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Talk Talk: Many Happy Returns To 'The Colour of Spring'

Tuesday, 15 March 2016 Written by Graeme Marsh

Thirty years ago this month, Talk Talk’s third album, ‘The Colour of Spring’ was released in the UK. Uncharacteristically, though, it had already been released on the other side of the Channel, such was their popularity across Europe. The band’s status in their home country had always lagged behind by comparison, but that was something Mark Hollis was not too concerned with.

“It really doesn’t bother me at all,” he told Record Mirror in 1986. “You see, I’m in the best possible position I could be in, which is having nothing happening in England and things going well abroad. Because of that, we get absolute freedom in making a record, and in terms of my private life, I have complete freedom there as well.”

Of vital importance at a time when there were only select outlets for music writing, compared to the current plethora of magazines, websites and blogs, was the NME. It was unfortunate, then, that Talk Talk weren’t their best buddies. An interview with the publication's Neil Taylor took place just prior to the release of ‘The Colour of Spring’ and things didn’t go too well. Perhaps Hollis’ apparent dislike for journalists butted up against a magazine staff that knew they were the most influential in the UK.

The magazine’s Gavin Martin sided with Taylor for the album review. “Mark sounds like a man yawning with a mouthful of glue,” he wrote, before concluding with a reluctant acceptance that the record-buying public at the time would see it become a success regardless. “They have the straining despair and moribund conventional approach that passes for rigorous intellect and challenging pop in some quarters," he continued. "A sad reflection on the dumb, dull mega-market but Talk Talk could become this year’s Tears For Fears.”

The freedom afforded by European success allowed Talk Talk the space and time to perfect their latest collection instead of being hounded by EMI to churn out another album in conveyor belt fashion, with producer Tim Friese-Greene continuing his association with the band. “It’s been really lucky, the way things have worked out,” Hollis continued to tell Record Mirror. “The last album ‘It’s My Life’ did really well abroad, so we were in a position to spend a lot of time making this album. It took a year and two days to make this one.”

Elaborating in an interview with Vinyl, Hollis explained: “We started in January ‘85 and from then on we worked incessantly through a year. Six day studio weeks from early mornings until late evenings. We experimented a lot, we went into musical areas that were totally new to us. And an awful lot of time and energy went in it. I think ‘The Colour of Spring’ is much stronger than ‘It's My Life’ and expresses what potential is present in the group.”

The early ‘80s had seen an influx of groups jumping on the synthesizer bandwagon. OMD, Depeche Mode and the Human League would all capitalise on this wondrous new technology to good effect after being influenced by Krautrock pioneers Kraftwerk. But Talk Talk were different. Hollis was glad to see the back of synths for ‘The Colour Of Spring’.

“In terms of the first two albums and the live field, synths are simply an economic measure,” Hollis told Tim Goodyear of Electronics And Music Maker. “Beyond that, I absolutely hate synthesizers. To me the only good thing about them was the fact that they gave you large areas of sound to work with: apart from that they’re really bad – horrible. I can take their existence from a live point of view now, but if they didn’t exist, I’d be delighted.

"Synthesizers were really only a means to an end. All they’ve enabled us to do is go some way towards reproducing organic sounds when we haven’t been able to afford the real thing. It was simply an economic measure and without the success of the ‘It’s My Life’ LP, we wouldn’t have been able to make this album in the way we have. Since ‘It’s My Life’ did sell, we had absolute freedom over time and resources for this album, so we were able to use real strings and choirs.”

For some time, and perhaps unusually for the stars of the early ‘80s, Hollis had been influenced by classical music, in particular Debussy, Sibelius and Bartok. “This year I’ve listened to a lot of impressionistic music,” he told Vinyl. “Back to composers such as Satie, Debussy, Milhaud and above all, Bartok. His string quartets...I’d never imagined something so beautiful existed. Something works irrevocably. As Renée on ‘It's My Life’ was as inspired by the Gil Evans arrangements for the Miles Davis album ‘Sketches of Spain’, so Bartok has an impact on the arrangements on ‘The Colour of Spring’.”

The power and emotion within each second of ‘The Colour of Spring’ is staggering, not least because of Hollis’s tortured vocals. They drive the album, alongside brilliant and varied instrumentation including Hammond organ, flecks of electric guitar, piano and a tight, binding rhythm section. Choosing a first single wasn’t easy, with Life’s What You Make It eventually being picked. In Melody Maker, Hollis explained: “The only reason it was a single was because it was the shortest thing on the album and even by singles standards it’s still too long, really.”

In keeping with Talk Talk tradition, a UK chart position of 16 for the single seemed way too low. But ‘The Colour of Spring’ wasn’t about singles, it was about classy, melancholic genius. Selecting a favourite track from the album could prove as difficult as the band settling on the first single. The emotion oozes from I Don’t Believe In You, Living In Another World and Give It Up, but there just isn’t a bad song in sight.

Hollis’s liking for classical music would see Talk Talk evolve into a band far removed from the one that appeared on the synth wave in 1982 with a string of singles like Mirror Man, Talk Talk and Today. Chameleon Day, from ‘The Colour of Spring’, was an indication of what lay ahead, its short instrumental introduction seemingly, with hindsight, a taster for 1988’s ‘Spirit of Eden’, an album overflowing with unconventional song structures and freeform instrumentation. Real instrumentation, as opposed to machines.

Released on Polydor, 1991’s ‘Laughing Stock’ would be the band’s parting shot before disbanding the following year. Talk Talk’s best album is a point of contention, simply because of the transformation they went through, but sitting pretty in the middle, ‘The Colour of Spring’ utilises elements from both their early guise and the latter day deviation to create something unique and stunning.

Its brilliance should not be overlooked. Utilising myriad talented musicians to create the whole, including Steve Winwood and guitarist David Rhodes, who had previously worked with Peter Gabriel, how could it be anything less than magnificent? If you’re looking for a left-field choice to rival the so-called all-time classics then this is an excellent place to start. Many happy returns.

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