Happiness Is Easy : Talk Talk's Early History

Tomorrow Started

In 1977, a little-known English punk band named The Reaction recorded a demo tape for Island Records. 'Talk Talk', one of the songs recorded during the demo session, was included later that year on a Beggar's Banquet punk compilation entitled 'Streets'. The song was co-written by brothers Mark and Ed Hollis.

In 1981, Ed introduced bassist Paul Webb, drummer Lee Harris, and keyboardist Simon Brenner to brother Mark. The sessions they played together went well and as a result they formed a band, which they named Talk Talk. Ed used his Island Records connections to get their demo tapes listened to, and Island came through with a publishing deal for Mark Hollis and a very generous six months studio time for the band.

By a stroke of good fortune, Talk Talk's very first live performance in London was seen by David 'Kid' Jensen, a popular BBC Radio 1 DJ of the time, who invited them to record a radio session. This was a huge break for the band in terms of exposure; at that time, BBC Radio 1 was the biggest and most influential pop music station in the UK. This exposure, combined with the results of their demo sessions, quickly paid off, and EMI offered Talk Talk a full recording contract.

Another World

EMI, whose eye for the quick, safe buck was already legendary by then, was looking for another success along the lines of Duran Duran, who were one of their numerous well-groomed investments. As if to drive the point home, they asked Duran Duran's producer Colin Thurston to produce Talk Talk's first two singles, which were 'Mirror Man' and a new recording of Mark and Ed's old song 'Talk Talk'.

In 1982 the band released 3 singles in all, plus their first album, 'The Party's Over', a strongly melodic work with a handful of solid potential singles and, thanks largely to the distinctively tense quality of Mark Hollis' voice, a recognizable sound. As if to further underline their aspirations for the band, EMI used them as a support act for Duran Duran's UK tour. In August, to help promote the release of the album, they toured the US as openers for Elvis Costello.

    The Party's Over (1982)

  1. Talk Talk
  2. It's So Serious
  3. Today
  4. The Party's Over
  5. Hate
  6. Have You Ever Heard The News?
  7. Mirror Man
  8. Another World
  9. Candy

Early 1983 saw the release of the single 'My Foolish Friend', which, although slightly more introspective in tone than the sound of the first album, was still within the safe boundaries of commercial pop. Their sound was about to change further however with the departure of keyboardist Simon Brenner early on during the sessions for their next album. The band did not seek a replacement.

Call In The Night Boy

Preparation and recording of the new album proved to be a lengthier process than their first had been. Having spent most of the previous year writing and recording, they finally released 'It's My Life' in 1984. It was produced by a new collaborator, Tim Friese-Greene, a producer and musician who was destined to work with band for the duration of their career.

'It's My Life' was a far more mature, assured piece of writing. The melodies were just as strong, but the musicianship had grown, the songwriting had developed in depth and complexity, and Hollis' voice, while simultaneously retaining its oddly strained and muted style, had become more quietly confident and assertive. Once again this was an album with a handful of natural singles, but they were altogether more quirky and idiosyncratic, and the other tracks on the album, far from being 'filler', suggested further developments to come, particularly the beautiful, delicate 'Renee'.

    It's My Life (1984)

  1. Dum Dum Girl
  2. Such A Shame
  3. Renee
  4. It's My Life
  5. Tomorrow Started
  6. The Last Time
  7. Call In The Night Boy
  8. Does Caroline Know?
  9. It's You

The promotional tour for 'It's My Life' began in Europe. I was living in Amsterdam at that time, and tried to get into the popular venue The Paradiso Club on three consecutive nights to see them, but it was impossible. Talk Talk had a tremendous reputation as a live band, and friends of mine who did manage to see them during this period confirmed that it was well deserved; they were electrifying. The European tour was followed up by another trip to the US, this time as the support for The Psychedelic Furs, then opening for Berlin.

The Party's Over

The band spent most of 1985 recording, this time inviting guest musicians along to contribute to some of the sessions. Their third album, 'The Colour of Spring', was finally released in 1986. It proved to be their best-selling album, loved by the critics and the fans, and it earned them a far wider audience, largely due to the success of the single 'Life's What You Make It'. The Colour of Spring became (and remains) the band's biggest seller.

    The Colour of Spring (1986)

  1. Happiness Is Easy
  2. I Don't Believe In You
  3. Life's What You Make It
  4. April 5th
  5. Living In Another World
  6. Give It Up
  7. Chameleon Day
  8. Time It's Time

Ironically, the tour to promote their most successful album turned into a nightmare, with hired musicians pulling out for a variety of reasons and Hollis becoming more and more stressed and unhappy as the tour progressed. The main factual source that I used for this writeup tells of Hollis saying to one audience, "You're all just here to listen to the singles. You don't care about the real songs". If accurate, this would go some way to confirming my own suspicion that Hollis, and perhaps the whole band, was uncomfortable with the kind of popularity that they began to gain at this time. They were no longer a word-of-mouth attraction at smaller, intimate European venues; they were a large and successful headline band. At the end of the tour Hollis announced that Talk Talk would never play live again.

