Talk Talk are quite an esoteric band when it comes to discussing their legacy and influence. If you ask most people about the band, especially those who grew up in the ’80s, they’ll most likely know about them through such hits as “Talk Talk, “It’s My Life,” “Life’s What You Make It, ” and “Living In Another World.” And if you asked any other person about them who HASN’T heard of them, chances are they’ve probably heard of them without even knowing it; and that’s because of No Doubt’s cover of “It’s My Life.” But then there’s that other collective group of people who marvel over their diversely mercurial body of work, and are still baffled by how a group like Talk Talk could go from making synth-cluttered new wave music, to inadvertently pioneering a sub-genre now known as “post-rock” with their last two albums, 1989’s Spirit of Eden and 1991’s Laughing Stock.
Listening to any of the aforementioned Talk Talk albums is not just an entertaining experience, but an overwhelming spiritual one as well. The sounds, textures, timbres, and instrumentation that proliferate throughout are completely unlike their epochs. With elements of jazz, avant-garde, classical, krautrock, impressionism, and ambient dominating their creative integrity in these two masterful works of art, it’s still no wonder why they’re still discussed and analyzed today. And as great as their earlier records are, they are but an afterthought in comparison to the lavished experimentalism of their final musical statements.
Talk Talk’s impact can be felt in all quarters of modern indie and alternative music. Radiohead is a band that comes to mind when comparing bands that broke ground. Mark Hollis’s inventive and forward-thinking musicality puts him in the pantheon of creative visionaries like Brian Wilson, David Bowie, The Beatles, Prince, Phil Spector, and Miles Davis. So in honor of him, we present this list of fantastic songs by one of the most underrated bands of all time.
# 10 – The Last Time
This deep cut track, off of their 1984 album, It’s My Life, has a real Echo and the Bunnymen vibe underneath it’s bouncy synth. It’s infectiously foreboding, but with a hook that feels right at home in a nightclub. This is also the only track off of the album where bassist Paul Webb doesn’t play on; Mike Oldfield’s bassist, Phil Spalding, fills in instead.
# 9 -Talk Talk
When people tend to reflect on the New Romantic period of 1980’s music, this hit single is one of many that embodied it. It’s loud, funky, slinky, fun, and sure to get you dancing when played in the proper setting. Lyrically, “Talk Talk” could be interpreted as an aggressive shot at any person trying to screw you over or play with your emotions; this could apply to both men AND women. This was the second single released off of The Party’s Over.
# 8 – It’s My Life
This is one of the best pop songs to ever be put to wax, and because of Gwen Stefani and No Doubt, it finally reached a much wider audience over here in the states; it caused a sudden resurgence in Talk Talk’s popularity. It’s a good cover, version, no doubt (no pun intended), but the original just has a certain enchantment to it; thanks to Mark Hollis, Lee Harris, and Paul Webb.
This right here is classic pre-artsy Talk Talk; an anthemic repudiation of an unfaithful spouse…or at least that’s how I construe it. Whatever the tune’s about, it definitely possesses a pervasive euphony that’s still as popular today as it was more than thirty years ago.
# 7 – Life’s What You Make It
Now here’s where our list starts to excavate its way into the beginning of Talk Talk’s creative peak. “Life’s What You Make It” was the lead single off of their 1985 album, The Colour of Spring. The album in general, especially this song, marked the genesis of a newly formed band in full control of their musical output. This is art pop with a certain bluesy edge to it.
The song was conceived at the last minute by Hollis and keyboardist/producer Tim Friese-Greene, with a drum pattern apparently influenced by Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill.” “Life’s What You Make It,” as well as the next song on this list, are what melded Talk Talk into a group capable of making tasteful music.
# 6 – Living in Another World
This cyclic movement disguised as pop is one of the most mind-boggling, yet addictive songs; because it cascades you with multilayered arrangements not typically heard in a mainstream setting. It really plays out like a progressive pop tune, with droning piano and synths painted over jangling guitars, but then veers off into art rock territory with a harmonica wailing away after each chorus. Mark Hollis said that he was inspired by the modal jazz of Miles Davis, as well as 20th century French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. It should also be noted that Steve Winwood played organ on this song as well.
