On February 25th of this year, the music world lost one of its most influential, mercurial, obstinate, and singular voices. Mark Hollis, of the band Talk Talk, has made some of the greatest records that you have never heard. The shadow, ripple-effect, significance of Spirit of Eden, Laughing Stock, and his eponymous final album cannot be down-played. Witness the immense out-pouring of condolences and remembrances on social media within moments of the official announcement of his passing.
I have taken the liberty, with my medium-suffering Editor’s permission, to change it up a bit in this edition of Copper, and pay tribute to Mark and the incredible art that he left in his wake.
The band formed when Mark’s brother Ed decided to throw their lot in with the new “Punk” thing that was happening in the U.K. after the atomic bomb of “Year Zero” had changed the way that music FELT throughout the country. No longer was being in a band the sole auspice of the God’s of Prog and Rock that had dominated the charts for decades. All of a sudden…ANYONE could do it! And, boy, did they!
Well, that saves ME having to write it. Because I don’t want to tell THAT story. It’s a fantastic tale, don’t get me wrong. But, it’s not what drew me to Hollis’ particular voice. Sure, I LOOOOOOOVED the Poptastic Confectionery of “It’s My Life” and “Life’s What You Make It“, of COURSE I did, how could you not?! However, it was the discovery of 1991’s sardonically titled Laughing Stock that cemented my love for “the band.” I have put that in quotes because by the time that that record was released TT was reduced to only Mark. The other players, including his own brother, had departed, leaving just Hollis, engineer Phill Brown, and producer Tim Friese-Greene, to carry on the name and try to give the label something to work with. By the release of 1986’s Spirit of Eden, the band had already decided to no longer tour and simply put out music that they wanted to make with no concept of singles or chart placements having ANY dominion over their creative choices. Spirit of Eden was the last record they made that seemed to have even a remote chance of birthing something that radio would play. As one can imagine, this wasn’t EXACTLY what the label wanted to hear at all. However, Mark Hollis was a Coltrane fan, a lover of Mingus, Miles Davis, indeed his original idea for Talk Talk was that it be a Jazz Trio, imagine THAT, if you will, so the wishes of The Marketplace where never of any consideration to begin with.
Spirit of Eden
- Mark Hollis – vocals, piano, organ, guitar, Variophon (uncredited)
- Lee Harris – drums
- Paul Webb – electric bass guitar
Coming in off of the double-platinum success of The Colour Of Spring, the now three-piece band was given a virtually unlimited budget and all the time, and rope, that they needed to hang themselves with. Gone were the synths and drum machines and in their place “real” musicians and “real” instruments. And, the most important member of the band, as far as Hollis was concerned…silence.
Hollis had been quoted on a number of occasions as saying that some of the most interesting parts of his favorite albums were the moments IN-BETWEEN the tracks. And he meant it. His perspective echoed that of John Lennon, who had famously called silence “The 5th member of The Beatles.” Silence is one of Hollis’ greatest voices. Few in modern music have used it to such beautiful effect.
The Team decamped to Wessex Studios and began the year long process of meticulously crafting together an album that would go on to sound like nothing recorded before, or since. While interviewing him for the gig at a local pub, Hollis asked Phill Brown what encapsulated his experiences of recording Hendrix, Marley, Zeppelin, and the Stones, at Olympic Studios. Brown had responded, “A one o’clock in the morning traffic session.” And that became the blue-print for the unrecorded album. If you entered the studio at ANY time of day you were greeted by the only light source emanating from a number of sound-triggered stage lights that surrounded the drum-set and an oil-wheel projector in the control room. That was all. It was this protean illumination that provided the atmosphere in which Spirit of Eden was recorded. Isolation. Claustrophobia. Darkness. And you can hear all of it in the tracks themselves.
There were also unspoken, Draconian, rules about deleting ANYTHING that was considered even remotely pop, pedestrian, or cliched from the material, almost as soon as it was put to tape. This even extended to the erasing of an entire 25-piece choir that had been brought in and recorded on one song, and whose sound had reduced one of the tea-ladies (yes, they had those…The English are VERY civilized) to tears. It was thought to be too rote and thus deleted the NEXT DAY! With no safety back-ups allowed. Done and dusted. Moving on. I don’t think even Eno would’ve had the brass ones to do THAT!
Track one, which took up all of Side 1 of the vinyl, was a gorgeous suite entitled “The Rainbow”– talk about an IMMEDIATE “Fuck You!” to EMI — and the rest of the album’s 3 songs did nothing to light up the cash registers. The record was released to thunderous silence, NOT what Hollis wanted in THIS case. And a mixed bag of critical responses. No tour. No videos. No promotion. Nothing.
And that was that. Nobody really cared…yet. After its completion Hollis stated categorically that he never listened to it again. As was his usual want, the genius had already moved on.
September 1990 saw Hollis’ return to Wessex, with Brown and Greene, to begin working on what would become the final Talk Talk record. This time, it was even more claustrophobic than the last. The lights were back. As was the oil projector. But, this time there was an additional element, Hollis’ brother Ed, the co-founder of the band, had passed away after years of struggle with addiction. Mark had become withdrawn, even more silent, spending much of the session time simply looking at his shoes and not responding to anyone. Brown’s wife had instructed him after the recording of Laughing Stock that if he ever chose to work with Talk Talk again he would have to move out of their house for the duration, which he summarily did, buying a flat close to the studio for the 7 months it took to commit the madness to tape. They have said in interviews that there were moments of laughter and levity, but in general, it was a singular, insular experience. Hollis rarely communicated with any musicians that they employed, but now he had stopped communicating with both Greene and Brown. Silence. Only the music. And what music it was.
