Talk Talk – Laughing Stock

Unless you’ve got a reason

The other day I ran across this Mark Hollis quote again. “Before you play two notes, learn how to play one note, y’know? And don’t play one note unless you’ve got a reason to play it.” It’s thirty years since “Laughing Stock” was released – and a good two and a half years since Mark Hollis passed away.

For more than one reason, this is a matter of life and death, a matter of choosing to do something or not, a matter of continuing on a path or taking a different one. Talk Talk were done after “Laughing Stock”, and even if Mark Hollis did publish a solo album seven years later, he was done with the music business too.

The relationship between the band and the labels that published their music had worsened from album to album, and it’s an almost stereotypical story – at least for those decades at the end of the 20th century. For labels like EMI a band like Talk Talk with all of those 80s synth pop hits was nothing but a cash cow and they felt that they basically owned the band and their music way beyond what was released.

The disgust that Hollis had for this is well documented, all the way to how he acted in the band’s videos, looking grumpy, mimicking the hated lip-syncing and consequently pissing off EMI big time. He was voicing his frustration openly too, saying that he wished he had never done it when he was asked about the video for “I Believe In You”.

The band’s manager Keith Aspden tried everything to get them out of the EMI contract and finally succeeded – only to be sued by EMI in return. It didn’t stop the label from cashing in on the band by releasing a Best Of album and a Remix album, never asking the band whether that was okay with them.

It’s baffling to look back and compare how record labels behaved in the 80 compared to the late sixties and early seventies. Back then, innovation and artistic expression were respected and given the necessary freedom, leading to a seemingly endless flow of creativity, experiment and invention, to Krautrock, Psychedelic, Electronic, Ambient and countless other forms of music that led to what Talk Talk had to offer. If “Spirit Of Eden” had been released in 1968 the label would have accepted the artists’ chosen path – but it was released in 1988 and the label sued the band because of the album’s lack of commercial success.

The end of Talk Talk is often attributed to the despicable behavior of EMI and the resulting decision of Hollis and his bandmates to just call it quits. On the other hand the band commented that after “Laughing Stock” they had taken Talk Talk as far as it would go and that they had said everything they had to say.

It could lead to the question whether the band might have had something more to say if the label hadn’t treated them like shit. But then – they did get out of the claws of EMI, being invited to publish this album on Verve – reportedly the label had been dormant at that time and was reactivated for Talk Talk. And one full listen of “Laughing Stock” is enough to understand that there is nowhere to go from an album like that.

The album really is that good, and it’s fun to tell people that Talk Talk are on the list of your ten best albums of all time. Most of them will only know a few of the early hits and have no idea just how beautiful their last two albums were. “Spirit Of Eden” had already shown what they were capable of, quiet and delicate, already much more minimalistic than its predecessor – and “Laughing Stock” took this a step further, edging ever closer to silence.

It already starts out with 17 seconds of almost complete quiet, making you look at the volume control of your device. “Myrrhman”, the opener, may not be the strongest piece on this album – but it is a great example of how the band (by then basically just Hollis and Tim Friese-Greene) produced somewhere on the edge of silence, instruments applied with the slightest of strokes, the few specks of drums almost inaudible, and Hollis’ voice sometimes disappearing behind the already quiet instrumentation.

I admit that I have no idea what Hollis is singing about on “Myrrhman”. There are some pretty bleak interpretations out there – and I really don’t care. Mark Hollis was never easy to understand, and I always felt that it was much more important to feel the lyrics than to fully comprehend the words, process them and form an opinion. I just listen to this and feel the awe every time.

Even more when “Ascension Day” comes with its incredible contrasts, sometimes loud and noisy, repetitive and a little irate, sometimes delicate and even spreading a slight air of Jazz, the song being about redemption, judgement day, fate maybe. The drums are magnificent, matching perfectly with the guitar when it builds to its final crescendo only to be cut when it almost gets too much.

It’s hard for me to say whether I love “After The Flood” or “New Grass” most on this album. To me, they are up there in heaven with Hollis, absolutely astonishing beauties. What Friese-Greene is doing on the organ on “After The Flood” has the power to make you cry for its beauty, for the hope and yearning and plaintiveness it carries towards us. Again, Hollis is using his guitar to scratch the surface of this impossible amount of beauty, goes on and on with distortion and persistence, until we have had enough of it – and then this heavenly chord comes in, first the guitar and then the organ with a solo that gets me every time.

It’s good that these two songs are separated by “Taphead”, giving me a bit of a break. It’s Talk Talk in its freest form, theatrical, abstract, scenic, the song sounding like an intricate composition and an improvisation at the same time. Clearly not the kind of song to just listen to on the side – it demands attention. The reward follows: “New Grass”. God, these drums… the guitar theme… the somehow hopeful atmosphere that even Hollis seems to be hinting at in his singing – it just all leaves me speechless.

The care that went into recording these wonderful songs is audible in every second of the album. Whether it’s the really quiet moments when you want to stop breathing to get every detail of what can be heard all the way to the massive finale of “Ascension Day” – this must be one of the most immaculate recordings ever made. Every detail gets the care and attention it deserves. It can not just be heard, it can be felt.

What is most fascinating is that even though “New Grass” is lightyears ahead of the synth pop of the band’s early years, it is totally and unmistakably Talk Talk. It’s Talk Talk gone to heaven, and “New Grass” is what takes them there. “Runeii” closes the album with indiscernible lyrics that are even impossible to comprehend when you read them. Does it matter? Not really. Hollis becomes one with the music, his lyrics maybe just having fallen into place during the long improvisations that led to this album, with no more meaning than what was felt in that moment.

When Talk Talk announced that this was the end (in spite of their contract that had been sealed for two, not just one album) Hollis said that he wanted to be with his family, and that it was important to him. “I choose for my family” he said, “Maybe others are capable of doing it, but I can’t go on tour and be a good dad at the same time.”

For a long time I was seriously angry at how vicious the music industry could be, thinking that it had caused so much misery and unhappiness that a fantastic band that made wonderful music saw no other option than to disband and stop making music. I hated the thought of having been denied so much more of this great music as a result.

In the end, it was all different. “Unless you’ve got a reason” was what he said. He had the best reason ever – he wanted to be a dad. It was the best decision he could make – even without knowing that he’d already go to heaven at age 64.

Release for review:

Buy the vinyl edition at Norman Records: Click
Or get it at Sound of Vinyl: Click
If sold out, get it on Discogs: Click

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