UnCovered Interview – artist James Marsh on his album cover work for Talk Talk
Not too long ago, I read about the release of a tribute album put together by (ex-Depeche Mode) Alan Wilder and Toby Benjamin featuring 30 musical acts paying homage to 80’s New Wave band Talk Talk and it occurred to me that this was one of those bands that were incredibly popular in the UK, but never “got
huge” in the U.S. For whatever reason – marketing, packaging, or simply a losing battle for the minds of radio/music TV programmers – Talk Talk was one of those acts that I never knew – or cared – that much about.
Of course, I had heard a couple of the singles that broke fairly big world-wide – “Talk Talk” and “It’s My Life” come to mind, although for the latter of the two, I might be thinking of the re-make by No Doubt of the song – but when I went to YouTube to watch the videos, I can’t recall seeing either of them in my younger years. Yet, overseas, their singles and studio albums were always in the Top 100.
with 1986’s The Colour of Spring rising to #8 on the U.K. charts, powered by 4 Top 100 singles, including “Life’s What You Make It”.
Song writers often run the risk of delivering music products that are a bit too challenging for mainstream audiences and, in this case, Mark Hollis and his mates seemingly concluded that a non-compromising approach to their song craft on their releases from the late 80’s/early 90’s would appeal to their most-loyal fans. Although the critics generally praised the band’s experiments that would combine rock, ambient, classical and jazz, record-buying fans seemed to lose interest (along, somewhat earlier, with the band’s label, EMI), ultimately causing the collapse of the band in 1992. Today, we can all point at instances of musical acts that stayed true to their creative impulses – Radiohead, Pearl Jam, Morrissey, Fishbone, etc. – and still managed to keep their fan base happy, willing to take a risk on each release whether it kept to “the plan” or not.
While the release of this new record should serve to highlight the long-term influence Talk Talk had on musicians in many genres (the record – titled Spirit of Talk Talk, on Fierce Panda Records – www.fiercepanda.co.uk – includes performances by respected rock, jazz, folk and classical artists, packaged in a 2 disc Digipack designed by the subject of today’s interview).
It must also be noted that the band’s album covers were just as influential on music packaging. And while many acts/labels would commission this work from different designers over time, Talk Talk instead teamed up with one talented individual – artist James Marsh – to create a memorable collection of album
cover images that still impress and inspire 25 years later. I tracked down Mr. Marsh at his studio in the U.K. and asked him to provide an insight into both his relationship with this act and how he collaborated with his client to create the imagery for three of their later records – Spirit Of Eden, Laughing Stock and the After The Flood box set. He’s deservedly proud of this work and, as you’ll
gather during the interview, remains quite a fan of the band and their influence on pop music to this day…
In the words of the artist, James Marsh (interviewed in October, 2012)
Introduction – I first got involved with Talk Talk very early on via their manager Keith Aspden, who I happened to know socially. One day we were discussing how best to represent the band visually – this was prior to any actual releases – he asked me to give the idea some thought and I went away happy to do just that. After some due thought and initial sketches of my ideas, I presented the concept of the “mouth-face” at our next meeting. Putting it simply, the idea all stems from my visual interpretation of the band’s name.
The basic premise was liked by everyone concerned, so it was quite easy to put into production and ultimately use it on both the covers of their debut album The Party’s Over and subsequent single. After the image was established, further single covers were required, with my ideas following on in the same vein, continuing the visual identity created for the album and collateral material. I suppose it was a bit like “branding”, in that respect.
Once the band enjoyed some success, everyone was quite happy to progress with me as artistic front man, so to speak. Basically, the creative process was left to myself and Keith, obviously with approval from the band, which worked out perfectly for me. The record company were happy to let Keith and I provide
the necessary material. In the early years, all the artwork was created specifically for each project, though later on, due to urgency and also time limitations, etc., existing images from my archive files were proposed and selected for use whenever we felt that it was appropriate or necessary.
Because I dealt with Keith mainly, my involvement with the label was rather minimal – even down to negotiating fees, which was done between the two of us quite amicably. Naturally, the label was happy because they had little to do except for the PR process, and consequently the symbiotic arrangement we
had continued, working perfectly well for everyone right up to the very end, and even beyond.
