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After The Flood: Talk Talk's Laughing Stock 20-Years On
Wyndham Wallace , September 12th, 2011 12:41

A triumph of art over commerce or ruthless, selfish exploitation? On the 20th anniversary of its release, Wyndham Wallace looks at the complex story behind Talk Talk’s final, legendary album

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Listen to Laughing Stock on Spotify here

There are many remarkable aspects to the story of Talk Talk’s fifth and final album, Laughing Stock. It took a year to make, and most of what was put to tape ended up on the scrapheap. In London’s Wessex Studios, where it was recorded, windows were blacked out, clocks removed, and light sources limited to oil projectors and strobe lights. Around fifty musicians contributed to its making, but only eighteen ended up on the finished album. It was a commercial failure, critically reviled as much as it was praised, and was impossible to perform live. Then the band broke up, forcing fans to wait seven years before its central protagonist released any new music, something followed by almost complete silence. Laughing Stock is also shrouded in mystery: apart from limited comments made during brief bursts of promotional activity to promote their own even more limited work since, the three authors of the record – Mark Hollis (songwriter and founder), Tim Friese-Greene (producer and co-songwriter since their third album, The Colour Of Spring) and Lee Harris (drums, and the only other remaining member of the band’s original line up by the time of Laughing Stock) – have refused to discuss it for years. But the music remains, its reputation growing with each passing year since its release two decades ago: stark, bold, indefinable and the greatest testament to the band.

What’s even more remarkable, however, is the legend that has grown alongside its reputation, best summarised by Alan McGee in a blog written for The Guardian in 2008. “I find the whole story of one man against the system in a bid to maintain creative control incredibly heartening,” he wrote of Talk Talk’s central pillar, Mark Hollis. It’s a popular opinion, reflective of the fashionable belief that the exploitation of corporate powers for the sake of art is a laudable act. Everyone loves David and Goliath-style tales of the little man taking on the giant and winning, and those who care deeply about music recognise in Talk Talk’s story the triumph of art over commerce. In every note and every second of silence in their final two records lies the sound of a man who refused to compromise and took perfectionism to an extreme. The fact that Spirit Of Eden, their fourth album from 1988, and Laughing Stock, 1991’s grand finale, stiffed – relative to 1986’s world-conquering The Colour Of Spring, at least – means nothing alongside their artistic accomplishment and the fact that so many people talk about them in tones of hushed reverence. The record labels, the prevailing wisdom goes, were at fault: they didn’t have the imagination and intellect to recognise these albums were works of genius.

Certainly the argument sits well with romantic sensibilities. Major labels are villains and true artists are heroes. But is the story really so black and white? According to Talk Talk’s manager, Keith Aspden, who battled to secure the future of the band amidst increasingly difficult circumstances, it would seem not. Confronted by McGee’s statement, his response is as uncompromising as Hollis’ art. It is, he says, “Complete invention and wishful thinking by Alan McGee. Mark was always free to do whatever he wanted musically. There was no battle against any system. He created and performed what he could, without obvious reference to others artistically and, as time went by, without reference to commerciality. It was the freedom financially and lack of interference which allowed Mark to indulge himself in Spirit Of Eden, Laughing Stock and the Mark Hollis albums.”

In other words, Talk Talk’s labels were enablers of Hollis’ work. Their financial support, their willingness to support him in his endeavours and their belief in his talent are the very reasons that these albums exist. It’s a surprising, provocative response that goes against the grain of our very understanding of those records, but it’s also an honest and intriguing perspective worthy of closer examination. To do that, it’s necessary to consider the story of Talk Talk’s career in more detail.

Talk Talk had started out as a synthpop band, groomed to follow the success of label-mates Duran Duran by EMI with the pop pleasures of songs like ‘Dum Dum Girl’ and ‘It’s My Life’, later covered by No Doubt. They’d only used synths, Hollis would later claim, because they couldn’t afford real instruments and the musicians required to play them, so, following the chart success of their first two albums, The Colour Of Spring saw them pursue a more ambitious goal with the benefits of the cash they’d accrued. A far more organic sounding record, it birthed further hit singles, but these, it turns out, were not originally part of the plan. According to manager Keith Aspden, “I suggested they didn't have tracks recorded which could be played on the radio. In order to promote the album effectively they wrote ‘Life's What You Make It’ and re-worked ‘Living In Another World’.” The result was worldwide chart success and sales in excess of two million.

The band’s hearts, however, seemingly lay elsewhere, in the album’s two considerably more abstract tracks, ‘Chameleon Day’ and ‘April 5th’. It was further in this direction that they chose to travel when EMI sent them into the studio, unchecked, to record its follow-up. The label were hoping for another global chart smash, but instead, as David Stubbs memorably put it in Uncut in 2002, “when they re-emerged, it turned out that they had done what every megapop band talks about doing but so rarely does – i.e. what the fuck they wanted.”

