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Talk Talk – My Foolish Friend

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Picture the scene: It’s late December 1981 and Duran Duran have just taken to the stage of the Edinburgh Playhouse – then the city’s premier concert venue, now the preferred pit stop for eternally touring productions of Mamma Mia, Oliver! and Joseph and his Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat, starring all your favourite stars from The Bill and Holby City.

The nation’s favourite New Romantics have just rush-released a non-album single, My Own Way, to capitalise on their somewhat belated UK top 10 breakthrough with Girls on Film towards the end of August, and while Le Bon, Rhodes and Taylor x 3 are still a good six months away from ‘going global’ with their second album, Rio, the air is ripe with the heady cocktail of teenage hormones and Shockwaves hair gel and the crowd are swiftly whipped into a state of panty-moistening hysteria.

When Simon introduces their new ‘masterpiece’, with a defiant “They said we were over, but look at us now!”, he’s probably reacting to some rather snide comments in the pop press highlighting the fact that My Own Way – which the band had hailed as a first taste of their ‘radical’ new direction – had rather unimpressively limped into the UK singles chart at no.37. In the end, Smash Hits (and the rest) were justified in being a bit smug about dissing My Own Way. After its inauspicious debut, it took a whole month to make a sluggish ascent to a no.14 peak (during the same week as that concert) and when the song did eventually reappear, as track 2 on Rio, it had been completely re-recorded.

Halfway back in the centre stalls is a young man – yes, it’s me – attending only his second ever concert, thoroughly transfixed by the whole experience. Now, while I was one of the few who managed to maintain full bladder control that night, and perhaps it’s just old age playing a dastardly trick on me, but it must be said that this is the only thing I remember about Duran Duran’s set that night. My overriding memory of that concert – aside from my rather conservative, police officer uncle (who had kindly agreed to wait outside the venue and take me home after the gig) looking slightly horrified and asking me if I was wearing make-up as I got in the car – was the support act, an up and coming four-piece from London who went by the name of Talk Talk.

Now, obviously, most artists experience a series of significant transformations – both physical and in terms of their creative output – over the course of their career, but this Talk Talk – four quiet and unassuming lads in white shirts and skinny ties, a couple of months before the release of their debut single– appears to have no connection with the band who would record the critically revered Spirit of Eden a mere six years later.

Now, over thirty years on from their debut release, the impression you get listening to the band’s first four albums -all released through EMI and the affiliated Parlophone – is not so much a gradual evolution as a revolution in sound. Aside from some obvious through-lines, such as Mark Hollis’ distinctive, sullen and contemplative vocal delivery, you could be forgiven for thinking that each one of these albums had been recorded by a completely different band.

1982’s The Party’s Over fizzes with synth-pop sparkle, while It’s My Life (1984) feels considerable more analogue and organic, with the addition of sampled animal sounds as instruments and a move away from the more obviously clinical keyboard pre-sets. The biggest leap occurs during the period leading into 1986’s The Colour of Spring and 1988’s Spirit of Eden, when the band begins to fully embrace more abstract song structures and free-form arrangements.

Of course, a lot happened in between – not least the shedding of a band mate after their first album and the subsequent recruitment of Tim Friese-Greene as producer and unofficial fourth member – but it’s the, oft dismissed, early Talk Talk recordings which occupy a very special place in my affections and by far my favourite of their singles from this period, and perhaps the most significant moment of their early career, was the non-album single My Foolish Friend.

It’s pretty obvious EMI wanted another Duran Duran: sending them out on the road with the lads to see how it was done and putting them into the studio with the producer who’d steered their eponymous debut, Colin Thurston. But Talk Talk had no intentions of being a pale imitation of anyone and, with a couple of hits under their belts – Today (no.14) and a re-recorded Talk Talk (no.23) –  and their debut album, The Party’s Over, a modest success, they immediately began to wrestle with EMI for more creative control.

When it came time to record My Foolish Friend, out went Thurston and in came Rhett Davies. On the surface, My Foolish Friend is cut from the same cloth as much of the material on their debut LP – upbeat synth-pop that’s not afraid to let rip with a killer chorus – but look (or listen) a little closer and there’s a definite progression. Alongside the expected mournful angst in Hollis’ vocal and the slightly overwrought intensity in his delivery, there are hints of something considerably more layered and textured within the backing track. When My Foolish Friend exits its middle eight – with a flourish of swirling synthetic brass, entering the final chorus and ending on a crescendo of thunderous drums – it’s spectacular and exhilarating in its simplicity.

It’s no coincidence that Davies had only just completed co-production work on Roxy Music’s Avalon, giving a clear indication that Hollis and co. were keen to create something with a little more subtlety and substance. Switching Thurston for Davies was significant, not only helping the band distance themselves further from the teen fan-girl hysteria they had no interest in exploiting, but setting them on a completely different path, both sonically and in terms of their aspirations as artists rather than pop stars.

This was obviously never going to wash with the top brass at EMI and it was this protracted power struggle which defined the rest of Talk Talk’s time at the label, presumably resulting in limited marketing for the It’s My Life project and contributing to its subsequent relatively poor performance in the UK. Considering the album’s contribution to breaking Talk Talk in the US, it seems almost unfathomable that none of the singles lifted from that album managed to climb any higher than no.46 on the UK chart – including two cracks at turning the title track into a hit record – with the album spending only eight weeks on the album chart and never breaking the top 30.

Ironically, it would be the release of 1990’s Natural History, a greatest hits collection put together by EMI with no direct input from the band, which helped raise the profile of the band to such an extent that it belatedly turned It’s My Life into a top 20 single, five years after its initial release.

Relations with EMI eventually soured completely, leading to a very public disagreement and lawsuit, with the band suing for unpaid royalties and contesting the release of non-sanctioned remixes of their work on the label. A year after filing the suit, the court ruled in the band’s favour and all copies of the contentious History Revisited remix collection were recalled and destroyed.

Seeing the band before they’d even released a single was a unique experience for me back in ’82 and the sense of ownership it fostered made watching the band’s subsequent transformation into genuinely respected and influential artists all the more satisfying.

Oh, and if you’re still wondering, I wasn’t wearing any make-up back in ’82, but I may have lied a little about the dryness of my underwear at the end of the night.

My-Foolish-Friend-single-sEntered chart: 19/03/83

Chart peak: 57

Weeks on chart: 4

Who could sing this today and have a hit? I think this might be perfect for the newly invigorated Kaiser Chiefs and with a Xenomania production it just might be perfect.

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