One afternoon in 2005, I went to eat lunch with a friend at one of my college’s cafeterias. That dining hall normally played music over its speaker system, but that day I couldn’t hear anything, although I remarked that here and there I thought I heard a faint sound. My friend quipped “They’re playing ‘Laughing Stock.‘”
Now, of course they weren’t playing the seminal 1991 album by British rock group Talk Talk. The joke worked, though, because “Laughing Stock” is a famously amorphous album, with loose song structures that alternate between near-silence and raucous blues-influenced jamming. It opens with a solid 15 seconds of guitar amp feedback, meaning that basically any electronic hum, be it from a speaker system or something other source, could conceivably be mistaken for a moment as the intro to “Myrrhman.”
Here’s a representative selection from the album:
I’m thinking about “Laughing Stock” because Talk Talk’s lead singers and guitarist (and multi-instrumentalist), Mark Hollis, recently passed away. He was only 64.
If you’re not famliar with Talk Talk, they had a remakrable career arc that saw them go from New Wave popsters to one of the pioneers of a genre now known as post-rock, though it didn’t have that name back in the group’s late 80s/early 90s peak.
When I was in my late teens/early 20s, Talk Talk’s progression capitvated me. I was at the time obsessed with “tortured genius” types and perfectionists, perhaps because I was struggling so mightily with my coursework and felt overwhelmed. I found strange solace in artists who had obviously labored with their art – people like the French novelist Gustav Flaubert, and definitely Hollis et al. in Talk Talk.
Many retrospectives on “Laughing Stock” and its predecessor, “Spirit of Eden,” often discuss the process of making them as much as the actual music they contain. The band meticulously created these mystical environments in the studio space, in part to recapture what the thought were the magic conditions under which late 1960s albums like Traffic’s “Mr. Fantasy” were produced.
“Laughing Stock” the album was heavily edited down from its session recordings, with tons of discarded material. Even though it was meant to have a “live” feel, like a jazz ensemble playing together, it is in reality the exact opposite, the product of endless post-production tweaking. It was impossible to perform on tour, so the band didn’t try.
The perceived difficulty of “Laughing Stock” is key to its legend, but I find it very listenable. Take for example “After the Flood, which I remember spinning on a turntable during the last days in my apartment on Pulaski Road in Chicago, where I had stayed for two years through long stretches of unemployment and part-time work and was, as I listend to that song, finally on the verge of moving out of and starting my first full-time job.
There’s a simplicity and a space to it that makes it so listenable.
I still own that vinyl, plus a CD copy I picked up in the early 2000s at the now-defunct Lousiville record store Ear X-Tacy. The album cover, with endangered birds forming shapes of the continents, is iconic.
Years before they produced “Laughing Stock” and “Spirit of Eden,” Talk Talk had a similar sound to Duran Duran. They scored a decent hit with “It’s My Life,” which No Doubt covered in 2002. Their early work holds up well, I think; their story isn’t one of going from the “low” art of their synth-pop singles to the “high” art of post-rock, since I’m not sure such distinctions really matter. They created consistently enjoyable work and it’s too bad that we never heard much from them after 1991 other than Hollis’ self-titled 1998 album, which was so meticulously recorded you can hear him moving in his chair on one song.
RIP Mark Hollis