Inheritance : Talk Talk's Later History

Ascension Day

In 1987 Talk Talk began work once again, this time inviting even more guest musicians to take part in the sessions. True to form, EMI, having caught the scent of big money, provided the band with their biggest ever recording budget. By 1988 though, with no sign of the new album being finished and the budget gone, EMI were starting to get nervous. Group leader and singer Mark Hollis, no longer in the mood to play the game, had some more bad news for them: he was not going to allow EMI to hear any of the tapes, there were not going to be any singles released from the new album, and the band would definitely not be touring in support of the album. This was the very last thing that EMI wanted to hear.

EMI switched to passive-aggressive damage limitation mode. In September, they transferred Talk Talk over to UK Parlophone, a subsidiary company of theirs, and issued a press release more or less stating that Hollis would be depriving his loyal fans of singles. To me personally, and I'm sure to the majority of their fans, this was simply not an issue. I liked them enough to buy the album; what difference did it make to me whether or not a bunch of singles were released from it?

Spirit of Eden was released towards the end of September, and it was almost indecently good. I vividly remember listening to it for the first time, initially astonished, then completely captivated. At a certain point I realized that I was actually holding my breath (and I still do when I listen to it now, right at that same point). The music bears almost no relationship in term of genre to its predecessors. Instead it is an oddly woven tapestry of naturally-derived, though studio-manipulated, sounds. Hollis sings like a strangled angel; muted, plaintive, haunting. The 'songs' run into each other, so that it is really one long piece. There is something dark and brooding about it, by turns mellow, disturbing, and almost religious in its intensity. In short, it's a masterpiece, but a somewhat inaccessible one.

    Spirit of Eden (1988)

  1. The Rainbow / Eden / Desire
  2. Inheritance
  3. I Believe In You
  4. Wealth

The critics raved. EMI was appalled. What had happened to their ideas for a Duran Duran clone? What had become of their cash cow? In a bloody-minded attempt to gain a quick return on their investment, and, I suspect, out of spite and a desire to demonstrate to the band who exactly was in charge, they released an butchered version of one of the 'tracks' from the album, 'I Believe In You', as a single. This proved to be the last straw: their relationship with the band was irreparably damaged.

It's My Life

In 1989, EMI attempted to sue Talk Talk (sources are unclear on exactly what grounds). The band, determined to see the process through to the end, counter-sued and won. True to type, EMI then released 'Natural History', a best-of album, along with a companion video, in the hopes of making up some of their lost revenue.

The band were meanwhile looking for another label, but were understandable less than eager to get involved with another major record company. Eventually, in 1991, a Polydor Records subsidiary label named Verve gave them a deal which included the financial backing to allow them to record their next album, a process which they undertook in much the same way as they did the 'Spirit of Eden' project, with many guest musicians contributing, and lots of studio time spent on creating arrangements from snippets of performances derived from the sessions.

EMI, still desperately trying to squeeze a little more money from their failed enterprise, released the bizarre 'History Revisited', a collection of versions of Talk Talk songs remixed by techno DJs. Again, it cost them dearly. Hollis was incandescent with rage about the remixes. The band was never even informed about them, let alone consulted, and once again Talk Talk sued EMI, hitting them with four writs, and claiming, among other things, that the label owed them a considerable sum in unpaid royalties. Once again, the band won the suit. As part of the settlement EMI was forced to destroy the 'History Revisited' master tapes.

Later that year, 'Laughing Stock', Talk Talk's final album, was released. It continued in the same vein as 'Spirit of Eden', and in fact some people rate it more highly, although the former is my personal favorite. Below is a small sample of the sort of critical acclaim that greeted the release of 'Laughing Stock':

  • Q Magazine (10/91) - 4 Stars - Excellent - "...melancholy mood, a rare thoughtfulness and the sense of sharing something deeply personal... haunting, emotional.."

  • Mojo (3/00) - "...as glorious a swan-song as ever was....web-delicate arrangements, perfectly-judged acoustics, a silk-fine weave of jazz, classical and gospel textures - and distills them to the purest essence....life-enriching music..."

  • Melody Maker (12/91) - Ranked #12 in Melody Maker's list of the top 30 albums of 1991 - "...a sound whose ambience is as natural as breathing..."

    Laughing Stock (1988)

  1. Myrrhman
  2. Ascension Day
  3. After The Flood
  4. Taphead
  5. New Grass
  6. Runeii

After The Flood

In their time together, Talk Talk somehow evolved from a pop band with a superb live act to an essentially avant-garde, completely studio-based outfit, an evolution that I doubt any of them could have foreseen. I find it particularly ironic that EMI, who wanted so desperately for them to continue in one direction, was probably a very large factor in influencing their surprising growth in the exact opposite direction. I don't suppose EMI is able see the funny side of it though, particularly given that they were twice dragged through the courts by the band and lost to them both times. I smile every time I think about it.

There are many factual sources relating to Talk Talk on the internet, but one site, the 'Talk Talk Unofficial Home Page', proved to be an extremely reliable source when cross-checked. Consequently, I confirmed the great majority of the factual content of this writeup from there. It is at http://home.earthlink.net/~landrvr/ and I highly recommend it.