Mark Hollis: An Appreciation

Mark Hollis (4.1.1955–25.2.2019): An Appreciation, from Richard Whitehouse

First, picture this: a 16-year-old in the seated area of Birmingham’s Odeon about to witness a band of white-suited men whose reputation as a second-tier Duran Duran was confirmed by the set of synth-based songs lapped up by teenagers too hormonally active to hear the music.

Then, picture this: a 19-year-old standing in London’s Hammersmith Odeon (as it then was) to witness an augmented band awash with jazz inferences and ‘world’ percussion (as it soon became) in a set that suggested a brave new world of possibilities opening-up for British pop.

Now, picture this: a 28-year-old listening through a self-inflicted haze at a flat somewhere in the vicinity of Elephant and Castle to the all too valedictory-sounding swansong album from this band which ignorance meant had gone unnoticed on its release almost four years earlier.

Just how Talk Talk effected these transitions was, of course, merely part of the fascination surrounding this band in general and front-man Mark Hollis in particular. Indeed, the present writer would not even have been at the Birmingham gig had he not been invited by a school-friend whose sister was too young to be taking advantage of her competition prize, while his attendance at the London gig came about after a chance hearing of that band’s third album – The Colour of Spring emerging as a diamond in the murky sea of 1980s British pop.

Not that Talk Talk was blameless in this latter respect, though Hollis had been an unwilling New Romantic from the outset. Listen to the sophomore single Talk Talk, as originally set down by his former band The Reaction, for a perfect instance of second-string Punk that was reformatted with minimal fuss (the demo acting as New Wave transition) into the song it became. From here to the reluctant modishness of The Party’s Over, then uneasy swerving between personal confession and impersonal hit-making of It’s My Life made what came after the more telling.

Just what Talk Talk might have gone to achieve as a live act will never be known, as Hollis’s refusal to countenance further performance after 1986 was but one aspect of a mind-set which saw him and assorted cohorts move ever further from pop towards what later became known as post-rock; not so much an aesthetic entity as an amorphous category dreamed up by itinerant musos. Rose-tinted memories aside, the release of Spirit of Eden in the late-summer of 1988 really did suggest a new phase comparable to those defined by Sgt Pepper or Low / Heroes.

Undoubtedly an album whose listeners divide equally into the ‘formed their own bands’ and ‘became music critics’ categories, Spirit Of Eden has now been over-hyped more than it was initially under-appreciated – as any read through the well-intentioned sentiments of the many Hollis tributes readily underlines. Its achievement, following on from those seminal albums in the decades before it, was to blur generic boundaries so that the music’s intrinsic sound became its own justification – hardly something that tallied with AOR interests at the end of the ’80s.

That things did not quite work-out as they should was hardly the fault of Hollis or his band, which by now resembled more a ‘broken consort’ whose output had almost to be extracted from sonic raw-material under testing studio conditions. What remained constant, here or on even more unequivocal follow-up Laughing Stock, was the quality (in all senses) of Hollis’s voice as it veered between tremulous croon and mumbled intimation; all the while providing focus and continuity in the context of music as skirted genres without being beholden to any.

That fifth and final album slipped out on a new (and equally uncomprehending) label exactly three years after its predecessor, demonstrably moving as far beyond it creatively as ‘Eden’ had beyond ‘Spring’. That said, all three albums represent the qualitative best of times which memory recalls as being more favourable to such music inasmuch as the overall ‘scene’ was less fragmented and demarcated than it became. A cursory look at UK chart placings for the latter two suggests unit-sales such as far more mainstream bands could only dream of today.

Not that these considerations would have worried Hollis, who duly disappeared from view only to re-emerge seven years on with his eponymous solo album; one whose economy yet never austerity of means and inwardly confiding manner have belatedly earned it accolades not so far removed from those bestowed on his former band’s later work, though its uniform beauty of content and exquisite flatness of production make for a less engrossing experience. Hollis was always at his best when being provocative, however obliquely that may have been.

It is worth remembering that even this album would likely never have come about had Hollis not had a contractual obligation to fulfil. His ensuing departure – rather, self-imposed exile – from the music industry ‘for family reasons’ has been much debated, but there is no reason to doubt its veracity. After all, his comments during that uncommonly revealing interview from 1991, to the effect he could never imagine not making music but increasingly felt no need to record let alone perform it, could hardly have been a more explicit statement of future intent.

What remained, other than the almost unbroken ‘silence from Wimbledon’, were six albums (together with a modicum of B-sides and sundry tracks) which constitute a legacy integral to any consideration of Western music from the latter half of last century. What this represents in creative terms has fitfully been evident over the decades since. What this says in any wider or more inclusive terms should remain relevant for as long as Western culture refrains from apologizing itself out of existence – which might come about rather sooner than anticipated.

Time, then, to remember Mark Hollis not for what he failed to achieve or had no intention of achieving, but for what he left to anyone for whom music is not only an end in-itself but also a means of understanding just what can be achieved when thought and expression are as one.