“I think of the final two albums by Talk Talk as siblings very close in age. If Spirit of Eden is the older, pretty & sophisticated big sister who got all the A grades, then Laughing Stock is the wayward, grubby wee brother who got kicked out of school for skiving.”
Kenny Anderson aka King Creosote

EMI’s response was inevitable: they freaked. Spirit Of Eden, like Laughing Stock, is now considered a cult classic, but it’s only six tracks long, defies all notional conventions of pop structures, contains no single – though the label cobbled together an edit of its highlight, ‘I Believe In You’ – and was impossible to tour. Unable to be marketed by EMI’s traditional methods, it floundered, despite some highly complimentary coverage (amidst a fair amount of considerably more confused responses) and a UK Top 20 peak. Relations between the band and the label subsequently became so strained that Aspden began legal action to get them released from their contract. “There has been inaccurate speculation and comment about the court case with EMI,” he says today in an attempt to put the record straight, “but in essence our motivation in the court case with EMI was all about money and an opportunity to secure a better deal with another record company. EMI in our view had misinterpreted the meaning of the clause which specified when they should exercise their option. They lost the case on appeal.”

It’s here that the mythology of Talk Talk starts to take concrete shape. EMI responded by releasing a Best Of, Natural History, followed by an album of unauthorised remixes, prompting the band to sue. They won the case, forcing the label to withdraw the latter from sale, and Aspden went on to secure a new deal for the band with Polydor’s Verve imprint that, he says, “guaranteed full funding for Laughing Stock, without interference from the record company. They took full advantage of that situation and locked themselves away for the duration of recording.”

What went on in that studio strengthens the belief that Hollis was on a crusade to push boundaries and perfect his art on an even grander scale than Spirit Of Eden. Furnished with the opportunity to fulfil his most extreme creative instincts, he bedded down with Friese-Greene and Harris in a working environment inspired by recollections of working with Traffic in 1967 that engineer Phill Brown had shared with Hollis during their first meeting. “There was an effort to create a vibe in the studio sympathetic with the feel of the album,” Aspden remembers, and though Brown’s summary of its ingredients as “oil projections on the walls and ceiling, and no other light apart from a strobe” might be less notable under different circumstances, the duration of recording was to be a long one. “It took seven months in the studio,” recalls Brown, whose previous engineering credits also included David Bowie, Harry Nilsson, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and Bob Marley, “but we took a three month break in the middle. I guess from getting involved to studio recording, mixing and mastering took up a year of my time. It was a unique way to work. It took its toll on people, but gave great results.”

Hollis’ working methods were as intense as the surroundings, driven by his desire, as Aspden puts it, “to try and capture a sense of passion and spontaneity of a performance”. “There’s no way at the point when we go in (to the studio) that we know what this album will sound like,” Hollis commented in an interview recorded for a promotional cassette by journalist John Pidgeon for Verve around the album’s release. “All you ever know – and this would be true of the previous album – is you just go in knowing what the attitude is you want and that’s it. There’s no way I think you can go wrong on that because there is no right or wrong; the right and wrong is an internal thing.”

Hollis believed – according to Pidgeon’s interview – that “the first time something is played it is at its finest, and the minute you try to recreate that it becomes an imitation of something that was originally better… But… the problem with a lot of improvisation is that it meanders away from the point too much. So the thing that this time afforded us was to go in with people that we wanted to play with almost from an attitude point of view, give them absolute freedom in terms of what they play, so that everything they do play is free form, but then to construct an arrangement by taking little sections of that and building that up from there. But that takes a large amount of time because… ninety percent of what you play will be rubbish. If you’re improvising, if you get 10% which is any good then I think you’re doing really well. I think you’re doing amazingly well if you get half a percent!”

Laughing Stock was painstakingly assembled from sessions in which a vast cast of musicians were brought in “to improvise on sections without hearing the full track,” Aspden says. With just a basic chord structure at most, they were encouraged to try out anything their hearts encouraged them to, and then, thanks to the emerging digital technology, any results felt appropriate were employed, sometimes in places for which they had never originally been envisioned. Most of it never made the cut. “It takes a strong discipline to erase 80% of the music you record,” Brown observes. “Few have the discipline to get rid of ‘stuff’.” It is this, as much as anything, that gives Laughing Stock – like Spirit Of Eden, which had used similar methodology – its otherworldly, abstract, innovative character, but, though the procedure sounds random, Hollis himself was a perfectionist, precise in every choice he made, and the album retains a coherent structure, albeit one very different to what his former pop peers were employing.

“The creative route of all the Talk Talk recordings was decided by Mark, even when Mark mentions that Spirit Of Eden was a collaboration or cooperation of musicians, inferring that there was some democracy at play,” Aspden continues. “The choice of what to use and in what context was ultimately decided by Mark alone. I think there might have been difficult moments when whole recordings were scrapped and thrown away, for reasons not always apparent, which some people were attached to. (It was) probably a very bruising and discouraging process to endure at times.”

