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‘It’s My Life’: How Talk Talk Declared Independence From Synth-Pop
Warner Music
In Depth

‘It’s My Life’: How Talk Talk Declared Independence From Synth-Pop

With their second album, ‘It’s My Life’, Talk Talk shook free from the shackles of synth-pop in order to make significant artistic strides.

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Released in the summer of 1982, Talk Talk’s debut album, The Party’s Over, succeeded in putting the band’s future on a firm footing. With the record’s dynamic third single, Today, breaking into the UK Top 20, the album itself rose to No.21, while a reissue of its second single, the eponymously named Talk Talk, sustained the band’s presence in the Top 30 throughout the autumn. Yet while The Party’s Over yielded the mainstream breakthrough the group sought, with its follow-up, It’s My Life, Talk Talk declared their independence from the pop world.

Listen to ‘It’s My Life’ here.

The backstory: “A band should be able to develop constructively”

For Talk Talk’s frontman, Mark Hollis, the group’s success came at a price. Already feeling uneasy over the way the media associated Talk Talk with the synth-pop stars of the day, a support slot with Duran Duran further strengthened Hollis’ resolve to ensure his group would stand outside of the fickle taste of the pop marketplace.

In contemporary interviews, Hollis revealed the depth of his commitment to his art. He told Sounds, “My idea is that a band should be able to develop constructively, like Bowie,” while he informed NME that he wanted to “write stuff that you’ll still be able to listen to in ten years’ time”.

As it turned out, two important developments – both of which ensured Hollis would achieve his aims – came to pass before work began on Talk Talk’s second album, It’s My Life. Firstly, keyboardist Simon Brenner left the band following the release of a standalone single, My Foolish Friend. Brenner’s departure (rightly) suggested that Talk Talk’s reliance upon synthesisers was now on the wane, but it was the second change – the recruitment of a new, “unofficial” fourth member – which galvanised Mark Hollis to set out on ever more daring sonic adventures.

The new man in question, Tim Friese-Greene, never performed live with Talk Talk, yet he made a substantial contribution to their body of work. Becoming the band’s go-to producer and Hollis’ frequent co-writer, he helped shaped the course of their musical direction. Indeed, the Brian Eno-esque influence Friese-Greene would exert on Talk Talk is all the more remarkable when you consider that he first came to prominence by producing mainstream pop fodder from the likes of The Nolan Sisters and Blue Zoo, and had helmed Tight Fit’s UK chart-topping cover of Solomon Linda’s novelty hit, The Lion Sleeps Tonight.

“The only thing I initially knew about him were three records,” Hollis told Record Mirror. “The Lion Sleeps Tonight, Blue Zoo’s Cry Boy Cry and Thomas Dolby’s She Blinded Me With Science. They were all really well produced, but did completely different things. That, to me, was the sign of a good producer.”

The songs: “I guess we are very much against the grain at the moment”

Friese-Greene began to help Hollis realise his vision for Talk Talk’s music almost immediately. In addition to helping the frontman write more impactful and introspective songs, he encouraged Hollis to augment the band’s core trio (Hollis, bassist Paul Webb and drummer Lee Harris) in the studio with skilled alumni such as keyboardist Ian Curnow, Pretenders’ guitarist Robbie McIntosh and former Henry Cow trumpeter Henry Lowther.

Accordingly, the music Talk Talk created for It’s My Life was infinitely richer and more satisfying than anything they’d previously issued. Though assembled with the charts in mind, organic instrumentation now largely usurped synths and electronica on sweeping, cinematic pop songs such as Dum Dum Girl, Such A Shame and The Last Time, with Friese-Greene’s meticulous production also offering Hollis’ distinctive, imploring voice the space it needed to soar over the arrangements.

Indeed, such was the strength of It’s My Life’s tracklist that virtually all its songs could have been earmarked as singles. Its two ballads, the sparse, haunting Renée and the beguiling Tomorrow Started, both oozed class, while the glorious It’s You sounded like a precursor to the poppier end of Talk Talk’s next album, 1986’s triumphant The Colour Of Spring.

In the end, though, Dum Dum Girl, Such A Shame and the robust title track were chosen to represent It’s My Life. Hooky and highly melodic, the latter pair made it into the UK Top 50 upon their initial release, and would climb higher in the European mainland, where Such A Shame went Top 10 in several territories.

It’s My Life’s anthemic title track, meanwhile, became Talk Talk’s sleeper hit. It eventually scored UK Top 20 success in 1990, when it was reissued to promote the compilation album Natural History: The Very Best Of Talk Talk, and would even receive a Grammy nomination in 2004, via a high-profile cover recorded by No Doubt. Praising the song’s evergreen quality, No Doubt singer Gwen Stefani told Billboard, “It’s the first cover we’ve ever [recorded], so we wanted it to be right. It’s the one that kept hitting us in the heart.”

The legacy: “Hopefully the next album will be just as different again”

First released in February 1984 and housed in a memorable, James Marsh-designed sleeve incorporating elements of John Everett Millais’ 19th-century painting The Boyhood Of Raleigh, It’s My Life succeeded in one of its primary aims: it served notice that Talk Talk had broken new ground and freed themselves from the synth-pop straitjacket the media had trussed them after the release of The Party’s Over.

Yet, for the time being, it was the band’s overseas fans who really cottoned on to their rapid artistic development. While It’s My Life went Top 40 in the UK, it picked up gold and platinum discs in the band’s European strongholds such as Germany and the Netherlands, and even made inroads in North America, where the title track peaked at No.16 on Billboard’s club chart.

“I guess we are very much against the grain at the moment,” Mark Hollis noted prophetically in the Melody Maker feature that greeted It’s My Life’s release. “But then, we’ve never really been part of a distinct movement. The first album was probably quite close to post-punk new wave, and we were definitely keen to get across a feeling of energy… What we’re doing on the new album is not to use chords to block things, but instead give everything a lot more room to develop. And hopefully the next album will be just as different again.”

Buy Talk Talk vinyl at the Dig! store.

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