This piece on Talk Talk’s Spirit Of Eden appeared in the first issue of Classic rock presents…Prog as part of a regular slot on albums that are progressive without being thought of as such. That is, it’s forward looking music rather than music that involves sparkly capes and pointy shoes!
Spirit Of Eden
The term ‘progressive’ has come to denote – at least in the minds of the unthinking mainstream critics and consumers – a genre or style, something to do with sparkly capes and impenetrable lyrics about wizards. Actually, most bands are progressive in their way, in that they try to move their music forward. It’s just that they don’t get the label because they don’t sound like King crimson circa 1969.
Talk Talk are a prime example of a band who progressed, indeed a band who made a great leap forward and changed everything.
In interviews, Talk Talk frontman Mark Hollis always talked about Miles Davis and Bela Bartok, though it was hard to square his professed influences with the happy clappy synth pop that his band made. Songs like My Foolish Friend and It’s My Life were beautifully crafted pop artefacts, but nobody at the time saw Talk Talk as anything other than the band you got into while Duran Duran were on a hiatus.
Talk Talk were a successful band, Smash hits and Top Of The Pops mainstays. Along with culture Club, Tears for Fears and A Flock Of Seagulls, they were part of a second British invasion of the US. Their big hit Life Is What You Make It and the album Colour Of Spring showed a new maturity as well as sustained Top 10 status. Their parent label EMI gave them carte Blanche to record the follow up: unlimited time and money with minimal interference. The result after a year in the studio was Spirit of Eden, a monumental work whose iconic status continues to grow down the decades. Constructed from hours of improvisations – sometimes they played in complete darkness to get the mood right – and edited together by Hollis and producer Tim Friese-Greene, Spirit Of Eden bears little resemblance to the band’s pop incarnation. Plaintive Miles Davis-like trumpet solos are layered on top of glacially slow ambient washes, Hollis’s distinctive voice being the only thing with any seeming continuity with the band’s previous sound.
On hearing a cassette of the album, EMI panicked as executives saw their fat bonus cheques evaporate. They asked Hollis to replace some songs and rerecord others. He refused and the album was released as he intended.
The album sold poorly, partly because of the challenging nature of the material, but also because the band didn’t tour in support of it. It was, Hollis, admitted, impossible to play live.
In retrospect Spirit Of Eden and its almost-as-good follow up Laughing Stock started a sea change in music, along with Slint paving the way for a new underground movement sometimes dubbed post-rock that includes the more experimental side of Radiohead as well as Chicago-school bands like Tortoise.
Hollis, after one brilliant solo album, retired from music, though continues to enjoy moderate cult status with online devotees as well as rumoured massive offers for him to make a comeback and maybe play Spirit of Eden live. As with most true progressive bands, it has taken the rest of the world a little while to catch up.