I don’t like lists. I don’t mean grocery shopping lists, those are handy. The ones I don’t care for are music lists that seem to be floating around in the ether endlessly each time some pseudo-authoritative figure, magazine, webzine, fanzine has an urge to share with the world the top, best, most, worst (name your genre) songs, albums, recordings, performances ever. Rarely these lists include phrases like ‘In my opinion’ or ‘My personal favorite’. These lists are here today, gone tomorrow, and at best spark some useless discussion where folks try to replace or rearrange the list to accommodate each reader’s preference. Even worse, today’s short attention spans drive ever-shorter lists, reaching the pinnacle – lists of one. The best singer/band/guitarist/drummer/song/yodeler. Just one. Why listen to all the rest then? Rest assured, no lists on this blog. But if someone held a gun to my head demanding that I blurt out my ten desert island albums or else be locked in a room listening to Kenny G all day, I think that Talk Talk’s Spirit of Eden would be one of them.
Mark Hollis must be one of the biggest enigmas in music history. In the beginning of the 80s he released with his band Talk Talk great pop albums that yielded hits such as Today, It’s My Life and Such A Shame, all with unusual accompanying music videos. Sharp-eyed listeners and viewers could notice that behind what seemed like another synth band was a smart and unique musician who reluctantly filled the role of a pop star required in the MTV age. The real story started to unfold with the release of The Colour of Spring, an excellent transitional album that employed many acoustic instruments and a larger palette of sounds. Some of the songs on that album, such as April 5th and Chameleon Days, indicated that there is a lot more to the band than good synth-based songs. Hollis was listening at that time to modern classical music and composers such as Bartok and Debussy. He loved the abstract nature of their compositions and revealed that the use of synths in Talk Talk’s first two albums was only a necessity to reduce recording costs in order to realize rich orchestrated songs. The Colour of Spring was a big success for Talk Talk, producing the hits Living in Another World and Life’s What You Make It.
But as different as The Colour of Spring was from their previous records, nothing prepared the music world for their next album, a milestone not only in 80s music, but to many the album that started post-rock. Spirit of Eden, released in 1988, is an album like no other. To me it belongs in the pantheon of albums that showcase a band at the peak of their creativity and using the recording studio as an instrument, much like The Beatles’ Revolver and Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon in earlier decades. The band spent months in the studio crafting the songs in a painstaking and slow process. A number of facts led to that radical change in record making. Immediately after the release of The Colour of Spring, the band embarked on a worldwide tour to promote the album with a larger live group of musicians. Hollis commented on that experience: “Originally I thought playing live was the best thing you could ever do. The problem when you hit nine month tours is you’re dealing more with recreating the past than with looking into the future. The other problem when we hit that last tour was that the material was becoming increasingly hard to perform live. So even in that tour in 1986, maybe two thirds of the material was based around the second album rather than the one we’d just finished making. And the other thing: I just think it’s really important if you perform that you actually mentally go where you’ve got to go, and to do that six nights out of seven is extremely wearing. The only way over a period of time I could get to that, was to do a lot of drink. And I don’t think that is a good exercise”. The band was at its peak commercially after the tour and could afford a large budget to record its next album. Spending as much time as needed to create the album seemed like a good idea compared to hitting the road again. And the album had to be different, as Mark Hollis was ever evolving: “More than anything, it was just not wanting to repeat what you’ve done. All the time, you’re getting older and everything and nothing is static. It feels far more bizarre to me that there should be no change. That feels really very weird to me.”
Around that time Hollis was listening to music that influenced his perspective on what music is and the importance of texture and mood. Modern classical composers such as Satie, Debussy and Bartok already put their mark on the aforementioned tracks on The Colour of Spring, but now Miles Davis albums such as Sketches of Spain and In a Silent Way, early 1950s blues and Can’s Tago Mago got into the mix. Quite a wide range of music styles. When Spirit of Eden was released, it could not reach the success of the band’s previous albums, and one obvious reason is that those musical tastes were not only the seed to the album’s sound and style, but they require similar tastes from a listener to appreciate it. Not many of the band’s followers, certainly not most of those who loved them for their synth pop songs, acquired these tastes.
