Q Magazine

On This Day in Music... February 25, 2019 - The Day the Talk Talk Stopped: Mark Hollis Dies

Hollis was an artist who followed his muse... even when his muse took him far, far away from the upper reaches of the pop charts.

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Source: Eagle Rock Entertainment

The cover art for the 'Talk Talk: Live at Montreux 1986' DVD

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On February 25, 2019, fans of sophisticated, atmospheric pop music slowly began entering mourning mode as a rumor swirled its way around the internet. The following day, that which had been hearsay was finally confirmed as fact: Mark Hollis, the 64-year-old London-born musician best known as co-founder, primary songwriter, and vocalist for the band Talk Talk, was dead.

The confirmation came via Hollis’ former manager, Keith Aspden, who informed the BBC, “Sadly, it’s true: Mark has died after a short illness from which he never recovered.” Acknowledging that he was “still trying to accept” Hollis’ death, he added, “I can’t tell you how much Mark influenced perceptions on art and music. I’m grateful for the time I spent with him and for the gentle beauty he shared with us.”

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Source: EMI

The cover art for the 2011 Talk Talk compilation 'Essential'.

At the time of his death, however, it had been quite some time since Hollis had last shared any of that beauty, having set aside Talk Talk in 1991 in favor of a solo career which only resulted in a single self-titled album in 1998 before he effectively retired from music altogether. There were the occasional exceptions, mind you, but... Well, we’ll get to that.

First, though, a bit about Talk Talk.

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Over the course of his time with Talk Talk, Hollis became a template for what Rhino Records' website once described as "a template for how a musician and songwriter can start out delivering the sort of songs that lead to chart-climbing singles, only to follow their muse into mind-expanding musical territory that causes rock critics to write rapturous reviews while leaving the average listener staring blankly at the LP they’ve just purchased while wondering just what in the hell they’re listening to." (To be fair, this phrase was, in fact, penned by your humble Q contributor, but it's no less true for that.)

Unsurprisingly, the division between the two types of Talk Talk music can easily be determined by the band's fortunes on the UK Singles chart, but you needn't even delve that deeply into the situation. One needs only to examine the number of singles released from the band's five studio albums to understand at which point EMI executives threw up their hands and said, "What's the point?"

Seriously, just take a look:

  • Singles from The Party’s Over (1982): “Mirror Man,” “Talk Talk,” “Today,” “Another Word”
  • Singles from It’s My Life (1984): “It’s My Life,” “Such a Shame,” “Dum Dum Girl”
  • Singles from The Colour of Spring (1986): “Life’s What You Make It,” “Living in Another World,” “Give It Up,” “I Don’t Believe in You”
  • Singles from Spirit of Eden (1988): “I Believe in You”

Bit of an ironic title for that last one, eh? As Q wrote at the time in its 4-star review ofSpirit of Eden, "Talk Talk's fourth LP is the kind of record which encourages marketing men to commit suicide," and it certainly didn't help the album's sales that Hollis wasn't of a mind to tour behind it.

"There is no way that I could ever play again a lot of the stuff I played on this album because I just wouldn't know how to," he told Melody Maker at the time. "So, to play it live, to take a part that was done in spontaneity, to write it down and then get someone to play it, would lose the whole point, lose the whole purity of what it was in the first place."

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By the way, if you're wondering why Talk Talk's final studio album, 1991's Laughing Stock, wasn't on that list, well, that's because it wasn't released on EMI. It was at that point that Talk Talk made the jump to Polydor / Verve, and it's fair to say that whatever the label thought they were going to be getting from Hollis in terms of a Talk Talk album, they didn't get it.

“I felt sorry for (Polydor’s UK Managing Director) David Munns, who had put so much faith and money in the band to be handed something so genuinely artistic but totally unmarketable," Keith Aspden toldThe Quietus in 2011. "(His) honest enthusiasm was ruthlessly exploited, and he was delivered records Polydor had no hope of recouping their considerable investment (on). I think if you take a lot of money and control from someone, even if it's a record company, there is an unsaid understanding that you should give them something they can sell in return and this wasn't done. Mark had his cake and ate it all himself.”

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Which brings us - albeit seven years later - to Hollis' lone solo album, a self-titled endeavor which he released in 1998 through Polydor and that AllMusic described as "quite possibly the most quiet and intimate record ever made." It was the conclusion of his two-album deal with the label, and while it almost came out as a Talk Talk album (and one which was set to be called Mountains of the Moon), it was ultimately decided that it should be released under Hollis' own name, as well it should have been, since he was quite literally the only Talk Talk member to play on it.

Predictably, Hollis did not tour behind the album, telling the magazine Music Minded, "This material isn't suited to play live," while also acknowledging that he was staying off the road for the sake of his family, saying, "I can't go on tour and be a good dad at the same time."

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And that, for all practical purposes, was the end of Mark Hollis' recording career... or at least the part that actually got released, anyway.

The bit that's often forgotten, however, is this: sometime around 2008 or 2009, Hollis accepted an invitation from composer, music supervisor, and onetime Redd Kross member Brian Reitzell, to contribute some music to the 2010 film Peacock. In the end, Reitzell didn't use Hollis' music for the film, but he did end up using a portion of it - one called "ARB Section 1" - when he was doing the score for the Kelsey Grammer drama Boss. It's a weird place for his final piece of released work to end up, but... here we are.

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One last thing, though, just to make Hollis' absence hurt a little bit more: Reitzell told Pitchfork in 2012 that he - along with Roger Joseph Manning Jr. and Justin Meldal-Johnsen - went to Hollis before the whole Peacock thing and offered to make an album with him for free, only for Hollis to turn them down saying that he only made an album every seven years, and it hadn't been long enough yet.

Oh, what might've been...

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