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Mark Hollis - A Life

Jason Lewis remembers the late and uncompromisingly great Mark Hollis

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by Jason Lewis, UK Music Editor for outsideleft.com
...musically, it was everything I had left to give
by Jason Lewis, UK Music Editor for outsideleft.com
...musically, it was everything I had left to give

After releasing his eponymous solo album in 1998, Mark Hollis spoke to a reporter and claimed '...musically, it was everything I had left to give'.

It's a line that has played on my mind since learning of Hollis' death last week. Having listened to his solo record and the much revered final releases of Talk Talk again, I began to picture Hollis, thoroughly exhausted but somehow pleased that he'd been able to express everything that he was capable of. An true artist knows that part of their role is to connect, resonate and move an audience, having created that work Hollis could not merely keep on producing more music by rote or perform the hits that he no longer believed in. Instead he did the most dignified thing, he retired to raise a family and simply disappeared from public view. 

It's impossible to predict which artists are going to leave a lasting impression on us when they first emerge.  Despite a couple of sparkly singles, there was nothing to suggest that when Talk Talk began releasing music in 1981 -82 that they would go on to create some of the most exceptional, uncompromising and adored music of the modern era. Talk Talk's early work was very much a product of the times. their songs were smothered in synths, fretless bass and tinny electric drums. Hollis would later admit that he would 'always regret' their insubstantial debut album 'The Party's Over'.

The band didn't look comfortable with the pop industry that they had inadvertently gained entrance to, early press photos of the band showed them dressed in crisp white shirts and black ties, the three other members (Paul Webb, Lee Harris and, initially, Simon Brenner), tried their best to strike moody poses, whilst Mark either looked perplexed or pissed off, as if he would rather be anywhere else than in front of the camera.  To make matters worse, in 1982 the band were given the unenviable honour of being the live support act to the soon to be massive Duran Duran. One can only imagine that, confronted by a young audience intent on screaming lustfully at their idols, that Hollis would have felt more determined than ever to break from the confines of pop life than ever before. 

Change came. The arrival of Tim Freize-Greene as producer and co-writer for their next album, 'It's My Life' (1984), signified a change of direction, their music was given space to breathe, subtle nuances emerged in their sound.  Lyrically it's a more mature collection, the title song, a confused narrative from someone in love with an unfaithful partner ('funny how I blind myself...') became their only US hit. Better still though, was the ballad 'Renée' where Hollis brought an, as yet unused soulful vocal to a song of emotional anguish and hurt. 

'It's My Life' was, however, only a stepping stone. Two years later, the spacious textures of 'The Colour of Spring' would hint at the infinate and would envelope the listener in its warmth and intimacy.  The album's most celebrated moment was the bewildering single 'Life's What You Make It' -  a plea for individuality which combined a strident drum pattern loosely inspired by Kate Bush's 'Running up That Hill' and an organ sound that was reminiscent of 'Green Onions' by Booker T and the MGs. The album's quietest moment was the haunting 'April.5th' - a gentle clue of the ambience that they would later embrace. 

If Talk Talk never recorded another note after 'The Colour of Spring' it would be justifiably heralded as their greatest triumph. However, the band's record label (EMI), were so elated by its huge sales that they effectively wrore them a blank cheque for the recording of their next release. Having been granted complete artistic freedom the band recruited a large ensemble of musicians, primarily from jazz and classical backgrounds, including Danny Thompson on double bass and Nigel Kennedy on violin.  

Tales of the recording of 'Spirit of Eden' are legend - late night sessions lit only by sound activated lights and oil lamps, lengthy improvised jams that were later meticulously edited into place. Hours upon hours of material produced, much of it shelved. 

The resulting album may be one of the most significant works of the last forty years and listening to it frequently feels like viewing a favourite painting, being immersed in it's colours and feeling moved by each brush stroke or daub of oil on canvas. The album opens with 'The Rainbow' begins with a mournful horn and a foreboding string section, then the solemn mood is disrupted by ominously squaling electric guitars. Hollis' wounded vocals float through the shifting musical scenery. None of it makes any literal sense but by the time 'The Rainbow' bleeds into the next song you feel that you have been touched by something dark, but cannot identify what. 

Famously, 'Spirit of Eden' has moments of delicate and meditative ambience followed cocophonous bursts of noise, most strikingly on the track 'Desire' whose abrupt climax leaves the listener drained by all that has preceded it.   The album's only single was the sombre 'I Believe in You', a tender tribute to Hollis' brother Ed, a rock band manager who had succumbed to heroin abuse. Tragically, Ed Hollis would die before the record was released.  

Not surprisingly, 'Spirit of Eden' wasn't the record that EMI were pinning their hopes on.  A preposterous legal battle followed where the label succeeded in suing the band for delivering an album that was, in their eyes, not commercial enough.  The band then took the case to the Court of Appeal and overturned the decision. Sadly, the whole fiasco was just another example of how vile the music industry can be. 

One of the remarkable thing about Hollis was his sheer bloody minded belief in the music he was creating. Despite being dropped by EMI and a noticeable decline in sales - Talk Talk remained committed to the new music they were making. Released on Verve Records in 1991, 'Laughing Stock'  is far more challenging album than 'Spirit', as with it's predecessor it consisted of just six lengthy tracks with shades of jazz, classical and experimental music but this time the sound would was far more esoteric and demanding. 

Although 'Laughing Stock'  has similar moments of exquisite ambience to 'Spirit', it also has it's share of visceral, earth shaking noise - note the screeching one note guitar solo on 'After the Flood' that hurts like a dentist drill, the dissonant horns throughout 'Taphead' or the frantic drumming that leads Ascension Day into moments of manic frenzy. 'Laughing Stock' would be Talk Talk's final release. It is an uncompromising record that, maybe one day, will be regarded as their finest achievement. 

It would be seven years until Hollis would release any further music. If the last pair of Talk Talk albums consisted of layers upon layers of sound, this was the absolute opposite. Gentle piano melodies, hushed guitar strumming, desolate horn solo's - it is one of the most unadorned and minimal albums ever released.

The album opens with twenty seconds of studio silence before the solo piano of 'The Colour of Spring' emerges, it is one of Hollis' most tender works, his vocals are intimate, the lyrics are opaque and poetic. 'Inside Looking Out' consists of just seven lines, lyrics that are tinged with deep regret. Accompanied by just an acoustic guitar and piano the song is a hushed and haunting experience. 

The album would signal the end of Hollis' musical career, as such it was a perfect farewell, like 'Spirit of Eden' and 'Laughing Stock' it is a work that will ensure and reveal new depths with time.  Some fans may have entertained the fantasy that one day new material would suddenly appear out of nowhere, but nothing could emerge - Hollis had given us everything that he had to give. And that is far more than we could possibly have asked for.

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Jason Lewis
UK Music Editor

Jason Lewis is a Birmingham based music, movie and arts obsessive. Jason's encyclopedic knowledge of 80s/90s Arts films is a debt to his embedded status in the Triangle Arts Centre trenches back then.

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