Jazz Odyssey – God of the Machine
Jul 312006

The king died and then the queen died is a story. The king died and then the queen died of grief is a plot.
–E.M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel

The modern screenwriting instructor would say that the grief-stricken queen has an arc: she lives, she saddens, she dies. For an arc you need at least three points: with only two you have a straight line. This blog also had an arc. It began uncertainly, thrashing about for topics and style. Gradually it found subject matter, in cultural criticism, and received a bit of notice. It grew, modestly in readers, by leaps and bounds in self-importance. Posts lengthened; intervals between posts lengthened vastly. At last the blog undertook to remake Western philosophy from the ground up, beginning with thermodynamics. This project included formulae and could not be understood without them — a more or less deliberate affront to the blog’s mostly literary readers. Alpha theory was pursued through seven installments, at immense intervals. The rest, inevitably, was silence.

This arc, which one might call Self-Immolation, was traced more impressively by the British band Talk Talk. They began as ordinary synth-poppers: The Party’s Over, their first record, could have been made by Duran Duran (for whom they opened on a 1982 tour) or any of two dozen groups of the period. Their second record, It’s My Life, is great of its kind but is still recognizable as a kind. Their third record, The Colour of Spring, is transitional; about half of it still sounds like rock and it can be enjoyed by people who are not tuned to the band’s precise wavelength. It was a commercial success, produced a hit single, “Life’s What You Make It,” and induced the band’s record company, EMI, to give them an immense budget and plenty of time to make their next record.

Alienating your audience and infuriating your sponsor are the essence of Self-Immolation, and Talk Talk disappointed on neither front. The band disappeared into an abandoned church, spent the budget and then some while refusing to release any advance tapes to the company, and emerged fourteen months later with Spirit of Eden. They proceeded to inform EMI that there would be no singles. No tour either, since the arrangements were too complex to recreate live. EMI nonetheless released “I Believe in You” as a single without permission. The band promptly sued. EMI countersued for breach of contract, on the grounds that this wasn’t the record they were expecting, or everybody has to tour whether he promised to or not, or the band could have made a hit record if they felt like it but they just didn’t feel like it, or something. One outcome of the litigation was that the group was forced to make a “video” for its “single.” By chance, on MTV, I saw what was probably its sole airing. It consisted of Mark Hollis, the singer, sitting on a stool, against a white background, singing and playing guitar, in one, uncut shot, for seven minutes.

Spirit of Eden was an equally spectacular critical success and commercial flop. It does not resemble any other music I know, except the band’s next and last record. I cannot, in words, make it seem palatable, let alone appetizing. (This may be a general problem; music critics seem to write around the music rather than about it.) It sounds, to the unaccustomed ear, like long stretches of whale sounds punctuated by brief outbursts of noisy free jazz. Regardless, listening to it is as close, with music, as I have ever come to the “transcendence” about which George Hunka and AC Douglas have been known to natter on and in which I usually profess not to believe.

After Spirit of Eden the band moved to Verve and made Laughing Stock, the same sort of thing only more so. There was nothing left to do but break up. As Mark Hollis put it in an interview, “When we finished Laughing Stock, there was no way I could get my head around doing another album because what we’d just done was so complete an expression of what I wanted to do, that the idea of writing something different just seemed impossible at the time.” There, in a sentence, is the Self-Immolator’s credo.

Yet it is difficult, without dying, to self-immolate entirely. Time hangs heavily. Talk Talk’s other members went on to form other bands and do other things. Hollis himself released a solo record years later, so ethereal that it is barely there. Although he has not been heard from in nearly a decade I would not be too surprised to see him return again.

In my own far smaller way, I too have decided to spoil my story arc and revive the blog. Partly because I have reached an age where I forget what I don’t write down, and partly because — well, I miss you guys.

