Music is so often tied to moments or periods in our individual existences that it’s easy to forget it doesn’t always have to be so. The music of Mark Hollis, with his colleagues in Talk Talk and on his one solo album, has no personal significance to me whatsoever. But when I was introduced to it by a friend a few years ago, it made such an impression that it became a part of my life in a different way: tethered not by associations but by its inherent qualities.
Which is not to deny the value of the kind of association based on personal history. When the news of Hollis’s death, at the age of 64, arrived yesterday, it was greeted with a lovely outpouring of emotion from people whose lives he had soundtracked and, to some degree, shaped.
I’m not an expert on his music, and I know very little about its slow-burning effect on musicians of later generations. What I do know is that I’m always moved by its combination of fragile gestures and inner strength, its love of textures, and its feeling for space and silence. Graeme Thomson, writing in the Guardian, used the word “sacred” to describe it, and you can understand why.
Among the things I love on those last three albums (two with the band, one solo) are the raw deep-blues shock of guitar and harmonica on “The Rainbow” and the hymn-like depth of “Wealth” (both from Spirit of Eden), the abstract skronk interlude on “After the Flood” (from Laughing Stock), and the combination of bassoon and harmonica on “Watershed” (from Mark Hollis). But every track on those three albums has something similar: something to make you sigh with admiration at its skewed inevitability or laugh appreciatively at its sheer audacity.
The story of how those albums were made is a pretty harrowing one, involving endless amounts of very expensive studio time and a degree of fastidiousness about sound and nuance — in the use of musicians such as Henry Lowther (trumpet), Martin Ditcham (percussion), the double basses of Danny Thompson and Chris Laurence, and particularly Mark Feltham (harmonica) — that made Walter Becker and Donald Fagen look slapdash. It’s very well told in the later chapters of Are We Still Rolling?, a memoir by their engineer, Phill Brown, whose previous work with Traffic had commended him to the attention of Hollis and the other members of Talk Talk. To me, these albums are the ultimate iteration of the instincts and the method that made Pet Sounds and Sgt Pepper. It was a self-indulgent approach, of course, and very destructive in some ways, but it created some masterpieces.
I never met Mark Hollis, but I did know his older brother, Ed, in the ’70s, when I was head of A&R at Island Records. My assistant, Howard Thompson (a much better A&R man than I ever was), signed Eddie and the Hot Rods. Ed was their manager: he was sharp and sparky and we discovered that we could have conversations about the Electric Prunes and Sun Ra and pretty much everything in between and either side. That wasn’t so common back then, and it gave me some idea of the breadth of listening that informed the younger brother’s music and helped, along with his own imagination, to make it so utterly remarkable.
I’ve no idea whether Ed’s self-destruction had anything to do with Mark Hollis’s decision to walk away from music 20 years ago, after the release of his solo album, in order to lead a different life. Anyway, he’d already done his work.
* Phill Brown’s Are We Still Rolling? was published in 2010 by Tape Op Books.