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  • Writer's pictureTony Harris


For those of us whose musical maturity emerged in the 80s, it is always something of a body blow when the decade's taste is written off as over-shiny and consequently over-produced, drowning under a torrent of gated reverb, sequencer patterns and fretless bass. And it's fair to say that some of the more popular records of the time have not stood up as well as we might have hoped.

Admittedly it was a decade that was capable of producing a very particular production sound that has not always aged well. However, the expansion through technology and the creative power at the fingertips of many studio engineers also produced some of the most interesting and best sounding albums that are a still a struggle to emulate even now.

It was a decade where the role of the producer came back to put their marker down so Trevor Horn could deliver "The Lexicon Of Love" for ABC, Thomas Dolby "Steve McQueen" for Prefab Sprout and Robin Millar "Diamond Life" for Sade for example. These are just three albums that sound wonderful even now and whilst the rock genre made some absolute production howlers (be careful with some of Eric Clapton's mid-decade LPs for instance), something such as "Brothers In Arms" is still felt to be one of the strongest productions delivered either to vinyl or digital format.

Often this was because bands went away to their studios for an age in order to work on their latest masterpiece and made every effort to ensure it was just right. Gone were the days of Creedence Clearwater Revival's three albums in a year (1969) and instead a band might disappear off the radar for two or three years while they perfected their meisterwerk.

For example, Tears For Fears spent almost four years, scrapping several versions of their recordings between "Songs From The Big Chair" and their even more epic "The Seeds Of Love" in 1989. The latter is an album that was absolutely worth the wait and the painstaking process put forward an expansive album that remains a joy still.

With less fanfare but no less creativity came 1986's "The Colour Of Spring'" by Talk Talk which is also still a wonderfully constructed album of incredible depth and texture. It is part orchestral and part free-form and yet is a pop album but one that defies categorisation (as so many of the best ones do).

The same can definitely be said of the band, themselves.

Talk Talk had emerged in 1982 and were considered (wrongly) as part of the New Romantic movement largely on the basis of supporting Duran Duran with whom they shared at the time a producer and record label and a penchant for a designer album sleeve.

They were pop for sure but considerably more enigmatic than their label mates and it must be said less successful. Still, the label backed them for their second album which was a much closer reflection of their musical mission. Unfortunately, "It's My Life" was not a particular success in the UK despite the strong title track and its equally powerful follow-ups "Dum Dum Girl" and "Such A Shame". None of these made the UK Top 40 but did find an audience in Continental Europe where the album proved to find a much more willing audience.

This sophomore album already showed how the band were much keener in opening up the possibilities of how they could create a far more organic sound combined with a softer vocal approach. Mark Hollis had emerged originally from the punk scene and the first album still bears the mark of his more strident singing style (listen to their eponymous single - much more Elvis Costello than Visage for sure).

By the time of "It's My Life" he had developed his recognisable more haunting singing voice and it is very much another of the layers to the overall soundscape of Talk Talk rather than the spotlight.

This change in direction would reach its commercial zenith with their third album "Colour Of Spring" released two years later in 1986, where synths would put to the side and a far more natural feel was given to the sound.

From Lee Harris's opening drum pattern on "Happiness Is Easy", it is quite clear that you are about to hear something far more challenging from the band than previously produced. Indeed, there is something in the drum sound on this album that is unlike any other I can recall - and certainly from that vintage - in that it seems almost warm. There is no doubt that it is hit hard but you can almost hear and feel each vibration of stick on drum head. It permeates the album and gives it a very thematic character. I look to my drumming correspondents to tell whether this is good or bad but I know I like it - they will doubtless laugh when I say the other place I hear something similar is with Mick Fleetwood's playing.

By the end of this opening track, a children's choir has appeared and creates a ghostly call and response effect - St Winifred's they are not - which creates an ambience that is unsettling and yet entirely persuasive.

As I said earlier, Mark Hollis's background had been in the punk movement and that spiky attitude seems to have stuck with him even if his musical style changed. He was a reluctant pop star and an awkward interviewee and as such, regularly had issues with his record company over his chosen direction. Hence, there is some disdain and contempt for authority in a significant amount of his work and perhaps none more so in "I Don't Believe In You" which has a melancholic mood allied with an angry pained vocal that again you would normally associate with a contemporary such as Elvis Costello.

Strangely, in the following album, "Spirit Of Eden" he would produce a song entitled "I Believe In You" which you might think would take a more optimistic line but instead outlines the horror of heroin addiction.

