According to Brian Eno, the first Velvet Underground album didn't sell many copies in 1967 but everyone who bought it formed a band.
Reading the wonderfully evocative Spirit Of Talk Talk book while listening to the similarly named tribute CD featuring Bon Iver's Sean Carey, Fyfe Dangerfield, King Creosote, Joan As Police Woman, Jason Lytle and White Lies reinterpreting Talk Talk's brooding, magnificent repertoire, you get the impression that the 1980s group led by Mark Hollis have become Britain's answer to the Velvets.
Unlike them, Talk Talk scored a handful of hits during their decade-long existence, including the resplendent title track from 1984's "It's My Life" – revived by Gwen Stefani's No Doubt in 2003. However, while the yearning in Hollis's voice on 1986's "The Colour Of Spring" struck a chord across Europe, the ECM-like jazz minimalism of 1988's "Spirit Of Eden" and 1991's post-rock-shaping "Laughing Stock" were perceived as commercial suicide.
Yet, over the last two decades, Talk Talk have become a touchstone of the alternative scene. In the book, the Elbow frontman Guy Garvey says, "Spirit Of Eden and Laughing Stock have comforted me in my darkest times and inspired me to my brightest times. They are stunningly intricate works of breathtaking imagination, generosity of spirit and timeless art," while Robert Plant states that "what Hollis was doing was spectacular".
The Talk Talk-obsessive Toby Benjamin, the driving force behind both Spirit Of Talk Talk projects, was 14 when he heard their debut, 1982's The Party's Over. For my part, I first saw them supporting their EMI label-mates Duran Duran the previous year, and instantly knew there was more to them than the synth-pop of "Today". Born in 1955, Mark Hollis is the younger brother of Ed Hollis – the late mentor of the pub rockers Eddie and the Hot Rods – who helped him form his first group, The Reaction, and co-wrote "Talk Talk Talk Talk", which first surfaced on Streets, a 1977 punk compilation, alongside The Members and John Cooper Clarke.
Benjamin knew unravelling the Talk Talk story would be tricky without the participation of the reclusive Hollis, who gave his last interview to The Wire in 1997, his former bandmates, drummer Lee Harris and bass player Paul Webb – "they tend to follow Mark's lead" – or Tim Friese-Greene, the keyboard-playing producer and co-writer of their last four albums, who simply told him: "I don't do Talk Talk anymore".
Thankfully, as well as gathering tributes from a hundred-plus musicians, he enlisted the writer Chris Roberts and James Marsh, the artist whose iconic designs for Talk Talk have become as important to their oeuvre as Storm Thorgerson's cover concepts are to Pink Floyd's. "Marsh's artwork and the music seem intertwined," says Benjamin. "I cannot imagine The Colour Of Spring without the beautiful moths."
The CD launch in London attracted fans from as far afield as Denmark, while Hollis has reportedly enjoyed the Matthias Vogt Trio's jazz revisiting of "April 5th" but there's little hope of him rekindling the Talk Talk flame. "He was telling a story, he was seeking a kind of minimalistic perfection in his own mind and I think he hit it. His 1998 solo album was a full stop," explains Benjamin.
"Apparently, he can just sit there and play a note on his piano and let it resonate and listen to that note fade away. I don't know where else he could go. Most Talk Talk fans are desperate to hear more but I'm not. I think Mark Hollis gave everything. Talk Talk went as far as they could."
'Spirit of Talk Talk', the two-CD set, is out now on Fierce Panda. 'Spirit of Talk Talk', the book, is published by Rocket88
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