Rob Young pays tribute to the former Talk Talk frontman
“A song asale should have said so much/Makes it harder the more you love” – Mark Hollis, “Watershed”
When I began the feature I wrote about Mark Hollis for The Wire 167 in 1998 with the words, “Thrill is gone”, it was not just that a case of the November blues had appeared to hang like a pall over our encounter. It was also intended to capture something of the sense of enervation and despair I thought I heard in the solo album he was there unwillingly to promote; a feeling that much of his music occupied a numb emotional lacuna between – to use the prelapsarian imagery he also favoured – the Fall and the expulsion from the Garden.
Don’t arrive late to meet your heroes, especially if they didn’t really want to be there in the first place. While I’ve been puffing towards the Polydor Records HQ from a delayed tube, he’s been sitting silently in a charmless meeting room, with a leather jacket slung over a chair – the only detail that might betray a glamorous past. Otherwise it’s sensible shirt, V-neck, brogues and parted hair all the way. It was obvious he’s not comfortable with the interview, with the demand to explicate. With Hollis, though, it’s not the classic lazy rock star’s “it’s all there in the music, man”. The music has done its work. It was a painful birth. Breaking it down to ingestible soundbites would only reopen the wounds. Asked about the apparent references to Christian faith in his new songs, he spoke instead of having a humanitarian vision “in there somewhere”.
Though it sounds precious to recount, there was absolutely nothing preachy, fragile or pretentious about him. His replies to my determined probing were generally down to earth, shooting down my philosophical speculations with a flabbergasted “Cor!” or “Blimey!”, but he grew passionate when talking about composers he admired, such as Erik Satie and Morton Feldman. His anger when recalling EMI’s shoddy treatment of Talk Talk’s back catalogue – unauthorised remixes that divided the band – was unmistakable. He was clearly still in love with music, but was on the cusp of transferring that love to a private sphere. Exposing his own work to public inspection, via a marketplace requiring him to pick it apart and bare himself to unwanted explication, was too much of a heavy load. It punished the music too harshly. That is the only way I can explain his disappearance from public life after 1998. Now that his death has been announced, apparently (according to his former manager Keith Aspden) resulting from an unspecified short illness, the Mark Hollis album stands as the last word.
Search up, of all things, the compilation Born To Lose: The Best of NY Punk, Rock And Shock, where you can hear a band called The Shits perform a power punk track called “I’m Flying”. God knows what it’s doing on a New York comp, as it’s by a British onetime band fronted by Hollis, recorded during communal sessions for his older brother Ed’s Speedball label in 1977. In its donut pogo-primitivism, you can nevertheless catch a wave of Talk Talk’s ecstasy, dunked in acid-rock guitar and a foretaste of the scouring solos sublimated on “Desire” and “After The Flood”. Ed Hollis, manager of Southend pub-punks Eddie And The Hotrods, would have introduced the young Mark to the vagaries of the rock scene, and set him up in another shortlived outfit, The Reaction, but he also acted as a canary down that particular coalmine – he died after years of heavy drug use in the late 80s. The Talk Talk song “I Believe In You”, with its reference to heroin, is often claimed to be a final appeal from Mark to his brother. Unfortunately, some sources (including an encyclopedia that Hollis took to court) misinterpreted the song as autobiographical.
Talk Talk’s journey from new romantic puppies to the starblind visionaries of the late 80s has been recounted in scores of articles – most colourfully in engineer Phill Brown’s memoir Are We Still Rolling?. By 1986 they were all over daytime radio in the UK – the fervent pitch of “Life’s What You Make It”, and its weird nocturnal video, was a lingering flavour of my final year at school – but it’s Spirit Of Eden (1988) and Laughing Stock (1991) that continue to hold you spellbound, with their hard-wrought conflations of desert storm tension, corked rage and circadian rhythm. The gleaming, bone white sleeve and ecological motif cover of Spirit Of Eden disguised the circumstances of its creation. A muggy, darkened jam-space like that on Traffic’s first LP might have been more appropriate, as stories emerged years later of recording dates sunken in near darkness, strobes and psychedelic oil projectors. They were begging to be let out, hammering on the door of tomorrow, without quite knowing what lay behind. Songs like “Inheritance” and “Wealth” were still, small moral voices of calm in the full Thatcherite heat of the 1980s, before anyone had even dreamed of concepts such as post-rock, or could articulate a sense of a chart act creaming into a milky way of sound, texture, unfiltered emotion and depth. The results pleased critics but not the band’s Parlophone paymasters, who couldn’t hear a single in the maelstrom.
Walking away from it all at 44 to spend more time with his family was a brave move. Following Hollis’s 1998 ‘retirement’, he inadvertently became a kind of ghost in the music industry – a half-remembered presence, a memory that refused to be forgotten. Yet there were a sprinkling of sightings after this date – his unlikely guest slot on UNKLE’s Psyence Fiction LP of 1998; his sparse production and instrumental contributions to Norwegian pop sprite Anja Garbarek’s Smiling And Waving in 2001; his phantom piano notes on the underground obscurity AV1 by producer/engineer Phill Brown and Dave Allinson. A rumoured studio tryout with Kate Bush in the 90s came to nothing, but Los Angeles soundtrack composer Brian Reitzell managed to persuade him to deliver a lone 92 second cue for the HBO series Boss in 2012, and had apparently been in discussion with Hollis to produce more material.
But in hindsight his reputation will remain untarnished by his refusal to come back. He chose to leave his art where it lay, for others to examine. Artists denying the relentless requirement for product are quick to be labelled ‘reclusive’. But unlike, say, Nick Drake, Hollis was no dysfunctional hermit, but a family man, spotted now and then around his Wimbledon neighbourhood and who apparently enjoyed recreational motorcycling. The last two Talk Talk LPs are, effectively, manifold conventions of musicians with links to late 60s folk rock, pastoral classical and Arcadian British jazz – a convergence that significantly shaped my thinking in the early stages of mapping out my book Electric Eden. Talk Talk’s and Hollis’s plinth in the canon of Albion’s visionary music is assured.
On that last, late 90s album he had refined his composition by studying composers who worked with minimalism and silence, reaching for the essence, learning to hear and play the necessary only. The thrill of this music is never gone. We can mourn his passing, and all the music we might wish he had continued to make. But at the last, it seemed, Mark Hollis simply had no reason to play another note.
Subscribers to The Wire can read Rob Young's interview with Mark Hollis in issue 167 via Exact Editions.