Mark Hollis's band has an untouchable legacy, with their pioneering art-pop influencing the likes of St Vincent, The 1975, and Radiohead
Mark Hollis has passed away at the age of 64. The lead singer and songwriter of Talk Talk – a hugely influential art-pop group who released four exceptional albums in the ’80s, and a final record in 1991 – his impact on music cannot be overstated. Despite stepping away from the spotlight in order to focus on spending time with his family over 20 years ago, Hollis was celebrated as a genius during his lifetime, and following his death, musicians and critics around the world are sharing tributes.
The bold evolution of his band Talk Talk, who morphed effortlessly from bombastic synth-pop beginnings to the delicate experimentation of their final release ‘Laughing Stock’ (via the gigantic ambition of ‘The Colour of Spring’ and the inimitable ‘Spirit of Eden’), set the evolutionary standard for many of the world’s greatest bands today.
Hollis’ distinctive vocals, bursting with theatricality and expression, paid no mind to posturing macho swagger. His intensity leaves you on a knife-edge, but there’s something beautifully exposing about those belting pipes of his, and Hollis’ flagrant nonchalance towards ‘conventional masculinity’ ripples forward into the music of Portishead, Field Music, These New Puritans, and countless other artists.
As we remember a true musical great, these are just some of the artists of today who would almost certainly not exist in the same format without Talk Talk.
Annie Clark has spoken about her love of Talk Talk before in the past, tweeting that their 1988 record ‘Spirit of Eden’ saved her life.
“To me it’s divorced from any people or places,” Clark said of the album, speaking to Milwaukee radio station WYMS. “To me, it’s headphone music in random cities all over the world. It’s a beautiful record. It’s a whole piece of work and it’s a real unfolding meditation. Light a candle, turn off your phone, and listen to that record.”
There are also obvious parallels to draw between Talk Talk’s refusal to stay creatively static, and St Vincent’s own career; just as it’s easy to spot the threads between Hollis’ subversive trailblazing, and ‘MASSEDUCTION’s warped answer to swaggering glam rock.
Just as Mark Hollis disbanded Talk Talk at the height of their creative powers, just after the release of ‘Laughing Stock, Wild Beasts split up as they were on a roll with the parodic swagger of ‘Boy King’. Like knowing exactly when to exit a house party on a high, there’s a finely balanced talent to calling it quits on a band at the optimum moment. And as for Hayden Thorpe’s razor-sharp dissection of what it means to be a man today, in boomingly expansive tones, the hallmarks of Mark Hollis are written all over his work. “The best parts [of Talk Talk] are unquantifiable,” Thorpe told The Guardian in 2011. “All the best bands change shape,” added his Wild Beasts bandmate Benny Little.
Back in the debut album days, The 1975 were indie-heads through and through. Then their mouthful of a second album ‘I Like It When You Sleep, for You Are So Beautiful yet So Unaware of It’ came as a wildly experimental shock. Not to mention that fact it was a rollercoaster journey of a record intended to be consumed as a whole, touching on lofty My Bloody Valentine-like instrumental sections, swooping sax solos, and hulking, ’80s-indebted giants like ‘Love Me’, with all the ambition of Talk Talk’s punchiest anthems.
Unsurprisingly frontman Matty Healy is a huge Mark Hollis fan; he paid tribute to the lead singer this morning, highlighting ‘Spirit of Eden’ as his stand-out record. When you consider the increasingly experimental path of The 1975, it’s a choice that makes sense.
Deviating from mainstream beginnings, reinventing continually, Blur are yet another band who share a similar pathway with the original art-pop pioneers. The band’s Dave Rowntree paid tribute to the Talk Talk frontman today, speaking about the enormous impact of Hollis’ art had on his own music.
Radiohead’s dramatic transformation from angsty grunge misfits (“I’m a creep, I’m a weirdo,” etc) into ‘Kid A’ visionary masterminds bears obvious parallels with Talk Talk’s refusal to be tied down to their early Duran Duran comparisons. Thom Yorke’s immediately recognisable voice – while not as booming as Hollis’ – accesses similar realms of quavering emotion. And so it follows that Radiohead are massive fans; in conversation with Elbow’s Guy Garvey on BBC 6Music, the band’s go-to producer Nigel Godrich called ‘Spirit of Eden’ producer Phil Brown “a father figure to my generation of engineers”.
