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Mark Hollis (1955-2019) - a two-part tribute

There are several, if you like, auteurs, who treated the studio as ‘an instrument’ or, in more flowery terms, as a “psychedelic burrow”. John Lennon, for one, with his grandiose demands for Tibetan monks on George Martin on ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, spending his time lying on the Abbey Road floor in either a lysergic or an opiated reverie, ‘u-topiate!’, as Nick Cave neologised; Phil Spector and his Wall; Brian Wilson and his sand pit; Kevin Shields in his own darkened synesthetic mulch. To add to this, we had the Talk Talk of Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock, and their singer Mark Hollis’ eponymous and only solo album, the latter released in 1998 and quickly forgotten until now. 

Alan of East Finchley’s ‘Alan’s Record Shop’ told me yesterday that Mark Hollis is now going for over one hundred pounds in its vinyl format, ever since the singer passed away this Monday. This makes the cynic in me laugh, to be frank - you couldn’t give the CD away on its release (it wasn’t actual released on vinyl until 2003). As the now-disgraced Morrisey, who is heading in the opposite direction with critics. said in ‘87: “Re-issue! Re-package! Re-package! Re-evaluate the songs…but you could have said ‘no’ if you wanted to. You could have walked away, couldn’t you?” 

Here’s the thing though - Mark Hollis did say ‘no’ and he did walk away after Mark Hollis, and he just might finally now get the re-evaluation from the public that he so deserves. He effectively removed himself from the eye of the public, from 1998 onward, to, as politicians tend to say when there is little other option, “to spend more time with my family”. In Hollis’ case, it was an informed decision with no back story, and the critics general opinion is that he had perhaps said all he had to say in the stunning trilogy of Spirit of Eden, Laughing Stock and Mark Hollis.The rest was silence, and silence on his terms. In this, perhaps he can be compared to Tom Waits? However, unlike Waits, his is not a huge legacy, only about the same size as that of Nick Drake, but it’s one that demands attention and one that will only gain in stature now that we know there will be nothing more.Spirit of Eden is often seen as the Foundation Stone of Post-Rock, whatever that is (I’m still unconvinced as to the usefulness of the term). In some ways, the short-lived idea of ‘isoationist’ might be more apt (the Talk Talk offshoot O’rang were featured on Kevin Martin’s classic 1993 compilation, Isolationism, after all). Or even Trip-Hop, the stoner genre associated with Bristol (bassist Paul Webb later made an album as Rustin Man with Portishead’s Beth Gibbons). Or even Art-Rock? - this music at times reminds me strongly of Henry Cow on Unrest.

Hollis’s music is largely (apart from the loud bits), quiet and intimate (what could be ‘noisy and intimate? My Bloody Valentine?). One of the best descriptions is of it as “…lovely or otherwordly or even gentle, in its way as uncompromising as any apocalyptic noise music” and a “ruthless quiet”. The word ‘enantiodromi’ means ‘something turning into its opposite’ and is a good, if obscure, one to use in Hollis’s case.  “Duran Duran with nervous jitters and existential dread” also fits. Other inputs could be - Debussy and Satie (early twentieth century French masters), Eno’s ambient stuff, Durutti Column (especially the ‘sandpaper’ disc), Kind of Blue and Sketches of Spain; Zappa’s late 60s  Mothers of Invention serialist pastiches on albums like Uncle Meat and Burnt Weenie Sandwich. A heavyweight bunch of possible influences but, as with all great music, Hollis transcends these and creates a thing-in-itself - rock historiography tends to bunch groups of disparate recordings together retrospectively, but it does make sense to treat Eden, Stock and Hollis as a trilogy, as they have a unity of content and presentation that makes this makes both a convenient and appropriate way to approach the summit of Mark Hollis’s achievement.

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Banner and book cover photo credit: Jak Kilby