Ten years can be a long time, in every artist’s career. Personally I always found it interesting to see what ways a musical career can take in just one decade. Coldplay went from the great intimate Parachutes to the stadium pop of Viva La Vida, Muse went from the Muscle Museum post-grunge to Justin Timberlake-infected R&B pop – the history of music is full of such artistic turns. And no matter what you personally think of these changes you can’t deny that they are quite helpful when it comes to the acquisition of a bigger audience.
When I dug a bit deeper into the discography of 1980s group Talk Talk I quickly realized that their evolution from their debut album in 1982 right to their split in 1992 was a way more radical one than with most other bands. The band around distinctive singer Mark Hollis, bassist Paul Webb and drummer Lee Harris morphed from one of the many up and coming new wave-infected 80s pop groups into a doom-jazz playing experimental collective that invented post-rock by accident, broke with its major label and left the music industry for good in the end. Talk Talk spectacularly failed from a commercial point of view but did everything right in terms of their creativity. I highly recommend you to discover their back catalogue better sooner than later.
To visualize the rise and decline of Talk Talk I present their sixth steps of commercial suicide.
Step 1. Make An Inconsiderable Introduction
When the group released their first singles in 1982 they followed the footsteps of a lot of early 80s synthpop acts, channelling the catchy radio pop of groups like Ultravox, Visage or The Human League. The debut album The Party’s Over was a solid record but nothing too outstanding but it marked a first step into the music business.
Step 2. Give Them The Big Hits
If you seek for musical associations when it comes to Talk Talk you automatically end up with Such A Shame and It’s My Life, both taken from the band’s sophomore LP released in 1984. Especially No Doubt’s 2003 cover of the album’s title-track did the band’s reputation a big favour (especially since Gwen Stefani and her band pretty much stuck to the sound of the original). Aside from that fact the album marked a huge step forward in terms of quality as it added progressive and more complex tracks like Tomorrow Started and Does Caroline Know? right next to the hits everybody loved. But as a listener you get the feeling that there’s more than meets the eye.
Step 3. Extend Your Creative Possibilities
On the 1986 follow-up The Colour Of Spring Talk Talk took the balance between their pop and progressive elements even further than on the predecessor. Album number three sounded more organic and less synthesizer-focussed, provided extended song lengths, a children’s choir (Happiness Is Easy) and first attempts to leave the pop territory of the charts (just take the gloomy Chameleon Day). However, with Life’s What You Make It and Living In Another World Mark Hollis and his band provided radio-friendly hits but their musical ambitions were harder and harder to hide and the final break was just a matter of time.
Step 4. Break With Everything
Innovative greatness is often defined by a certain ignorance towards its first appearance. Spirit Of Eden finally saw Talk Talk breaking with any commercial expectations and became a pure and unfiltered dedication to the emotional core of their music. Six songs, all longer than five minutes, no singles and no attempt to do any promo or perform live back then. Backed by the financial power of their first albums, Hollis and the band hired plenty of additional musicians, improvised for hours in the studio and freed the music from structural boundaries. It wasn’t a commercial success and major label EMI was pretty pissed to say the least as they had to force Mark Hollis to pose for at least one music video. Over the course of the past three decades Spirit Of Eden gained critical praise by artists like Radiohead, Mogwai, Bon Iver and others as it somehow – accidentally – invented the post-rock genre.
Step 5. Burn All Bridges And Go Even Further
Obviously, there was no going back from that and the band was destined to keep the creative control about their art. Remember, the late 80s was a time when record labels where the big players and more or less decided about the ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’ of your career. Talk Talk were one of the first bands to successfully sue their label over that issue since EMI wanted to compensate the commercial failure of Spirit of Eden with a new best of and remix album, including remixed versions of songs the band never agreed on.
Hollis was done playing the rules, the band lost a lot in that time, not just the record deal. But they won total creative independency and the final album Laughing Stock is a testament. Signed to jazz label Verve Records the 1991 LP saw them drifting even further into the territory of reduced ambient sounds, creating a slowed down experience that felt like an ongoing final reprise before ultimately vanishing into the unknown. If you compare Laughting Stock to The Party’s Over there are not just worlds between them… it’s an entire galaxy.
Step 6. Vanish Into The Unknown
And that was it. Of course, the pop world of 1991 wasn’t ready for Laughing Stock and such a harsh break with your own musical roots. What was left of Talk Talk silently split in 1992 and was never seen again. Singer Mark Hollis resurfaced in 1998 for a one-of self-titled solo adventure that took the idea of Laughing Stock even further. Hard to believe but this album was even slower and more intimate than everything before, being the ultimate full stop of the band. Later, the musician disappears and was barely seen in public ever since. Every now and then he’s credited as a composer on soundtracks but aside from that Mark Hollis pretty much retired from the music industry, at least for now. In an age of countless reunions and attempts to make as much money as you can with the ‘nostalgia card’ Talk Talk also deliver a maximum level of consequence on that field. Hollis ended things on his own terms.
Yes, those tales come from a different age of the music business but the key message remains the same for artists today:
Be brave, keep your creative rights, play with the expectations of your audience and don’t be afraid to lose followers every now and then.
We often feel like in the age of constant digital communication it’s impossible to leave the comfort zone since an immediate back clash could feel like an avalanche. It’s important to stand above that, free yourself from the pressure and follow your guts, especially when it’s about your art. Talk Talk opened the door for independency and artistic self-control and even managed to create timeless musical output. Such a shame they’ve vanished too quickly.