The mood has darkened by track three but then we come across the incredible worldwide hit "Life's What You Make It". Like so much of the album it is based around a repeating pattern - this time on piano underpinned with bass - that simply revolves throughout the song.

And yet at no point does it feel repetitive or dull but instead builds to a bigger and bigger finish and finally injects a note of (some) positivity into the proceedings with its final assurance that "everything's alright"; it almost feels as if the band are urging themselves on to find even the faintest chink of light.

The track was a late addition to the album as EMI were initially uncertain if any of the album was sufficiently commercial to provide a lead single (if they thought this one was tricky, wait until the next album would come around!) and challenged the band to produce one. Although initially reluctant, Hollis with producer Tim Friese-Greene took on the challenge and so emerged their most consistent hit.

The final closer of side 1 is the unusual "April 5th" which is an elegy to "the colour of spring" itself. This is another extraordinarily constructed piece - at moments like free-form jazz, with discordant musical interruptions which add to the drama rather than confuse. It's almost as if little parts of improvisation have been chopped up and edited together to make a multi-layered soundscape. Think "Tomorrow Never Knows" from "Revolver".

No wonder he pleads "let me breathe, let me breathe" because the intensity is astonishing in what seems such a sparse piece of music.

Side 2 has the album's epic (and my favourite) "Living In Another World" which again has a series of seemingly endless musical eddies that build and then drop you back to the start again. It seems so obviously to reflect the central lyrical theme of "help me find a way from this maze".

Again, there is pain in the vocal as it talks of a relationship where there seems so little common ground - tenderness versus Hell is especially dramatic. When asked, Hollis said that Jean Paul Sartre was his biggest influence in creating the lyrical narrative.

Once more it is the layering of sounds that give the song such power with Steve Winwood's crescendo of organ underpinning it all whilst there is blues-y harmonica and effect-heavy guitar (courtesy of The Pretenders' Robbie McIntosh) building a ceaseless musical tension that swirls and swirls.

Again the clear repetition of patterns allows the songs to build so dramatically and may explain why Talk Talk are one of the few bands whose extended remixes are so extremely listenable now, despite being nearly 9 minutes long. The hooks and themes on tracks such as "Give It Up" seem to be able to grow extra limbs without effort and never seem to lose their interest.

By the point we get to the final track the "Time. It's Time" you might feel that there are few

more surprises the album can offer you. And yet...

Firstly, there's a little run-up to the end with the short interlude of "Chameleon Song" which sounds like Erik Satie undergoing a little primal scream therapy

"Time It's Time" is probably the most enigmatic of all the songs on an entirely individual album. There's a nagging little piano line that then repeats over other instruments and then like "Living In Another World" builds layer upon layer as it builds until it drops you sharply only to start again. Finally, there is an incessant choir repeating the hook whilst what sounds like a melodica intervenes. It is a piece of incredible emotion in keeping with the power throughout the entire LP.

And then it fades out with you begging for more.

"The Colour Of Spring" sits somewhere between "The Hounds Of Love" by Kate Bush and the afore-mentioned "The Seeds Of Love" but it really defies categorisation, like any XTC album. However, its attention to detail and complex layering of sounds often in absolutely tiny interjections creates a record that is still enormously satisfying and involving.

It is experimental but not as much as its follow-up ("The Spirit Of Eden" - correspondingly more influenced by "The Dreaming" I feel) and so is not as critically acclaimed. I genuinely believe it is a finer album because it still does not lose sight of its pop sensibility. It may be complicated, it may be melancholy, it may be organic but it is still full of hooks and themes that make it incredibly listenable.

When Mark Hollis died last year, he had dropped out of music-making entirely as he had become disillusioned with the workings of the industry and its apparent deafness to his genius. There is no doubting he sensed the "outside-ness" of his musical vision but you can hear the craft in Peter Gabriel, the melancholy in Radiohead, the delicacy in Portishead, the intensity in Coldplay and so many others. The legacy of this album and this later period of their recording career cannot be over-stated.

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Feb 07, 2021

Well said, Tony. It took me longer than it should have to realise how extraordinary the band was, but I'm a full convert now. I've got everything (even those extended tracks) and never grow tired of playing their material because it has so many layers you can't "learn" it.

Totally with you on the drums, too. There's a lot on how it was all done in engineer Phill Brown's excellent book 'Are we still rolling?'

I'm sure you know that Mark's brother Ed got him started, being a DJ and manager of Eddie & The Hot Rods. It was his heroin addiction that Marl wrote about in an attempt to break him of it, but he didn't succeed and Ed…

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