On his work for the 1988 record titled Spirit of Eden –
When asked to consider producing a cover for SOE, I recall being consciously aware of permeating undertones from the natural world that were somehow imbued on the album, as far as I had heard on the sample tracks, so it seemed quite apt for me to suggest something containing naturalistic imagery. I produced some visuals to discuss at the next meeting, along-side showing Keith a selection of transparencies of my personal, unpublished work, a painting titled “Fruit Tree” being one of them. It was a simple case of him saying “Oh, I like that
image, I’d like to show it to the band”, or words to that effect, which he promptly did and shortly afterwards a unanimous decision was taken to use it.
SOE was a case in point, where the image already existed amongst a series of personal paintings, as everyone involved liked the image so much we all agreed to use it for the album cover. I wasn’t expecting that but everyone thought “if the shoe fits…”. The essence of the image just happened to suit the album concept very well, so there wasn’t any need to look further and unusually, the same artwork was deemed fit for both the album and single.
The original painting was done back in 1975 and is essentially about Man’s affinity to the sea and its potency. Given that life evolved from the seas, it’s not surprising that most of us are magnetically drawn towards it. The image itself is really a double metaphor, with both the sea and the tree being major life forces or supports.
This work was BC – “Before Computers” – as far as I was concerned. With regards to how long work takes to be produced – I don’t work like a taxi cab driver with a meter running on my desktop, so it takes as long as necessary to complete each job. SOE was a different matter altogether, as it wasn’t commissioned, and so as far as I can recall, the entire process took about a month to complete. There are no tricks or mirrors involved in my painting, just traditional labor methods. Essentially, it’s all about getting what’s in your head down on the canvas.
The medium is oils on a wooden panel measuring 16″ x 12″, which was actually part of an old tea chest. The ‘oils’ were sign-writers paint, which is similar to gloss paint – it comes in tins, dries overnight and can easily be thinned with turpentine. This was my naive interpretation of working in oils back then, although the paint is probably more durable over time than the tube variety. I moved on later to traditional oils but finally settled on acrylic as my preferred medium for illustration work, mainly because of the drying and reproduction advantages. In view of the detailed nature of this work, on which I also used fine sable brushes, it probably took longer than normal to complete, plus I would
have had to find extensive references for the numerous shells and creatures adorning the tree.
After priming a panel or canvas, I normally start by painting the background first, working forwards, so in this instance I would paint the sky initially, followed by the sea as a solid basis for the rest of the image; placing the tree next and adding any details last, literally building up the picture. This method requires a certain understanding of what the image is intended to look like when completed and is obviously helped by creating a sketch or layout beforehand, although I instinctively visualize paintings completed and invariably they work out pretty much as I’d imagined them.
In 1976 I began a series of works intended for the fine-art gallery market, starting with an invitation to produce two limited-edition prints to exhibit at the Windsor & Eaton Fine Art Gallery. One of them was originally titled ‘Fruit Tree’, which has now become ‘Spirit of Eden’ by default. The gallery work didn’t exactly take-off at the time but my illustration work did and literally took over any aspirations in that direction. Generally I don’t draw much distinction between the two disciplines as they can cross over easily. For example, I’ve sold my illustration work in galleries and put my personal paintings to commercial use in equal measure – as this image clearly demonstrates – and, given
the choice, prefer to continue working in this unshackled vein.
This painting has a particular resonance for me as it represents a transitional stage in my career and, as a consequence, adds up to being one of my personal favorites from that period. If I had to pick my favorite Talk Talk album it would come down to a choice between The Colour of Spring, as that contains my favorite track, “I Don’t Believe In You”, or SOE, which may just have the edge. The image also happens to be my most requested print order by the way, which I think tells you something about what TT fans like, too.
In retrospect, my only disappointment with regards to printing is that the artwork was reduced down too much on all formats, particularly the 12 inch, where it was used at CD scale, making it difficult to appreciate the detailed nature and subtleties of the image.
