Mark Hollis: 1955-2019 [part 1]

Mark Hollis from the “Such A Shame Video” by Tim Pope

I have to admit that I was never a card-carrying Talk Talk megafan, but when I heard that Mark Hollis had died last Monday at just 64 it struck a chord with me. Not the least of which was how Hollis had last released an album, his one solo recording in 1998, then he calmly receded into the shadows of his own volition. How rare it is for a musician to resist the limelight’s beckoning call. But it became readily apparent that Hollis marched to the beat of his own drummer as Talk Talk emerged from the freshly popped balloon of New Romanticism in 1982 to quickly mutate and develop into the sort of artist who can legitimately get put on the same shelf along with fellow rough travelers like Scott Walker and David Sylvian. Gents who could have had the world that pop offered in the palms of their hands but chose instead to make their own path off the comfort of the main thoroughfares of rock.

I first encountered the band when I first got MTV in September of 1982 on my cable system. The band’s hat trick eponymous single [“Talk Talk” by Talk Talk from their EMI America EP “Talk Talk!”] was getting steady play on the new channel and I couldn’t help but be interested in what I heard. Ultravoxian synth-rock with a heavy sense of melodrama. I know that’s a redundancy. After having gotten burned on the US EP by A Flock Of Seagulls earlier that year, I held off on buying the four track EP and was richly rewarded when later that year the band’s debut album, “The Party’s Over” was released with, yes, all four songs from the EP.

I liked the debut album fine enough, but it was a bit also ran. Sub-Ultravox in 1982 was a well-plowed furrow. The song that always stuck with me from this album was the deep cut “Hate.” I was a sucker for the Simmons tom-tom beats that had a relentless quality I enjoyed. But the album was strictly B-list stuff for me in 1982. I ended up selling it off in the Great Vinyl Purge with no regrets.

1984 brought a new album and I recall seeing three videos for the singles “It’s My Life,” Such A Shame” and “Dum Dum Girl” on MTV. “It’s My Life” was a classy upgrade from the sound of the debut album. Looking back now, I am shocked that this superb song got to number seven in Italy but basically got stuck in the 30-s to 60s in other national charts. What were they smoking back then? This song was sheer top ten material worldwide. Even Germany [33] let us down here! In America it almost scraped into the Top 30, but most shameful of all was the lowly 46 placing in their own UK.

I had always intended to buy this album but with the format switch from LP to CD in ‘-84-’85 for me, I always dawdled and ultimately only ever bought the album on CD in the 21st century! I was shocked at how fine it was. The cruder synth cartoons of the debut album were much more polished this time in a post-Roxy Music sort of vibe. The album was bullish on sampling keyboards but they at least used them with a modicum of taste. No “8-bit orchestra hit” for new keyboardist Tim Friese-Greene! The latter drifted towards the band after producing the hit “She Blinded Me With Science” for Thomas Dolby earlier for EMI and found himself co-writing most of the material with Mark Hollis going forward. The Tim Pope videos for the album were also high quality goods.

Next: …Jettisoning Booster Stages

About postpunkmonk

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9 Responses to Mark Hollis: 1955-2019 [part 1]

  1. Taffy says:

    Not a mega fan either, and I never frothed over Talk Talk’s evolution to post-rock godliness, but am of course very saddened by Hollis’ untimely death. I’m so grateful that he gifted us with It’s My Life – the US Remix is one of my top ten songs of all time and I’ve spent many a blissful experience on a dance floor caught up in its mindful beauty.

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      Taffy – Well, the song did hit number one on the US Billboard Dance Charts, so there’s finally some justice there. Apart from No Doubt’s top ten worldwide cover version, which I found perfunctory. The royalties from that, as much as anything, is what probably allowed him to withdraw from making music in a practical way. I’ve actually heard it on the YWCA sound system so that’s the only No Doubt I’d recognize. Eh.

