July 8th, 2002

Talk Talk – Laughing Stock

The musical journey undertaken by Talk Talk from centre-right pop to the far, far left of post-rock remains unique in music history. Mark Hollis started band life like anyone else in the late Seventies, in a post-punk combo known as The Reaction. His brother Ed was already in Eddie and The Hot Rods and when The Reaction disbanded in 1979 it looked like M. Hollis was destined to join the footnotes and also-rans of punk folklore.

When he hooked up with drummer Lee Harris and bassist Paul Webb, however, with a newer wave outfit by the name of Talk Talk and then caught the eye of esteemed arbiter of taste David ‘Kid’ Jensen, Hollis was back. EMI signed them up and divined in their smart, smooth poptones the ideal undercard to Duran Duran, then the leading lights of New Romantic. The release of an eponymous single, a shiny, synth-pop replication of the Duran sound, few imagined that this lot would be around for long, pre-destined to be Eighties, one-off curios a la Living In A Box.

Yet few reckoned with Hollis’ revulsion with the trappings of pop and his undeflected search for a “purity” in the practice and making of music. This last quality would ensure that Talk Talk outlasted the Durannies, Toyahs, Kajagoogoos and similar flossy pop flunkies. By the mid-Eighties, they’d amassed a solid international following, outranking the likes of Spandau Ballet on European bills. This, in spite of Hollis’ insistence that no photos of the band appear on their cover sleeves, only illustrations, so as to disconnect “image” from the music. Moreover, producer Tim Friese-Greene had been drafted in as co-songwriter and keyboardist, whereupon Talk Talk’s sound took on the more sophisticated hue of the likes of Traffic or Roxy Music, stylish rather than fashionable, reflective rather than glossy.

By 1986, these qualities of endurance and integrity earnt them massive sales with that year’s The Colour Of Spring and the single, “Life’s What You Make It”. Yet Hollis was visibly disgruntled. He made no secret of his distaste for fans who only came to Talk Talk gigs to hear the hits, while a truculent NME interview, in which he insistently referred to his music as “art”, demonstrated his discomfiture with having to sell his wares in the pop market place.

The NME were unimpressed but EMI were downright perturbed. In reward for the high sales of The Colour Of Spring, they had lavished on Talk Talk a generous budget for their next release, only for the band to disappear from view for a couple of years. When they re-emerged, it turned out that they had done what every megapop band talks about doing but so rarely does – i.e. what they fuck they wanted. And this turned out to be 1988’s Spirit Of Eden was a staggering, critic-pleasing, commercially suicidal foray into the amorphous arms of ambient jazz-rock. Taking its cue from the melancholy spirituality of Miles Davis’ “He Loved Him Madly”, its aqueous, oceanic odysseys into oblique spiritual introspection (ouch! – Ed’s note) blew gaskets in executive boardrooms. EMI tried to salvage something from what they regarded as the wreckage, issuing an edited version of the gorgeous “I Believe In You” as a single, under protest from the band. However, the intricacy of Spirit Of Eden’s arrangements was such that Talk Talk declared they would be unable to promote the album on the road.

Relationships between the band and the label deteriorated, especially when EMI issued an album of remixes of old Talk Talk singles in 1990, which they had to withdraw after legal action from the band. By 1991 Talk Talk switched to Polydor, who allowed them to release an album, Laughing Stock, on their reactivated jazz label, Verve. It was oblique. It further confounded the expectations of traditional fans. It sold poorly. It was the last we would hear from Talk Talk as a collective – end of story. Oh and it was brilliant. If Spirit Of Eden represented the first tentative unmooring of a band looking to go further inward/further outward than any band had gone before, then Laughing Stock saw them way out to sea.

“Myrrhman”, the opener, sets the tone, rising slowly into being from a sort of meditative silence, back into which it continually threatens to evaporate. It drifts like a ghostship off the furthermost Northern coast, with flugelhorns pealing, subdued, through the fog of indistinction and a harmonium droning in a faint echo of Shetland folk music. The odd burst of radio crackle is suggestive of the last blast of modern electrical equipment, or communication with dry land, finally petering out. The strings offer a melancholy reminder of Gavin Bryars’s The Sinking Of The Titanic as Hollis & co gravitate towards an uncertain grey area where sea and sky merge.

Our bearings are a little surer on “Ascension Day” – we’re located somewhere beyond jazz, beyond rock, beyond folk. Hollis’ tremulous, plaintive vocals are somehow so intimate, the vowels so intense that it’s hard to make sense of them (still less his lyrics as reprinted in his semi-legible handwriting on the sleeve). “Bed I’ll be damned/Gets harder to sense, to sail . . .”. There is, however, a non-specific urgency, a Beckettian determination, stressed in the single, clanging, sustained guitar chord which concludes the song before being chopped off. Fade from grey once more with “After The Flood”, whose swelling, organ-driven pulse is a thing of simple but ominous beauty, with Hollis’ vocals rising off its surfaces like mist off water. Again, the mood of the song intensifies, refusing solace, naturally broken up by an agonised, distorted “guitar solo”, running like a scratch through the track, sounding like a morse distress signal obliterated in its own crackle.

“Taphead” sets out sparingly, with Hollis almost prayerfully murmuring, “Will to wind and wander/Climb through needle neck to consent . . .”, before a brace of shrill horns and harmonica blasts arise, all squealing and agitated, like whales aroused from their slumber and communicating anxiously with one another in song. Perhaps the finest track on Laughing Stock, however, is the somehow optimistic “New Grass”. From its subdued, sublime jazz-rock beginnings, through to its concluding bars, in which it reincarnates from near, dead silence, replenished with new colour and rising joyously again, it’s late Talk Talk at their finest. This isn’t “jazz-rock” in any pyrotechnical sense but “uncomplicated”, ebb, flow, overlap and retreat, as simple yet profound as the sea.

Finally comes “Rune II”, skirting the edges of silence, observing to the end the sheer naturalness, the musical correctness of Talk Talk. Of course, to those who were trying to flog the thing, it was just a bunch of exasperating, incomprehensible rock bollocks showing all the advanced symptoms of career death wish. As far as the bloody-minded Hollis was concerned, however, this was simply his own, unique extension of the three-chords-or-less punk ethic.

He sat out most of the Nineties, perfecting the studio conditions to release his first, eponymous 1998 solo album, a further, magnificent retreat from the “centre”, an Aeolian instrumental interplay of wood, metal, wind and strings. As for Laughing Stock, now at last available once more on CD, it may not be lyrically easily understood but that’s not the point. On a subliminal, emotional, musical level it’s one of the most cogent records ever made, blissful yet troubled, oblique yet desperate to connect. It offered a sonic template to a host of subsequent post-rockers, from Bark Psychosis to Spiritualized, to Labradford. It showed that there is a vastness of possibility out there to anyone who wants to do more than just flog their product. It’s renegade albums like Laughing Stock, slipping through the commercial nets, which end up making the whole sordid music business worthwhile.

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