David Sylvian – 1986

Sometimes meaningful excursions can lead to so much. Let’s take one, and follow the lead of two budding artists just at the cusp of realizing their full potential. In 1986, David Sylvian of Japan and Mark Hollis of Talk Talk were running parallel paths and somehow spearheading shifts into truly forgotten territories. A new kind of folk music was ready to spring in a wake born out of the fertile soil someone, anyone could rejuvenate again simply by taking the time, both figuratively and literally, to till the land. There was something about this period that saw more than a few artists trying different ways to get to some neo-folk specter that was hovering in the air. Few though, would quite find the blueprints for a future destination like they.

David Sylvian

What were these new sight lines they needed to follow? Increasingly, it was the influence of jazz, ambient, and folk music. When David, from Kent, started off his career as the lead voice and visionary of Japan much was made of their proto-New Romantic start. Flirting with glam looks and a more sophisticated take on punk music, their stretch from 1978’s Adolescent Sex culminated in early 80s New-Romantic masterworks like Gentlemen Take Polaroids and the pick of the litter, 1981’s oriental-influenced Tin Drum. At the time of their highest peak,  in 1982, when they were supposed to rival Duran Duran for charts positions and audiences, David Sylvian bowed out of the limelight and followed his muse.

Gone to Earth album cover.

Allowing himself to be taken away by more personal moods, and far more languid tempos…he released a confounding album in 1984 into the music market titled Brilliant Trees. This album showcased what had remained hidden in Japan tracks like “Ghosts”, a spectral English electronic folk music that was far more literate and pining than the music he was supposed to make. No longer taking stabs at Asian-aping music, he was taking cues from jazz and ambient music, while trying to roll it up with his own emotional sensibilities. Somehow “Red Guitar” (the slightly funky track most indebted to his past) became a hit, but audiences were shocked to hear songs like “Weathered Wall”, “Backwaters”, or “Nostalgia” mixing the barest of synthesizers with serene horns and accompaniment that were moving a bit far into the future, for its time. By the time they got to hear 1986’s Gone to Earth they were experiencing a new turning point for David.

A massive double-LP record, one disc dedicated to mostly vocal driven gossamer-like art pop songs and the other disc to strictly vocal-free melodic electronic ambient songs. Both sides engaging in their own way, aided by the help of musicians like Danny Thompson and Robert Fripp, they started to present a lush much less dated sonic world for David to present his spiritual, not quite burgeoning on New Age, songs. The key word here is “songs”. Ballads like “Silver Moon” and “River Man” which wouldn’t have sounded out of place on an older electro-folk albums like Before and After Science or One World are joined by almost indescribable electro-jazz loping pastorales like “Where the Railroad Meets the Sea” or “Upon this Earth”. Maybe as a counter-balance to all the previous excesses of the 80s, the latter part of the decade had some gems trying to explore a certain distance and silence they couldn’t before.

Mark Hollis from Talk Talk – 1986

Talk Talk

Taking stock of this sonic change wouldn’t be too far off for a man like Mark Hollis. This Tottenham native, followed the same script as Mike Scott and David Sylvian. What started out as a spirited punk point of view, quick shifted its eye to New Romanticism and dance music. With Talk Talk, from 1982’s The Party’s Over through 1984’s It’s My Life their mix of equal parts Chic-like groove and New Order-ish style electro-pop over Mark’s utterly unique almost muted trumpet like vocals was a refreshing take on the fad musical styles of the day. Singles like “Talk Talk” (which gave rise to their name) and the massive “It’s My Life” signaled to their record label a much more blue collar/marketable version of other more-fey artists like The Human League and Simple Minds. Then, the band was wrapping themselves up in electronic instruments searching for a purpose to their increasingly more sophisticated sound. Something changed though.

In 1985, one surprising single showed hints of the more abstract, modal direction they wanted to take. “Life is What You Make It” off what would later be 1986’s The Colour of Spring presented something unheard of then for this group. Visually, gone was there buttoned up posh style, in turn they now appeared with longer hair and style more befitting a band with fire in the belly starting up. Almost as if realizing the musical iciness of their past had to give way to a warmer reborn sound, they started to move away from their heavily synthesized instrumentation. “Life’s What You Make It” and “Living In Another World” combined more traditional instruments with the few remnants of their early electro-pop sound, in doing so serving as perfect entry points for the far more exploratory sound they wear after. Its something hinted at during their on-stage performances. It could be Mark’s more Impressionistic vocals, or the ability to improvise over these same tracks but something was changing in their sound.

The Colour of Spring album cover.

Together with producer and shadow band member Tim Friese-Greene, they were taking steps to actually creating overground pop music that took more of its cues from the spectral sound of free-jazz, ambient Krautrock, and the experiments with space that John Martyn, Vini Reilly, and dub styles had procured. Mark now willing to treat his voice as another beguiling instrument was a sea change. This is what you hear its first waves coming to shore in tracks like “April 5th”, “Chameleon Days”, and “It’s Getting Late in the Evening”. Playing two notes, when in the past they would have tried to play an untold amount, here they were valuing the currency of silence and space. Imagine their audience hearing the back and forth? “April 5th” fills your airspace with the barest of melodies and instruments, with a barely decipherable Mark vocal, yet the pangs of beauty switching on/off, as if awakening a new day, are truly revelatory. If, the audience was willing to follow this new sound, this new marker would be where it drew some of its direction from.

What will happen next for both of these artists would signal a sacrifice for a greater cause. Or more affirming yet, a palette cleanser for some new more fulfilling discovery. For David, it would be defiance in the face of prior history and restraint. For Mark Hollis and Talk Talk, it would be experiencing their trading all their superficial worth in exchange for a spirit that truly matters more. Oh, how the spirit moves we will soon find out…

Recommended Listening:

David Sylvian with Japan
Gentlemen Take Polaroids (1980)
Tin Drum (1981)

Brilliant Trees (1984)
Gone to Earth (1986) **

Talk Talk
It’s My Life (1984)
The Colour of Spring (1986) **