Tuesday, July 15, 2008

This Band Was More Than Just Talk Talk

In 2003 No Doubt released a greatest hits collection which featured a newly recorded version of the song ‘It’s My Life’. As much as I love No Doubt, and their version of ‘It’s My Life’ was brilliant (including one of the coolest promo vids ever), I still believe the original version of the song by London new-wave rock band Talk Talk is the ultimate.

Talk Talk formed in 1981 around singer/writer Mark Hollis, who had played for a while in band called Reaction. With the help of his older brother Ed (Eddie & The Hot Rods), Hollis recruited the talents of Simon Brenner (keyboards), Paul Webb (bass and Lee Harris (drums). They soon signed to EMI and released their debut album ‘The Party’s Over’ (UK#21) in mid ‘82. The album had been preceded by the band’s eponymous debut single which initially only reached #52 on the British charts. Very much moulded in the vain of EMI label mates Duran Duran (who they opened for on tour), Talk Talk’s second single ‘Today’ was classic keyboard pop and proved a breakthrough reaching #14 in the U.K. Around the same time their first single ‘Talk Talk’ was released in Australia and reached a respectable #33, also becoming the band’s first charting single in the U.S. (#75). EMI were encouraged to re-release the track in the U.K. and second time around it reached #23.

A break of almost two years followed, during which time keyboardist Simon Brenner departed the band (replaced by Tim Friese-Green - though not as an official member), as did the whole ‘New Romantic’ image. The album ‘It’s My Life’ (UK#35) was released in February 1984 and marked a more mature phase in Talk Talk’s evolution. The title track became the band’s biggest U.S. hit (#31) but strangely missed the cut in both the U.K. (#46) and Australia (#73). ‘Such A Shame’ (UK#49) followed, a song laden with emotive lament suiting Hollis‘ plaintive vocal style beautifully. The album also marked Talk Talk’s first serious engagement of the guitar as an instrument, via session man Robbie McIntosh (the Pretenders, later Paul McCartney band)

Yet another prolonged pause followed before Talk Talk started talking again with the release of the 1986 album ‘The Colour Of Spring’ (UK#8). ‘Life’s What You Make It’ was a stripped down emotive song and it became the band’s biggest U.K. hit (#16), also spending time in the lower reaches of the U.S. (#90) and Australian (#70) charts. Mark Hollis remained the focal point of the band musically, and his talent as both a singer and songwriter was burgeoning (helped along by the co-writing and production talents of Friese-Green). Adding to the quality of the album were guest contributions from the likes of Steve Winwood and Danny Thompson. Two more singles were released ‘Living In Another World’ (UK#48) and ‘Give It Up’ (UK#59).

Hollis, along with Friese-Green, was taking the band into more complex territory musically, infusing elements of progressive rock into the mix for Talk Talk’s next album ‘Spirit Of Eden’ in 1988. The album was an instant critical hit and promised to open the door for a broader fan base. Despite racking up solid sales initially (UK#19), the band fell out of favour with EMI over their new ‘non-commercial’ direction. Talk Talk were no longer the pop band that had been signed seven years previous, and their musical direction had fallen out of favour with their label EMI - the marriage ended, as most do, messily in 1989. The 1990 EMI release ‘The Very Best Of Talk Talk: Natural History’ proved just how popular Talk Talk still were though, surging to #3 in Britain. On the back of revived interest in the band’s back catalogue ‘Talk Talk’ was reissued as a single for the third time, peaking at a record high of #13 in the U.K. ‘Life’s What You Make It’ was also reissued and climbed to #23.

Meanwhile the band themselves (minus bassist Paul Webb) had signed to Polydor and released an album of new material in 1991 titled ‘Laughing Stock’. Laden with heavy orchestration Hollis moved further to the edges of the mainstream and into avant-garde territory. The album sunk without a trace and soon after Hollis (who had basically become Talk Talk by then) decided there’d been enough Talk Talk.

Paul Webb and Lee Harris played together again in the group O’Rang, whilst Friese-Green recorded for a time under the name Heligoland. Hollis took spent most of the 90s away from the music scene before finally re-emerging with a self-titled solo album in 1998, then retiring once more. Curiously, it’s the less commercial side to Talk Talk’s career that proved to be more lasting, in that their later work is widely acknowledged as being a bedrock of influence on the 90s post-rock movement. In that regard the evolution in style that arguably denied them more top 40 hits, gained them a much broader admiration.

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