Mark Hollis is an enigma in music; the sign of a musician who delves deeper than the surface is whether or not they know the work of the Talk Talk pioneer. Hollis was the black sheep of the New Romantic period, achieving his prime with his band’s 1984 album It’s My Life. This record featured plentiful synths and catchy hooks, but all the while maintaining an ‘art pop’ aesthetic. Hollis and Talk Talk were at the forefront of pioneering an entirely new sound of synth-wave that many have come to associate the 1980s with. Despite this, many still assume it was Duran Duran or Spandau Ballet who were on the front lines of challenging conventions of music, which just isn’t the case when pitted next to a band like Talk Talk.
Quite often, the issue with relentless integrity and unapologetic originality, is that the notion of ‘is this a hit single or not’ is often sacrificed in order to create something more challenging. While this is honourable and commendable, it does, however, give people too much of the benefit of the doubt, assuming that they actually will listen to it, and if so, will they appreciate the same nuances that a songwriter did when writing the song. Having said this, Mark Hollis did maintain a lot of the universality in his music, even with Talk Talk’s later albums; Spirit of Eden released in 1988, has some great tracks on it, but most importantly, it is now considered one of the earliest ‘post-rock’ records. The brilliance of Mark Hollis is that he always walked the line between the cutting edge and the accessible; the elusive and the familiar. Another great aspect of his music is that it ages really well; it will most definitely grow on you.
Mark Hollis retired from music in 1991 and passed away on February 25th in 2019 at the young age of 64. To this day, Mark Hollis and Talk Talk remain an indelible influence on some of the most respected artists of this time. Blur’s David Rowntree said of Hollis, “His music was rich and deep, and a huge influence on my development as a musician.” St. Vincent’s Annie Clark tweeted about Talk Talk’s 1986 album, “Spirit of Eden saved my Life. To me it’s divorced from any people or places. To me, it’s headphone music in random cities all over the world.”
When delving into the world of Talk Talk, it can feel a little overwhelming although not completely, as Talk Talk only released five albums in their short life. As is the case with all unfamiliar music, it helps to have a reference point as to where to begin. Below, we listed Mark Hollis’ six definitive songs – essential listening when diving into the music of Mark Hollis.
Six definitive songs of Mark Hollis
‘Today’ – The Party’s Over (1982)
‘Today’ is the third single off Talk Talk’s debut album, The Party’s Over, and released in June of 1982. This song is significant because it exemplifies Mark Hollis’ brilliance in walking that fine line between commercialism and artistic integrity. The song turned out to be a hit, reaching number 14 on the UK Singles Chart – proving to be Talk Talk’s first and second biggest selling hit of all time.
Prior to releasing their debut album, Talk Talk got signed to EMI with fellow new romantics, Duran Duran, for who Talk Talk toured with. Putting Talk Talk on the same roster as Duran Duran, the label hoped the latter’s influence and hit-making capabilities would rub off on the new synth-pop group. Mark Hollis would prove to be too solid in his own vision and averse to any outside influence that didn’t align with his own creative vision.
‘It’s My Life’ – It’s My Life (1984)
The title-track single off their second album, this one is probably Talk Talk’s best song and most accessible. This is as pop-oriented as Mark Hollis got, however, the single was re-released a number of different times, only reaching any significant commercial success in 1990; reaching number 13, the band’s highest-charting single in its native country.
The American ska band No Doubt would bring attention back to the catchy number when they recorded a version of it to be included on their greatest hits album in 2003. No Doubt’s version reached number 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 and stayed there for 28 weeks. It’s My Life, as an album, did well in the States, giving Mark Hollis and the rest of Talk Talk a certain degree of freedom of creative control. Mark Hollis stated, “I’d got the freedom I wanted, and retained the anonymity.” Mark Hollis couldn’t have cared less about mass recognition.
‘Life’s What You Make It’ – The Colour of Spring (1986)
The Colour of Spring continued the sound Talk Talk had established with their previous album, It’s My Life. ‘Life’s What you Make It’ is a good example of Talk Talk’s rhythm section seriously tightening up, with bassist Paul Webb and drummer Lee Harris presenting an unbreakable foundation. While stylistically the band stayed largely the same, this 1986 album saw Mark Hollis begin to strip back more and more; an indicator for a new approach Mark Hollis began taking, leading into Spirit of Eden.
‘Life’s What You Make It’ came about when Mark Hollis and his band needed a last minute single. The way Hollis composed this number was by playing the ‘Green Onions’ riff on an organ over a drum loop from Kate Bush’s ‘Running Up That Hill.’
‘Living In Another World’ – The Colour of Spring (1986)
This track inhabits the world in between their two varying extremes that describe their musical progression from early new-romantic synth-pop to post-rock — this track is a nice sweet spot. There are a lot of key changes in the track, hooking the listener in and keeping them there. The song is alluring with themes of angels and heaven and the ever-present questions of mortality and the life of an artist, as he navigates the complicated maze of life.
Steve Winwood plays the Hammond organ on this track which features a number of different and surprising instruments that one wouldn’t expect from a synth-pop band from the ’80s. Musician, King Creosote said about the track, “I never tire of the song, and yet I don’t quite understand how they managed to make it sound like a musical version of that famous Escher staircase.” Mark Hollis has said that his reading of the existentialist philosopher, Jean-Paul Satre, inspired the lyrics, while the modal jazz of Miles Davis inspired the music.
‘The Rainbow’ – Spirit of Eden (1988)
This album is a stark contrast from the synth-pop laden sound of their early records. Mark Hollis eventually got tired of being put into a formula by the heavy expectations of his label and the constant comparisons of Duran Duran. Spirit of Eden and specifically ‘The Rainbow’ is a beautifully sparse masterpiece of the avant-garde, ambient and unpredictable. When Hollis began shifting away from synths, he said about synthesizers, “They are an economic measure. Beyond that, I absolutely hate them. To me, the only good thing about them was they gave you large areas of sound to work with. Apart from that, they’re really horrible.”
The best part of Spirit of Eden is how modern and ahead of its time it is. Following the commercial success of The Colour of Spring, Mark Hollis was given more creative freedom; to the dismay of the record label, Spirit of Eden was not commercial whatsoever, however, ‘The Rainbow’ is a beautiful track and apart of the essential listening when delving into the music of Mark Hollis.
‘Ascension Day’ – Laughing Stock (1991)
Laughing Stock is to ’80s pop music what Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew was to jazz. It was unedifying and delved even further into the elusive abyss — a journey that Spirit of Eden began. In fact, ‘Ascension Day’ is not that far removed from free-form jazz, an early and critical influence for Mark Hollis, who was an avid fan of Miles Davis. ‘Ascension Day’ feels like an anthem for the apocalypse – it is unpredictable and chaotic – a true example of post-rock.
Talk Talk had left EMI, and while Laughing Stock was their last record, it would have been interesting to see which musical direction the band was headed in; Talk Talk signed to the jazz label Verve-Records, which would explain their heavy jazz influence on this one. The album’s engineer, Phill Brown, described the record’s creation as that of its predecessor, Spirit of Eden, in that it was “recorded by chance, accident, and hours of trying every possible overdub idea.” This one is a true testament to Mark Hollis’ creative visionary achievements.