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  • Writer's pictureJim Bessman

Mark Hollis--An appreciation

Talk Talk's "Talk Talk"

The unexpected death of Mark Hollis seemed somehow, like his magnificent music and career, incomplete, and therefore altogether appropriate.

Not even The New York Times could supply a date or cause of death in its Feb. 27 obituary. It noted, in the second sentence, that “personal details” regarding Talk Talk’s frontman were scarce—so much so, apparently, that it relied on numerous reports that Hollis was 64 when he died Feb. 25, and linked to Talk Talk’s Facebook page’s “official confirmation” of his death, from a statement issued Feb. 26 by his longtime manager Keith Aspden, who said that he had died after a short illness.

Aspden, however, did hit on one certainty: Mark Hollis was special.

“I can’t tell you how much Mark influenced and changed my perceptions on art and music," said Aspden. "I’m grateful for the time I spent with him and for the gentle beauty he shared with us.”

The recognition and gratitude for Hollis’s ethereal music and enormous influence had already been echoed by legions of musicians, mostly in Britain, where Talk Talk’s and Hollis’s visibility and exposure was far greater than in the U.S., where the band enjoyed a few standout MTV video hits, most notably their namesake debut single from 1982 debut album The Party’s Over (which peaked at No. 75), and their 1984 second album’s hit “It’s My Life,” which made it to the Top 40 in the U.S., and spawned No Doubt’s 2003 cover, which far surpassed Talk Talk’s in reaching the Top 10.

Talk Talk's stunning video for "It's My Life"

Venerable British music journal New Musical Express (NME) listed several current artists “who would almost certainly not exist in the same format without Talk Talk,” many accompanied by testimonial quotes, past or present: St Vincent’s Annie Clark had tweeted that Talk Talk’s 1988 album Spirit of Eden (recently hailed by Stereogum as “one of the most radical reinventions to ever occur in alternative music”) had saved her life, much as Vampire Weekend’s Chris Baio likewise tweeted last week that Hollis had changed his.

Clark further noted in a radio interview that Spirit of Eden was “divorced from any people or places…headphone music in random cities all over the world. It’s a beautiful record. It’s a whole piece of work and it’s a real unfolding meditation. Light a candle, turn off your phone, and listen to that record.”

Mattie Healy, frontman for the English pop band The 1975, also cited Spirit of Eden, as did Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich, who called it “an incredibly emotional record that I just found myself listening to like a classical piece, you know, as a whole.” Blur drummer Dave Rowntree noted Hollis’s “huge influence” on his music, while English alternative rock band Doves tweeted, “We owe you so much. I can’t overstate the influence on us three as musicians and us as a band.”

English rock band Elbow’s Guy Garvey, in a 2012 interview in Mojo, had noted how Hollis had come out of the punk ethos, admittedly with no musical ability.

“To go from only having the urge, to writing some of the most timeless, intricate and original music ever is as impressive as the moon landings,” Garvey said, proclaiming that “New Grass,” from Talk Talk’s fifth and final studio album Laughing Stock (1991), “will be played at my funeral. It’s the most beautiful song I’ve ever heard.”

Talk Talk's "New Grass"

Singer-songwriter Ian McNabb led another unique English band, Icicle Works, that stood apart from the rest during Talk Talk’s time.

“I was very sad to hear of the passing of Mark Hollis,” said McNabb via email. “Talk Talk was a serviceable pop band, but when The Colour Of Spring appeared in 1986, it was clear that something more meaningful was afoot. Spirit Of Eden shocked everyone with it’s radical departure from the pop format, Laughing Stock and his only solo album [Mark Hollis] released in 1998] carried on this tradition--albums which follow no clear pattern but grow more impressive with every listen. I'm disappointed he didn't make more music but his last four albums will be played forever by anyone with even a fleeting interest in the outer reaches of pop/rock/jazz.”

Indeed, NME said that Hollis had provided “a brave and uncompromising lesson in elevating pop music to the realms of true art, placing him alongside the likes of David Bowie, Brian Wilson, Scott Walker, Kate Bush and The Velvet Underground in the high-culture arena and, by turn, inspiring Low, Mogwai, Radiohead and their new wave of 21st Century post-pop.”

