“The typical trajectory for a rock artist goes like this: Start out raw, risk-taking, totally true to yourself, then gradually get ground down by the industry into making ever more spirit-sapped and radio-ingratiating records. Far less common is the reverse: a career whose public story commences at the showbiz heart of mainstream pop, then torpedoes fame and fortune by embarking on a series of increasingly weird adventures in sound.” —National Public Radio, in an obituary for Mark Hollis on February 28, 2019
NPR is right. There are not many rock artists who deliberately sabotage a successful career to pursue a strange and less commercial musical path. It would be like ditching a six-figure salary as an attorney to sell homegrown produce from a roadside stand.
Scott Walker (Walker Brothers), who died in March, is one such musician. Syd Barrett was never exactly “showbiz,” but his two post-Pink Floyd solo records have people scratching their heads to this day.
Mark Hollis, lead singer of the 1980s English synth-pop band Talk Talk, is another who stepped off the carousel. Although details are sketchy, Hollis died February 25 at age 64.
My music era is the mid-1960s to the mid-70s. I can count on four fingers the punk rock bands I like, and I generally dismiss the entire synthesizer-sapped and overproduced 1980s. A few names stand out: XTC, Prefab Sprout, China Crisis…and Talk Talk, led by singer Mark Hollis. I liked this band’s bouncy New Romantic sound and songs written by Hollis and non-performing member Tim Friese-Greene. The rhythm section of Paul Webb (bass) and Lee Harris (drums) defines the word “punchy” and is sorely underrated. And I especially liked Hollis’s odd singing style. His voice sounded like Bryan Ferry’s, only with a frog stuck in his throat.
Talk Talk made five albums between 1982 and 1991. The first two, The Party’s Over (1982) and It’s My Life (1984) produced seven singles and established Talk Talk as a sort of thinking man’s Duran Duran, with whom they recorded on EMI and toured (and shared similar redundant name). The single “It’s My Life” hit number 31 on the American charts, and “Such a Shame” became a hit in continental Europe.
The first clue that EMI might have a “difficult” artist on its hands was the promo video for “It’s My Life.” (Remember, this is the visual image-obsessed 1980s when everyone needed MTV and VH1 to listen to music…or record companies believed they did.) In the original version of this song video, Hollis refused to move his lips to the vocalized words, then winked at the end. EMI fumed when they saw it. They forced him to do it over. The second time, he practically jumped through the camera, spitting out the lyric.
Then, the 1986 album The Colour of Spring presented a more reflective and sedate Talk Talk, slightly at odds with its earlier pop leanings. Ironically, this record went to number 8 in the UK charts, the group’s highest position. It was propelled by the powerful singles “Life’s What You Make It” and “Living in Another World.”
Examining the titles for these two songs, alongside “It’s My Life,” provides further clues that Hollis might have some misgivings about his pop stardom.
A scintillating 1986 concert from Montreux, Switzerland shows the band had by then closeted the stock designer costumes that New Wavers wore, and Hollis is bedecked in jeans, rumpled shirt…and sandals. He also hides behind sunglasses, clutches the mic stand, and keeps his head bowed for almost the entire show.
By the fourth record, Spirit of Eden (1988), Talk Talk was practically another band.
Today, Spirit of Eden and its follow-up Laughing Stock (1991) are regarded by some critics as shining examples of ambient or minimal music. The singing is sparse, as is the instrumentation. Tone and mood are emphasized over rhythm and structure. It’s an approach that probably dates back to avant-garde composers like Arnold Schoenberg and John Cage, and was explored later by Brian Eno. Lately, it’s been interpreted again and renamed “post-rock.”
While I find this music relaxing, and I’ve dabbled at the edges of ambient music with certain jazz and prog rock records, I don’t usually find it engaging. But in writing this essay, I’ve listened to Spirit of Eden several times, and we’re now engaged. Whether most critics who praise Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock do so more for Hollis’s artistic courage than the music itself, I can’t say. But I have no doubt Hollis was serious about capturing some magic with sound, and not merely trying to cultivate a legacy as an “enigmatic artiste.”
But while the usual adjectives and nouns for this music are “sparse,” “atmospheric,” “mood,” and “ambient,” the word that counted for EMI was non-commercial. After Spirit of Eden, the band and the company “parted ways,” as they say, not long after battling in court. Talk Talk signed with the smaller Polydor-Verve label for Laughing Stock. Then the band broke up. In 1998, Hollis released a self-titled solo LP, furthering Talk Talk’s minimalist approach. All three records are highly praised but, of course, they only assisted Hollis with his disappearing act.
Hollis gave few interviews, but in one of them he said something quite simple (minimalist) but also quite profound: “Before you play two notes, learn how to play one note. And don’t play one note unless you’ve got a reason to play it.” Hollis was talking about music, but he could have been talking about life.
After his solo album, Hollis, who’d been crouching at the edge of the carousel platform for over a decade, took the leap. Beyond minimalism, the only place to go was total silence. He left music to be a full-time husband and father in rural England, later moving his family to Wimbledon, London. “Maybe others are capable of doing it, but I can’t go on tour and be a good dad at the same time.”
For the next 21 years, Hollis guarded his privacy. He made some minor contributions to other peoples’ music, but he insisted his name not be used.
R.I.P. Mark Hollis.
(Thanks to WordPress blogger moulty58 for alerting me to Hollis’s death, and to Wikipedia for quotes and information.)
(For further reading about Mark Hollis, Talk Talk, and in particular the making of “Laughing Stock” and how art intersects with commerce, I highly recommend reading an article in “The Quietus,” located here.)