Mark Hollis : A Tribute ‘ this beautiful silence interrupted by the notes, it never ends ’Mark Hollis: A Tribute                           MM  

by Simone Marie

Talk Talk are a band that were in the backdrop of my younger years … an ever-present echo flickering behind my love of The Cure, New Order and Depeche Mode. It would turn out perhaps, I was too young to fully appreciate how brilliant they were at the time, to this day, their reverence continuing to grow and enamour many a music lover.

Needless to say, the unmistakable voice of Mark Hollis and his music has had a huge impact on me and continues to do so. Feb 25th will mark three years since his departure of this worldly way, yet there he remains, in every revolution of those records. Despite having been absent from the business they call music for many years before his passing, he never left our lives and hearts, in the way that an incredible musician’s work lingers with us and inhabits our deeper more contemplative moments, sometimes joy, sometimes heartbreak, sometimes just a soundtrack to our own silence.  

Mark Hollis was a voice that reaches deep down inside of you and makes you feel completely connected with the emotion he’s bringing up and singing with. It’s the magic that music does to us. He was a masterful songwriter and front man who appeared to have none of the ego and bravado employed my many of his contemporaries. A trait which seemed to ring true for the other members of the band. Mark Hollis knew how to illuminate silence. The sheer subtlety and delicate delivery of Mark’s vocal on the track ‘Westward Bound’ never fails to flaw me. The two latter albums of Talk Talk charged with a dissonance, beauty and masterful arrangements found in recordings by the likes of Miles Davis and Coltrane along with the startling presence of Mark’s otherworldly voice. It feels the first three TT albums were always leading to that natural destination.

A profoundly talented singer, musician and songwriter who was seemingly exuded a natural shyness, but confidence along with it. A joker, who also carried a vulnerability. Gentle yet emotionally expressive, note perfect on every take and live performance, with a down to earth character that could hold it all in one person, creating devastatingly dramatic and memorable music. A man who rejected anything that wasn’t real about music in the music industry. Looking back over early interviews, even in his younger years, he was acutely aware of the limitations of this cult of personality which seems to go hand in hand with the mythology of rock n roll success. He understood the importance of touring with the right bands, the business know how that ran alongside album releases and the heady record company politics of the 80’s and 90’s, when to say yes and when to say no to the man. Along with the unmistakable talents of drummer Lee Harris and bass player Paul Webb, and the surrounding members, their musicianship together was something incredibly special.

Quite a few years back, I was working with a band, and I really had to go back and build a track up from nothing and be unscrupulous about what was left in, if anything. It provoked me to revisit Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock. Then it really hit me, like so many great bands do later in our lives, and I momentarily mourned all the years I hadn’t tuned in to their frequency more. This band that had been running along in the background suddenly shouted louder than anyone else. I was struck by the weight and depth of their music and the truly mesmerising and unique voice of Mark Hollis all over again. Against the familiarity of hearing ‘It’s My Life’ and ‘Such A Shame’ again from early memories, listening to Spirit of Eden and LS once more seemed to hit me like some kind of jet lag induced ethereal dream somewhere else in time. It’s hard to listen to those albums and not wish Mark were still here just to say thank you to. How could you not love a musician so wonderful, honest and real.? It’s funny how another person’s music can affect us so deeply. When I say funny, I mean it’s something to be revered. 

 In the last two years when we have been in this cultural, financial, and personal sandstorm, it’s no wonder music has been even more of a solace to so many. Mark Hollis’ voice is like some kind of gateway to emotional release. When you watch and listen to great musicians who resonate with you, they teach you and show you a different way of doing something. They show you a place you hadn’t seen before and it’s most likely they probably had the same doubts and fears as you in the process. The beauty of music is that these moments exist everywhere. There’s so much to take in and I think each band or songwriter comes to you when the time is right, which isn’t necessarily when they were in their most recognized era. But I do think that Talk Talk are a band who grow with reverence each year and with every play, and with that, Mark Hollis’ voice becomes more imbedded in the wild open field that is music. 

Of course, It’s easy to romanticize a person / band / era when it hasn’t been your tangible reality. I have utmost respect for the complexities that exist with all band relationships. But there is something magical about those synth sweeps of the Oberheim OBMx and Roland Jupiter 8 on ‘It’s My Life’ that leave an emotional imprint on us without explanation or invitation and like all great records it feels like it has always been there. I don’t underestimate how intense It must have been to make an album like Spirit of Eden. With stories of no clocks being in the studio (i agree with that tbh), recording in near pitch black (i also like this) From the vast amount of recording that was scrapped from the final record to the meticulous and time-consuming listening that would have been needed to go through 10 hrs of free form improvisation just to get a few seconds or even a minute of usable sound.

 I’ve read about the sessions and Mark’s love of silence over sound and when you sit with that and meditate on it you can’t help but be low key alarmed at the sheer noise of everything in the world when once again, you put your head above the parapet of modern music. Intentional silence interrupted only by the exact right notes. Something very much illustrated in the track ‘Desire’. No doubt we could continue along the lines of Phillip Glass, John Cage, Shostakovich, and Eric Satie .. perhaps Quartet for the end of time by Messiaen .. with this train of thought but it would seem like a plausible and logical continuation. The trajectory of the boyish cheeky Hollis fooling around on mimed TV shows, to blisteringly intense and emotionally charged live performances, to the very silent space he left in music which was ironically incredibly loud is really quite the journey. 

