Friday, January 07, 2011

Pre-Post Rock

Talk Talk: Live at Montreux 1986

25 years ago, during what would become their last ever live tour, Talk Talk played Montreux and to a packed crowd of mainly hysterical European fans. They didn't get this kind of reception in the UK; in fact, a few years earlier I was in the audience that watched them get booed off the stage at Milton Keynes Bowl when supporting Peter Gabriel and Genesis - not the most prudent of support bands, to be playing before a reunion of renowned prog rockers, but at least I got to see the band who would become my favourite band of all time, even if I did boo too!

The DVD of the show was released in October 2008 and was greeted with mixed reviews. Some excellent ones in the UK, where the band struggled to fulfil their European popularity until they'd just about disappeared and poor reviews in Europe, where the band were their most famous before they invented post-rock. In Germany especially, it seems that reviewers were not aware of singer Mark Hollis's penchant for introversion and shyness. One German reviewer complained about the band's 1980s appearance, which makes you wonder if said reviewer was aware the DVD was from a performance 23 years prior to its release.

The most obvious and striking thing about the film is indeed Mark Hollis. This was probably a couple of years before he reinvented Talk Talk and was shortly after him and Tim Friese-Greene had begun taking the band away from their Europop roots and into the realms of dark free-form rock. Hollis has never really been anything but an introvert; he rarely gave interviews, shied away from cameras and only Tim Pope, the man responsible for most of the band's videos, was able to get Hollis to 'be himself'. I often wonder if Hollis was surprised at the popularity he had, especially in Europe, when in reality he just wanted to produce music that was appreciated in his own country. Having said that, if it hadn't have been for the success of songs such as It's My Life and Such a Shame in Spain, France, Holland and Germany, then EMI would never have let them go off kilter with The Colour of Spring and then have an eppi when they delivered Spirit of Eden. Success enabled Hollis and Friese-Greene to experiment and produce music that appealed to them and in so doing that they dispensed with the standard band format and just got a bunch of musicians into a studio to jam until something good came out of it. But all of that happened after this Montreux appearance.

Hollis seems pretty timeless, standing on stage like a shy Damon Albarn, wearing a shirt and jeans and sockless sandals - he looks almost timeless, even if his hair and Lennon sunglasses point to time when fashion forgot itself. He sticks out like a sore thumb amongst his fellow stage musicians, who all look like rejects from 80s workout videos or Vivian Westwood fashion parades. And there was the fact that Hollis didn't say much; he thanked the audience and looked embarrassed and then he mentioned if a song was off the new album and just went into it; there was no witty banter or anecdotes, he was not a public speaker; which makes you wonder why he ever wanted to be the frontman in a rock band.

The set
  1. Talk Talk
  2. Dum Dum Girl
  3. Call In The Night Boy
  4. Tomorrow Started
  5. My Foolish Friend
  6. Life's What You Make It
  7. Does Caroline Know
  8. It's You
  9. Living In Another World
  10. Give It Up
  11. It's My Life
  12. I Don't Believe In You
  13. Such A Shame
  14. Renée
was a mixture of pure pop with a smattering of the post-rock band they would become. Tracks might not have had badinage between them, but Hollis occasionally would give the audience a hint of himself with solo snippets of Chameleon Day and the opening lines from Mirror Man; plus he was happy to just sit in front of the drums while the other musicians got on with their solos. I wondered whether or not he was really that happy with the jazzed up versions of the singles, with hints of flamenco, poodle rock and 80s disco beats, which seemed to be included for the European audience rather than for any artistic merit. John Turnbull, a much travelled session man, was the guitarist on this leg of their tour and I got the impression that was why he didn't appear on any of the Talk Talk albums that followed this show. His style and incredible mullet didn't seem to suit the band and the image they were, even then, trying to convey.

The only consistent thing about the entire show was Hollis's voice. Rarely does a singer have the ability to sound as good as he does after a producer and an engineer have been hold of it, but this man could and did. To the casual viewer there is even the bizarre look and feel that he might even be miming, because he is very accentuated in his enunciation and mouth movements. It's only when he forgets the mic is in front of him that you realise that he is human. The rest of the band, some of whom would just become session musicians for a band they once were full members of tried hard, but no one on that stage had the presence or the ability of Mark Hollis; which, in a strange way, makes the man even more of an enigma.

My one criticism of Talk Talk was that they always ended up doing the singles, because either the record company insisted on it or the band felt they would get a better reception. Playing the few new songs from The Colour of Spring they did, I wanted to see Time, It's Time performed or Happiness is Easy, not Living in Another World or Give it Up, regardless of how much better live they seemed. I Don't Believe in You could have been a highlight, but Hollis either forgot the bulk of the words or he felt it needed stripping down and remarkably two of the weakest tracks are the two greatest Talk Talk songs of all-time, even though they were written before the ascendency into art rock. Both It's My Life and Such a Shame lacked oomph because of what Friese-Greene managed to flesh the songs out with in the studio; these two classic songs lost a lot musically and were only salvaged from true mediocrity by Hollis's superb vocals and theatrical voice.

It is a fantastic document of 1986 Talk Talk and as there was never another concert filmed and never another tour, despite two more albums and a solo, it's the only real testament to one of the best bands that ever existed. I still see people expressing the wish to see Hollis perform or record again; there have been articles about the man's genius and very little about the fact he was extremely shy and grew to hate the music industry with a passion. His older brother Ed Hollis, formerly of Eddie and the Hotrods complained once about always being asked questions about his little brother and never about him or what he was doing and Hollis's withdrawal from public life has continued to cause discussion and speculation amongst rock and pop journalists. His last public appearance was to receive an award for writing It's My Life; he uttered the same four words that he was most commonly heard saying on stage during Talk Talk's career, "Thank you very much."

Hollis is now 55 and I think we are unlikely to see him produce music for anyone but himself ever again. Apparently the closest thing you can get to Talk Talk is Tim Friese-Greene's Heligoland project, which a lot of it is like a public appearance by Mark Hollis - as rare as rocking horse shit.

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