Anecdotal evidence suggests that this was true. “I had never had this massive psychological overload that the others did,” Friese-Greene told Penny Black Music in a rare interview in 2006. “I don’t think that Mark did either. I can understand why Phil in particular did, though. It took a long time to record. He was in a darkened room for a year listening to the same six tracks. There are albums that have taken longer to make but it must have been a particularly intensive experience and probably what forced him to have a period of readjustment afterwards.”

“There was divorce, breakdown”, Brown recalls. “It was intense. I have never worked on more focussed sessions though. And no – I wouldn’t work in the dark again. It was difficult getting back to ‘normal’ sessions.”

“As I listen to it, I more and more get the sense that the whole album is a mutation of a single idea; that a song is an uncertain thing. I could never imagine the album to be carefully rehearsed and reproduced. Rather, it's the sound of never-ending process. Not being a progression towards an ultimate end, the whole point is in the doing, of the present moment. Songs begin in silence, and then cut off mid-sentence, guitars and pianos are played VERY slowly and deliberately, Mark Hollis' voice is almost buried behind the (very quiet) instruments. Laughing Stock is simultaneously more serious, and more fun than Spirit of Eden, and with even fewer nods to convention, even less regard to what people might want. I think it's Talk Talk's most confusing album, their cleverest, their most vulnerable, and their best.”
Tom Fleming, Wild Beasts

Hollis had another obsession alongside his desire to capture the magic of spontaneity. “I think silence is an extremely important thing,” he told BBC Radio 1’s Richard Skinner in an interview around Laughing Stock’s release. “It isn’t something that should be abused. And that’s my biggest worry because of the whole way that communications have developed, that there is a tendency just to allow this background noise all the time rather than thinking about what is important.” He elaborated further while talking to John Pidgeon. “The silence is above everything, and I would rather hear one note than I would two, and I would rather hear silence than I would one note.”

This helps explain the fifteen seconds of amplifier hiss that open the record’s first track, ‘Myrrhman’, the huge amounts of space left in final track ‘Runeii’, and the overall sonic concept perfected by Friese-Greene and Brown, who declares second track ‘After The Flood’ to be “probably the best engineering for me in the past forty years.” Drums were miked far from the kit, sounds were allowed to echo through the studio space, mistakes were an integral part of the performance, and the album’s dynamics are entirely genuine, the live feel of a jazz recording combined with the abrasive qualities of rock and the instrumentation of classical music. Hollis was especially fascinated by the sound of Can’s Tago Mago, John Coltrane’s In A Perfect Mood – where “it sounds like the bloke’s setting his kit up” – and Bob Dylan’s New Morning, “because there, if you’re talking about sounds being honest, I don’t think you can get much more honest than that. It just sounds like the band’s in the front room with you.”

Its influence on the emerging sound of post-rock, as well as a whole host of acts since then – from Elbow to Bon Iver – is undeniable. “I hear Mark’s influence in Radiohead and Coldplay, and I think a bunch of young producers have adapted some of the ideas today,” argues Brown, citing Florence & The Machine as another example. But when they delivered the album to Polydor, the label, like EMI before them, were distraught, despite the fact that it was due to appear on their jazz imprint, Verve, which might have seemed well suited to Hollis’ experimental tendencies. The natural kneejerk response from those who applaud Hollis’ aesthetics is to condemn the label: they’d seen what had happened at EMI, so they must have known what they were in for. But Aspden reads things differently. “Polydor were quite reasonably hoping for a more commercial record than Laughing Stock,” he says, “and one which could be played by the band live. They got neither, but they did try to market the album as well as they could, given that there were no radio friendly tracks and no live element to hang any campaign on.”

At this stage, it’s worth remembering McGee’s testament that this is “the story of one man against the system in a bid to maintain creative control”. In fact, there doesn’t seem to be a huge amount of conflict in evidence: Hollis, funded by his label, was once again left alone to record his masterpiece, the label did their best to market it in order to recoup their investment, and bar a handful of interviews grudgingly endured – Vox magazine’s Betty Clarke quoted Hollis around Laughing Stock as saying “If you understand it, you do, if you don't, nothing I say will make you understand it. The only thing I can do by talking about it is detract from it. I can't add anything. Can I go home now, then?" – they did little to support its release. One wonders whether McGee’s reaction would have been so magnanimous had Talk Talk been signed to Creation. His label, after all, was nearly brought to its knees when My Bloody Valentine spent two years attempting to record Loveless. Less than two years after Laughing Stock’s release, furthermore, he would force Slowdive to scrap most of their second album – according to singer Rachel Goswell in an interview with Melody Maker’s Ian Watson – after telling them that, “I see you’ve got no songs. They’re all shit.” McGee was protecting his investment, and simultaneously interfering with the band’s creative process. To characterise EMI and Polydor as philistine brutes for defending their right to a commercial product that would reflect the level of their outlay is therefore, one might argue, a little hypocritical.

