Wednesday, 5 May 2010

12. The Party's Over - Talk Talk

Purchased : September 1982

Tracks : Talk Talk / It's So Serious / Today / The Party's Over / Hate / Have You Heard The News / Mirror Man / Another Word / Candy

Marcello advises avoiding Received Opinion and I'm certainly doing that here when I declare this to be one of my favourite LPs of all time. Not even the band themselves seemed very fond of it. The main sculptor of its sound, keyboard player Simon Brenner was ejected from the band when they finished touring it. When I saw them in Leeds in 1986 they didn't play a single song from it.

But no matter, it was the perfect LP for me at the time it was released. I wrapped myself up in its melodramatic gloom and despair, singing it over and over again to myself in all too frequent moments of solitude. I'll use the italics button to distinguish my contemporary interpretations from what I discern now with my head in a different place.

It actually took me a while to tune in to Talk Talk amid the howls of derision directed at EMI's "next big thing". Their first single "Mirror Man" got little airplay and didn't stand out for me; I was more impressed with the next one "Talk Talk" though still inclined to listen to those dismissing them as Duran wannabes. It was their appearance on the little lamented "David Essex Showcase" with third single "Today" that made me sit up and take notice. OK, it's not hard to stand out from the likes of Philip Jap and Toto Coelo but I thought "Today" was a great song, full of atmosphere and drama. Then Jim Reid in Record Mirror (not a writer I normally had much time for ) did a piece on the band which really sold the album (contrary to the review by Simon Ludgate which was a hatchet job).

It starts with the original single version of "Talk Talk" (it was re-mixed for a second more successful crack at the charts in the autumn of 1982). Like "Enola Gay" it starts with a few seconds of electronic percussion then Brenner comes in with a mighty chord closely followed by Lee Harris's crashing drums and Paul Webb's questioning, somewhat elusive , fretless bass. Then Mark Hollis enters with his protesting "Heys" He's got something to say and Brenner backs out to give him some space. For all the accusations of plaigiarism aimed at the band no one before or since has sounded like Hollis, his adenoidal angst laced with punk aggression. The lyric puts us back in Martin Fry territory with Hollis being given the runaround by a girl who can talk her way out of trouble but you suspect that he won't be able to break away. His denunciation "All you do to me is talk talk" as Brenner returns to the fray is desperate. Brenner switches to piano for the third verse and he and Harris build up a storm behind Hollis's accusations until once again we break into the chorus and this time it never stops until the song fades out. The cycle continues ; there is no escape.

For me it was about the shallow ,fragile relationships that had to pass for friendship in those last two years at school. You'll talk to me but won't go on a walk with me or let me influence your lives in any meaningful way.

The second track "It's So Serious" is the only one I found a bit disappointing, I think
because the melodrama is in the lyrics rather than the music. Brenner keeps to the same arpeggio throughout the verse then switches to synth washes for the chorus and middle eight but eschews the big blocking chords used elsewhere on the LP. The lyrics are full of images of depression "a child without a toy" " a cloud before my eyes" but the chorus melody is actually quite uplifting.

I didn't like the song enough to project myself into it

Then it's "Today" with that cold wind of synth leading into a sparse soundscape of chattering syndrums, a buzzsaw synth pulse, unyielding mellotron phrases and Webb's bass apparently struggling to hold the melody line. I think we've gone a stage further here and Hollis is singing about full-blown mental illness and being incarcerated for it. The video with its long corridors of doors gives another clue. Harris's manic crashes at the end of the song could signify someone thrashing around in a straitjacket as Hollis's final "a dream away " becomes an echo.

The "it" of "Today, it's a dream away" is the Travelling Society, now defunct and unrevivable. The world turns; you've got to "move about as values change".And if the new world is unappealing or unfriendly to you then you must retreat to your cell and brood.

Then we come to the title track, still one of my all time favourite recordings. It starts in sprightly fashion with Brenner's restless arpeggios sitting on top of Harris's jazzy drum patterns (we start to hear the fruits of Hollis's infatuation with jazz) and the occasional bass note from Webb to move things along. Hollis sings a couple of verses seemingly resigned to the march of time. Then it moves up a gear, Brenner turns on the mellotron and Hollis demands "Take a look at the kids !" and speaks of a crime. This person has done something as a result of their despair; this could soundtrack one of those melodramas about plastic surgery gone wrong. One more verse and chorus then things get really Gothic. Harris shifts the song into rock mode and Brenner plays some big minor chords. Hollis wails for relief from "this punishment" and demands to know what his crime is. Eventually he disappears into the mix and we're left with a simple glockenspiel melody underneath the unrelenting mellotron chords.

