I rarely post about music on this blog, which seems odd given the important part it has played in my life for the past 35 years. By now I must have spent weeks, if not months, of my life, listening to music, either with friends or alone, and, as I grew up a long way from the nearest big city, my friends and I rarely got to see our favourite bands play live, so we would gather at each other’s houses to listen to something new, something that one of us had found and just had to share with the others, and our shared love of music probably bound us together more tightly than anything else, and still does.
And for me, there are a handful of artists whose music has been integral to my life, that I simply can’t imagine being without. And one of these, perhaps the greatest, has to be Mark Hollis, who sadly died on Monday at the relatively young age of 64.
The news of Hollis’s death, filtering out over social media and confirmed on Tuesday morning by Keith Aspden, his former manager, hit me, as I know it did many others, hard. I like to think I’m pretty thick-skinned, and the death of people I never knew doesn’t usually affect me deeply; but this particular loss I really felt, because Hollis’s music had soundtracked my life since my teens, when I first started listening properly to his old band, Talk Talk, in the early Nineties.
Hollis founded Talk Talk in London in the early Eighties, and in the beginning their record company tried to present them as another Duran Duran. And indeed their first album, The Party’s Over, is perfectly good, New Romantic synthpop, an enjoyable listen, but nothing special. It was with It’s My Life, their second album, that Hollis began his fruitful partnership with Tim Friese-Greene, the band’s producer and unofficial fourth member (along with highly talented rhythm section Paul Webb and Lee Harris), as the songs became slower, the lyrics more reflective, and Talk Talk began their journey from mainstream Eighties pop to something else entirely.
It’s My Life isn’t a masterpiece, but contains some beautiful songs, not least the title track, with its graceful bass line, which became a big hit in the US, and has a memorable video (which their record company apparently hated):
But it was with 1986’s The Colour of Spring that the music really matured, with a deep, expansive sound that produced hit singles – “Life’s What You Make It”, “Give It Up” – and two pieces, “April 5th” and “Chameleon Day”, that, in retrospect, plotted the way forward. But though the music could be sombre, even dark, it was never bleak, and the engaging videos they made with Tim Pope (who also directed some great videos for The Cure during the same period) brought out the band’s visual and playful side (also reflected in the gorgeous sleeves painted for them by the illustrator James Marsh), and I especially like the video for “Life’s What You Make It”, filmed at night on Wimbledon Common:
The success of The Colour of Spring led their record company, EMI, to give Talk Talk carte blanche (and a huge budget) for the next record, something they would later regret when the ensuing album, Spirit of Eden, endured a long gestation – months and months of improvised work in a darkened studio – and yielded no hit singles, and Hollis refused to play live anymore, weary of being away from friends and family, and of the painful logistics of touring. Spirit of Eden was critically acclaimed in many quarters, but didn’t sell in huge quantities, and EMI released a “best of” compilation in 1990 – which did sell – followed by an album of remixes, which led the band to successfully sue for using their material without permission (the remix album was subsequently deleted).
The “band”, by this point, was basically Mark Hollis – Paul Webb left after Spirit of Eden, apparently worn out from the long and stressful recording process, and, though Lee Harris remained for the next album, 1991’s Laughing Stock, Hollis and Friese-Greene were now in charge.
Laughing Stock delved further into Hollis’s musical and spiritual obsessions, and, like its predecessor, is now considered a classic of what has become known as “post-rock” – music that skims the boundaries of jazz, ambient, electronica and goodness knows what else to create a sound that, on these two albums and on Hollis’s self-titled solo album from 1998, invites the listener in and holds them up even as they travel downwards into darkness. These albums are strange, puzzling, occasionally noisy but always exquisitely beautiful, transcending not just genre but also the frightening constrictions of everyday life, to present the possibilities of a world renewed.
For the past twenty years Hollis had remained silent, bar the (very) occasional guest spot on one or two left-field musical projects. “I choose for family” he had said, and the commercial success Talk Talk had enjoyed with their early work meant he had the freedom to walk away from music and stardom. In the meantime, scores of bands, from Elbow to Shearwater to Grandaddy, have acknowledged his influence. Yet Hollis remains unique, that extraordinary voice unmistakable, and, though it was so long since he had recorded any significant new music, many fans hoped he might do, one day, and it was reassuring to us, just knowing he was still around.
Now he has gone, and, like so many others, I can’t help feeling bereft, that I’ve in some way lost a friend, however strange that might be to say of someone you never met. But his music was part of the warp and weft of my teenage and adult life, and will remain so, for it expresses, far better than I ever could, the desire for meaning – always searching, always questing, yearning for something else, something that you know is there, but is always, tantalisingly, just out of reach.