“Laughing Stock is an incredibly intuitive and bare recording - some songs feel like vapour trails. To me, every sound on the album is about death, like the songs are about to die, like a band of Beckett characters. But at the same time the album is so emotional. ‘After The Flood’ is like crying. After July 22 (the day of the 2011 attacks on Oslo), Laughing Stock was one of two records I wanted to listen to.”
Jenny Hval

Had Polydor’s confusion been unique, it might be easier to understand McGee’s summary of established views about Laughing Stock. The truth, though, is that many people were left baffled. Given the nature of Spirit Of Eden, the album should perhaps have come as less of a shock to anyone who was even half familiar with the band, but Laughing Stock divided critics right down the middle. “Most of the reviews and comments were hostile and negative,” Aspden says, and certainly David Quantick’s 4 out of 10 review for the NME was damning: “The whole thing is unutterably pretentious and looks over its shoulder hoping that someone will remark on its 'moody brilliance' or some such. It's horrible.” There was praise elsewhere, however: “Possibly the most important group we have,” concluded Jim Irvin, then of Melody Maker, while Ian Cranna observed that, while it might “put Talk Talk heavily at odds with the commercial charts where instant success is everything… it will be valued long after such superficial quick thrills are forgotten".

Cranna’s views were prescient. Laughing Stock is now considered to be a masterwork by many, its commercial shortcomings more than adequately justified by its artistic leaps. It’s difficult to listen to, but only initially, due to its alien, groundbreaking characteristics: sounds emerge from nowhere, guitar solos are made up of one solitary note, Hollis’ vocals are often mumbled, even murmured, it leaps from moments of quiet quasi-ambience to rushes of angry noise. It’s also breathtakingly beautiful, uncannily bewitching, unlike almost anything else recorded before or since, and full of moments of melodic, poignant wonder. But if it was an uncompromising album, it also made uncompromising demands of its audience.

“The record is meant to be listened to in one sitting and you can't appreciate it totally unless you do that,” Hollis told Steve Sutherland in an interview with Melody Maker. “I don't think it's asking too much to expect people to at least concentrate on what's there, actually listen with a totally open mind. I'm not in the position where I need to make the sort of album other people want any more, I can decide what to do and how those ideas get developed, but I hope in the end to be understood for the music I do decide to put out and meaning and sense the music has.”

Hollis emphasised the same theme with Pidgeon, telling him, “I think there’s an amount of work you have to do to actually realise what’s within those albums. Maybe “work” at it is wrong, maybe that’s not the right word. No, all I mean is, you actually need to listen to it. That’s all it is. That you don’t do it while you’re doing other things because I think you’re just not going to pick up on it. It doesn’t require any intellect. You’ve just got to listen.”

Whether these were justifiable expectations is irrelevant: audiences rarely respond to records with the attention that their creators desire, and Hollis knew this. He didn’t care, one suspects, as long as he had pleased his creative muse. He’d made his magnum opus, and that was as far as his responsibilities went. On many levels this is an admirable stance: there are far too many compromises in the world of ‘popular music’. But speculation about his label working against him and contributing to the record’s failure is arguably inaccurate. Hollis himself failed to contribute much to its shelf life once he’d handed it over, and can’t have been too unhappy about what followed given that he returned to the label seven years later with an equally difficult solo album.

Sales, inevitably, were poor, especially in comparison to the band’s commercially glorious days (though an attempt by The Quietus to collect hard data for just how few it has shifted proved fruitless – the record is no longer included in the sales systems of Universal Records, who now own Polydor). Laughing Stock peaked at number 26 in the UK charts and by the end of the 1990s the label had handed the rights back to the band. (Aspden believes the record remains un-recouped). Hollis released a solo album in 1998, and since then not one new song of his own has seen the light of day. Some like to say that this is because the music industry ground him down. Aspden disputes this too: “It's tempting to blame others for Mark's retirement,” he states, “but I believe he just ran out of ideas and inspiration and had a chance to lead a comfortable and stress free life with his wife and children. Can't fault him for that.” Asked what Hollis is up to now, Aspden merely adds that, “the only thing I can say about Mark is that he doesn't seem to want to be associated with this part of his life at all. Perhaps he always needed a collaborator to realise his musical ideas, but could never allow a true collaboration because he was always determined to have his own way, no matter what.”

“Both The Colour Of Spring and Laughing Stock were so unique in their musical journeys, especially for that period, closer to records by artists like Miles Davis and Terry Callier than the synthpop success they had previously crafted. What blew my mind was the way the records sounded, and the sonic journey, both vocally and instrumentally, you were taken on. They felt so unique, strange, abstract, creating these beautiful eclectic musical collages. The way there are so many layers to the records made you go back and listen time after time, always discovering new parts along the way. Combined with the mythical recording processes they went through to make the records, it's everything I love in a band and album.”
James Lavelle, UNKLE

The idea that Hollis had battled the system and won perhaps comes from wish-fulfilment on the part of those who see his bankers as even more exploitative than Hollis himself. It’s a projection of our own yearning to see art victorious over commercial blandness. Talk Talk may have needed to protect their legacy from EMI’s attempts to milk the cash cow with a questionable set of remixes – though Aspden points out that “up to that point they (EMI) had been a very accommodating and easy company to work with” – but otherwise the band’s labels don’t actually seem to have been greatly at fault.

