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Mark Hollis 1955-2019

Music is so often tied to moments or periods in our individual existences that it’s easy to forget that 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.

Riot in Dalston

Riot in Dalston

There are many worthwhile things going on in jazz at the moment, and one of them is the collaboration with open-minded young musicians from the straight world. Last night at Cafe Oto there were two such efforts, both featuring an eight-piece contingent from the Riot Ensemble, a London-based group who might be compared, I suppose, to Berlin’s Stargaze Orchestra.

The first half of the evening began with two members of the ensemble, Ausiàs Garrigós on bass clarinet and Amy Green on baritone saxophone, playing a fully composed piece called ‘We Speak Etruscan’, written 20 years ago by Lee Hyla, a New York composer who died in 2014. Beautifully conceived as two voices twirling around each other, it was performed with an irresistible momentum and a virtuosity that left plenty of room for the human sound of the instruments.

Then came the other members of the group — Mandira de Saram and Marie Schreer (violins), Jenny Ames (viola), Louise McMonagle (cello), Marianne Schofield (double bass) and Sam Wilson (percussion) — to play a sequence of pieces by Alexander Hawkins, conducted by Aaron Holloway-Nahum, with Hawkins on piano and Evan Parker on soprano saxophone. Parker led off with unaccompanied solo, quietly joined by the strings and a bowed vibraphone, holding a cloud-like chord. Already the textures were new and gorgeous.

The four pieces making the continuous sequence could be played in any order, discreetly cued by the conductor. The music shifted tone and weight constantly, using extended instrumental techniques (including one fantastic passage of drifting harmonics from the strings), and occasionally making space for solos, including one from Hawkins in which he used devices on the piano’s strings to get a kalimba effect. The music was intense and rarified, but never overbearing.

The Riot Ensemble musicians returned for the second half, this time to work with the trio known as ENEMY — Kit Downes on piano, Petter Eldh on bass and James Maddren on drums — on pieces written and arranged by Downes and Eldh. This was a very different formula: much more predetermined, much more vertical and horizontal structure, but enormously dynamic and involving, and greatly appreciated by the audience.

Everything played at Cafe Oto is professionally recorded. This was one of those nights when you leave with the hope that what you’ve just heard will eventually be released, so that you can enjoy it again and think about it some more.

Bob & Lily revisited

Bob Dylan Lily etc

It took me several weeks to overcome a disinclination to buy the Bootleg Series version of Blood on the Tracks. I’d been invited to a playback session last summer, hosted by Jeff Rosen, Dylan’s manager, and I wasn’t keen on what I heard. Of course the series as a whole represents a priceless example of a great artist permitting access to his own archives, but Blood on the Tracks is a perfect album and I don’t really need it in any other less perfect form. “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go”, for example, is so precious to me that I really hated listening to a truly horrible early version with an arrangement that robbed the song of all its lilting heartbreak poetry.

I suppose the real value of the new release is in its implicit suggestion of why Dylan rejected the first (mostly) solo version of the album, recorded in New York. What he didn’t like was its “down” mood. When he re-recorded half the songs in Minneapolis with a band, he dialled the mood up a notch, letting a bit more sunlight in. And he got it right.

Notwithstanding all that, eventually I cracked and bought the single CD version of More Blood, More Tracks. Now I’m glad I did, for one reason: a version of “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” that tells us something about Bob Dylan’s skills as a performer.

It’s a track I’ve always loved because it has so much of Bob in it: a wild story, full of characters and humour and unexplained ambiguities and bizarre incidents, a slapstick take on “Desolation Row” relocated in Tombstone, Arizona. Has he ever written anything more romantic than the line “She was with Big Jim but she was leaning to the Jack of Hearts”? Has he ever brought off another shift of mood as adroitly and blood-freezingly cinematic as “But then the crowd began to stamp their feet and the house lights did dim / And in the darkness of the room there was only Jim and him”?

The version we know from the released album was recorded in Minneapolis in December 1974 with a six-piece band (two guitars, organ, bass guitar and drums) plus Dylan himself on guitar and harmonica. One of its joys is its hurtling momentum: a tempo of 64 bars per minute, a fast shuffle propelled by the slap of wire brushes.

