Reverse Trajectory – Why Talk Talk Was The Best ’80s Band Ever

Talk Talk's Mark Hollis whips his hair back and forth.

Angela’s excellent post about Information Society got me thinking.  Before watching that totally DOS-ome video clip, I was only familiar with the band’s lame paen to new age sensitivity.  Why do almost all ‘ 80s bands follow the downward trajectory?  How is it that bands start out with such promise  only to degenerate into such utter twaddle?  I wanna know what they’re thinking.

The Human League are just one example among many.  The above video is a live clip from 1978 of the band performing their #1 single (!) “Being Boiled.”   Below is a fan video for “The Black Hit of Space,” chosen for the audio fidelity more than the video content.

The band started in the late ’70s as harder-edged  synth pop band along the lines of Gary Numan’s Tubeway Army.  Lineup changes drove them to a more commercial sound.  In the early ’80s, The Human League  hit the big time in the U.S. with new wave compilation staples “Don’t You Want Me” and “Fascination.”  Then, in 1986, with the help of cheezoid R&B producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Harris, the band excreted the album Crash and the insufferably insipid single, “Human.”

All the cocaine in the world can’t make that song sound good.  It encapsulates everything wrong with mid-to-late ’80s pop music.  It suffers the same sound-alike production that dominated that charts at the time.  And it arguably paved the way for Information Society’s sonic turd.  But you know who blazed the trail both Human League and Information Society would follow?

Unlike the other two bands, Talk Talk didn’t start out as strange, idealistic, idiosyncratic, underground band.  They emerged fully formed as a genuinely sucky new wave avatar.  But whereas most bands of the era went from good to bad, Talk Talk went from terrible to un-fucking-believably earth-shatteringly awesome.  Their first album, The Party’s Over, is anything but an auspicious debut record.  In fact, it’s shit. The single was actually an inferior version of a song by singer Mark Hollis’ earlier band, The Reactions.  Check out the original version here.

Talk Talk shifted their focus to better writing and songcraft that would put them above the new wave fray on their second album, It’s My Life.  Though far from good, it’s a vast improvement over their flaccid debut.  The title track is a decent pop song and shows a good deal of growth compared to their previous effort.  But the two years between It’s My Life and the band’s next record, The Colour Of Spring, would prove a pivotal time of transition during which Talk Talk began to shed its overtly pop tendencies and explore more interesting territory.

“Life’s What You Make It” is such a beautiful song that not even a Michelob beer commercial could ruin it.  Colour of Spring is an imperfect record filled with the tension of a band reaching for something  just out of reach.  The aesthetics are nearly there, with the more organic sound of “Life’s What You Make It” and “Give It Up” offering tantalizing hints of what was to come.

Nearly a quarter century after its release, Talk Talk’s 1988 record, Spirit of Eden still sounds like a record ahead of its time.  Incorporating elements of jazz and contemporary composition, the album is looked back upon as a touchstone of post-rock, inspiring bands as diverse as Tortoise and Radiohead.  But upon its release, the record was a commercial disaster.  One critic called it “the kind of record that makes marketers commit suicide.”  Spirit of Eden spawned no hit singles and wound up embroiling the band in a legal dispute with its label, EMI, who eventually  dropped the group.  But not before shooting the terribly dull video for the beautiful and haunting “I Believe In You.”

After parting company with EMI, Talk Talk were snatched up by Polydor, who probably had no idea what they were getting into.  If anything, 1991’s Laughing Stock was even weirder than its predecessor and, once again, produced no viable singles.  Perhaps more telling of the label’s sentiments is the fact that, at a time when music videos were vital to major label marketing, no videos were shot for any of the tracks on Laughing Stock.

In a case of what can only be described as karmic justice, the past several years have seen Talk Talk’s two final releases vindicated not only as great works of art, but are acknowledged as being major influences on the entire post-rock movement.  So it’s unclear how or why it happened, but Talk Talk went from corny new wave band to universally praised by the musical cognoscenti for making uncompromising music and evolving into something great at a time when every other band was devolving into hackneyed shadows of their former selves.  Can you think of any other band that had this sort of reverse trajectory?  A lot of people might vote for Radiohead.  I say they’ve had ups and downs.  I can’t think of another band that started so poorly and flamed out so brilliantly.  Which is why Talk Talk is the best ’80s band ever.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Reverse Trajectory – Why Talk Talk Was The Best ’80s Band Ever

  1. Angela Englert

    And thus began the Great Information Society Flame War of 2012. Kidding. But now YOUR post has got ME thinking…

  2. I wanna know what you’re thinking….

    • mark

      Was LWYMI used by Michelob in the US? I have a weird memory of that song and a commercial with a helicopter over scenery, but I can’t find any reference to it on TT sites or on Youtube? It’s killing me! Any info would be appreciated. Big fan of both TT and your site.

      • Sure enough. I can’t find the actual commercial anywhere on the net, but I did find this reference on the “Chicago Tribune”, which I guess kinda-sorta confirms it:

        Nowadays, the band may be better known for its beer commercial song, “Life`s What You Make It.“

        I remember the commercial, the neon beer light splashed across the screen a disheartening contrast to the song. Wish I had more proof, but then it would probably just make you sad to see the song abused like that.

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