Hollis had a vision for the album, with the idea of bringing various musicians to the studio and with very little direction allowing them to express themselves on their instrument. Later in the process pieces of music would be put together, cutting and splicing the recorded material until they fit together. In essence the process of creating the songs was reversed, and the composition of the tunes was done mostly after the recording was complete. This process required extensive recording and editing time, and for the engineering task Hollis brought in Phill Brown, who was a recording engineer at Island Studios in the early 70s and worked with Hendrix (All Along the Watchtower), Traffic (Dear Mr Fantasy), Bob Marley (No Woman No Cry) and Stomu Yamashta (Go). I highly recommend Phill Brown’s book “Are We Still Rolling?” in which he tells insightful stories from his rich recording career.
Digital recording and editing was fairly new at the time, and the band took full advantage of it. Hollis talked about this after the album’s release: “Working on a digital setup, you can just take things off then put them in other places and construct your framework without losing generation and end up with this carefully constructed, multi-layered format, but at the same time all of the parts in it are improvised and loose. Without digital technology, you couldn’t do that.” While many early users of digital recording equipment ended up with sterile results, the key to the human feel of Spirit of Eden is the combination of the technology with the fresh feel each musician brought into the studio: “I don’t think an album, the way this is made, could have existed in an earlier time. It is only because of the advent of this sort of digital recording technology, that you can get away with the way this album has been constructed, which is just that thing of giving people absolute freedom, being able to take the smallest amount of what they play, but not even necessarily using it where they did play it, putting it elsewhere in the album and then being able to make this very careful construction of arrangement but absolutely everything that is played is fresh and from that person.”
The album was recorded at Wessex studios in London, were albums such as Queen’s Day at the Races, The Clash’s London Calling and The Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks were recorded. The studio had a large room, making it somewhat strange for each individual musician to record his part. The recording process started with the band putting down guide tracks for about three months, after which they called in a host of guest musicians to play overdubs. The list of musicians who participated in the album is impressive and among others included Danny Thompson on upright bass, Mark Feltham on harmonica, Nigel Kennedy on violin and Robbie McIntosh on dobro. In his book Phill Brown said that they used 8 tracks of up to 9 minutes each per song to record the guest musicians, of which sometimes only a few seconds survived. Some musicians like Larry Klein on bass and David Rhodes on guitar did not even survive that and their recordings were left on the cutting floor. Brown: “Meticulous care was given to each part, and almost all parts were recorded individually, one at a time. Over 90% of the recorded material was not used. In the editing process many recorded parts were placed in places different than the ones they were recorded to. Amazingly the songs all sound very intimate as if a band is playing together.”
This time synthesizers were not allowed in the studio. Hollis: “Everything is real, everything is played by people. The only thing we’ve used digital for is to take something from one place and move it to another. I think the most important thing in music is the way it’s played. Unless it has feel, it’s not there as far as I’m concerned. Unless things are played with that feeling and that heart, they’re not worth anything.” The band was after a sound produced by studios in 1967 and mostly stack to recording equipment that was used at that era. Almost all instruments you hear on the album are acoustic, and that sonic texture is immediately noticeable on the first note when you start playing the album. The first side is one continuous piece of music divided into three parts: The Rainbow, Eden and Desire.
As you get passed the first few notes, you realize that this album requires serious listening. The tempo is very slow but the dynamic range is huge, moving from barely audible notes and vocals to ear splitting percussion and guitars. Tim Friese-Greene, who joined the band as a ghost member in 1984 and after its breakup produced Catherine Wheel’s excellent album Ferment, was a key partner in writing and realizing the music on the album. He expanded on the texture of the album: “Pace is of the essence, even if it is a pace that approaches vanishing point at times. The more relaxed the pace, the more importance everything that happens assumes. You have to be careful and not overstep the line from being relaxed to being tedious and I think we’ve kept on the right side of that. The dynamics are a little bit hard to take at first. There were times during the mixing when I thought, ‘I’m not sure about this,’ but it scrapes through. Again it had to strike the right note between intensity and irritation. But we’re not being naive about it. Some people could definitely be put off by the pace of it or the level of intensity and if people are uncomfortable with that maybe, with respect, they should listen to something else.” Hollis added: “It was important to make this first side over that length so that the dynamic could be something that was arrived at very leisurely and very carefully, and the moments of silence could really spill out.”
