Mark Hollis: reluctant pop star who redefined rock

Few musicians start out in pop, move into the avant garde, invent post-rock and then go silent for decades. But Talk Talk’s Hollis was no ordinary musician

If you were paying very close attention to the music that Talk Talk released in the early 80s, you might have realised that they were not a band cut out to do what was expected of them. At the time, it was widely held in pop magazines that the London quartet were here to challenge to Duran Duran’s stranglehold over teenage affections. In fairness, they gave it their best shot. They posed for pin-up friendly photographs in the post-new romantic clobber of the day: crisp white clothes, shirts and ties, a look that bore a debt to Roxy Music in latter-day sophisticated mode.

They bedecked their songs with synthesisers and the modish sound of fretless bass: their drummer played one of those octagonal Simmons electronic kits, de rigueur on Top of the Pops at the time. Their 1982 debut album The Party’s Over was glossy and derivative, nothing to frighten the horses, although the lyrics of the title track suggested a certain jarring intensity: “Take this punishment away Lord … too much hope I’ve seen as virtue.” Its follow-up, It’s My Life, was a bigger hit – a Top 10 smash on the continent, its title track a US chart breakthrough – but something about it suggested that the kind of scream-inducing fame Talk Talk were apparently being groomed for wasn’t going to sit right.

‘A look that bore a debt to Roxy Music’ ... (L-R) keyboard player Simon Brenner, drummer Lee Harris, singer Mark Hollis and bassist Paul Webb, pictured in 1982.
‘A look that bore a debt to Roxy Music’ ... (L-R) keyboard player Simon Brenner, drummer Lee Harris, singer Mark Hollis and bassist Paul Webb, pictured in 1982. Photograph: Michael Putland/Getty

Frontman Mark Hollis’s voice was simultaneously too anguished and too vague; he clearly cared more about feeling than diction. Beneath the production lustre, the music on Such a Shame and Does Caroline Know? rather implied it was made by people with a love of progressive rock, not something you admitted to in a hurry in the pages of Number One magazine: Talk Talk supported Genesis when the latter reunited with Peter Gabriel for a one-off gig.

And then there was the saga of the video for It’s My Life itself. The first version consisted of wildlife footage intercut with shots of Mark Hollis glowering at the camera, mouth clamped shut. When their record label protested, Talk Talk made a second version, miming theatrically and lip-syncing deliberately out of time, as if mocking the whole business. You didn’t win over MTV behaving like that.

Talk Talk: It’s My Life – video

But if you might have worked out that Talk Talk were ill-suited to mainstream pop success, no one could have predicted what was about to happen. As it turned out, Mark Hollis wasn’t just a grumpy refusenik who didn’t like miming in videos and name-dropped Miles Davis and Béla Bartók in interviews. He was an artist with a completely singular and uncompromising musical vision that would eventually spawn an entire musical sub-genre. He would spend the next six years following his own route with painstaking exactitude, in the process changing Talk Talk’s music so completely that, by the time they split up in 1991, they were utterly unrecognisable as the band who’d once appeared on Top of the Pops singing their hit single Today to an audience wearing deely-boppers.

The first sign of his shift in direction came with 1986’s The Colour of Spring. “That whole synth side,” Hollis had decreed, “get it in the bin.” The single Life’s What You Make It was idiosyncratically funky and euphoric – you could see why it ended up a big record with Balearic DJs playing to ecstasy-blasted dancefloors – but elsewhere, The Colour of Spring drew on everything from jazz horns to children’s choirs. There were epic orchestrations, but on Chameleon Day or the impossibly beautiful April 5th, there was also music that sounded sparse and abstract.

Eventually, Hollis would become famous for the amount of music he recorded, then wiped, before declaring a song complete. (“Before you play two notes, learn how to play one note,” he offered as explanation for this approach, “and don’t play one note unless you’ve got a reason to play it.”) A few years earlier, Talk Talk had sounded desperate to fit in with the musical zeitgeist: now they sounded completely out of step with current pop trends – it was the year of sophisticated pop-soul and big AOR ballads – and lost in their own world. When a reporter from Smash Hits attended the ensuing tour, they reported back in horror that Hollis had distractedly wandered on stage and started playing wearing no shoes, only a pair of socks. No one would ever suggest Talk Talk were cut from the same cloth as Duran Duran again.