On his work for the 1991 record titled Laughing Stock –
When the time came to create a cover for Laughing Stock, Keith arranged a meeting for us to discuss ideas. After listening to some tracks I remember raising the question about the environmental and ecological vibe inferred within the album context, following the vibe of SOE in that respect. He thought so, too, and in the course of our general discussion, I proposed birds as a possible vehicle to
convey that aspect. He enthused and suggested going one step further by using threatened or endangered species, making the metaphor much more poignant. We both really liked that premise, plus he admitted to being a bit of a ‘twitcher’, birds happening to be a subject close to his heart. Shortly afterwards he
was able to loan me a book about the world’s most endangered bird species of the time, which was the perfect starting place and also saved me a lot of research time.
After due thought and initial sketches, I settled on my solution.
The visual I presented was of a collection of birds from the endangered species list contained within the shape of a single bird. Simultaneously, I wanted to imply a mood or atmosphere of impending threat to the scene, so I kept it rather sparse and moody.
Everyone, including Mark, liked the basic concept and so I set to work painting the final artwork. It was very well received at the presentation but, sometime later, Mark expressed his wish to feature a tree in the cover image, his main reason being that he felt intuitively that it should follow on visually from Spirit of Eden. After that decision was made, I produced the second painting of the
‘global-tree’ as an alternative, while still incorporating the same selection of birds from the previous painting but this time presenting them within the form of the continents.
This became the cover for Laughing Stock, with the first design reverting to serve the box set After the Flood. Everyone involved was happy with the conclusion, although I still maintain the first painting would have made a better album cover.
On his work for the 1991 box set titled After The Flood –
As I’ve previously detailed, the ATF image was created originally for the cover of Laughing Stock but, on presentation, Mark asked me to try another version incorporating a tree, to follow on – in his mind – visually from SOE.
However, one consolation for the disappointment I felt when the Flood painting I’d originally promoted for use on the cover for Laughing Stock was the release of a box-set of three CD singles (titled the After The Flood Box Set and released in Sept. 1991 on Polydor Records) from the album, which used the ‘Flood’ painting on the 12 inch box cover and matching picture-discs.
A promotional pack for Laughing Stock’was also issued to launch the album. It consisted of a wooden box made from sustainable forest timber which contained a pen, pencils, eraser, ruler, note pad etc. plus a CD and mini print / sticker.
I’m pleased now to have ATF produced as a fine art screen print. Unfortunately, it wasn’t reproduced very well on the 3 disc box set, so it’s great to see it printed as intended, plus the image stands up very well to a large format. The same comments apply to SOE – it was used at CD scale originally, even on the 12″ album covers, so all the detail was completely lost on most people.
Like all fans at the time, I awaited each album with optimistic anticipation. It was also frustrating for me during the cover design process, because I rarely heard any demos or finished tracks in advance – mainly due to the mastering and production processes running to deadline prior to any actual release.
When that time eventually came, and I finally received the finished product alongside any collateral material co-opted for promotion, it certainly felt like a special occasion. It’s always a point of culmination seeing your work in print, particularly if it all turns out well. Regardless of the various print aspects though, I always relished unwrapping and playing new Talk Talk albums, essentially because the music never failed to live up to my expectations but also because it felt like some sort of fulfillment.
Just for the record, it must be said that I would definitely have been a Talk Talk fan, regardless of my collaborations with them. Over the years I’ve acquired an extensive record collection and, whenever I look through it, I’m mindful that the music we choose automatically becomes a soundtrack to our lives. My well-used Talk Talk section certainly confirms that idea.
Quite simply, I think Talk Talk embody the Eighties and not just because they occupied a fair amount of my time. I feel their music is as resonant today as it was back then; whether I select it myself or hear it by chance on the radio, it still sounds fresh. They played an important, enduring role in my artistic career and I’m proud to be associated with the band in that specific period of our musical
With regards to my feelings about whether album art matters any more, I’d like to say “yes, album art matters”. It’s like having a sandwich without the bread, unless you rely solely on the radio for your audio entertainment. The music industry is in flux at the moment with album packaging in decline, due to downloading being cheaper amongst other reasons. However a lot of people still prefer to hold a product in their hands – I certainly do. Hopefully there will be a swing back to packaging again, although I don’t expect it will ever be the same as in the 80’s, before CDs. I’m doing my part by providing an affordable service for new bands or individual musicians trying to get their music out there.
