Caught by the River

Caught by the Reaper: Mark Hollis

26th February 2019

Robin Turner pays tribute to the Talk Talk frontman, who died yesterday aged 64

I don’t really know how to start writing about Mark Hollis, which I think is how he’d have wanted it. As fans of his music, we seemed to know less about him with each passing year. How admirable is that? I mean, how do you become a living ghost in this age of cameraphone and Twitter unless you really want to? 

It’s amazing to think now, in the perpetual churning grim of 2019, that Hollis managed to successfully step away from the kind of modern inquisition we now all take for granted. His public disappearance took place somewhere around the point his band Talk Talk’s influence became ubiquitous, both in the ever-growing post rock scene and also back in the gleaming synthesised pop world they’d so skilfully set sail fromon what the writer David Stubbs tweeted was their “voyage away from the centre”. His excuse, if ever one was given, was that he couldn’t be a working musician and a family man at the same time. The result is a career set in amber. One wonders how much he must have passed up on in the ensuing years? How many offers to reform and play the classic albums, to curate festivals, to guest on records, to produce, to perform, to talk technically to magazines and classic album telly shows and to add a sprinkle of stardust to someone else’s art. It has to be said, resistance is an underrated virtue in this day and age. 

Reflecting on Hollis’ life and career, one ends up wondering: did Hollis and his peerless band Talk Talk create the smallest, most influential catalogue in modern music? Their five albums in ten years (six if you add his perfect, insular solo record) helped shape the sound of so much modern music that I think we just take it for granted now. It’s there in Mogwai as much it’s there in Elbow as much as it’s there in James Blake and dubstep – music that aims to emphasise and enhance the space between sounds. I’d go a touch further and say that band’s reach can be felt within this site – they put nature into sound, emulating the ebb and flow of the natural world in their records. In a radio interview around the time of Laughing Stock, the last Talk Talk album, Hollis said: “I think silence is an extremely important thing. It isn’t something that should be abused. And that’s my biggest worry because of the whole way that communications have developed, that there is a tendency just to allow this background noise all the time rather than thinking about what is important. The 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.”

What might sound like intractability and bloodymindedness to major labels or to fans of their early records (no singles of such and no gigs after their gear-shift third album Colour of Spring – worth watching their performance from Montreux from that point, a show my friend Ed referred to as “the most Balearic thing that ever happened anywhere”) ends up being the catnip. That lack of visibility became the start of the band’s legend; an unquantifiable thing that keeps dragging people to these holy records, these meditations, these perfectly realised daydreams. The last two Talk Talk albums were endlessly passed among friends – I’ve probably built friendships over people’s shared love of Spirit of Eden and possibly drifted from people who didn’t much care for it. Their records must have soundtracked ten million pointlessly circular stoned conversations, yet their power remains undimmed. They are pure and as close to flawless as it’s possible to be across 12 inches of vinyl or a shiny compact disc. 

Talk Talk are probably the band I’ve listened to most since my teens. They’ve been a mainstay, a crutch; equally a balm when high or when low. Perfection is the guitar chord that chimes in two minutes after the start of ‘The Rainbow’; for me, it remains an unreachable benchmark in music. It’s a sound that carries so much weight when it finally arrives, it feels like it could change the course of a glacier. No one has touched it, even though many – many many – have tried. 

So, rest in peace, Mark Hollis. Rest in that perfect silence. 

Mark Hollis, 4 January 1955 – February 2019