His dedication to sound draws nothing but respect and leaves the listener feeling, that had he taken an easier route, we most probably would not have been left with the masterpieces that were Spirit of Eden and subsequently Laughing Stock. Of course, arriving at the self-titled solo album ‘Mark Hollis’ from 1998. A suggestion of this direction being ever present in the former releases. His voice gave itself so willingly to that ever-present silence, meshed with it until it was hard to say where the silence ended, and his voice began. He had a phrasing like no other, each line a melody within the already existing melody. It was almost as if he was arranging the song in front of our eyes at times. It’s something that was incredibly unique to the way Mark sang. His commitment to the pursuit of musical tonality as much as what was played was evidence of his natural ear and talent for music. Considering he had never formally studied composition, only a brief transaction with a book on notation, it was clearly a calling for him. 

If u were given just the lyrics of any of his music, you would be hard pushed to guess where he would go melodically, he weaved his vocal around the rest of the track in a way that didn’t give total priority to the voice, yet because of its pure beauty you cannot help but be carried away by it. Yes, you then must go back and listen again to the tiny increments of delicate change because they are so subtle and beautiful. The dynamics he naturally carried, ebb and flow with each moment in every track he sang. He was a master at that kind of expression vocally, the effortless merger of dark into light into dark again. His voice had the ability to bleed into a melancholic silence and out of it in a fleeting moment, grab you by the throat one minute then caress your hair like a summer breeze the next. The moments silence before he draws a breath at the beginning of Tomorrow Started is a lesson in music restraint at its finest. 

You only have to watch any of Talk Talk’s live performances to hear how blindingly brilliant they were live, enough to wonder if a bad note ever even left Hollis’ mouth. He was pitch perfect. It’s no wonder the band loathed to lip synch and took every opportunity to have their fun with that.

When it comes to Spirit of Eden and LS, it takes listen upon listen to keep hearing new sounds and layers on those recordings. The spine-tingling goosebumps of’ Inheritance’, his voice is immersed in the air. The calm then bombastic nature of ‘Eden’ leaving you transfixed… The rolling percussive freedom of ‘Ascension Day.’  The compelling weight of ‘I believe in you’ leaves you lost for words. Who else could be that expressive that side of silence. The listener is, inside that room yet in their own inner world simultaneously. Lingering there like an eternal twilight hour, the same way in which there is total silence in the sunlight on your face. 

Mark’s acute ability to bring such sophistication and sparseness into his songwriting could be felt in the way he would reach inside the human psyche and pull out the most complex of emotions. A quality that we were able to indulge in with a quiet intensity on his only solo album. As a side note, if you’ve never heard the early demo of his track ‘Crying in the Rain’. (1979) , it’s the most beautiful piece of low fi heartache I’ve heard for many years. 

 >>>  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V7MjUBUB7o4

“You’ve been getting me so wrong

And what I do and what I think and what I say

I think I better run along

I’ve tried so hard to keep a smile up on my face

I thought it’s gonna be next to you

And deep inside I feel so bad and so alone

That if I left you’d never know” 

Simply heart-breaking lyrics some can relate to all too easily, myself included.

When a musician works outside the constraints of the musical era the music is made in, some real magic happens. Those last two Talk Talk albums and his solo work are a testament to that. The freestyle Coltrane – esque arrangements are visceral with Hollis’ twist of emotional depth and melodic longing juxtaposed with an almost Junior Kimbrough (if i think of another chord I save it for another song) drone at times. Mark is glorious in his ability to soothe yet unsettle and captivate the listener all simultaneously. It’s simply beautiful and one can’t help but fall in love with his voice and musical vision. 

As much as so many of us would have loved to hear more music from him, the truth is, an artist does not owe us anything ever, he said more in the work he gave us than many who produced three or four times as much as he did. He chose not to go wearily into working from expectation, but to leave this perfectly formed opus of work to any unsuspecting musical trespasser. For that reason, among many, he will go on to inspire. I’m not big on hero worship, despite how all this may read, but there are people who make you feel a lot, who open your mind, your heart, and your ears, opening doors as the journey goes on. He could capture moments of perfection (‘It’s getting late in the evening’). He explored his own possibilities, so many more can explore theirs. Music was to be made only from the desire to record and perform it and no other reason. 

Many fans lament the way Hollis disappeared from the music scene but for me, it’s something I admire. A man who without a clear intention, need or desire to make music would refrain from doing so. Where many would have settled and perhaps become creatively sleepy, or re-create the past, he cut the cord, removing himself from the music machine that would, in his words not be compatible with being a father and family man. High morals I can’t help but respect him for. If he felt he had said what he needed to say, then that’s enough for me. For a man who knew what he wanted out of music, he clearly knew what he wanted from life too. He didn’t owe the world anything and we were, and still are lucky to be able to bask in his musical creations. 