This period for Talk Talk would mark the end of their new wave/synth-pop phase. From here, they would undergo a transitional stage that would cement their legacy as a highly influential art rock band.
# 5 – Desire
And here’s where we begin, people. This is is the point where Talk Talk rejected their image as a formulaic pop act, and transformed into an experimental behemoth. 1989’s Spirit of Eden showcased the band, especially Mark Hollis, as an inimitable intellectual of musical ideas and creations. Pretty much everybody will tell you that this is the holy scripture when it comes to “post-rock.” And for those who don’t know what post-rock is, it’s a sub-genre of experimental rock that sought to use traditional rock instrumentals as a foundation for texture and sound, rather than standard melody and chord progressions.
With “Desire,” there’s a quiet ocean of softness in the midst of its guitar vibration, with saxophones wailing sweetly against this slow-grooving bassline, before erupting into a frantic yet lovely collage of noise rock. Tell me you can’t listen to this and not here OK Computer-era Radiohead clawing its way out.
# 4 – Ascension Day
When 1991’s Laughing Stock came out, it, like it’s predecessor, was completely overlooked by the general public. And that’s only because there was nothing like it for it’s time; you could drop this album in the ’60’s, ’70’s, or even now, and it still wouldn’t lose its luster. This record is an artistic statement that was meant to demonstrate the power and dynamics of “quiet” as a primary form of “loudness.” But while there is a backbone of post-rock holding the anatomy in place, there’s also an uninhibited level of krautrock and avant-jazz that lingers in this album as well; and that’s evident with Ascension Day.
This song, like the rest of the album, was built around hours of improvisation, as well as cutting and pasting certain parts together to create the final product you hear. That’s why the song cuts off abruptly at the end; that isn’t your speakers malfunctioning.
# 3 -The Rainbow
And that is so fascinating about these two albums: they were the product of hours upon hours of improvisation. Mark Hollis and Tim Friese-Greene brought in a dozen outside musicians and recorded them jamming, and after was all said and done, they would go back and find which little segment of said jam that they liked the best and spliced it into the composition. But every extraterrestrial sound and melody on these albums feels so structured; as if they’re taking you on a fantastical voyage through an auditory Utopia that you wished didn’t last forty minutes.
Such is the case with “The Rainbow,” the opening track off Spirit of Eden. This song is what gave birth to the post-rock categorization that would become the template for bands like Sigur Ros, Stereolab, and Mogwai. But then there’s a hint of Kid A-era Radiohead sprinkled in there as well. This song, like the rest of the album, is meditative catharsis.
# 2 – After the Flood
Listening to this nine minute epic from Laughing Stock is so nostalgic for me because it just takes you back to a point in time where things were quite carefree and innocent; but it also somewhat retains that “’90’s vibe” to it. But that’s not to say it still isn’t a puzzling song for it’s day. It carries on this beautiful keyboard motif throughout, but about halfway through it sort of spazzes out and goes into this Sonic Youth-esque wall of noise and feedback, before returning to it’s driving theme.
This brilliant piece of jazz/alt-rock/indie/dream pop/noise came from the same group who did “It’s My Life;” let that sink in.
1.) New Grass
Words can’t even describe this song; it’s one of the most divine creations to every sprout from human consciousness. I literally can’t stress this enough: Laughing Stock is one greatest albums of all time. Hollis and company really broke new ground with this record, and each listen gets even better than the last.
With a song like “New Grass,” it’s simply confounding that Mark Hollis and Talk Talk don’t get the credit they truly deserve; yes, they started out as an 80’s pop unit, but that’s what makes their metamorphosis a monumental one. Some may find the music pretentious or self-indulgent, but if you just sit down and at least listen to this song, you’ll realize that the music exists to move you; it makes you realize that reality is truly an indecipherable wonder where things like this make it worth living in.
As I was about to write this article, I had just heard the news that frontman and creative force behind the band, Mark Hollis, had passed away; details have yet to come out about his death. But this couldn’t have been a more fitting tribute to him by composing this article detailing some essential tracks from his group’s discography. So this is for Mark Hollis, and may he rest in peace.