Phill Brown ended up with 48 reels of 2″ tape from which to construct the album. Lee Harris’ drum-takes were basically 12 hour days where he played unaccompanied patterns on a kit mic’d with a single U-47 and only additional mic’s on the snare and kick. Hollis would then pick his favorite take and he and TFG would proceed to layer the additional instruments over the top of it, deleting and adding as they went. This is how Laughing Stock was built. And you can hear it in every track. The, almost psychotic, attention to detail is still shocking to this day.
The song “After The Flood” was to provide the perfect synopsis and analogy for what was occurring with each of them as the record came to fruition. Marriages were falling apart, people were experiencing mental break-downs, members of the team were quitting, and then re-joining. It was an emotionally draining experience that left Brown virtually incapable of communicating with ANYONE outside of the oppression of the room that the music was coalescing in. 4 minutes into “After The Flood” there was a 75 second space that had been left for Hollis to fill with a solo on a German made, breath-controlled, synthesizer, that appeared on many of his recordings. It was notoriously unsympathetic to the player’s wishes, unable to hold tone, key, or even a single note. The thing would jump, randomly, to an octave as it was played. Borderline useless. Hollis LOVED it. The original idea for the solo was for Mark to play a simple lead based around two notes. The instrument refused to cooperate and and Hollis began to reduce the piece down until all that remained was just one single note. A solo of a single note. Greene remembers the moment of committing it to tape as almost causing a panic attack for him. “We listened back to it”, he said “and I remember thinking, this is it. This is the end. This is as far as we can go. After one note there’s no notes. This will be the last record we make.”
And it was.
At the conclusion of the recording and mixing, the three of them, literally, put on their coats like any other day, said their goodbyes, left the studio, all went their separate ways, and went home. That was it. Laughing Stock was completed.
And, once again, no singles, no videos, no tour, no promotion. Silence.
It took Phill Brown years, and some extensive isolation tank therapy, to recover from the psychological effects of making that last record. To this day, he says that there are tracks he can’t listen to from the album due to the PTSD it brings forth. Think about that. Think about what it must’ve been like to work for 7 months in virtual solitude to such a degree that you need isolation tank therapy, even greater silence, btw, to recover from the process.
Unbelievable. All for an album. Their last album.
But, that wasn’t it. Not quite. Mark Hollis DID vanish for a bit. There were many sightings, I even remember hearing about a Twitter account where folks would post photos of such sightings. Hollis had all but disappeared. No music. No interviews. No nothing. He made quite a chunk of change from No Doubt turning “It’s My Life” into a world-wide smash, allowing him to disappear even further into mythology.
Until 1998. And then we all got to hear Mark Hollis. It had originally been called Mountains of The Moon, thank Christ it wasn’t. And it was a revelation. The first track “The Colour Of Spring” starts with almost a minute of, what appears to be, silence, and then, his voice. More fragile than ever. More pained and whispered sounding than any of us remembered. The whirring of a leslie cabinet, the only underlying tone before the piano and his voice appear. It’s flawless. Somehow Hollis had convinced Phill Brown to come and help him again, except this time they only employed a single pair of microphones to capture everything. I hate to say it, but it’s a Masterpiece. It is the obvious evolution, or possibly the devolution, of all that Mark Hollis had stood for, intended, and meant, since he had had to deconstruct the prison that 80’s Synth-Pop had placed him in.
It is incredible. It’s all that it should be. It’s a version of Jazz that jazz didn’t even know it could be. I urge you to listen to all three records. In chronological order. To see it. See the transformation. Because you will. If you have a system that you are proud of, that you think has the ability to transplant the listener to a location a million miles away from the room you have it set up in, then THESE are the records to test it with. I can’t encourage you enough. The visual aspect of these recordings will test even the best system, especially the qualities of the Mark Hollis album. Brown out-did himself.
Mark Hollis is gone now. I was deeply saddened at the news, along with most of the Industry. We had no hints. Nothing had been mentioned in any press about him being ill in any way, no warning. Nothing. We all just awoke to the headlines on our Facebook/Twitter feeds. And then the out-pouring. I wonder how Mark would’ve reacted seeing the many people, artists, musicians, known and unknown, who said that these records had touched their lives, changed them, inspired them. He probably would’ve just laughed at it all and thought we were a bunch of wankers for falling for it.
Perhaps not. We’ll never know.
Silence was Hollis’ favorite instrument. The place where he found his creative inspiration. I think it was the puzzle he was always trying to solve. Silence was the 4th member of Talk Talk…and now…all is silent.
Check out the records. I hope they are as great a gift for you as they were for me. Thanks for taking the time to let me honor one of my favorite musicians and some of my favorite music. It means a lot.
Rest in Peace, Mark Hollis. You did it. And those of us that got to experience this art are all so grateful for each moment and memory.
Brilliant innings, mate.
See you at the next one,