In a way, it’s astonishing that Mark Hollis decided to pursue a career in music in the first place. After all, we are talking about a man who famously claimed that “silence is above everything, and I would rather hear one note than I would two, and I would rather hear silence than I would one note”.
Thankfully, Hollis’ taste for extreme minimalism didn’t result in a vow of silence – quite the opposite in fact. For over 40 years, the Talk Talk frontman and all-around sonic pioneer made a name for himself as a musical shapeshifter, transforming and adapting his style in an attempt to capture something always slightly beyond his grasp.
Even when Talk Talk were pursuing the syrupy textures of synth-pop, Hollis’ songwriting seemed to be reaching for something far more experimental, and, as the 1980s progressed, this desire for sonic expansion only grew more intense, motivating him to chase new musical textures and methods of composition.
Born in 1955 in Tottenham, London, very little is known about Mark Hollis’ early life, largely because he was always reluctant to talk about himself in interviews, preferring to focus on the music itself, the subtleties and nuances of which were his preferred domain. Indeed, even when he did open up about himself, he tended to give different versions of the same story, telling one journalist that he dropped out of school 16 while convincing another that he studied child psychology at university before dropping out.
However, what is clear is that music was always at the forefront of Hollis’ mind. Whether it was at high school or on the factory floor, he couldn’t wait to get home and put one of the ideas that had been fizzing around his head all day down on tape. Still, it wasn’t until the arrival of punk that Hollis began to think about a music career seriously. Liberated by the minimalist ethos of punk, he quickly set about forming his own group, The Reaction, in the mid-1970s. It is here that we will begin.
Mark Hollis’ six definitive songs:
The Reaction – ‘Talk Talk Talk Talk’ (1977)
The pleasingly titled ‘Talk Talk Talk Talk’ was recorded as a demo for Island records in 1977, after Ed Hollis, Mark’s elder brother, encouraged him to start his own group. The track was later picked up by the fledgling label Beggars Banquet for a compilation record of post-punk tunes titled Streets.
Half late ’50s surf tune half punk freak-out, this track is a testament to Hollis’ impressive musical dexterity. Unfortunately, The Reaction disbanded the year after the release of ‘Talk Talk Talk Talk’. Still, its strength as a single persuaded Hollis to keep it in his back pocket for his new venture, Talk Talk, for which he recruited Simon Brenner on keyboards, Paul Webb on bass and Lee Harris on drums.
Talk Talk – ‘Today’ (1982)
From Talk Talk’s 1982 debut album The Party’s Over ”Today’ reached number 14 in the UK charts, establishing the group as a key feature of the burgeoning New Romantic scene.
It’s hard to believe that the same man who wrote ‘Talk Talk Talk Talk’ also came up with this slice of ’80s synth-pop. Ditching the guitars for spacious snares and fizzing analogue synths, ‘Today’ sees Hollis evoke the tender balladry of Duran Duran. At the same time, he simultaneously delivers lyrics that sound as though they’ve been plucked from the pen of Keats or Byron. It’s quite the musical manoeuvre.
Talk Talk – ‘It’s My Life’ (1984)
While ‘The Party’s Over’ may have seen Hollis embrace the musical aesthetics of the New Romantics, with Talk Talk’s 1984 album Its My Life, he began expanding and adapting them.
With the arrival of a new producer in the form of Tim-Friese Greene, Talk Talks’ sound became sharper, more stylised, and infinitely more haunting. This, the title track from It’s My Life, signalled a new maturity in Hollis’ songwriting and earned the group a top ten single in the US and a top 20 in the UK. It really is one of the standout tracks of the 1980s.
Talk Talk – ‘Living In Another World’ (1986)
One of the best tracks from The Colour of Spring, ‘Living in Another World’ was another huge breakthrough for Talk Talk and marked another drastic overhaul in the group’s sound.
Doing away with the mechanical whirring of synths and drum machines, Hollis and the gang embraced the full-bodied acoustics of grand pianos and steel-string guitars, capturing the art-folk wholesomeness of The Waterboys while retaining a pervading sense of outlandishness.
Talk Talk – ‘I Believe In You’ (1988)
Written about Mark’s older brother Ed – who had worked as a DJ in the 1970s and introduced Mark to the world of music – ‘I Believe In You’ is one of the most heartfelt offerings in the Talk Talk catalogue, painting a tragic picture of a once-joyful man in the grip of heroin addiction.
While the majority of Talk Talk’s final album, Laughing Stock, ended up on the scrap heap, this psych-infused ambient gem is an incredible achievement. At once deeply heartfelt and musically explorative, ‘I Believe In You’ seems to foreshadow everything from Mogwai to Bon Iver, the latter of whom performed a cover of the track on their first tour of the UK.
Mark Hollis – ‘The Colour Of Spring’ (1998)
This beautifully simple piano track comes from Hollis’ 1998 eponymous solo album. In his work with Talk Talk, there was often something between Hollis’ voice and the ear of the listener – some reverb or delay module usually. But, here, we get to hear his unique voice at its most vulnerable, with only a piano for accompaniment.
The simplicity of ‘Colour Of Spring’ reveals the last transformation of Hollis’ musical career, one that saw him cut away every piece of new fangled musical equipment in an attempt to create an album that would exist beyond time itself. It’s hard to listen to ‘The Colour Of Spring’ and not feel that Hollis succeeded.