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Remembering the indelible legacy of pop disrupter Mark Hollis

The 1975’s Matty Healy, Richard Reed Parry of Arcade Fire, and more take us through the legendary Talk Talk frontman’s impact

The opening minutes of “The Rainbow”, track one of Talk Talk’s fourth studio album Spirit Of Eden, might have had fans checking the settings on their stereos – ethereal breaths of strings, horns, and discordance seem to float on with no beginning or end, the audience left without a hint of structure to cling to. It’s from this primordial murk which a familiar voice emerges: “Oh yeah, the world’s turned upside down”.

Before turning anything upside down, Mark Hollis had to start by doing things the right way up.

Born in north London, Hollis had a typical origin story – first enamoured by music through his older brother Ed, who was manager of 70s pub rockers Eddie and The Hot Rods, Hollis got his start in new wave act The Reaction, but Ed soon introduced him to Lee Harris and Paul Webb, with whom he would form Talk Talk, alongside Simon Brenner, in 1981.

The first of Talk Talk’s early albums saw the English band arrive fully formed as a gleaming commercial product in the early 80s, pitched as a rival to preening macho playboys Duran Duran, Hollis crooned over shiny, synthesised instrumentals, and played along with the farcical performative circus that was Top Of The Pops. This would have been the hard fought end point envisaged by many young musicians observing the multicoloured commercial splash of the early MTV era – Duran Duran, Culture Club, A-Ha. This was true, saccharine success. Commercial victories, as it soon became clear, were never the end goal for Hollis.

Talk Talk reached their popular zenith early in their career with “It’s My Life” in 1984, a superb anthem for self-respect and self love that echoes strongly still, aided in part by a No Doubt cover in the early 00s. Directly following this ascension, Hollis spent 20 years sinking his career and art further into the mist. His music with Talk Talk became sparser and more patient. By his final album Mark Hollis, released in 1998, he had jettisoned himself from his bandmates, creating intimate, pulsing acoustic compositions that sound like the very canvas of pop music being softened and stretched onto a frame far larger than it can handle.

Obsessed with continually treading new ground, and never repeating himself, Hollis ditched the shiny new romanticism after the It’s My Life album for something richer and more organic, announcing around the time: “That whole synth side – get it in the bin”. The result was Talk Talk’s first step towards transcendence, 1986’s The Colour Of Spring, an album brimming with warm acoustic arrangements and flourishes of unpredictability that marked a sign of things to come.

With their 1988 masterwork and fourth studio album Spirit Of Eden, Hollis and the band pushed the boundaries of their sound to its breaking point. With the benefit of a significant budget, and new digital recording processes, Hollis and producer Tim Friese-Greene let go of traditional pop structures in favour of layering sounds to create lush, textured soundscapes, and loosening their taut songwriting into completely improvised jams, to such an extent that Hollis told Melody Maker around the release of the album: “There is no way that I could ever play again a lot of the stuff… because I just wouldn’t know how to”. The atmosphere during recording was that of total creative freedom, of which Hollis was a driving force. Engineer Phill Brown recalls Hollis handing him a bow and a guitar saying: “go do it” after Brown suggested it might sound good in an instrumental section. Brown said “I don’t know how to play it.” to which Hollis replied “It’s easy… Just move your hands around like everyone else, it’s all chance.”

“The first time I heard Spirit of Eden, I realised I had found my Dark Side Of The Moon” – Matty Healy, The 1975

Without Hollis’ ambitious, blindfolded leap into the unknown, one that defied the analysis of the contemporary musical press and guided the way for artists itching to experiment, we may never have had Radiohead’s drifting and disjointed melancholia, or Bjork’s escapist pop, or countless other acts who refuse to kowtow to banal commerciality. At the present-day end of this lineage, modern superstars like Kendrick Lamar and Frank Ocean are now almost expected to deconstruct the boundaries of hip hop and R&B, in the same manner that Talk Talk tore rock music apart, three decades before.

The outpouring of tributes online in the hours following the news of his death speaks to the generation straddling power of Hollis’ work. Matty Healy, frontman of The 1975, tells Dazed: “The first time I heard Spirit of Eden I realised I had found my Dark Side Of The Moon. An album like an ever changing song – a crafted understanding of pop totally unshackled and free to roam. It’s an album that seems to sum up a decade in its own incredibly strange and brooding way. It changed how I look at albums – even music itself.”