The band is not considered part of Prog rock. The genre was for the most part non-existent by the time the album was made, but this is progressive music at its best. The 23-minute epic that takes all of side one on the original LP is breathtaking, starting with the mute trumpet played by Henry Lowther. So many great moments on that piece: at 2:45 the rhythmic part kicks in with minimalistic drum pattern, at 4:15 those solitary piano notes, at 10:30 the emotional “Everybody needs someone to live by” vocals, at 20:37 the unexpected percussion break and distorted guitars.
If you survived the first side in one piece you are doing fine. Time to flip the LP to the second side and listen to Inheritance. This is the only track that retained its original name. The other tracks had working titles such Modell, Camel, Maureen and Snow in Berlin. Inheritance is my personal favorite on this album. Again the minimalistic drumming of Lee Harris sets the tone and the wind quartet in the middle of the tune sounds like modern chamber music. If you cannot understand what Mark Hollis is singing about you are not alone. Hollis talked about this in an interview: “I’ve always written lyrics from a phonetic point of view. I mean it always bothered us that vocals are set too loud in the mix anyway and no matter what work was been put in the backing it just becomes subservient”. The emphasis is on the tonal quality of the words, less on elocution: “With lyrics, they’re totally important in one way, but equally they’re not of any importance at all, because they’ve got to be secondary to the actual way the thing moves phonetically.” The lyrics to all the songs on the album are very brief, one critic joked that collectively they amount to less than one verse in a Bob Dylan song. Hollis talked about the writing of the lyrics: “The reason why I needed so much time for the lyrics was precisely their compactness. It’s much harder to say something in ten words when you have a thousand words at your disposal. In those lyrics are three months of my observations and represent the values in which I believe, on a humanitarian level. “
The next song is I Believe in You, which started with the working title Snow in Berlin. The song deals partly with drug addiction: “I’ve seen the misery that heroin can cause. I’ve known so many people who thought the stuff would never get hold of them and end up with a totally ruined life. I’ve seen what it takes to get rid of it. I think it’s a horrible thing.”
I’ve seen heroin for myself
On the street so young laying wasted
Enough ain’t it enough
I just can’t bring myself to see it starting
Hollis wrote the song for his brother Ed who died as a result of a long-term heroin addiction shortly after the completion of Spirit of Eden. Ed Hollis (Eddie in Eddie and The Hot Rods) was an important figure in Mark’s life. Ed was an early musical influence on his younger brother, and he produced Mark’s first band, The Reaction, on their single I Can’t Resist in 1978.
Under tremendous pressure from their record label EMI, Hollis relented and appeared in a video clip filmed with a shorter edit of the song, an act he regretted soon after: “I really feel that was a massive mistake. I thought just by sitting there and listening and really thinking about what it was about, I could get that in my eyes. But you cannot do it. It just feels stupid. It was depressing and I wish I’d never done it.” Still, the clip leaves us with the only visual artifact left by the band from that period, as they stopped touring and ran away from publicity like the plague.
The album concludes with the piece Wealth and these words:
Create upon my flesh
Create a home within my head
Take my freedom for giving me a sacred love
Hollis explained where he was coming from: “Freedom is to me when you have no need to compromise anything you do. In a fully free society, everyone would have the choice to choose his own way, not driven by arrogance and selfishness, but with respect and compassion for the people around him.“ When asked about sources for his lyrics, Hollis turned to moving images and cinema: “I think of favorite films of mine, what they deal with is character and virtue, they don’t deal with narrative. That’s a very secondary thing. The two films I would think of more than anything would be The Bicycle Thieves and Les Enfants Du Paradis (Children of Paradise).” Indeed these films by Vittorio De Sica and Marcel Carné excel in depicting the human condition and the need for compassion.
