Blog: Mark Hollis, a personal appreciation

It was 1982 and a significant moment for me. It was the end of September and I received my first ever monthly paycheque. To show you that nothing has changed my immediate thought was to buy a record, so I left the bank where I worked sorting cheques into alphabetical order and being a general dogsbody. I drove down into the local town (Halesowen) and made it into WH Smith before they closed and emerged excitedly with a copy of ‘The Party’s Over’ by Talk Talk.

I had been attracted by the band’s poppy singles on side one such as ‘Today’ and ‘Talk Talk’, however, as time went on, it was the Mark Hollis solo compositions ‘Mirror Man’ and ‘Candy’ which proved to be more endearing. Moreover, what I didn’t realise at the time was that that this was probably the perfect album for me to buy as I moved from the the world of school to that of work. That’s because ‘The Party’s Over’ proved to be as much a rite of passage for me as anything.

It was the album that took me from the ‘one, two, three, four’ of punk… from the constricted isolationism of Gary Numan… from the chunka chunka of the ska revival, and the bizarre pantomime of Adam and the Ants… all of which I still stand by… but none of which really helped me to move on. ‘The Party’s Over’ was more three-dimensional, more textured, more nuanced… it slowly began to feel like a real beginning.

Then came ‘It’s My Life’. The eighties were in full swing and while they were not the write-off decade that many music fans see them as, I certainly felt my interest in music wane during this time. In fact without the dual staples of Talk Talk and New Order I may have fallen away completely; content, like many of my peers, to linger in the nostalgia of teenage years… forever consigned to tribute band hell. Both bands satisfied my youthful need for something to dance to and provided contemporary music with soul and energy. Yet both were experimenting in their own way.

However, while New Order became drug-addled superstars (while, to be fair, still turning out epic albums) Talk Talk seemed to be on a gradual inward journey, one that seemed to get closer to the soul with every release. ‘The Colour of Spring’ saw the band move away from it’s synth-heavy music towards a more natural organic sound with tracks such as ‘Give It Up’ and ‘Chameleon Day’ appearing to reach right inside of you and play your emotions… with Hollis as the puppeteer in chief. The mixture of his unique voice within an increasingly challenging musical environment was something that required me to rethink how I listened to music. In fact every album that Hollis has brought out has come with this requirement… and that is why I can go back to them again and again, because they mark stepping stones in the maturity of my musical appreciation.

This is the most marked with ‘Spirit of Eden’ which took me right out of my comfort zone. It is here that I can locate the source of my appreciation of jazz (an appreciation which is currently undergoing something of a revival with my recent discovery of the vibrant contemporary scene in London). I remember hearing the opening of ‘The Rainbow’ and wondering what sort of music it was… I struggled with it’s relative inaccessibility at first but, and this is something I’ve taken with me ever since, I realised that just because something is initially difficult to listen to does not mean that it should be written off.

I could do a whole track by track on this album, with the at times emptiness of ‘Eden’ and the understated brilliance of ‘Desire’, but that’s maybe for another day. What I will say is that Hollis’s music seems to become more timeless as his songwriting progresses, and he is less beholden to the vagaries of the music industry.

This continued apace with ‘Laughing Stock’ which takes that sense of emptiness to another level. Symbolically it came out on the Verve label, previous releases had been with EMI; and this seemed to confirm that Talk Talk were now firmly on the edges of the musical mainstream… for an audience who, perhaps like me, had taken that journey too… no longer interested in the vagaries of the charts, but music for the love of it… for the feel of it… for me ‘Laughing Stock’ is music that you can dive into the middle of and just revel in its sheer wondrousness.

It also marked the end of Talk Talk as a band, and nearly the end of Mark Hollis as a musician. Not before releasing one final eponymously named solo album, which is perhaps the least known of all his studio works but also a discernible endpoint of his own musical journey. In many ways a plaintiff, certainly low-key, end; this feels now looking back as if Hollis knew that his public musical career was over… checking out in an understated but still highly original way. Of all his albums this one is the most timeless and still feels contemporary listening to it today, the space in the music again increasing, sometimes to the point of virtual transparency.

When I saw that Mark Hollis had died this week, it sent a shiver through me and I felt a sadness that somehow mirrored Hollis’s plangent voice. My thoughts immediately went back to that moment when I bought ‘The Party’s Over’ and took it home and placed it on my record player… time and again. I remembered all the different albums that I have featured here. I also remember the ‘Natural History’ compilation, which was one of the first CDs I bought and played endlessly.

For me Mark Hollis was a unique talent who is as responsible as anyone for the way my musical journey has progressed over the years. Most importantly, however, it seemed he knew when to stop and leave what is for me as near perfect legacy as you will find. It is also telling that many people I know, with a diversity of musical tastes, have come out to express their sadness for his death. This, it seems to me, shows that his music was somehow outside genre and appealed to people at a different level.

I will go back to back to Hollis’s music again and again… because when I listen to it it somehow acts as a salve that not only takes me back to the time they were released, but also at various points since. So thank you for your music Mark Hollis, and the wonderful works that you have left behind… they mean a lot!



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