Still, Hollis’s philosophy is a bit grandiose for me. I prefer to draw my inspiration from Derek Smalls, Spinal Tap bassist, who tells the band, before their first post-Nigel gig, as it dawns on them that without Nige they have no songs left to play, “You know what that leaves, don’t you? Jazz odyssey.” Welcome, then, to God of the Machine Mach 2. We hope you enjoy our new direction.

  19 Responses to “Jazz Odyssey”

  1. Well I’m still trying to figure out whether it’s a blues-jazz or a jazz-blues excursion, but it’s good to have you back. What’s the side column diary thingie about? I like it. Did you see The Squid and the Whale and if so, why don’t you post on it? Oh yeah and when are you going to post some pictures of really hot chicks?

  2. […] Welcome, then, to God of the Machine Mach 2. We hope you enjoy our new direction. […]

  3. It Wouldn’t Be Much of a God If It Couldn’t Be Resurrected, Now Would It?

    Silent for nearly a year — he was last seen savaging some of Camille Paglia’s more dubious views on poetry, the ease of doing which probably bored him nearly to death — Aaron Haspel has returned today with a refurbished

  4. Good grief, a fan of late-stage Talk Talk. I agree with you about their albums, though, and go through phases where I listen to “Laughing Stock” front to back. You bring the number of people I’ve ever heard mention it up to three, counting me. Welcome back!

  5. So that’s what happened to Talk Talk. I always wondered.

  6. Welcome back, Aaron.

  7. Very happy you’re back. I missed you too.

  8. I think you mean Mark 2. Mach 2 means “twice the speed of sound,” which makes no sense in this context.

  9. The matter appears to be in dispute.

  10. Mach 2 as in Mach 3, guys. It’s a shaving metaphor. Welcome back, Aaron.

  11. Just good to see ya back, buddy!

  12. “Manageable elite” my foot! Mr Vanish For Nearly a Year gets an Instalanche merely for announcing his glorious return. Well you’re not fooling me, compadre — I’ll abuse my posting privs on your behalf when you’ve made at least three posts in as many weeks.

    But really: my day is made. Welcome back.

    Derek — Make it four. Spirit of Eden is one of my favourite albums of all time, and Laughing Stock is very underappreciated.

  13. I am happier you are amongst the living than that you are blogging.
    The blog thingy is good too.

  14. Hooray!

  15. A fellow Tap AND Talk Talk fan… it’s a Smalls world.

    Weirdly enough, “Spirit of Eden” and “Laughing Stock” were the first two I bought; I then worked backwards. All of their stuff is excellent IMO. EMI got their contractual obligation (and, in a very real way, their revenge) with a crappy remix album in 1991. Mark Hollis went on to release a 1998 solo album (which I didn’t like all that much) and has since done zippo, whilst Tim Friese-Green keeps his hand in with all kinds of productions and collaborations.

  16. Well, good to see you’re back in business. Now do your thing.

  17. You were displaced while you were away, mister. youtube is the reigning god o’machine and like all half-decent gods really does contain most things. Including a different version of Talk Talk’s “I Believe in you” video than you mentioned (or perhaps you misremembered it–seems doubtful EMI was bankrolling different video takes on the song), what appears to be somebody’s homemade video of a longer version of the song (which in turn appears to be built out of re-edited and manipulated scenes from, who knows, some Fassbinder flick or something), and, best of all, a live clip of the band “performing” the song on some germanic cavalcade-of-pop TV thing. Pay special attention to the non-bobbing silhouetted heads when the director cuts to the back of the room pov shot out of pure bewilderment. it’s a crime that this clip ends before the applause smatters.

    You will want to compare this last clip to a more amenable Talk Talk’s appearance in a similarly horrific setting from 1984. I think Oasis must have seen this earlier show. And Radiohead their later appearance.

    the clips are here, in the same order as above:





  18. Shaving metaphors?! Shaving Metaphors?!

    O’man, it doesn’t get better then that!

    I can’t wait for Yak Shaving Day!

  19. That is too cool.Spirit of Eden is my most favourite.

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