Talk Talk began their career in 1981 as a synth-pop new wave band who looked pretty and sounded slick and shuffled gawkily around the New Romantic fringes – they were certainly dark and synthy enough to interest the New Romantic crowd but far too interested in jazz to merit actual New Romantic status – scoring hits with Talk Talk, Mirror Man and Today, and touring with EMI stable-mates Duran Duran.
Clapping eyes on Talk Talk in 1982 – all skinny ties and hair-sprayed wedges – the word ‘influential’ would not have sprung to mind.
They were generally considered – if considered at all – a duller Xerox of the Brummie dandies.
Guitarist and singer Mark Hollis reorganised the line-up while recording their second album, 1984’s It’s My Life, and while it was slightly more experimental than their previous album – a little more like Roxy Music than Duran Duran – it still followed traditional pop structures. Nevertheless, the LP charted all around the world.
Then they appeared to wake up one day as a grown-up band, just in time for their third album, 1986’s The Colour Of Spring. They lost keyboard player Simon Brenner and employed the services of producer Tim Friese-Greene – an experimental foil for the emotional songwriting of Hollis.
Next, Hollis and Friese-Greene broke up the band’s previously inflexible format, augmenting drummer Lee Harris and bassist Paul Webb with a host of guest players, including Steve Winwood, bassist Danny Thompson, and Pretenders guitarist Robbie McIntosh.
The Colour Of Spring was a revelation. Hollis’s emotionally bruised mumble implored on an album loaded with rainy-day melancholia, including the maudlin hit Life’s What You Make It.
The follow-up, Spirit Of Eden (1988), recorded in near darkness in a former church in North London, reputedly reduced their A&R man to tears when he realised how bereft of potential singles it was.
With more pregnant pauses, splashes of colour and layers of sleepy angst, it was a beautiful-sounding record but not quite the equal of its predecessor. It proved to be a commercial disaster (the ambitious side-long The Rainbow was effectively a sonata) and led to EMI dropping the band.
Talk Talk sued. EMI counter-sued, then put out a Greatest Hits and a remix atrocity, History Revisited, that Hollis blocked in court. To then pile irony on top of insult, Talk Talk were nominated for a Best Newcomer Brit Award.
Talk Talk then signed with Polydor Records, releasing Laughing Stock in 1991. Their champion at the label, David Munns, reportedly had to leave the room the first time he heard the record. Talk Talk was over.
Bassist Paul Webb and drummer Lee Harris underwent a year of therapy (“we did a lot of flotation tanks, a lot of rebuilding”). The pair eventually worked together again as .O.rang for two albums and later reunited on Webb’s Rustin Man project with Beth Gibbons from Portishead.
Mark Hollis spent several years teaching himself to play the clarinet and learning to score for woodwind before entering the studio again to make the album initially intended as Mountains of the Moon – the second Talk Talk album in the Polydor deal – but released in 1998 as a solo album. Sales were modest, and the album was deleted within a year.