Daniel Williams celebrates the 30th anniversary of the release of Talk Talk’s boundary-pushing final album, ‘Laughing Stock’.
In the middle of 1991, enervated by life in London, I affixed panniers to my drop-handlebar road bike, packed them full of clothing and a few other personal belongings, and caught a ferry from Dover to Boulogne. Then I cycled into the heart of Normandy to a little village in which stood a cottage with a storm-damaged thatched roof. It belonged to a family member but work on renovating the property had stalled, so it was mine for free for six months. It was beyond basic – unfurnished, without any modern conveniences, and when it rained, water leaked into two of its three rooms. I set myself up in the third, and undertook a cleaning operation to make the place halfway habitable. Intuiting that I might need the company, a friendly neighbour lent me a radio-cassette player, allowing me to play the few tapes I’d brought with me on the off-chance.
In the early nineties, music seemed to be moving into a more exploratory phase, though perhaps it was as much that my curiosity was growing about what lay beyond the limits of my own taste. Besides the straight-ahead colours of pop, the eighties had had its fair share of the fierce, the black and white, and the off-kilter. The nineties promised to be still more diverse, more experimental, and more nuanced. As much as this meant seizing upon the new – Massive Attack’s Blue Lines, for example, and early releases on the Talkin’ Loud label, while the last performance I saw before leaving for France was that of the Can-inspired Moonshake at the Falcon in Camden – it was also becoming easier to discover the influential sounds of the past, as burgeoning CD reissue programmes returned lost greats to currency. Chief among these for me was Tim Buckley. In France, on a C90 taped for me by a friend, I had Blue Afternoon and Starsailor. With the cottage door wide open, who knows what my neighbours made of the sounds emanating from within, especially Tim’s vocal acrobatics on Starsailor’s infamously out-there title track. But I thrilled to the adventurousness, no matter how untethered it came from a basic premise that music should be melodic and harmonious more than discordant and disharmonious.
In August I took up an invitation to visit a friend in Paris, a journalist who worked for the French music magazine Les Inrockuptibles. As we were sitting down to dinner, he put on a CD, handed me the jewel case, and said, ‘You might like this…I interviewed Mark Hollis the other week, he was so passionate about his music.’ It was the end of a beautiful summer’s day; I had walked across Paris from the Gare Saint-Lazare to the Porte d’Italie, idling for a while on the Île Saint-Louis, watching the Seine sparkle and flow by, absorbing the life of the city, feeling myself becoming a part of it. The evening was no less lovely. The sash windows of the living-cum-dining room were open wide, letting in light from the setting sun and the dwindling noise of the Parisian traffic far below the fifth floor flat.
The album was Talk Talk’s Laughing Stock. The music struck up only slowly, as if the players were gradually settling behind their instruments, tuning up, and listening out for the right moment to join in. Then Mark Hollis began to sing as if in thrall to some private, ascetic ecstasy, and the music of ‘Myrrhman’ began gently to swell, and it was almost as though I could see it, swirling about our heads before drifting out of the windows to hang above the golden-hued buildings of Paris, a cloud of sound which could not fail to enchant and simultaneously awe anyone who found themselves beneath it.
The rosé d’Anjou was flowing, and the company was excellent, but my attention consistently returned to the music. The sudden attack of percussion and guitar on ‘Ascension Day’ was all the more violent for the quietude which had preceded it, while alternating against ‘After the Flood’’s cyclical, hypnotic groove were soothing organ and harsh, grating guitar. Biblical titles all, so surely some form of spirituality had informed the creation of these songs, but because Mark’s vocals prized expression over elocution, and because in any case the words were elliptical and elusive, you mostly had to go with the feeling. Like Buckley, Hollis was clearly another starsailor, to have travelled to this intensely spiritual, acoustically-rich point from Talk Talk’s beginnings in punk and synth pop. Laughing Stock was as uncompromising and as unmoved by commercial considerations in 1991 as Starsailor had been twenty-odd years before.
During the softly sung lull of ‘Taphead’, I may have made an effort to tune back into the conversation going on around me. But as soon as ‘New Grass’ began, I would have zoned out again, completely captivated by its delicate but insistent rhythm, and by the way the lead guitar made such beautiful circular shapes against the straighter lines of the organ. Once again, Mark Hollis was singing with a quiet ecstasy: ‘Lifted up…’ If the album is a journey through a variety of spiritual states, then ‘New Grass’ is the exultant feeling of birth, rebirth, renewal, the opening up of possibilities. Fresh growth. It’s no understatement to say that as it unspooled over the course of ten minutes, I felt my taste shifting, broadening, veering towards and hungering for new directions and challenges.
Of course, Laughing Stock did not come out of nowhere – it was inspired by broadly the same set of avant-garde jazz and classical composers which had informed Buckley’s Starsailor, and was preceded by another exceptional album in the shape of Spirit of Eden, Mark Hollis and Tim Friese-Greene’s first foray into unchartered territory – but that I only learnt in retrospect. Notably released on Verve, an imprint usually reserved for jazz, Laughing Stock is the culmination of the Hollis-Friese-Greene partnership, recorded by engineer Phill Brown in a way that would have made Witchseason Productions’ Joe Boyd and John Wood proud, keeping in the ambience of the room, the moment, the starsailing.
Talk Talk’s influence as the progenitors of post-rock has percolated down the years slowly, latently, becoming fully apparent only with the outpouring of sorrow at the news of Hollis’ early death in 2019. He was instrumental in freeing pop music from its own constraints, and serves as one of the prime examples of where vision and sheer bloody-mindedness can take you. Those who follow Hollis in rejecting rather than accepting the constraints of pop may not always be aware of him, but he has undoubtedly helped make their lives a little easier, and the infinite possibilities of music more realisable.
‘That’s the key — space — it helps to build and resolve the tensions. Silence is the most powerful instrument I have.’ In interviews around the time the album was released, Mark Hollis frequently spoke about silence. It’s a preference that led to the penultimate silence of retirement, a state to which Hollis effectively gave himself after his solo album in 1998. But before he went, he treated us to ‘The Gift’ and ‘The Daily Planet’, songs which would not have been out of place on Laughing Stock, with their cyclical rhythms, improvised playing and spontaneous takes within the confines of considered arrangements, and that yearning, reaching voice, proving the truism that the voice is the first instrument. And the last.
Everyone will have first heard Laughing Stock under different circumstances, but I doubt many will have forgotten their initial encounter. It was my great good fortune that I heard it originally on my first evening in Paris, and it is our collective luck that the music of Mark Hollis and Talk Talk exists for us to return to, time and time again.