“I was more than frustrated by what went on,” Aspden admits. “It was an opportunity which few are given, squandered remorselessly. None of the band speak to each other and there is no contact between Mark or Tim Friese-Greene, something I find particularly sad.” He makes it clear that he still loves Laughing Stock, but adds that, “I felt sorry for (Polydor’s UK Managing Director) David Munns, who had put so much faith and money in the band to be handed something so genuinely artistic but totally unmarketable. (His) honest enthusiasm was ruthlessly exploited, and he was delivered records Polydor had no hope of recouping their considerable investment (on). I think if you take a lot of money and control from someone, even if it's a record company, there is an unsaid understanding that you should give them something they can sell in return and this wasn't done. Mark had his cake and ate it all himself.”

Sympathy for the record industry is a rarely expressed emotion, but that doesn’t make Aspden’s take on what went down any less perceptive. The mythology propagated by McGee and those who subscribe to his doctrine is more to do with the Blakeian extravagance of a band who immersed themselves in a darkened recording studio for the best part of a year, bringing at least some of the participants to the edge of a breakdown; who boasted that their improvisations were successful even if only “half a percent” of their musicians’ improvisations were useable; and who then chose to provide virtually no explanation for the record’s existence. “One man against the system” is far too simplistic an analysis, even if it does provide a convenient, familiar narrative, and it’s perhaps time to acknowledge that, as guilty as major labels are of shovelling shit on a daily basis, there are people within their walls who truly believe that they are fostering the making of valuable music and who put their careers on the line for those musicians’ sakes. Hollis’ actions, meanwhile, could even be considered foolhardy: having fed off his paymaster’s generosity, he offered them records that were next to impossible to sell, and the legal battles that followed, in the case of Spirit Of Eden, caused contracts to be adjusted so that (according to an interview Phill Brown conducted with Tape Op magazine) bands and producers would in future be responsible for delivering masters that could be considered “commercially satisfying”. Hollis’ artistic freedom came at a price to others.

Ultimately, it’s unimportant whether or not Hollis was a visionary battling ‘The Man’. Laughing Stock, like Spirit Of Eden, is a magnificent, courageous record that has broadened the horizons of countless fans and musicians, mainstream and underground alike. The story of its making certainly adds colour and mystery to the context in which we hear it, but there’s no need to invest into it undue allegorical weight. The music itself is remarkable enough, and the more we presume to know about it, the less likely it is that the notoriously publicity-shy Hollis – now 56 years old and last heard on UNKLE’s Psyence Fiction in 1998 and Anja Garbarek’s Smiling & Waving in 2001 – will ever return to making music.

“I think without question it would be nice to think maybe someone might hear this album in ten years time and think it was a good album,” Hollis told John Pidgeon back in 1991. “But that’s nothing I would spend time worrying about. I would only think about that when I was making the album… but even then I don’t know if I would think about it. Because you just work within the present…”

And that, perhaps, is how best to hear it: in the present, in one sitting, in gratitude to those who made it and to the people who enabled its creation…

With thanks to Keith Aspden, Phill Brown, Kathy Welch, Paul Sandell, John Pidgeon, Within Without and The Next Big Thing. Phill Brown’s memoir, Are We Still Rolling?: Studios, Drugs and Rock 'n' Roll - One Man's Journey Recording Classic Albums, is available here

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Sep 12, 2011 8:03pm

Ba Da Bing records will re-issue remastered vinyl editions of Laughing Stock and Mark Hollis solo

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Warren Hatter
Sep 12, 2011 8:40pm

It's a rare thing that an article on the net is 'upputdownable' but this is. And thanks for prompting me to put on this incredible album that I haven't listened to for years.

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Sep 13, 2011 7:51am

I bought this album when it came out and can't believe it is 20 years old. It is still an amazing piece of work. "New Grass" in particular is stunning.

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Sep 13, 2011 9:24am

The best piece of music journalism I've read in a long while. Thanks. This is a record that holds a great deal of associations and memories for me, and is a record that has always seemed to me, intentionally or not, very pastoral, and in some places, even bucolic. There was a very good interview in The Wire around the time of the release of the Mark Hollis album when Hollis expressed his admiration for Morton Feldman, a composer whose influence I reckon tinges the corners of Laughing Stock.

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Sep 13, 2011 9:49am


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Sep 13, 2011 1:02pm

Good article - though perhaps unnecessarily structured around the rebuttal of McGee. Who cares what he thinks? It's hardly the 'accepted version' of the story. The big dilemma at the heart of all this, as the article itself touches on, is how to balance the artistic impulse with the commercial imperative. Everytime a Laughing Stock is made, at great cost to its financiers, and produces zero sales, the opportunity for the next such venture diminishes. No one is in the business of funding albums which take years to find their audiences...

