The Meaning Behind Talk Talk’s “Such a Shame” and Why Mark Hollis Said No Dice

Particularly across their first three albums, Talk Talk didn’t leave much mystery as to the meaning of their lyrics. The title and words of “Life’s What You Make It” are self-explanatory. “It’s My Life” is clearly about someone who is conflicted about a relationship with an unfaithful lover. The second single from the album It’s My Life, however, is an outlier in terms of its lyrics. At first listen, “Such a Shame,” released in 1984, appears to have no message, or at the very least, an incoherent one.

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Once you learn about the source material behind the late Mark Hollis’ lyrics for the song, everything starts to make sense. The references to dice and numbers in “Such a Shame” initially seem random, but they relate directly to Luke Rhinehart’s 1971 novel The Dice Man. The book tells a story of a man who routinely makes decisions based on the roll of a dice. Hollis sings his version of the story against the backdrop of an atmospheric four-minute synth-pop tune.

Rolling the Dice for a Change

With the song’s title and opening line, Hollis shares his opinion about the decision-making criteria used by Rhinehart’s “dice man.” By kicking off “Such a Shame”’s opening verse with Such a shame to believe in this game, Hollis shows us that he views leaving one’s decisions to the whims of chance to be a tragic choice. With the following lines, Hollis makes us aware of the many ways that this process could unfold.

A life on every face
And that’s a change
‘Til I’m finally left with an 8

Before the roll of the dice, the life of Rhinehart’s protagonist could go in any number of directions. But when he turns up an 8, he is then committed to the course of action he has associated with that number. Hollis uses the word “change” (a lucky) seven times in “Such a Shame,” indicating that it’s a critical part of the story. Instead of making the same decisions day after day, or at least using tried-and-true decision rules, the “dice man” is constantly creating situations where he will make different decisions than he otherwise would. That means he will be making changes to his life—perhaps even substantial ones—on a daily basis.

The “Dice Man” Gets Cold Feet

The pre-chorus underscores Hollis’ disapproval of the protagonist’s M.O. The “dice man” appears to be having some misgivings about leaving his decisions up to chance. He wonders if he should keep doing things the way he has always done them. Hollis appears to be encouraging the “dice man” to take his doubts seriously.

Tell me to relax, I just stare
Maybe I don’t know if I should change
A feeling that we share
It’s a shame

In the second verse, the “dice man’s” doubts intensify, and they manifest in “trembling hands.” He also concedes that Maybe it’s unkind that I should change. To this, Hollis responds once again that It’s a feeling that we share. He puts an even finer point on his objections in the chorus when he sings, This eagerness to change / Such a shame.

The Impact of “Such a Shame” and The Dice Man

“Such a Shame” barely snuck onto the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at No. 89. However, it spent a dozen weeks on the Dance Club Songs chart, reaching No. 12. “Such a Shame” was a much bigger hit in Europe; it topped the charts in Italy and Switzerland. Its Tim Pope-directed official video has been viewed 40 million times on YouTube, and it’s Talk Talk’s third-most streamed song on Spotify, exceeding 41 million plays.

Talk Talk were not the only artists to reference The Dice Man in a song. The Fall made a nod to the book in “Dice Man” from their 1979 album Dragnet. The Fall’s vocalist Mark E. Smith makes an analogy between the book’s character and his own risk-taking work as a musician. Manic Street Preachers referenced the book’s author in “Patrick Bateman” with the line Travis, Rhinehart rolled into one cute son.

The Dice Man provides a fascinating premise for a pop song, so it’s not surprising that it has made its way into multiple compositions. One could make the point—as The Dice Man’s author once did—that leaving everyday decisions up to chance can be viewed as the ultimate freedom. Hollis didn’t just posit this as an interesting idea in “Such a Shame.” He firmly took a side against it, and used his protagonist’s words to declare it as “unkind.” It’s one of Talk Talk’s best creations from their early pop era, and it wouldn’t be a bad decision to give it a spin. Or you could just leave it up to the dice.

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Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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