“You should never listen to music as background music.”
As the frontman of Talk Talk, Hollis (vocals, guitar, piano, and all songwriting—and even that sounds reductive) oversaw one of the most radical transformations of a pop act in music history. He refused to craft his music around what label execs and pop charts thought his listeners wanted. He refused to serve as yet another pop persona who happens to make music. And he refused to make music for the sake of selling records.
Without Mark Hollis, there would arguably be no Radiohead, no Sigur Rós, no Explosions in the Sky, no post-rock.
His music served as the holy grail for music lovers—people who love music not just for the stimuli but for the craft itself and how it serves as a portal into the artist’s mind and into worlds they cannot explore on their own—as Hollis, himself a music obsessive, rewarded listeners who are in constant pursuit of answers on how music works.
Talk Talk, which Hollis co-founded in 1981, achieved mainstream commercial success mid-decade with songs like “Talk Talk,” “Such a Shame,” and the synthpop anthem “It’s My Life,” which became a 2003 hit for No Doubt. But beneath the veneer of tightly constructed new-wave was a subversive creative streak desperate to be unleashed.
Though Talk Talk were pop stars, Hollis spent more time thinking about such jazz giants as Miles Davis and John Coltrane and French impressionist composers Claude Debussy and Erik Satie.
At the peak of Talk Talk’s pop stardom, Hollis refused to abide by the music-industry protocols then embraced by other mega-stars like Duran Duran. The first video for “It’s My Life,” shot at the peak of the music-video craze, featured a sullen Hollis and the band scorning the very idea of lip-syncing for the camera. EMI forced the band to play nice and reshoot it, and so the final product features Hollis & Co.—ever the champions of not giving a fuck—goofily hamming it up for the cameras and clearly mocking the whole affair.
After the commercial success of It’s My Life, Hollis and Talk Talk, along with their producer (and Hollis’ co-writer) Tim Friese-Greene, immediately walked away from those standards on their 1986 follow-up The Colour of Spring. Laden with organ, piano, guitars, and moody atmospherics, Colour was an art-pop trial-balloon of sorts, a foreshock subtly signaling the coming of Talk Talk’s earth-shattering masterpieces Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock.
I remember when I first heard Spirit of Eden.
I was 16 years old, anxious as ever, and newly in love with Radiohead’s Kid A and the emotionally cathartic, freeform textures of post-rock bands like Explosions in the Sky and Mogwai. I was lying in bed one evening, battling the usual rush of teenage panic, when I put on this moody, atmospheric album I’d heard so much about.
Suffice to say, I didn’t fall asleep to any “background music” that evening. Instead, I’d describe that first listen as having seen and heard music from another realm.
That evening, my perception of how music can translate beauty and pain into something supernatural completely changed in the 40 minutes it took to listen to Spirit of Eden’s six songs. Ask any admirer of the album, and they will say the same of their first experience.
It’s difficult to summarize Spirit of Eden and its 1991 follow-up Laughing Stock (Talk Talk’s swan song, it would turn out) to the uninitiated without sounding pretentious, but these two albums really are as masterful and transcendent as their devotees suggest.
The album cover sticker-length description might read something like, “a haunting, stunning combination of rock, jazz, classical, and pop.” But the reality is way more complicated and unpredictable: It uses silence as an instrument, its notes paint vivid images, it demands your full attention.
One moment you’re being lulled into a trance by Hollis’ cooing vocals, delicate piano melodies, or humming woodwinds; the next you’re being launched to dizzying heights by cacophonous buzzing guitars (“Desire”) or a wailing harmonica (“The Rainbow”) or a shuffling groove (“I Believe in You”). And after each emotionally cathartic climax, the clouds fade and you’re back on the ground, once again surveying an impressionistic sonic landscape.
And the music reflected Hollis’ desired creative environment. Studio engineer Phill Brown once recalled how the band improvised much of the work. “It was very, very psychedelic,” he said. “We had candles and oil wheels, strobes going, sometimes just total darkness in the studio. You'd get totally disorientated, no daylight, no time frame.”
Talk Talk never toured behind their final two albums. It would have been pointless, and any way, by then Hollis was already slowly making his way through the music industry’s exit door. Following Laughing Stock, he disappeared until 1998, when he released a solo album largely centered around his voice and piano. Then he disappeared again.
He returned only a few other times, most recently in 2012 to release—of all things—a commissioned composition for a Starz series called Boss, starring Kelsey Grammer. He almost never granted interviews or made public appearances. There has never been any fanfare surrounding his retirement.
The crass commercialism of the music industry has long beaten down artists by placing emphasis on the superficial—in the ’80s, this meant heavily curated fashion-centric personae; and today, it’s an unbearable pressure to polish your social-media persona before your own artistry.
Hollis rejected any such norms, uncompromisingly pursued his own vision, and thus inspired countless fledgling artists to stay true to their craft in the face of commercial pressures.
With his clear musical genius at the helm, Talk Talk could have continued skyrocketing upwards as new-wave pop stars, but instead they opted for cult-classic status. And Hollis ultimately sought a life of anonymity, his music having spoken for itself.
Musicians everywhere are forever grateful.