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Sep 13, 2011 1:48pm

Fabulous piece Wyndham. I'm not sure people who love this record would ever hold much stock in Alan McGee's opinion on it's legacy though. He possibly buys into the mythologizing of Never Mind The Bollocks too.

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Justin Carter
Sep 13, 2011 4:23pm

Reading this on the way home from work.
Very good, insightful piece about a truly special talent and a wonderful and until fairly recently, forgotten album that I have not played in a long time. Thank you for this.
I know what I will be listening to tonight.

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Sep 13, 2011 5:41pm

A brilliant article, Hollis was a genius and let’s not forget the drums of LEE. Both Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock captured silence within music.

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Donal Flanagan
Sep 13, 2011 7:49pm

Great feature. Brilliantly researched. Quite possibly my favorite record of all time (if had to measure on repeated listens) and so unlike any other. Have listened to it about once per month for over 6 years now and you find new shiny sounds and empty spaces every time.

I have no idea what most tracks are called or what Hollis is singing about. Loss is an obvious theme from the raw emotion in his voice; from the opening ‘farewell…’.

It just takes you to places.....Great to get some insight into the inspiration and recording process. Well done lads.

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mister laurie
Sep 13, 2011 10:56pm

so, Talk Talk haunt me still. I bought Talk Talk, the single, when it came out (it was 40p more than other singles, the swines) and have loved all of their records and grew up with and on them. The voyage out of New Romantic pop was a hard one and most, no, wait, ALL other stumbled.
That first single, Talk Talk, is still popular with me. Surprisingly spiteful vocal delivery.

It is a source of much regret that I never saw them play. And, bass player horrors aside, the Live In Montreux video is very much worth a look as a sop to that regret.

I still marvel at the career curve they had on a major. A rairty these days. Maybe PJH comes close. Maybe. Probably Radiohead too. Truly inspirational band. Truly inspirational records. A good piece from young Wyndy here too.

I guess what haunts me most is the ambition, the scope, the development and experimentation and the belief that must have powered it, to tear up the rule book so often.
Repeat the formula and cash in? Never!


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Sep 14, 2011 7:12am

Fantastic article. I've been meaning to listen to Talk Talk for a long time, but have never really got round to it. But I guess "Laughing Stock" would be a good place to start, it sounds incredible. Great Work to the author of this article, I'll get hold of the album as soon as I can.

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Michael Engelbrecht
Sep 14, 2011 7:52am

Funny enough, I interviewed Mark Hollis after the release of "Laughing Stock". I came from Germany, travelled by car, and when I came to the streets of Hammersmith, the big company of Talk Talk had put the cover on top of their building. the monumental cover turned around itself, so everybody could watch.
But, well not many would buy it at the time....

Meeting Mark Hollis was special (a small appartment near Angel). To me he still seemed exhausted from the long production and the night work, and the fight for the most detailed sounds. We talked about inspirational sources for the album, and his eyes started to glow in a way when we spoke about the piece "In A Sentimental Mood" played by Ellington and Coltrane - or Ornette Coleman´s "Free Jazz" - and the collaboration of Miles Davis and Gil Evans on "Porgy and Bess".

Still today, it is one of my favourite albums of all time!

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Sep 14, 2011 9:45am

Excellent work Wyndham, this is one of the finest pieces of music journalism I've read on The Quietus (on the 'net, in fact!) in some time...

Talk Talk remain a curiously undervalued ensemble, even by "fans" like me. It's been ages since I delved into their back catalogue - I'm going to listen to ALL OF IT at the weekend on the back of this article, from the first album to the last. Can't wait.

For all the hyperbole, re: Spirit Of Eden / Laughing Stock, earlier songs like "It's My Life" still sound incredible too - it's tightlipped video (you'll find it on Youtube) still impresses.

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Sep 14, 2011 11:28am

In reply to Rooksby:

Echo all the sentiment above - I spotted this article yesterday and had to wait until all the kids were down last night to read it. As unputdownable as a smart phone article can be ! Totally took me back to those old Mojo articles on your favourite band that you just didn't want to reach the end of. Excellent journalism. Also agree with previous poster on the earlier material- it obviously overdoes it with the synth but Hollis voice is as magnificent as the latter albums. Sky Arts showed Montreux a few weeks ago - incredible footage once you get over the 80ness if it all. Thanks for the article - more of the same please !

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martin stebbing
Sep 14, 2011 4:04pm

2 works of stunning beauty and dark horror. I wasnt a huge fan of their pop stuff and was made to listen to these albums by a friend;
I was addicted in the 1st minute of spirit and have remained so ever since.
The back story is irrelevant.The music is not.

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Jimi Hey
Sep 15, 2011 7:18am

I've never heard of Wyndham Wallace before. But I won't forget that name from here on out. A masterfully composed article about a masterfully composed album. Thank you. Floored.

