Caught by the River


Cally Callomon | 27th February 2019

Cally Callomon reflects on the recent passing of Mark Hollis.

In 1938 General Motors’ head of design, Harley Earl, looked to the future and designed The Y Job, the first ever concept car. Within this design were several features that Earl ‘released’ onto the public via a gradual drip-process, revealing new design features over some 20 years. Earl knew where he was going, but knew well the public’s inability to absorb too much too soon. Its concept led to a fully kitted out and admired Buick.

In 1982, Mark Hollis recorded ‘Mirror Man’, the demo of which contained the DNA from which many later Talk Talk songs would spring. ‘Mirror Man’ (later ‘Myrhh Man’) was dismissed as Duran copyist frippery, yet from this song sprang Spring eternal if one only but listened.

My first encounter with Hollis was with Talk Talk, all dressed in a uniform white, supporting Genesis who had invited Peter Gabriel back into the fold for a one-off concert in Milton Keynes so as to pay off Gabriel’s considerable debt run up by the first WOMAD Festival disaster. As Genesis then morphed into a world-beating touring pop beast, here, beating beneath their wings, was Talk Talk who came across like a demented Southend garage band on steroids. They were Essex through and through, in this respect shared a similar compartment with Underworld, but Talk Talk were more Foulness, less Romford, and definitely forever cut off from the mainland. A fierce trouncing in the reviews column allowed Talk Talk to reconfigure and re-group out of the public eye and two albums passed before Germany woke up and International-Hits-Of-Great-Acclaim followed.

Just as their original over-clad contemporaries went all grey bleak Vienna, Talk Talk rounded up birds and wild life in sound and vision, a veritable Ark of the natural world, and in their own down-dressing they looked bloody great too. The low spark of Steve Winwood was press-ganged on board and the ghost of Traffic’s Chris Wood haunted the tapes.

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In early 1988 I visited an EMI executive in his office about a sleeve design job. On his floor was a box of unmarked test CDs and I recognised the James Marsh illustration that sat on the makeshift inlay. “Oh that, take one” he said, “that’s the new Talk Talk album just in, I’m afraid we don’t really know what to make of it.”

His sleeve job required me to work through the night – graphic design was only part of what I did, I had a ludicrous day job at Warners posing as an A&R man, something I was profoundly ill-suited for. I played this album: Spirit Of Eden all night, over and over. Bleary-eyed I sat in an A&R meeting the next day, reviewing An Emotional Fish mixes, and being asked for an opinion. I stated that I could not venture one as my ears were full of the most beautiful earth-moving songs from the new Talk Talk album, and that all music would now sound different from that moment on. My boss paused the CD player “What? You’ve heard the new album?” he spluttered and so ordered a motorcycle messenger to go to my house, pick it up and return so that he could make a copy. He was that much of a fan.

The next day I asked him what he thought. His eyebrow raised, a sympathetic grin accompanied the dismissal “Well Cally, I think they’ve been smoking far too much” and that was that. A parting of sorts, battle lines firmly drawn. His view was a commonly held one.

Like Warners, EMI was a behemoth within which all releases ran on pre-set rails. To save time and money there were tried and tested templates through which all must pass. Months rolled by, and this unreleased album obstinately refused to fit onto these rails. Contracts remained unobserved and Talk Talk walked away from EMI on a technicality, the album was released to similar raised eyebrows (and later Paddy McAloon delivered the magnificent I Trawl The Megaherz into the same machine with similar results).

By 1998 I had gleefully overseen and designed the re-issue of all the re-mastered Talk Talk albums via EMI, and I’d compiled a collection of B sides and mixes much to many contrasting instructions from Mark. One minute he supported the releases, next minute he damned them. Mark was as bi-polar, but it was never a disorder. The supreme ups (Happiness Is Easy) had to be there in order to perfectly illustrate the downs (Tap Head); they were a band of contrast, light and shade, and all the braver and bolder for that. Mark knew when to laugh (often) and how to make people cry. The laughing stock was as often his own as anyone else’s. Only a few (not I) could say they knew Mark well, yet thousands hold an intimate tenderly close relationship with the side of Hollis he bared in his songs.

Question Mark as to the attributes of Talk Talk and he was quick to ensure due credit to his history and his companions; furious if their credits were left off. Fellow synth-pop escapee Tim Friese Green co-wrote, beavered and played behind the scenes illuminated by videomeister Tim Pope and ably collaborated with, perhaps, the most significant banger of drums ever in Lee Harris, a percussive approach Elbow built an entire glittering initial career on.

Few bands copied Talk Talk (coughs: Rain Tree Crow) – most seemed to disassemble the engine, taking away those parts they could best press into service. Talk Talk remain one of the most influential, yet uncopied, bands of this last era. Where would OK Computer be without Paul Webb’s bass parts; Webb, the ultimate foil to Hollis, the lightheart to his darkness. What would Radiohead’s sublime ‘Pyramid Song’ be without Friese Green’s piano parts? Webb and Harris later effortlessly struck out on their own in their magnificent (now long deleted) O:Rang guise, Mark simply preferred to stop.

Stopping is a complex action that requires guile and skill; it’s not just silence, it’s a feat of inertia more artists could adopt if only they were bold enough. The final Talk Talk album (The Mountains Of The Moon) was all set to go until Mark called up and stated it was to be the first Mark Hollis album. Artwork was scrapped, plans were hatched and a bemused major record company looked on aghast, before they pulled the plugs and all our plans for films and promotion were shelved. Further copies were not re-pressed, the album deleted as soon as it passed the undignified still-birth status. However, this time, an eager audience lapped it up despite all of this attempt at enforced suffocation. Unknowingly, the previous two ‘disasters’ had reached a status comparable only with Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter and Bitches Brew, and a world cried  ‘thank you for the music, those words, that voice.’ Hollis achieved the unique status of being one of the greatest living musicians long after he stopped making music, so now he has left us with that ever present, never decreasing echo.

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Emails from Mark always ended in concern for my family, and I knew that these were not trite platitudes, they were the words of a father putting his house in order, getting his priorities right. Mark left Suffolk for a more cosmopolitan life in London, closer to his beloved North London football team. In the tight space of just six albums Hollis went from seed to fruit to branch and ended with the appropriately named Stump. Mark died young and left behind not a beautiful copse but a wondrous aviary that can only sing louder and louder as each day passes. The party is not over, it lives on in these songs, and yes, happiness IS easy.

Cally Callomon