Richard Reed Parry, multi-instrumentalist and member of Arcade Fire echoes similar sentiments. “I just feel so eternally grateful to the remarkable balance and breadth of gorgeous sounds, empty spaces, Gentle voice and huge, cavernous silences that make up the last three Talk Talk records, including Mark’s solo record,” he explains to Dazed. “I discovered them completely by chance and they transformed my musical inclinations on first listen, forever. I love the sense in those records of something eternal and infinite that comes across through the strange yet utterly organic sounds of the instruments – and the process by which they recorded them. Musicians playing endless accidental perfections for the first time, captured on tape in the moment and carefully sifted and preserved in boundary pushing song form.”

“There are few musicians who not only write incredibly creative, psychedelic and heartfelt lyrics, push the boundaries of song form and timbre to the point of redefining them and have one of the most special, unusual, stirring and beautiful voices” – James Stewart, Xiu Xiu

Musician, artist, DJ, and producer Nabihah Iqbal tells Dazed of her first profound experiences of Hollis’ work. “I began listening to Talk Talk when I was at university,” she says. “I already knew about them, because of their big hits like ‘It’s My Life’ and ‘Life Is What You Make It’, but it wasn’t until I was 18 or 19 that I began delving into their back catalogue and really exploring the albums. My best friend and I used to spend so much time in each other’s dorm rooms, listening to music together – and this was how I got into Talk Talk.”

Further, Iqbal outlines the band’s extraordinary, forward-thinking use of instruments. “Spirit of Eden and The Colour Of Spring became really important records for me. I was drawn in by the way in which the band were able to create moments of such heightened emotion with minimal instrumentation. I think a lot of it was also to do with Mark Hollis’ voice. His vocals are always so poignant. I remember feeling this the first time I heard ‘April 5th’. I appreciate the way the band melded the sound of acoustic instruments with electronic instruments – it’s quite a hard thing to master, but when you hear the acoustic guitar along with synthesised drums on ‘It’s My Life’, nothing sounds out of place.”

James Stewart of Xiu Xiu also lauds Hollis’ creative leaps in a message to Dazed: “There are few musicians who not only write incredibly creative, psychedelic and heartfelt lyrics, push the boundaries of song form and timbre to the point of redefining them and have one of the most special, unusual, stirring and beautiful voices in popular and unpopular music. Mark Hollis and who else? Maybe not a few actually, maybe nobody but him.”

In interviews and press junkets surrounding the release of Spirit Of Eden Hollis confounded the popular music press, his appearance and words entirely unadorned by the usual trappings of musical stardom, extolling the beauty of improvisation and experimentation, and speaking with an unusual clarity of thought about his own work and motivations. Distilling his thoughts to a base, he remarked in a TV interview that the fundamentals of what music should be about is “attitude, and not technique”. Hollis would be cajoled into the public eye like this, say calmly profound things in a warm cockney lilt, then disappear again, with an ease that is not afforded to today’s pop auteurs. No doubt shy and retiring genius types like Frank Ocean would have revelled in this era before social media and obsessive editorial coverage.

In these rare public appearances, it became apparent that Hollis was someone who truly was committed to the music – career and fame be damned. He admitted as such in Q’s Rock’s Backpages, saying he could be a “difficult geezer”, who refused to “play that game” asked of him by the press, hungry for succinct and simplistic soundbites.

The prevailing wisdom of music fans is the romantic and problematic thought that their favourite artist’s work is never done, that the best and brightest, like Prince or David Bowie or whoever, should strive for something unspeakable until their death, and even then we are left with the sense of a potential future being lost forever. Hollis had the grace within himself to see he had reached that unspeakable, ineffable moment, and he quit while he was ahead. It also didn’t hurt that he had two young children he wanted to take care of. Speaking to a friend at the time of Talk Talk’s disbanding in 1992, following their final album Laughing Stock, an austere and gorgeous work that continued the groundbreaking themes Spirit Of Eden, Hollis said: “I can’t go on tour and be a good dad at the same time.” It’s possible his final ambition was to alter the course of popular music inexorably, or he maybe he simply wanted to be a more present father. In either case, he felt his job was done.

There is a satisfyingly complete feeling to Hollis’ ouvre, like a film or a novel, tying up all loose ends and leaving no room for a sequel. In many ways his career reads like a pop star biography being leafed through in reverse – the humble, quietly febrile talent of a man alone with his guitar is the full stop at the end of this book, rather than the introductory chapters. For decades since the inconspicuous fading of his musical career, Hollis has stood silently obscuring a luminous musical truth that many reach for, casting an enormous shadow. Now he is gone, long may the shadow remain.