As I said before, it’s all about getting what’s in your head down on the canvas. Of course, today, even paintings end up digitized via the computer and, consequently, as a designer I’m more productive for it. The computer has undoubtedly given me the opportunity to have complete design control over any project, from visuals through to print-ready files, something never previously possible to any individual “BC”.
I enjoy collaborating with creative people and this gives me a chance to create different things visually. I believe I’ve produced some of my best designs to date on recent packaging or logo projects, mainly because I’m trusted with complete artistic control. Your audience can see many examples along-side the Talk Talk works via my design website – www.be.net/jamesmarsh
Editor’s note – in addition to the interview text, James provided me some additional source materials that were culled from writing he’d done for a book he released, titled Spirit of Talk Talk, and some of the quotes here are from that book. For more info on this book, please visit http://spiritoftalktalk.com/
January 2013 update – James has produced a short animated intro to his Spirit of Talk Talk book which can be found on Youtube at the following link – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kSwgHxMLX_c
About the artist, James Marsh –
Born in 1946 in Yorkshire, England, James Marsh is a U.K.-based artist, designer, illustrator and writer who has worked in all aspects of the world of visual fine arts, with clients in advertising, publishing and other media. After moving to London in 1965 and graduating two years later with a National Diploma in Design, he started his music graphics-related career at Pie Records, moving soon after to Decca Records and then to join with artist Alan Aldridge (when forming “Ink Studios”) that led him to his most high-profile projects at that time, including their acclaimed book “The Beatles Illustrated Lyrics”, published in 1969, and Andy Warhol’s “Chelsea Girls” posters.
Since then, his work has been featured in most leading magazines, book covers, music packages and promotional posters, winning numerous awards both at home and abroad. In 2003, the U.K.’s Independent newspaper included him in their list of the “Top Ten Leading British Illustrators”. His list of clients include Time Inc, the Times newspapers, Penguin Books, Harper Collins, Random House, British Airways, The Royal Mail, National Express, IBM, Peugeot, Mitsubishi, General Motors, Courvoisier, the Seattle Opera Company, and many others. Music clients include EMI, Polydor, Sony, etc., producing album
covers for Jamiroquai, Steeleye Span, Gerry Rafferty, Erazure and others.
In Fall of 2012, James collaborated with Harwood King Fine Art to publish a series of large format, limited-edition screen-prints, launching with two very popular images from his Talk Talk series. Both titles, ‘ Spirit of Eden’, and ‘After The Flood’ , will be exclusively available as a signed limited edition of 250.
These wonderfully-crafted paintings are considered two of the most important artworks from the now-legendary ‘Talk Talk series’, both being used as album covers by this highly influential English band in the ’80’s. The prints are screen-printed onto 300g Somerset, 100% cotton rag paper, using 30 screens and archival quality inks, including selected varnishes and embossing plates. For more information on these prints, please visit Harwood King’s site at –
About our UnCovered series of artist interviews –
Our ongoing series of interviews will give you, the music and art fan, a look at “The Making Of” the illustrations, photographs and designs of many of the most-recognized and influential images that have served to package and promote your all-time-favorite recordings.
In each UnCovered feature, we’ll meet the artists, designers and photographers who produced these works of art and learn what motivated them, what processes they used, how they collaborated (or fought) with the musical acts, their management, their labels, etc. – all of the things that influenced the final
product you saw then and still see today.
We hope that you enjoy these looks behind the scenes of the music-related art business and that you’ll share your stories with us and fellow fans about what role these works of art – and the music they covered – played in your lives.
All images featured in this UnCovered story are Copyright 1967 – 2012 James Marsh – All rights reserved – and are used here with his permission. Except as noted, all other text Copyright 2012 – Mike Goldstein & RockPoP Productions for the Album Cover Hall of Fame.com (www.albumcoverhalloffame.com) – All rights reserved.