By 1986, Mark Hollis was starting to crack. He had taken his misidentified synth pop band Talk Talk about as far as he could within the confines of the genre. While their self-titled debut album had marked them as nominal New Romantic upstarts, a collaboration with unofficial fourth member Tim Friese-Greene started the band in a whole new direction. By the time of their tour that year, Hollis had overseen the release of It's My Life, and watched as the album and singles ("Such a Shame", the title track) climbed up the charts everywhere - everywhere except England, that is. Then The Colour of Spring reestablished them in the UK, where its unusual ambient approach and sparse, acoustic instrumentation suggested a break from the traditional drum machine moves. Yet Hollis and Friese-Greene had bigger ambitions for the band, a whole new approach that would solidify their critical cache...and almost destroy their commercial credentials. Captured here during that whirlwind '86 tour, Live at Montreux sees a solid set list matched by equally effortless performance.
Joining Hollis onstage for this sensational 87 minute experience are original members Paul Webb (bass), and Lee Harris (drums), who along with John Turnbull (guitars), Rupert Black and Ian Curnow (keyboards), Phil Reis and Leroy Williams (percussion) and Mark Feltham (harmonica) mesmerize the predominantly European crowd. Playing in a kind of communal grouping, lost in the sound of their own songs, Talk Talk takes the audience from its earliest singles to a few obscure album tracks. The actual tunes available here are as follows:
"Talk Talk" - from the 1982 album The Party's Over
"Dum Dum Girl" - from the 1984 album It's My Life
"Call in the Night Boy" - from the 1984 album It's My Life
"Tomorrow Started" - from the 1984 album It's My Life
"My Foolish Friend" - from the 1983 non-LP single of the same name
"Life's What You Make It" - from the 1986 album The Colour of Spring
"Does Caroline Know" - from the 1984 album It's My Life
"It's You" - from the 1984 album It's My Life
"Living In Another World" - from the 1986 album The Colour of Spring
"Give It Up" - from the 1986 album The Colour of Spring
"It's My Life - from the 1984 album It's My Life
"I Don't Believe in You" - from the 1986 album The Colour of Spring
"Such a Shame" - from the 1984 album It's My Life
"Renée" - from the 1984 album It's My Life
It's time for a critical confession - I have LOVED Talk Talk ever since I saw the video for their self-titled debut single back during MTV's infancy. They always seemed to be a single step away from superstardom. When they eventually toured America, opening up for an Imperial Bedroom era Elvis Costello, I was right there in the front row, amazed by their musical acumen and performance power. As a devotee to all things synth-pop, I enjoyed their more baroque take on the genre. They were definitely on a higher musical plateau than the light dance diddling of Duran Duran, or the pre-poseur Depeche Mode. To me, they were Soft Cell without the sleaze, a great singer backed by inventive, original electronic arrangements. As each new album expanded their sound, it seemed like nothing could stop the band - that is, except the exceedingly temperamental Mark Hollis. Notoriously reclusive, unresponsive to the media, and determined to embrace his own muse, the leader's last two Talk Talk's albums (Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock) were highly experimental. Less song oriented and focusing on the digital de- and re-construction of studio improvisations, journalists now praise these tone poem pieces to high Heaven. At the time, we thought Hollis was nuts.
Once you see Live at Montreux, you'll understand why. Even without Hollis' notorious in-studio perfection, the stage show here is spectacular. Positioned in a semi-circle, the better to capture a more intense, intimate feel, the band blasts through recorded arrangements with precision and invention. In some cases, the difference between what we hear on record and what the group offers live is a mere musical signature or two. This doesn't mean that Talk Talk comes off as lip syncing stooges, however. Webb's lanky, languid bass lines and Harris' jack hammer drumming couldn't be faked. Instead, the musicianship makes the difference. Hollis and company aren't fooling around, and Live at Montreux makes that super-sonic point over and over again. Even in the quieter moments - the melancholy ballads "Does Caroline Know?" or "Renee", there is an urgency and power to the playing. There is never a suggestion of recorded backing, or going through the motions to promote a CD. Talk Talk take the time here to connect with the crowd, and the result is a memorable portrait of an all but forgotten band.
In our brave new digital age, the occasional analog stumbles will stick out like Hollis' ever-present sunglasses. In fact, many today might not understand the live dynamic of almost three decades ago. People actually "played" when there were onstage. They didn't rely on preprogrammed tracks to keep them aurally honest. You can see this whenever the camera moves in close to capture the musicians. And as for fame and frontman presence, Hollis can be lacking. As he does in a few of Talk Talk's music videos, he wears an obvious aura of disdain across his often aloof façade. It's clear he believes that, as XTC's Andrew Partridge once suggested, 'funk pop a roll beats up your soul', and the lack of a desire to play entertainer may put some people off. But time and time again, the viewer of Live at Montreux comes back to the music. Sure, Hollis avoids the beat-heavy moments of their debut LP The Party's Over, and there are other tracks - "Happiness is Easy", "Time It's Time" - that could have been included. But for a band with such a small discography, Talk Talk left a major impression. This definitive DVD explains why.
You can't fault Eagle Eye Entertainment for the flaws and foibles of early '80s video. The oddball color schemes, the occasional minor defects like flaring, bleeding, etc, just can't be helped. That being said, the 1.33:1 full screen image looks pretty darn good. The direction is excellent, really capturing the mood of the show. Those who have to have pristine transfers and flawless remasters may take umbrage, but the fans won't care one wit.
Ah...now this is much, much better. From a purely technical standpoint, the aural aspects of this release far outweigh the visual elements. The Dolby Digital DTS and 5.1 tracks are stunning, capturing nuances and negative spaces with the kind of precision we expect from the format. The sense of in-concert immersion is excellent, and even the PCM Stereo 2.0 recreates the show with limited speaker success.
Sadly, aside from a one paragraph essay by Andy McIntyre as part of the DVD insert, there are no bonus features offered here. Of course, Hollis retired from the music business back in the late '90s, so maybe it was difficult (or impossible) to get his permission for any added content. And that's a shame, since mostly forgotten bands like Talk Talk need all the supplemental support they can get. It's hard to win new fans when there's nothing provided to introduce the group properly.
While it's never obvious during the course of the performance, this tour would be Talk Talk's last. Hollis would hole up in the studio for the next five years, releasing the difficult, definitive albums Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock. After a greatest hits package entitled Natural History, however, the innovative band itself was finally no more. Still, if you can locate any of their albums (ITunes has them all, by the way), you'll realize why so many fans still celebrate their magic. Easily earning a Highly Recommended rating, Talk Talk: Live at Montreux is an excellent way to get introduced to one of the '80s best, and most baffling, acts. Maybe one day, Hollis will emerge from his self-imposed exile and teach his fellow nostalgia acts about what being a musician is all about. Until then, we have our memories, and this fascinating DVD.