Of course, it would have been amazing hear him go into soundtracks, collaborations, deeper into jazz and experimentation but it’s not for us to comment. it’s not for us to cross the boundary of a man’s personal decision. We miss him because he was so good and we love him, we miss his voice, but it’s there committed to those recordings forever. 

The incredible sense of space and presence in all of Mark’s music commands us to stop and give it the very space needed to take it in. Reflecting upon making Spirit of Eden, he describes a real time mixing technique, moving mics and musicians to certain distances instead of working out this process afterwards on the board. We can hear the direction of his mouth move because we hear the room in real time, we can hear the very moment he’s creating in the room. That’s what makes it so deeply personal. This feels even more intensified on his solo record. Although it very much stands alone from other Talk Talk releases, it reverberates the same raw presence yet with far fewer instruments. These aren’t records you listen to once, they are records u listen to again and again, each time hearing a nuance which escaped us before, creating the very layers and textures which existed in the air in that room, beneath every musician’s finger, between only two mics. It’s incredible for so many reasons. He wasn’t just making music he was breathing life into the silent spaces which somehow made those almost silent moments seem like an entire universe. 

Mark Hollis spoke about making music that didn’t instantly point to the time it was made in. I hope somewhere he knows that he did just that. 

I sometimes feel, that where real-life relationships, people, discord, disappointment, and heartbreak has overwhelmed me, music has filled that space. It becomes an arm around your shoulder, a home inside you, a love, a language, a flame, and I light a candle to Mark today and say God bless and thank you for your honesty and passion. Thank you, for the incredible body of work, your music is a thing of beauty, and has made difficult moments feel far less jagged. You will always be an inspiration to me.  You are loved by so very many.

In this beautiful silence interrupted by the notes, it never ends 

Simone Marie

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17 COMMENTS

  1. Simone, a beautifully written piece of work. Talk Talk to me we’re the “Champions League” winners of the 80’s electronic musical age.
    They were the only band I would have camped out to buy tickets for. Mark Hollis, like Hendrix, Holly, and others, was taken far before his time. And so, the mystery of “what could have been” lingers on, far after the last note of “Life’s what you make it”, has faded from your speakers.

  2. What a beautiful piece…
    I completely agree with everything you’ve written – I had the privelige of seeing them live many times – I never once heard mark stray a micron from perfect pitch.
    Incidentally I gave him a thanks on a recent album I released called Byzantium.

  3. The albums Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock, never fail to move me.
    Given the level of vacuity in the modern western world, the compositions of Mark Hollis remain a beacon to profundity.

  4. Simone,

    I am 51 years old, I met Talk Talk when I was 14 (in 1984), in a Mexico where everything was late, listening to music like theirs was very difficult. I grew up naturally with them, and by the time the last two records came out, Mark Hollis had taken a huge lead on me.

    It was in the 90s when I tried again and they stayed with me. In the following 2000, the intent and sounds deepened.

    You say it right, Hollis’s music embraces you at the right moment, it’s a friend who is always there, to listen to your silence, your pain.

    Thank you for such beautiful words.

  5. Simone, Thank you so much for your thoughtful and insightful article. There is not a day that goes by that I don’t listen to Talk Talk. It’s the distinct sound of their music, the distinguished voice of Mark Hollis and his amazing song writing that set them apart. I cried when his passing was announced. These three years since we’ve lost Mark remind me how lucky we were to have experienced his genius. I have been a fan since I first heard “Talk Talk”. Your article has made me even more appreciative of Mark Hollis and Talk Talk. Your words sum it up perfectly “But I do think that Talk Talk are a band who grow with reverence each year and with every play, and with that, Mark Hollis’ voice becomes more imbedded in the wild open field that is music.” My only regret is not having the opportunity to see them perform live.

  6. Like yourself, I too discovered Talk Talk much later in life , even though I grew up in the Eighties. Mark Hollis was and still is, a very inspirational character and lyrically amazing. Love many of Talk Talk tracks but Such a shame and Rennes are big favourites of mine. Great write up on such a great guy. Thank you.

  7. There’s a lot of gushing that gets done that doesn’t quite do our beloved Mark justice. Well done, some of what you’ve said here has not been articulated before. X

  8. I listened to you interviewing Tim Pope on Soho Radio today (which was fantastic by the way – I loved all the stories about the TT videos) which led me to find this beautiful article. I was there from The Party’s Over – there was always something special about them even from those early songs – heartfelt lyrics and raw emotion. It set them apart from their musical peers and it was such a perfect trajectory they went on to create all this timeless music which will live on for ever. It’s wonderful how the ‘legend’ seems to continually be growing as time goes on.

  9. Thank you for a beautiful tribute to Mark…you said everything I felt.
    Can anyone tell me please the make and style of sunglasses he wore?

  10. A wonderful and heartfelt tribute to Mark’s music Simone and one I can completely identify with. There are very few “pop” musicians whose body of work continues to grow in respectability and stature for decades after recording but Mark is surely one such musician. His music has been with me and in me for a long time, and I have no doubt that it will remain there forever. I tip my hat to you Mr Hollis, and I thank you Simone.

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