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Brian Yeo
Sep 21, 2011 8:37pm

Talk Talk and Mark Hollis in particular are among the most under-rated musicians that we have produced. I have followed the band from the synthpop days to Mark Hollis's solo album and even have "Missing Pieces". I find the music to be ultra cool as it just gets beneath your skin. The transformation of the band over the years was fantastic. They grew up musically as I grew up in years. I listen to all the albums on a regular basis. Its like listening (if possible) to a flower grow. As said here already, over the years it just sounds better and better. I urge anyone who has not listened to the band to start at the beginning and follow their story of development. You will grow with them.
Bless you Mark Hollis for bringing me this musical art.

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Sage Yedinak
Sep 23, 2011 4:38pm

An excellent article by Wallace and a terrific read. This album never fails to move me and it is interesting to see how so much has be said by those not involved in it's creation and so little by those that were. Thanks to Quietus for bringing this to us and Wyndham for the perspective.

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Alex Ballantyne
Oct 2, 2011 2:24pm

This is the best piece of music I have, modern or otherwise. I have listened to these pieces of music, over and over and over again. I will never tire of it. GENIUS, is it's only description.

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Oct 3, 2011 11:19pm

Nice article though it does overdo the man versus the machine aspect a bit. There should be room be albums. "Spirit of Eden" and "Laughing Stock" fit in the space of Miles Davis' "Sketches of Spain" or Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon". Yes, you can cull singles from them but they are *so* much better altogether. Music has the space for this - think of the classical arrangements that gave us the size of the CD or concerts where one is immersed.

The recordings themselves are simply beautiful. I've used them in the past to test hifi equipment - does the hiss at the start of "Laughing Stock" come through?

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mark hajek
Oct 27, 2011 12:52am

and finally the re-issue of what i feel to be one of the best albums ever recorded, talk talk's 'laughing stock' is out on vinyl, to be loved all over again.
this work of genius, rivals anything radiohead, eno and even miles ever produced. if you haven't ever heard this album, do yourself a favour when you're in the mood for an epic of sublime proportions, don your headphones and go way to a place you've never been. for some of us, this is one of the reasons we say that music is religion.

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Nov 21, 2011 1:35am

Much enjoyed this remembrance of a seminal recording. While reading, I was listening to one of my Pandora stations, that I entitled "Post Post". Fitting that "Silent Pool", by See Feel was playing...

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Dec 3, 2011 3:56am

I had no idea .... grabbed the vinyl album, after only really knowing their more commercial synth pop.
This truly needs to be listened to in its entirety; in one go with nothing else going on in a darkened room.
It kind of reminds me of The Wall in that way.
I really enjoyed the journey, and will only be playing it when I can devote the time and attention that it deserves and requires.
If it din't/wouldn't sell back then, imagine it today.
In a world of MP3 and iPod docs loaded to "shuffle" ... today's ADHT generation wouldn't buy a single copy. A stretch back then, impossible today.

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Dec 7, 2011 10:15pm

absolutely the greatests i've ever heard in my life... still remember them all...still miss them...but "the party's over"... such a shame...

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phill brown
Dec 8, 2011 7:05pm

Why are you listening to Keith Aspden?

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Luke Thinnes
Dec 16, 2011 6:37am

Thank you for this article. I found the interview where Hollis discussed all of the things you mentioned here. But Laughing Stock is beyond words. It's beyond life. It's beyond anything to ever exist, past, present, and future. You brought up an interesting point here in regards to their label dispute around the time of Spirit of Eden.. Never thought of it from that perspective. I will say this though. If you're sympathy for the label is what challenges your appreciation for Laughing Stock, you're completely overlooking how amazing the content of the record really is. Music never needs to be 'marketable,' or 'commercial,' if it needs to be anything for a label to release, then that should be enjoyable. And I think this is the most enjoyable music ever made, closely followed with the Mark Hollis LP. The originality, the production, the material.. All flawless. Transcendental.

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Tony Bell
Feb 9, 2012 11:40am

I sat down tonight to put my CD's on my new computer starting with my favorites. Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock are at the top, and I never knew anyone else that even liked them, so I thought to look on the internet. It's very nice to find your article. My theory about Mark Hollis is that he had made the music he had to. The stuff is so beautiful I think he was possessed during its creation. If so he is quite right to go onwards to something else. "Life's what what you make it. Celebrate it."

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Feb 12, 2012 3:39pm

In reply to Tony Bell:

^i'd hesitate to call it divine inspiration, but you really do have to wonder just where it came from

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Feb 17, 2012 7:55am

Great Article!
Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock as well as the solo album of Marc are and will be always in my TOP 10! It's a soul journey transformed into music...when I listened first time to Spirit of Eden when I was sixteen, it opened a gate to another existence, same did Laughing Stock...I admire those musicians for transforming "being human" into such masterpieces.

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Feb 25, 2012 8:27am

I concur. Brilliant piece, well done.

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May 2, 2012 12:09pm

In reply to oceanRain:

Only just came across this article which I found to be brilliant! Long time massive Talk Talk fan, I listen to Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock all the time. Two of the best albums ever created.
I keep Googling Talk Talk and Hollis hoping for some new news but the longer the silence the more depressing it is.