Not much re-interpretation needed here. The party had ended for me. One factor in the destruction of the Travelling Society was my insecure prodding and poking of my friend Michael to test the limits of our friendship - "this crime of being uncertain of your love". The punishment was this aching sense of loss and isolation and the fear that at 17, my best days were already behind me.

Side Two starts with the uncompromising "Hate" which is Harris's chance to shine. It starts with Brenner's doomy chords and Webb's singsong bass then Harris comes in first with cymbals then with two overlapping drum patterns in the midst of which Hollis screams "Hate". Here the despairing man is preparing to lash out "My foes beware, I'm tired of losing grace" though by the end of the song there is a sense of pulling back from the brink "I've found out I don't need hate". Harris never lets up and the middle eight begins with a drum solo a rarity in eighties pop and a reminder that these guys always went their own way.

My "hate" was focussed on the group of friends surrounding my love rival at school blaming them for distracting me from the necessary maintenance of my own friendship base. This song is my raging at them but the resolution is true too. He was actually a decent guy and some part of me was still capable of recognising that.

"Have You Heard The News" is a guilt-ridden song about causing some unspecified harm in an accident perhaps caused by reckless behaviour. One thinks of Lee Hughes or Amanda Knox here. Webb's fretless bass is the star here reflecting the restless torment of the narrator though Brenner is also impressive on the piano.

A less comfortable fit here as I patently didn't do Michael any harm. He just shrugged me off when he started work and perceived me as an irritant that his life would be better off without-"I'm so disposable you can throw me away " It was necessary to cast him as the true keeper of the flame of the Travelling Society and me as the sinner who'd wandered from the path but in reality we both did. Unfortunately I went up a blind alley - "What a fool I've been " and wanted to retreat but that wasn't possible.

"Mirror Man" next and it makes more sense in the context of the album rather than as a lead off single. Hollis's Mirror Man is a conforming narcissist who secretly admires a bohemian girl "the star of the road " (which grounds it nicely in suburban Southend) though after a middle eight full of dread some nasty fate (drugs ? ) seems to have befallen her -"See the state she's in". One of the more synth-y tracks, Brenner here deploys synthetic string sounds that are the equal of anything on "The Lexicon Of Love".

Shortly after I bought this my love rival started going out with the object of our mutual affections and she became less prissy, perming her hair and drinking the odd pint. Although that change actually preceded her going out with him this song became about her being corrupted by him.

"Another Word" is unique in the Talk Talk canon in not having Hollis's name in the songwriting credits. It was written solely by Paul Webb and with its references to "soldiers" "graffitied walls" and "the riot" seems to have been inspired by the Troubles , the title perhaps suggesting that a different Word of God operates in Belfast. The vocals on the track remind me slightly of The Jam with Webb sharing the first line of the verses in the manner of Bruce Foxton. His backing vocals also sound very similar to his fellow bassist. Musically it's the most simplistic track based on Brenner's sequencer pulses with little ornamentation and surprisingly no bass guitar at all.

I was getting into dodgy territory with this one imagining that it painted some post-apocalyptic scenario. To the hurt and excluded this becomes attractive, have a cataclysm to shake up the natural order of things and hope to come out on top like Will Patton's photocopier salesman turned military dictator in "The Postman". It's the desire the Jehovah's Witnesses have exploited for decades. I was very prone to this way of thinking for the next couple of years , starting a novel on those lines until a good fairy at university compared it to Adrian Mole and thereby punctured the bubble.

The final track "Candy" is the one which most hints at their future direction with its slow dragging beat, Webb's fretless bass squalls and Brenner's jazzy piano fills (which make his sacking seem unjust). There are also points in the song where Hollis adopts the slurring vocal style also being employed by David Sylvian and Gary Numan at this time and which would predominate on their last two albums. Until now I've assumed Candy was an adulterous lover being chastised but listening to it again it may actually be a drug "When I tried to turn away, to feel new again", "surround myself with excuses" et al.

As a stranger to both girlfriends and drugs I couldn't do much with this one.

Today it tends to be damned with faint praise, interesting because of what they went on to rather than on its own merits. I don't care. I love it !

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