The quiet gift of music when the power goes out
Last night, just after sunset, a great curtain of cloud fell from the sky, and there was a whip-crack of lightning, and the power tripped. I’m used to this; it’s a T & C of life on the Highveld. I dashed outside as the first drops began to splatter, and I opened the mains box to flip the switch to the up position. But it was already up. That could mean only one other thing, and it was swiftly confirmed by the stream of WhatsApps on the neighbourhood group. There was a widespread power outage, stretching all the way from Sandton and across the northwestern suburbs. Someone said it had been caused by Eskom cutting trees to prevent them from falling on power lines during the storm. In the process, a tree had fallen on a power line, cutting off the supply in a shower of sparks. Technicians had been dispatched, confirmed the City Power Twitter account.
There was no ETA for restoration. Darkness cloaked the streets, and within, torchlight speared the way down the corridors. The emergency load-shedding light, on the kitchen table, shone too brightly to look in the eye. From the house next door, the smug purr of a generator. We got out the Cadac, its blue-yellow whoosh signalling the backup plan for supper. There comes a point, during a power outage, when you walk around the house and switch the lights off, because by the time they come back on, you would have switched them off anyway. It was around 10 pm, after doing this, that I poured myself a cup of tea from the whistling camping-kettle, and I sat down to flick through Twitter on my phone, hoping to see if there was an update on the ETA. There wasn’t. Instead, a news item caught my eye. ‘Mark Hollis, Talk Talk star, dies aged 64’. I sat there, in the hush – even the generator had gone to sleep – stunned, for a moment. I pictured a star flickering in the night sky, and then disappearing. But the thing about musicians, is that they never fade away.
I tapped onto Spotify, and searched for Spirit of Eden. Sometimes, you hear an album that seems to have been made for an audience of one. You imagine that no one else has heard it, that it is a gift to you alone. Over the years, you discover that there are many other people who think this way, for whom the music chimes a secret chord that resonates on a hidden wavelength. In the mid-1980s, Talk Talk were a highly successful synth-pop trio, with a string of Top 40 singles in the UK and beyond. Then, in 1986, they sequestered themselves in a studio that was once the hall of a church, St Augustine’s in Highbury, and over the space of a year, with the only light coming from flickering candles and strobes, they recorded the album that would effectively end their career as a pop group. The legend says that when executives at EMI first heard the finished album, it brought tears to their eyes, not because the music is beautiful – it is – but because, as they later claimed in a contractual-obligation suit that dragged on in court for months, it was ‘not commercially satisfactory’. There are no easy hooks on Spirit of Eden, no hummable melodies, no steel-hammered template of verse-verse-chorusbridge -verse-chorus. The music on the album is a cycle of six songs, brooding and meditative, with silences you can fall into, and an eccentric array of instruments, including oboe, blues harp, bassoon, harmonium, dobro and muted trumpet, that play their parts in interweaving curlicues of improvisation. There is only one drum-break on the album, midway through the more than seven-minute long ‘Desire’, and it is one of the most ecstatic bursts of pure rhythm in the history of popular music.
The vocals by Mark Hollis are sleepy-eyed incantations that ache with yearning, and in hundreds of listens over more than 30 years, I don’t think I’ve understood more than a couple of words; I’ve never looked them up on a lyric site, for fear of breaking the spell. And yet, Spirit of Eden is a daring, mesmerising masterpiece, as radical in its own way as Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring or Kind of Blue by Miles Davis. You can hear in these tracks the eerie pre-echo of Coldplay and Radiohead and all the other downbeat, introspective pop bands that would follow years later, but this is the original, the Rosetta Stone, and it seeps into your pores like no other music ever made. I listened in the darkness, and the songs, and the silences in their spaces, shimmered with an incandescent glow, like the pulses of light you see when you close your eyes. Goodnight, Mark Hollis, star of Talk Talk, and thank you for the quiet storm of your music.