Throughout the album you notice the simplicity of how the musicians are playing their instruments. The album is devoid of virtuosity and at the extremely sedated pace of the music, most instruments are producing long and slow notes. Hollis explained: “It’s really not a question of technique, this is the really important thing about the attitude of this album, it is just purely like a question of understanding the feel of this album, not a thing of technique at all. I really do think a 5 year old child could easily have got on this album, providing, you know, he understood it.” Certainly the able guest musicians could have played intricate passages if they were asked to, but that was not on the menu: “Although that I’m sure they were technically inept, what flows out of them is really forceful. The intention with which you play is the important thing. You see, when I think of a sound, I think of a composite of two things: the way something’s played and the sound itself. Where a lot of people have gone wrong is that they think the sound is just the sound, and what they’re playing is a secondary thing. Generally we’ve gone for sounds that, in technical terms, you would say are rubbish, but when you couple that with the way it’s played, then it becomes a good sound.”
When the label heads at EMI finally got to listen to the tapes coming from the studio, they were shocked. This was nothing like what they expected from Talk Talk after The Colour of Spring. Nothing here was danceable, no track had more than a few seconds of a steady beat, and nothing resembling a single was in sight. Tony Wadsworth, Capitol and Parlophone Records’ general manager, was diplomatic when he talked about marketing the album at the time: “Talk Talk are not your ordinary combo and require sympathetic marketing. They’re not so much difficult as not obvious. You’ve just got to find as many ways as possible to expose the music. The standard marketing route is whack out a single, try to chart the single, and then hopefully on the strength of that, sell some albums. We’ve got to do what I believe to be a very heavy campaign on Talk Talk. We’ve got to go out very bullishly and tell people that this is an album for 1988. That will be the sales pitch – An Album for 1988.” A load of crap that hinted to the fact that marketing for the album was not forthcoming, and what the label and the band wanted was to part ways pronto, which they eventually did before the next and last album. When Mark Hollis talked about the album upon its release he said: “It’s certainly a reaction to the music that’s around at the moment, ‘cos most of that is shit. It’s only radical in the modern context. It’s not radical compared to what was happening 20 years ago. If we’d have delivered this album to the record company 20 years ago they wouldn’t have batted an eyelid.”
The album is now a classic and is considered the beginning of post-rock, influencing bands like Sigur Rós, Mogwai, Godspeed You! Black Emperor and latter-period Radiohead. Alan Wilder of Depeche Mode and Recoil summarized very well how important that album is to him: “My first reaction was astonishment to be honest – initially at the use of space and silence, and then at the sheer audacity of an approach which went so far against the grain. It was brutally non-conformist. This has to be one of my all-time favorite albums. Mind-blowingly brilliant in its diversity, atmospherics, musicianship and topped off with ‘that’ voice again which found its true position floating painfully over the top (in the best possible way). Whenever I’m stumped for something to listen to, I reach for this album to restore my faith in all that is good about modern music. It encompasses so many of the things I enjoy about sound, post-modernity, sophisticated arrangements, and eclecticism. Frankly, I’m jealous that I have never been able to make a record which has the confidence to be so exposed.”
I encourage anyone who listens to Spirit of Eden to do so the whole way through without interruption. It draws you in, making you forget about the outside world for a blissful 40 minutes. When asked what is the best situation in which to listen to the album, Hollis said: “Late at night definitely. In a very calm mood with no distractions. You have to give it all your attention. You should never listen to music as background music. Ever.” Amen to that.
Sources used during the writing of this article:
Are We Still Rolling?: Studios, Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll – One Man’s Journey Recording Classic Albums, Phill Brown’s excellent book
Snow in Berlin, A Mark Hollis and Talk Talk Resource – great online reference for interviews and magazine clippings
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