Mark Hollis: Talk Talk frontman behind Eighties anthem ‘It’s My Life’

Mark Hollis, who has died aged 64 following a short illness, was best known as the frontman and creative force behind Talk Talk, a band whose output over the course of the 1980s ranged from synth-pop hits such as “It’s My Life” to a prototypical form of post-rock, the latter epitomised by the critically adored album Spirit of Eden.

Born in north London in 1955, Hollis’s early love of music was fed by his elder brother Ed, a voracious collector of records who would go on to manage and produce the pub rock band Eddie and the Hot Rods.

In 1977, encouraged by punk’s disregard for technical ability, the self-avowedly unvirtuosic Mark Hollis formed his first band, The Reaction. A song called “Talk Talk Talk Talk”, co-written by the two Hollis brothers and recorded with The Reaction, would provide Mark with the name of his next, and most successful, group.

It was Ed Hollis again who introduced Mark to his future bandmates in Talk Talk, Paul Webb, Lee Harris, and Simon Brenner. Signed to EMI and initially presenting as a neatly packaged electro-pop act comparable to label- and tour-mates Duran Duran, the foursome had early hits with synth-pop singles “Today” and a heavily adapted re-recording of “Talk Talk Talk Talk” – now renamed “Talk Talk” – before Brenner departed the group between their first and second albums.

That second album, It’s My Life, provided further modest UK hits in the shape of the title track and “Such a Shame”, but much greater commercial success further afield, and particularly in continental Europe.

It also marked the first involvement of the producer and keyboardist Tim Friese-Greene, who would never officially join Talk Talk but served as Mark Hollis’s main creative partner for the rest of the band’s lifespan

The growing artistic ambition displayed on “It’s My Life”, “Such a Shame” and album tracks such as “Renee” gave the first big clue of the idiosyncratic creative instincts that Hollis and his bandmates would embrace with growing abandon on subsequent albums.

Talk Talk in 1982 (from left): Simon Brenner, Hollis, Lee Harris and Paul Webb (Getty)
Talk Talk in 1982 (from left): Simon Brenner, Hollis, Lee Harris and Paul Webb (Getty)

The next – The Colour of Spring, released in 1986 – proved to be their biggest seller worldwide. However, scattered amongst the singles (including the international hit “Life’s What You Make It”) were pieces like “April 5th” and “Chameleon Day” – quieter, slower and less conventionally structured compositions that are at once spartan and lush, simple and intricate.

By the time Spirit of Eden followed in 1988, the relative commercial success of Talk Talk’s first three albums had provided Hollis with the platform he needed to abandon the last trappings of his new wave past in favour of woodwind, strings and frequently sparse band arrangements.

Recorded over an arduous nine-month period – often in darkened rooms lit only by candles, oil wheels, and strobe lighting – countless hours of semi-improvised performances were painstakingly pared down by Hollis and Friese-Greene into six extended pieces filled with spiritual allusions and dynamic textures.

Hollis’s voice was one of the band’s most distinctive characteristics (Getty)
Hollis’s voice was one of the band’s most distinctive characteristics (Getty)

Cautiously described by an EMI executive as an album that “required sensitive marketing”, the decline in sales for Spirit of Eden ultimately led to a split between label and band, who signed with Polydor (minus bassist Paul Webb) for Talk Talk’s final release. 1991’s Laughing Stock saw Hollis fully embrace his love of jazz and 20th century classical music to take the band still further into experimental waters. On the band’s increasingly stripped-back sound, Hollis remarked: “I would rather hear one note than I would two, and I would rather hear silence than I would one note.”

After Talk Talk’s demise in 1992, Hollis turned his focus to his young family. In 1998, a self-titled album appeared, recorded with acoustic instruments on just two microphones that Hollis intended to reveal the “geography of sound within which all the instruments exist”, down to the movements of Hollis’s head as he sang.

In the years since, Hollis has very rarely appeared in public or on record. However, the reputation of his music has only grown in his absence. “It’s My Life” gained a second life after a cover by the American band No Doubt became a global hit in 2003, while Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock have been widely touted as key progenitors of the post-rock genre of music, enthusiastically praised by countless fellow musicians from Robert Plant to Bon Iver, and are now a ubiquitous presence on music critics’ lists of the greatest albums of all time.

Mark David Hollis, musician and singer, born 4 January 1955, died 25 February 2019

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