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Jul 25, 2012 7:32pm

Of course, I agree with all the comments regarding SoE and LS but let's not forget what a wonderful, inspirational and strange record The Colour of Spring was back in the musical climate of 1986. I always hear talk of Hollis attempting to 'alienate the fans' but that's not how I saw it; he was giving the true fans who heard something entirely new in Chameleon Days and April 5th something in the same direction. I was in a band in the 80s and remember playing Spirit to the other members and them being completely put off, even ridiculing my taste for hailing it as a work of genius (I bought all three formats too!) Mind you, they also said the same about my love of The Blue Nile's Hats.

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richard pievaitis
Jul 29, 2012 11:52pm

in a recent issue of the new Prog magazine there was an article "were talk talk a prog band ?"well imagine some of the ill informed answers to that question-mainly by folk who only heard talk talk or its my life i suppose.but hopefully the article did then go on to persuade more open minded listeners that the latter albums from colour of spring onwards WERE the work of a truly "progressive "band at work.
a must see is the Montreux concert from 86.what a tight band they were for alienation towards his fans-absolute rubbish-MH is so reserved and almost like the early peter gabriel.he seems genuinely moved at the reception they get after every song is played even the harder ones from "tcos".a superb tight live band.but when will we get the 5.1 dvda/sacds in multi channel format even blu ray format perhaps.
as for new music,well i keep praying to my gods !!!!!!

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David T Hunt
Jan 6, 2013 4:11am

A dear friend gave me the Laughing Stock CD in 1997...and it sat on my shelf almost six years before I listened to it. Since that first experience listening to it, I have kicked myself for being such a fool. This is, by far, the most beautiful music I have ever heard in my life. It is timeless...

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Sue Grant
Feb 5, 2013 12:16pm

Interesting article about an album that's brilliant, amazing, daring, courageous and still sounds like nothing else, then or now.

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Jun 26, 2013 8:31am

Great article, the best on "Laughing Stock" I've found. But one quote really knocked my socks off, i.e. "[Mark Hollis being influenced by] John Coltrane’s In A Perfect Mood – where “'it sounds like the bloke’s setting his kit up'...?"

John Coltrane never recorded anything called "In a Perfect Mood". He did record "In a Sentimental Mood" (with Duke Ellington), which is beautiful, but also one of JC's most traditional recordings. It is absolutley beautiful, but I can't possibly imagine anyone referring to it as sounding "like the bloke's setting his kit up".

I suppose that particular reference - if it means anything - was to Elvin Jones and/or Rasheed Ali drumming during Trane's later/free period. But there is no "Perfect Mood" there. (It would have been a silly title too, don't you think?)

Anyway, a strange mix-up. Maybe it's just another example of Mark Holling messing around with the interviewer's lack of knowledge and somehow the writer of this article just copied it without checking?

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David Tutton
Mar 20, 2015 8:46pm

Great article. The only issue I would have with giving the balanced view, refreshingly debunking the "evil record company" myth is that now, 25 years on, Hollis is vindicated. We all still listen to both Laughing Stock and Eden, with the brilliant - young - Jon Hopkins referencing him as his favourite all-time artist for example, despite the nastiness of the experience for those involved in the recording process way back then. Great art involves great sacrifice, or so they tell me. Still though, brilliant article worthy of a magnificent album.

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alan whyte
May 12, 2015 11:35pm

What a great article. I stumbled across the Mark hollis album about 6 months ago and loved it. Got laughing stock about a month ago and am amazed at what a unique masterpiece it is. One of those ones to listen to in the dark with a pair of headphones. Going to soak it up for a few months then look forward to hearing Spirit of Eden

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David Roycroft
May 17, 2015 7:55am

Just read this very interesting great band - I hope to get Laughing stock orginal vinyl.

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Dec 13, 2015 11:41am

excellent article, cheers

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Ed Hinton
May 16, 2016 7:15pm

20 years?

Oh well, ok...

Time itself has never been the same since I first listened to this album anyway.

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May 18, 2016 3:06am


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May 18, 2016 3:07am

thanks for prompting me to put on this incredible album that I haven't listened to for years.

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harga kia picanto
May 18, 2016 3:23am

It's a rare thing that an article on the net is 'upputdownable' but this is. And thanks for prompting me to put on this incredible album that I haven't listened to for years.

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harga kawasaki ninja 650
May 18, 2016 3:25am

There was a very good interview in The Wire around the time of the release of the Mark Hollis album when Hollis expressed his admiration for Morton Feldman, a composer whose influence I reckon tinges the corners of Laughing Stock.

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Sep 10, 2016 7:32am

One of the best music articles I have read, let alone about one of the best, if not the best albums of the past quarter century. Thank you, thank you.

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Sep 19, 2017 4:10pm

In reply to mister laurie:

Having only seen bits of the show, I wonder what you mean by "bass player horrors".

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