Now Volume 14 of the Bootleg Series gives us Dylan’s solo attempt at the song in New York three and a half month earlier. It’s slower — 56 bars per minute — and lacks the deadpan effervescence of the later version. What it has in recompense is a freedom for the singer to treat the song’s structure — AABA, in eight-bar sections — and metre in the way the standard 12-bar blues form was treated by John Lee Hooker or Jimmy Reed, in other words with absolute flexibility.

In place of the urgency that would be provided by the Minneapolis band, Dylan comes up with another way of providing that momentum: he shortens the eight-bar sections by clipping off a bar or half a bar and entering early with the first line of the next section. He can do this because he is alone with his guitar. And I don’t know many better examples of his command of phrasing, of his ability to manipulate asymmetry, making the bar-lines follow the melody, rather than the customary vice-versa. Here’s the man who honed his art alone on stages in the folk clubs and coffee houses of Greenwich Village, polishing devices that would hold an audience’s attention. Once you starting listening closely, it’s mesmerising.

* The photograph of Bob Dylan is from the booklet that comes with More Blood, More Tracks (CBS/Sony Legacy). It’s omitted from the otherwise comprehensive credits, but I think it’s by Barry Feinstein.

Signed Gladys

gladys knight and the pips

It’s Gladys Knight’s business why she accepted an invitation to sing “The Star Spangled Banner” at last weekend’s Super Bowl after several prominent artists, acting in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick, had turned down the half-time show. Gladys started her performing career in 1952, when she was seven years old. She’s known a long lifetime of ups and downs. As far as I’m concerned, she’s entitled to make her own arrangements.

Like Aretha, Gladys can move me to tears. But I feel something about her that I don’t feel about Aretha. Where Aretha sang from the top of Mount Olympus, somehow untouchable if not invulnerable, Gladys sings from across the kitchen table. Her triumphs and troubles are yours, and vice versa.

I have a special playlist of recordings by Gladys Knight and the Pips. Most of them are from her Motown era, which lasted from 1966 to 1973. They start with the beautiful remakes of her earlier hits with the Pips: “Every Beat of My Heart”, “Letter Full of Tears” and “Giving Up”. They continue with “Just Walk in My Shoes”, “Didn’t You Know (You’d Have to Cry Sometime)”, “If I Were Your Woman” and “Make Me the Woman You Go Home To”. They also include album tracks like “The Look of Love”, “Can You Give Me Love With a Guarantee”, “If You’re Gonna Leave (Just Leave)”, “No One Could Love You More”, “Here Are the Pieces of My Broken Heart” and “Signed Gladys”. The writing, playing and production on each of them lives up to the standard set by her singing.

She and the Pips left Motown because they didn’t feel they were getting the sort of priority treatment they believed Berry Gordy had promised them. Over the next few years they were occasionally able to show him what he was missing. With Buddah (1973-78) and Columbia (1980-85), they recorded the hits that are most likely to turn up on daytime radio.

Those years are the subject of a new 2CD compilation called On and On: The Buddah/Columbia Anthology. The 20 tracks on the Buddah disc show them veering perilously close to the middle of the road, but they include two of the most perfect pop records ever made in “Midnight Train to Georgia” and “Baby Don’t Change Your Mind”, plus soulful sides like “I’ve Got to Use My Imagination”, “On and On”, “The Makings of You”, “Make Yours a Happy Home” and “Part Time Love”. The disco boom was in full flood when they arrived at Columbia, who teamed them with Nik Ashford and Valerie Simpson for the elegantly devastating “Taste of Bitter Love” and several other fine tracks, including “Landlord” and “Bourgie Bourgie”.

The best of the songwriters and arrangers who worked with them understood the special relationship between Gladys and the Pips, who could be used not just to underline what she was saying but to issue reminders or warnings, and sometimes answer her back. But mostly the producers cleared a space for her artistry, for the way she got directly to the heart of a lyric, opening up her own heart in the process, adding the occasional unforced “ooh” or “mmm” that sounded like she was talking to herself.

Maybe my favourite of all her great moments is when she starts “If You’re Gonna Leave (Just Leave)” with a hesitation over the very first word of the opening line. It feels exactly like the way you might begin the hardest conversation of your life. Signed Gladys, as always.

* On and On: The Buddah/Columbia Anthology is released in Soul Music Records’ Classics series.