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  2. Tim says:

    There’s a Talk Talk remix album called….”History Revisited” I think.
    The mixes often are contemporary to the time that they were made (*cough* *cough* mid 1990’s FOUL) and there’s one good one on there and that’s the Tropical Rainforest Mix of “It’s My Life”, which, for you mixtape makers out there plays very nicely as a lead into one of the Erasure “Blue Savannah” mixes.
    I was late to the party, when they were new they were, to me, Duran Duran’s cousins that I didn’t have the time of day for, After years of listening to Eno, David Sylvian, Harold Budd, Hector Zazou, etc. I approached the Color Of Spring and was delighted. The arty albums that everyone is going nuts over since his death don’t really do anything for me, they tend to land in the same zone as post 2005 David Sylvian for me. I do like the solo album a lot, I snagged that contemporary to the Rusting Man album that was penned by one of his former bandmates and endorse/suggest the Rusting Man one to anyone who wants to play six degrees of separation with Talk Talk and wants to stay in a zone that is Color of Spring-ish.

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  3. Mr. Ware says:

    Talk Talk opened for Elvis Costello when he came through Orlando for the Imperial Bedroom tour. They walked out to polite applause in their matching white shirts and black ties. They all looked like they were about sixteen years old but of course they were older. They were stunningly good and song by song really won over the crowd. To this day they are the only opening band I’ve seen get a standing ovation at the end of their set. Of course this is back when a standing ovation actually meant something – you know, when we all had actual seats unlike these fallen times when venues consider seats optional or a premium price. Anyway, I followed them casually over the years and always enjoyed what I heard.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Echorich says:

    I am a Talk Talk/Mark Hollis true believer. From the first moments of their debut, I knew there was something special there, something that spoke to me musically. I have to say I never had the slightest impression that they were New Romantics, or that they belonged lumped in with that genre (one, which by 1982, was really over or had morphed itself). To me they were a Synth Pop or Synth Rock band, if they needed a tag. Talk Talk didn’t have songs about about girls named after dangerous Brazilian cities or felling trees in the Russian tundra. The debut opener Talk Talk goes right for the jugular, admonishing the intended subject for being a liar, a braggart, a judgmental conceit. It uses synths like many Post Punk bands used guitars to build on darkness and anger.
    Third track, Today, relies on a wonderful rubbery bass and sped up motorik beat. Fifth track, Hate, has those hypnotic Tom Toms and owes some of it’s DNA to Every Dream Home A Heartache era Roxy Music as well as The Skids. The drunken pace of track 7, Mirror Man is another track that bites the hand that the EMI was attempting to clap, with withering lyrics about vacuous fashion posers.
    What I found on both Talk Talk and It’s My Life was a band that belonged in the same Roxy influenced world as Icehouse. With It’s My Life, Talk Talk really began to blossom. Hollis’ lyrics were becoming more focused and in many cases part of the song’s musical structure. Gone was much of the debut album’s volume, replaced with an expanding repetoire of nuance and complexity.
    The opening pair of Dum Dum Girl and Such A Shame are a strong statement of musical intent. The latter opens with a West African percussive feel and synths that just build wildly on the motif. The fact that Hollis doesn’t sing his first note until the 1 minute mark is a foreshadowing of things to come. It’s followed by Renee which is beautifully Asian inspired. It is, for me, the highest point of the album, but I suggest seeking out their live performance from 1986 Montreaux Pop Festival to see where the band would take the songs two years later.
    I agree with you Monk, It’s My Life should have been one of the massive international hits of 1984. That it wasn’t says so much about the state of play in the mid 80s. All I can say is that there are at least 2 dozen people out there who were exposed to that track on mixtapes I used to make for my friends…maybe home taping was killing music… I’ll send off It’s My LIfe by mentioning the next to last track Does Caroline Know. Hollis again, gives the music space to breath on this track that has the feel of Polaroids period Japan. But Talk Talk are less buttoned up here, letting the bass slide and glide through the song and some playful synths have at the melody.

