talk's debut, The Party's Over (EMI), appeared in 1982. After releasing two singles from the album, “Mirror Man” and “Talk Talk”, and seeing them stall in the U.K. Charts, a third single, “Today” was released and climbed to #14 on the UK singles chart. On the strength of the third single extensive touring, including an American jaunt opening for Elvis Costello, the album finally began to sell . All should have been well in the Talk Talk camp, but Mark Hollis was feeling increasingly stifled by EMI's control, and decided he wanted to change some things. Already tired of using synthesizers as the band's main instrument, Hollis sacked keyboardist Brenner and decided to carry on as trio, utilizing outside musicians as necessary.
Nothing was heard from Talk Talk for some time, as Hollis spent most of 1983 writing new material and putting together a pool of musicians to work on a new album, most importantly among them producer and keyboardist Tim Friese-Greene. Friese-Greene quickly became the de-facto fourth member of the band, and got on so well with Hollis that the pair started writing songs together, including two songs that would become hits off of the upcoming album, “Dum Dum Girl” and “It's My Life”. The band's second album, It's My Life (EMI), came out in early 1984. The album was a marked departure and improvement from the first album. Though some synthesizers were used, the album relied more on “traditional” instrumentation, including, for the first time, guitar (courtesy of veteran session player Robbie McIntosh), and especially showcased the band's rhythm team. The record was a critical success, but sale were disappointing in the UK. The album faired better in Europe, where the band became stars and It's My Life went gold all across the continent (the band even charted in America, where a remixed version of “It's My Life” reached #35 on the U.S. singles chart.) Talk Talk toured extensively in Europe, and then retreated back into the studio to begin work on a third album.
The band's third album, The Colour Of Spring (EMI), was released in early 1986. The album's first single, “Life's What You Make It,” charted at #16 in the UK and #90 in the US. Because of the success of It's My Life, EMI had granted the band a larger recording budget and an extended recording schedule, and the band used the time to craft an album that was rich with horns, woodwinds, harmonica, choral arrangements, and a warm Hammond organ sound courtesy of ex-Traffic mainman Steve Winwood. The band was also using a different approach to writing and recording, using a model based on jazz composition. Hollis and Friese-Greene would sketch out a melody, Hollis would compose words, and then the pair would convene different line-ups of musicians to work on the song, relying on improvisation to color the sound, and then would pick their favorite combinations for a final recording session. Talk Talk increased to an eight piece touring band and set out on a world tour, spending most of 1986 on the road. This tour would be the last time Talk Talk played live.
After the 1986 tour ended, Hollis decided to move from London to rural Suffolk. Based on the success of The Colour of Spring, EMI had given Talk Talk an open recording budget and lenient schedule to complete a new album. It was two and a half years before a new Talk Talk album appeared, 1988's Spirit Of Eden (Parlophone/EMI). Whereas each previous album was one step further away from the innocuous synth-pop of The Party's Over, Spirit Of Eden was defiantly almost anti-pop. The same writing and recording techniques had been used, but now they had laid down hours and hours of improvisation, and had used newer digital technology to edit favorite pieces together into a whole (an updated technique that producer Teo Macero had developed with Miles Davis in the late 60's and early 70's.) The result was a rich, dark, far-reaching album. Hollis then declared to his record company that there would be no single, no video and no tour for the album, but eventually relented on the first two points. As would be expected, the album became a critical favorite, but sales were disheartening.
Even though their contract had expired, EMI was interested in keeping the band on its roster, but Talk Talk had other ideas and wanted out. EMI sued the band, but the case was thrown out of court and Talk Talk was eventually released from their contract and signed a new two-year deal with Polydor. To clear their obligations to EMI, the band released a collection of hits, live tracks and b-sides entitled, Natural History: The Very Best Of Talk Talk (EMI) in 1990. Surprisingly, the release did well for a hits compilation and charted at #3 in the UK. EMI also issued an album of remixes, without the band's knowledge or approval, History Revisited (1991). The remix album so angered the band that they disowned it and filed suit against EMI.
Any new fans attracted by Talk Talk's greatest hits package were in for quite a surprise when the band's fifth album arrived, 1991's Laughing Stock (Verve/Polydor). Before the album was recorded, bassist Webb had left the band, and the remaining trio of Hollis, Harris and Friese-Greene carried on with the working arrangements they had developed over the course of their later career, this time utilizing strings and almost exclusively acoustic instruments more than ever before. It didn't seem that the band could get more abstract and less commercial sounding than they did on Spirit Of Eden, but Laughing Stock was another musically rich album that had more to do with abstract jazz and twentieth century classical composition than it did with rock. It seemed to take the maxim usually attributed to Miles Davis that “ the space between the notes are as important as the notes themselves” to heart and included six long-form compositions that hovered on the brink of dissipation before becoming recognizable melodies. The album garnered enormous respect from critics and serious music fans, and is often cited as a crucial precursor to what later became known as post-rock. Probably on the strength of their greatest hits collections, Talk Talk still managed to get Laughing Stock into the top 30 of the UK album charts, and the album sold relatively well in both Europe and America.
Talk Talk went about as far out as they could, and with his bandmates wanting to work on other projects, Hollis disbanded the band after Laughing Stock. Webb and Harris reunited and released two albums under the name .O.rang, utilizing many of the improvisational ideas started in Talk Talk combined with more international and world music elements. Webb also recorded an album with Portishead vocalist Beth Gibbons using the name Rustin Man. Harris played with re-formed post-rock band Bark Psychosis on their 2004 release ///Codename: Dustsucker. Tim Friese-Greene went on to record under the name Heligoland and produced and played keyboards on the Catherine Wheel's later releases. Mark Hollis didn't reemerge until 1998 with his self-titled solo album, Mark Hollis (Polydor), which sounded like a natural extension of many of the ideas started on the last two Talk Talk albums.