Not Duran Duran … Webb, Hollis and Harris.
Not Duran Duran … Webb, Hollis and Harris. Photograph: dpa picture alliance/Alamy

Chameleon Day suggested the direction Talk Talk would follow on 1988’s Spirit of Eden, the album that sealed their reputation as one of the most extraordinary bands of their era, at least in retrospect. Incredibly, given its current standing, Spirit of Eden was coolly received on release. “Aimless,” offered one critic. “Pretentious,” suggested another. Or perhaps that wasn’t so incredible. An album that took nine apparently agonising months to make and was, by all accounts, largely recorded in the dark – the only lighting in the studio coming from the kind of oil wheel popular with 60s psychedelic light shows – Spirit of Eden didn’t so much play as gradually unfurl. Cut loose from standard verse-chorus structures, its six songs slowly but irreversibly worked their way under your skin.

The music mapped out a new territory somewhere between avant-garde rock, jazz, modern classical and ambient, an intersection that would subsequently be dubbed post-rock. That term would come to be applied to music that sounded like an arid intellectual exercise, which was not an accusation you could throw at Spirit of Eden. Its six songs were frequently profoundly moving, never more so than on the astonishing I Believe In You, a song inspired by Hollis’s elder brother’s long descent into heroin addiction. Once the manager of Eddie and the Hot Rods, Ed Hollis would die before the album was released. Tellingly, the tributes to Mark Hollis on social media dwell on the intense connection listeners felt with his music, mentioning how it had helped them during bereavement and times of emotional upheaval.

Q magazine called Spirit of Eden “the kind of record which encourages marketing men to commit suicide”. In fact, its release provoked a series of events that ended in a court battle between Talk Talk and their label, during which EMI attempted to claim the album was not complete because it was not “commercially satisfactory”. This was clearly not a criticism that found much favour with Hollis. Recorded for a new label, Spirit of Eden’s successor Laughing Stock was, if anything, even more oblique and introverted.

Stories about its recording sessions are legion and legendary. Clocks were banned from the studio so no one knew what time it was. Guest musicians were told to do whatever they felt without being played the song they were supposed to be performing on. Engineer Phill Brown later claimed that Hollis erased 80% of the music he recorded. The results were amorphous, but remarkable: squalling noise and free jazz alongside becalmed loveliness – the wonderful New Grass – and moments of silence, something Hollis claimed he would rather listen to than music.

Mark Hollis photographed in London, 1990.
Mark Hollis photographed in London, 1990. Photograph: Martyn Goodacre/Getty Images

Certainly, silence came to define the last 28 years of Mark Hollis’s life. Shortly after Laughing Stock’s release, Talk Talk quietly disbanded. Seven years later, Hollis released an eponymous solo album: hushed, sparse, beautiful and largely acoustic, listening to it felt like covertly eavesdropping on something intimate and personal. He gave a few interviews, then, to all intents and purposes vanished, although friends were quick to point out that his wasn’t the angst-ridden withdrawal of a tortured artist: he simply didn’t want to make music any more, preferring to spend time with his family. “It was like he changed jobs,” noted one.

In his absence, the mythology around the music he had made grew: everyone from Radiohead to the Mars Volta to Elbow paid homage. One intriguing theory was that musicians weren’t simply drawn to his work because of its quality, but because it represented something that had become idealistic and literally unattainable. Times had changed, and so had the music industry: no major label would now spend that much money making albums as unbending and leftfield as Spirit of Eden or Laughing Stock.

The myth around Hollis grew to such proportions that when he was enticed into recording 90 seconds of incidental music for US TV drama Boss in 2012, it became a news story, replete with suggestions that it was a sign he would return to releasing music. It wasn’t. “I did it. Full stop,” he told one acquaintance who inquired about the possibility. He was right. It’s one thing to doggedly pursue your own path without compromise, another thing entirely to be so talented and unique that you inexorably draw people into your world while doing so. Mark Hollis did it. Full stop.

• This article was amended on 5 March 2019 to change the spelling of Phil Brown to Phill.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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