Parker Burwell Toop credit Jak Kilby


Mark Hollis tribute, part 2

Hollis was born six months before me, just into 1955. He spent the middle third of his life living the pop life, with the first and last in obscurity, and has thus become the J.D Salinger or Thomas Pycheon of the music world. His music is as enigmatic as his life..

Track 4 on Mark Hollis is called ‘A Life, 1895-2015′, the life in question being that of Roland Leighton, the boyfriend of Vera Brittain, killed in France in the Great War.  WW1 was one of the popular subjects of the 60s counterculture - rarely spoken about by their parents/grandparents, the Baby Boomers were fascinated/repelled (as we still are today?) by its relegation by their elders to the realm of the ‘Best-Not-Spoken-About, You’ll Upset Your Grandad’. Yet the fascination still leaked into the New Romantic generation, as it had done with the Hippies (tracks on The Pretty Things S.F.Sorrow Is Born and The Zomlies’ Odessey & Oracle being but two examples of the paisley/khaki crossover). The Hollis tribute makes it yet one more acknowledgement of that period’s hold on the English (in particular) imagination, and Englishness is very much something that defines the singer/songwriter under discussion here.

‘English pastoral’ has been part of the counterculture from the Canterbury scene onward, and Rob Young’s’Electric Eden’ has covered this subject in great depth and perspicuity. The criticisms that could be laid against Mark Hollis and its predecessors are that they are rather dry and desiccated, with some ‘rustic’ touches through the use of harmonium, two bassoons, violas and Mark Feltham’s ‘avant-garde harmonica’(very effective!), and with the ghosts of David Bedford and Mike Oldfield refusing to be laid to rest. I would use the same caveats with regard to Mark Hollis as I would with ECM vinyl - this is a quiet, subtle album and every click and scratch will be multiplied, so make sure that your record player and speakers are up to it.  But its still strange that this album didn’t see vinyl till five years after its initial release. Wonder why?

Mark Hollis was apparently part of a two-album Polydor contract, in tandem with Laughing Stock. Given Lee Harris’s involvement, the latter was rightly be sold as a Talk Talk recording, “improvisations stitched together after the fact”, which returns us to the studio-constructs mentioned at the beginning of this composite blog. The ultimate ‘trilogy’ can be compared, again with rock-critic hindsight, to Radiohead (massive fans of Talk Talk) and the Kid A and Amnesiac experimental reposte to the huge success of The Bends and OK Computer. The best of the studio jazz community participated on these recordings, including Henry Lowther, whose muted  trumpet gives this music such a distinctive flavour (and whose full story will surely be told some day?)  and bassist Chris Lawrence, one of the great generation of low end jazz masters from the mid-sixties. Hollis’s vocals, like those of Thom Yorke who shares the same ball park, seem to be wrenched out of him, his words wavering, apologetic. and fragile, tentative and almost neurasthenic. ‘Vocals’ seems an inadequate word.

Is ‘The Daily Planet’ a tip of the hat of Love? ‘A New Jerusalem’ is almost’ west coast’ jazz, with hints of Jimmy Giuffre and Shorty Rogers, but ultimately the music on Mark Hollis seems destined to constantly fall towards silence as its modus operandi. If it was a film, it would be ‘The Bicycle Thieves’. It might be more appropriately released on ECM Records, with a title like ‘The Drift’ (Scott Walker is another artist brought to mind) ‘’the most beautiful sound next to silence’’.  Hollis himself said ‘’I’ve always been of the belief that to play one note well is better than to play two notes badly’’ and this tenet is thoroughly born out in these sui generis works of art. I just hope that many more listeners will be tempted to explore these records.

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Banner and book cover photo credit: Jak Kilby