In America, the late Michael Brown comes to mind, as the main songwriter for the short-lived 1960s Baroque pop group the Left Banke, who made an indelible mark on pop music with the immortal hits “Walk Away Renee” and “Pretty Ballerina.” Tweeted acclaimed Chicago singer-songwriter/guitarist Ryley Walker, “Hollis is up there with Neil Young/Sonny Sharrock/Hendrix for most physical/blasting minimalism/spiritual guitar solos. No matter how far out every phrase belongs. F**king....bummer. True head”

Hollis originally wanted to become a child psychologist, said NME, but his older brother Ed Hollis, a DJ and manager of bands including pub-rock legends Eddie and The Hot Rods, guided him in forming his first band, The Reaction, which in 1977 recorded an early demo version of “Talk Talk” (“Talk Talk Talk Talk”).

Hollis did not think he could get a record deal because he didn’t think he could play, but he was encouraged by the garage rock bands of the famous Nuggets album compilation, as well as the punk rock bands influenced by them. Expanding his musical palette by listening to the progressive rock of King Cimson and Pink Floyd--and through his brother, jazz artists like John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman, and Miles Davis’s collaborations with Gil Evans--Hollis, who sang and played guitar, formed Talk Talk in 1981 with his brothers acquaintances Paul Webb (bass), Lee Harris (drums) and Simon Brewer (keyboards).

They were inspired by Roxy Music, and Hollis credited Debussy, Bartok, Coltrane and Davis—but their first single and album lumped them in with the synth-pop of the New Romantic “haircut bands” dominating MTV, like Duran Duran, for whom they opened—but who they were nothing remotely like. But they did have fun together, according to frontman Simon Le Bon on the Duran Duran website.

“The band Talk Talk, which he co-founded and fronted, were on tour with us in 1982. It made for a tremendous and very entertaining bill,” Le Bon said, calling Hollis “one of music’s great innovators [and] the main songwriter of some truly great songs.”

Le Bon also joined so many others in singling out “the extraordinary album Spirit of Eden.” With its preceding 1986 album The Colour of Spring, Talk Talk had moved deeper into the impressionistic pop/rock/jazz amalgam mentioned by McNabb. They carried it further into unexplored territory with Spirit of Eden and the last album, Laughing Stock--considered ”their most influential, game-changing releases,” noted NME, which also related how Hollis and producer Tim Friese-Greene had built Spirit of Eden out of a year’s worth of “improvisational sessions of rock, blues, ambient and jazz music, often performed in darkness and with all management and label representatives barred from the studio.”

In fact, when the album suffered disappointing sales, the label, EMI, eventually sued the band for not being “commercially satisfactory,” losing both the suit and Talk Talk, who went on to release Laughing Stock on Polydor’s Verve Records imprint. The band broke up after its release (though it did reach No 26 in the U.K. Albums Chart), and in 1998 Hollis released his only solo album, Mark Hollis, which the AllMusic website called “achingly gorgeous and hauntingly stark,” picking up where he had left off with Talk Talk: As he told British music paper Melody Maker regarding Laughing Stock—which employed 50 musicians over its six tracks--“silence is the most important thing you have, one note is better than two, spirit is everything, and technique, although it has a degree of importance, is always secondary.”

Where Talk Talk’s music had been called by critics a harbinger of the “post-rock” of the 1990s, Hollis had now created, according to NME, “what you could even call post-music, tracks emulating modern classical music and ‘50s jazz that were so sparse as to barely exist.”

And then he himself was, for the most part, gone.

Talk Talk’s bassist Webb, on Facebook, noted that he hadn’t seen Hollis in many years, “but like many musicians of our generation I have been profoundly influenced by his trailblazing musical ideas. He knew how to create a depth of feeling with sound and space like no other. He was one of the greats, if not the greatest.”

Wendy Smith of English pop band Prefab Sprout, which was active alongside Talk Talk, tweeted Hollis as “the most enigmatic, elusive and brilliant songwriter, singer and musician," whose Talk Talk song “I Believe in You” was one of her favorite songs.

Talk Talk's "I Believe in You" from "Spirit of Eden"

American experimental band Xiu Xiu tweeted, “Mark Hollis…that is a voice we cannot spare to have lost…thank you ghost genius…thank you.” And Yannis Philippakis, lead singer and guitarist of British indie rock band Foals, tweeted, “I always wanted to meet Mark Hollis & say thank you for his music. Hope he knew how much he meant to so many of us. RIP”

There were many, many other such tributes.

“I choose for my family,” Hollis had said about his leaving the scene. “Maybe others are capable of doing it, but I can’t go on tour and be a good dad at the same time.”

Concluded NME, “Though long absent, Hollis is still sorely missed. After all, the music of 2019 is full of the notes he isn’t playing.”

"The Colour of Spring," from "Mark Hollis"



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