    Liked by 2 people

    • SimionH says:

      Thanks Echorich you’ve said it all better than me.
      Not sure if people outside the UK can access the BBC iplayer? Tom Robinson hosted a great two hour tribute on Sunday night with Mark’s music and influences and related music. Quite emotional I can say.
      My attempt at a tribute is over at Soundblab.com

      Liked by 1 person

    • negative1ne says:

      great breakdown of their tracks, and albums.
      very similar to my own thoughts and experiences.
      but i worked my way backwards starting from ‘its my life’,
      and then listening to their earlier works, which i liked also.

      later
      -1

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  5. Andy B says:

    I first became aware of Talk Talk when I saw them support Duran Duran at the Liverpool Empire in December 1981. I remember thinking at the time they had some decent songs. First single ‘Mirror Man’, released in early ’82, passed me by. ‘Talk Talk’ was released as a single next but flopped as well. ‘Today’ became their first hit in the UK. ‘Talk Talk’ was re-recorded and re-released and became a hit later in ’82. I enjoyed the album at the time. Good songs but the arrangements weren’t distinctive enough for me.

    In the spring of ’83 the stand alone single ‘My Foolish Friend’ was released. The last with keyboard player Simon Brenner. A decent track but it flopped in the UK. When the single ‘It’s My Life’ was released at the end of the year I thought it was a definite step up from their previous output. I was shocked though to see it fail to break the UK Top 40. (It would finally be a hit in 1990 when it was released by the record company alongside a compilation.) ‘Such A Shame’, another excellent song flopped. Even when the record company reissued it again later in the year. As did ‘Dum Dum Girl’. The second album is a big improvement on the first. More excellent songs but they were expanding their arrangements and really finding their voice. The album and singles should have been big hits at the time.

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  6. As with Echorich, I loved Talk Talk and Hollis as much for the lyrics and general enigma about him as the music, which I too thought sat nicely in Icehouse-land. Sure, it could remind you of Ultravox Mk II (especially on that first album) but they were less an influence than Roxy/Skids, methinks. Ultravox were more ethereal, Talk Talk was more grounded and earthy. Emotions much more raw than the mannered moves of Midge! I really related to “Such a Shame” and much of their lyrical themes, moreso on the second album.

    I was always gutted they didn’t really carry on from there, though at the time I didn’t understand where The Colour of Spring was at (though I liked “Life’s What You Make It”), and worried that they were turning into a “soft rock” band that I wouldn’t enjoy. It wasn’t until a few years later than I really listened to the second and third albums and understood the transition/evolution away from synths to natural/traditional and more exotic/organic sounds. Once that door unlocked, I got back into them as my own palette of musical sounds widened, so Spirit of Eden (which at the time I thought of as an interesting jazzambient™ experiment) was welcomed.

    Following Laughing Stock I had to come to terms with the fact that the band I enjoyed had morphed into something wholly different, and accept it on that level — which wasn’t easy, but by coincidence I was catching up with Miles Davis about the same time, which helped. I started to understand that Hollis and Friese-Greene were on a journey as far away from “rock” as possible, and didn’t know where they’d end up. It wasn’t quite where I wanted them to go, but neither could I dismiss it.

    I didn’t actually get around to Hollis’ solo album until about a decade ago — a decade after it was released. He continued moving into jazz and yet not-jazz avant garde, and this record (like the last two) was about him trying to fit into a sonic space, getting the listener to experience music a bit differently than they otherwise would, throwing only a few bones of musical familiarity to keep one involved. I wasn’t surprised that he never made another album: despite the generous critical praise for the post-pop albums, they probably sold in the hundreds of copies.

    I was always kind of annoyed at his refusal to use that great pop voice for pop, and yet I always thought he and the Nits would hit it off in their relentless efforts to be unusual within their genres. I hope he was happy in record-industry obscurity and then retirement, but I had rather hoped against hope he’d be willing to “cash in” on 80s nostalgia, and I’d get to see the old pop band play live just one more time.

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