Tuesday, 26 February 2019

Mark Hollis

Yesterday at 2.40pm, I got on a train out of Waterloo heading South West. I'd finished an edit and had just walked through central London, soaking up the glorious but unsettling weather. The sight of people in the sunshine, having lunch with smiles on their faces was enough to put me in a good mood.

I use music for many things - to motivate, help me think, send me to sleep, as a barrier to the outside world or as an aid to interpreting it.

Sitting on the train yesterday, I needed something which could help me concentrate on what I was writing which also matched a strange disjointed sensation of mild euphoria.

I reached for an old friend - Talk Talk's "Spirit of Eden". I've written on this blog before about Talk Talk and the effect they had on me growing up. They were a band I loved, but they consciously kept themselves away from the sort of personality cults other artists encouraged. The imagery, in particular, was poor and unwelcoming. As such, I never became a Talk Talk "fan", but the music was enough to keep me devoted to the songs for the best part of four decades.

I felt a physical pang of sorrow when I found out last night that Mark Hollis had apparently died at the age of 64. The idea someone so gifted should have his life stolen away so young seems wrong.

He was, by all accounts, an awkward bugger. Professionally, at least. It seems his main motivation for retiring in his early forties was to be a better father to his children. He was a tortured artist, too, which must have taken its toll - constantly pushing himself to change, achieve and create, despite having no formal training, dazzling voice or obvious musical talent.

Hollis knew he had something, though, and he was sufficiently motivated to make it as a lead singer of a synthesizer band signed to EMI in the early 80s. He collaborated with brilliant people, who could deliver his vision. At first it was downbeat but catchy pop songs, which by turn became gradually deeper, more complex and enriching.

Talk Talk's discography is worth exploring chronologically. The band's first album "The Party's Over" sounds dated, full of cheap synths and cheap dramatics. But every song is stunningly written. Have You Heard The News, about the guilt and depression brought on witnessing someone's death, is full of the unusual chord progressions and melodic twists which quickly set the band apart. The ability to do this within a synth-pop straightjacket made what Hollis was attempting even more impressive.

"It's My Life" was the album which gave Talk Talk their first proper hit. It was tonally slightly more uplifting than The Party's Over and it came with a sense of a songwriter really beginning to stretch his wings. The songs were still pop songs, but they sounded bigger, more epic.

"The Colour Of Spring" and "Spirit of Eden" are two sides of the same coin, to me at least. Years ago I started writing a list of my top ten albums (click here to find out what they are - full disclosure - I grew up in the 80s). "Spirit of Eden" and "The Colour of Spring" were going to be my number one and two. I just hadn't worked out which one would be which.

"The Colour of Spring" needs very little introduction. Pick it out of spotify and you'll be away.

"Spirit of Eden" requires more patience. Obtuse, but undeniably special. If you're not in the right frame of mind it takes a little effort, but it is extremely rewarding, especially the wonderful single "I Believe in You". I've embedded the video at the top of this post.

Then there's the final Talk Talk album "Laughing Stock", which is far more insular. As I said, you're better off starting at the beginning and working your way through.

Thanks for reading this far, and thanks, Mark, for the hours and hours and hours of my life you and your band soundtracked.

I wish you had come out of retirement and done the big set-piece interviews where you dissect and explain your motivations and techniques with the wisdom of years.

I wish you had gone on a series of tours, playing in venues with great acoustics and atmospheres. It would have given your audience a chance to say thank you.

But I suppose we were less important than your music and your family. And maybe that's the way it should be.

I can't believe you're gone already, though. I guess we're all getting old.


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