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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 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.

16 Comments Post a comment
  1. Howard Thompson #

    blimey, Richard…steady on! I was on the verge of forwarding your lovely appreciation of Mark Hollis to a few friends of mine who like Talk Talk when, unexpectedly, there I was and to do so now would seem…well, a bit naff.

    You know me – back room boy, not one for the limelight, push the artist forward talk to them, not me – and now I have to try and figure out where I went right.

    Well, it’s all down to you, your splendid mentorship, your faith and valuable friendship for what, I guess, is now coming up to 45 years.

    I don’t have a lot of close friends. Yesterday, I learned one of the few I do have has been diagnosed with Parkinsons. Another is bouncing back from encephalitis, and me? I just had a week of the worst flu where for 2 days I thought I was dying. Anyway your kind comments gave me a huge boost, even though they lie. I could never have signed Richard Thompson, so you win.

    take care, see you in May, I hope

    h

    >

    February 26, 2019
  2. Mike Gavin #

    Like Richard I came to Mark Hollis recently and have been listening intensely today (particularly to New Grass from the last TT album Laughing Stock), Does anyone else hear the influence of Tim Buckley in these later pieces? Also having seen Chris Bowden recently recreating his influential 1992 album Time Capsule that seemed to appear fully formed from nowhere, I wonder if he was influenced by the mashup of jazz, prog, electronic music etc achieved by Hollis?

    February 26, 2019
    • GuitarSlinger #

      Ahhh .. Danny Thompson’s bass playing . Recognizable from a mile away no matter who’s album he’s playing on . And FYI thats an oboe not a bassoon .

      But to address your question and comments ; Tim Buckley ? No … can’t say as I do . But as much as I’ve been listening to Hollis this morning along with revisiting TT he most certainly does remind me of someone . Actually a pastiche / collage of a whole lot of someones from the 60’s 70’s . In as far as mashups ( a pathetic at best hipster wanna be term ) between Jazz Prog Electronica .. you need to go a whole lot further back in time than Hollis such as Miles , Can , Hawkwind etc . Fact is much of the so called ‘ mashup ‘ ( try using the correct term .. fusion instead ) you refer to predates his very existence in the public eye .

      But back to Hollis . TT was a band I intentionally ignored with a passion . His solo album ? Never so much as made an appearance my side of the pond .. but running thru the songs today ( just in case as it wouldn’t be the first time Richard introduced me to some music that slipped under my radar here in the not so United States ) … interesting to say the least … more than a bit pastiche if you ask me .. and though far from boring not entirely captivating or original either . On the GuitarSlinger sliding scale ? A solid 4.5 out of 10 .

      In as far as RW’s Fagan / Becker comparison .. in all honesty I’d say Joni Mitchell’s album with Charlie Mingus makes Hollis look amateurish in comparison with the likes of Fagan / Becker in a completely different league than Hollis was capable of even approaching .

      February 28, 2019
      • It’s a fucking bassoon, man. Starting at 0:35 of ‘Watershed’. And if you can’t tell the difference between a bassoon and an oboe, that undermines practically everything else you have to say about music. Sometimes your unwarrented arrogance REALLY annoys me, and this is one of those times.

        March 1, 2019
      • *unwarranted*

        March 1, 2019
  3. Tony Higgins #

    “…that made Walter Becker and Donald Fagen look slapdash” did make me chuckle, despite the sadness. I have met few – if any – who, once introduced to Talk Talk/Hollis were not entranced in some way, whether completely or more subtly. Either way, the music had some deeper effect that often revealed itself in understated ways.

    February 26, 2019
    • GuitarSlinger #

      ” I have met few – if any – who, once introduced to Talk Talk/Hollis were not entranced in some way ”

      You just met him . Online mind you .. and believe me … I’m far from being in the minority

      February 28, 2019
  4. Simon Wright #

    Richard

    You might be interested in this article I wrote about Ed Hollis. Record Collector magazine we’re interested in publishing but we could not find a decent hi-tea image of Ed. Even Hoard T d not have one.

    All the best

    Simon

    https://onlyrockandroll.london/2017/03/15/too-much-too-soon-ed-hollis-and-speedball-records/

    http://www.onlyrockandroll.london

    February 26, 2019
  5. Simon Wright #

    Howard T
    Hi res image
    Were not we’re
    ….and other iPhone typos
    S

    http://www.onlyrockandroll.london

    Begin forwarded message:

    From: Simon Wright <simon@onlyrockandroll.london>
    Date: 26 February 2019 at 21:23:36 GMT
    To: thebluemoment.com <comment+_gfpe98opimv0zxky6oomwh1@comment.wordpress.com>
    Subject: Re: [New post] Mark Hollis 1955-2019

    Richard

    You might be interested in this article I wrote about Ed Hollis. Record Collector magazine we’re interested in publishing but we could not find a decent hi-tea image of Ed. Even Hoard T d not have one.

    All the best

    Simon

    https://onlyrockandroll.london/2017/03/15/too-much-too-soon-ed-hollis-and-speedball-records/

    http://www.onlyrockandroll.london

    February 26, 2019
  6. rsd.charisma@gmail.com #

    A splendid piece about the wonderful Mark Hollis. For me it was always about quality, not quantity, when it came to the music of Talk Talk and Mark Hollis.

    February 26, 2019
  7. chiltonbell #

    Beautifully put Richard.

    Sent from iPhone

    >

    February 26, 2019
  8. Grahame Painting #

    A lovely tribute

    February 26, 2019
  9. Crel13 #

    A moving and thoughtful tribute Richard, thank you. I have only limited knowledge of Mark’s music, but all I have heard is pretty wonderful. In fact, it is hardly an exaggeration to say that suddenly hearing “It’s My Life” again in late 2003 helped me to carry on at a very difficult time in my life.
    Best Wishes,
    David Ellis

    February 27, 2019
  10. Nice piece, and good to see the late Ed Hollis mentioned – I think he must have been a big influence on his brother, Mark. ‘Edwyn’ was certainly an influence on the Southend/Canvey scene of the early 1970s where we called him ‘one thousand Eddie’, on account of his (then) staggering collection of 1,000 LPs that reflected his wide range of musical taste. I sold him a Sun Ra album I couldn’t get on with and he happily played it alongside The Osmonds, Kraftwerk, and the MC5, shouting ‘it’s brilliant’ as he moved the stylus from one record to another in quick succession. Ed was of course part of the Dr Feelgood entourage, and I remember one night around 1973 he exclaimed to everyone within earshot, ‘Let’s form a sixties group!’ Ed went on to manage Eddie & the Hot Rods and co-write ‘Do Anything You Wanna Do’.

    February 27, 2019
  11. Colin #

    I’ve never quite been able to enjoy the last two Talk Talk albums. I view that as my failure rather than theirs and I will keep trying. Oddly though, Mark Hollis’ eponymous album continues to astonish me in its reverence for silence and its bravery in breaking that silence. I thought you might be interested in Rob Young’s fine remembrance of the man that can be found here: https://www.thewire.co.uk/in-writing/essays/mark-hollis-a-life-by-rob-young.

    March 5, 2019

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