“[‘Spirit of Eden’ is] an incredibly emotional record that I just found myself listening to like a classical piece, you know, as a whole,” Godrich said. “I couldn’t even tell you the separate names of any of the tracks on any of the Talk Talk albums, because you know, you listen to it, and you listen to the whole thing.”
“I really fully understand that process,” he added, talking about Talk Talk’s intensive approach. “I mean, you can go in and have a very very isolated difficult experience in the dark with people who are not really communicating. I’m not saying I can relate to that in any way,” he added with a hint of sarcasm, seeming to reference his own experiences with Radiohead. “I think when they finished ‘Spirit of Eden’, they went home and didn’t talk to each other for a year and a half.”
Among the many tributes to the late Mark Hollis, Vampire Weekend’s Chris Baio kept his simple. “Mark Hollis changed my life” he said.
Rejecting posturing pretension, Future Islands channel confidently gymnastic dad dancing to the extreme. Charismatic frontman Samuel T. Herring has the sort of rib-rattling gravel which you could pick out of a vocal line-up within nanoseconds; flecked with moments of knowing playfulness, there are comparisons to be made with Hollis’ dynamic vocal. Listen to the chest thumping theatricality of their biggest breakthrough anthem, ‘Seasons (Waiting on You)’, and you can’t help but also think of Talk Talk’s well-known banger ‘It’s Your Life’.
Another band who know the importance of stepping away for some breathing space (Doves went on an extended hiatus in 2010 with the goal of “wiping the slate clean”) it follows that the band are also huge Talk Talk fans.
“We owe you so much. I can’t overstate the influence on us three as musicians and us as a band,” they tweeted.
Doves’s Jimi Godwin previously contributed to the book Spirit Of Talk Talk, writing: “I can’t remember which festival we were at, but my good friend Harry had Talk Talk’s new album, ‘The Colour of Spring’, with him on cassette. I hassled him into lending it to me for the day as we worked. I popped it into my Walkman. It was a beautiful, hot, blue-sky day and I didn’t get much work done as the sounds in my ears were completely blowing me away. I just walked around the circumference of this festival, people watching in a blissful daze, to this new music I’d discovered…”
“Put simply, this music was, and still is, life-affirming. To me it’s like going to church. Shit, I feel I’m doing this band a disservice. I know what it’s like to be written about by someone who hasn’t a clue! But I do love them, so sorry, strike me down… Mark has always been very secretive and I think he is now retired from music, which as a fan is really sad – but I’m sure he’s not sad! There isn’t enough mystery around bands any more and the enigma of Talk Talk and Mark Hollis suits me just fine.”
A bit of a left-field choice, this one, but all the same; Gwen Stefani’s band helped to give Talk Talk a second wind of popularity when they covered ‘It’s My Life’ in 2003. Their fairly-faithful-to-the-original cover remains one of the ska band’s best known songs, and also, who can forget that iconic music video where Stefani goes full Killing Eve and ends up locked up in jail? Without that genius narrative development, the video for the vocalist’s solo track ‘The Sweet Escape’ – set, inexplicably, in a gold-plated prison – might not have happened, either.
“Mark Hollis started from punk and by his own admission he had no musical ability,” is how Elbow’s Guy Garvey put it, paying tribute to the Talk Talk frontman following his death. “To go from only having the urge, to writing some of the most timeless, intricate and original music ever is as impressive as the moon landings.”
Garvey once dedicated an entire radio show to the band’s ‘Spirit of Eden’, and speaking to The Guardian about the records that have influenced him, the musician picked out their fifth and final album.
“Talk Talk have a song called ‘It’s Getting Late in the Evening’,” he said. “I’ve still never heard anything like it, and it led me to this timeless album. The intensity with which Talk Talk focused on the recording process was a huge influence on the way we [Elbow] made albums.’Laughing Stock’ shouted at me every day, and it had brilliant lyrics. The amazing thing about Talk Talk is that their early stuff was awful. I hope they’re remembered for ‘Laughing Stock’. Their song ‘New Grass’ will be played at my funeral; it’s the most beautiful song I’ve ever heard.”