I was sad to learn of the passing of singer/songwriter Mark Hollis during February 2019, only aged 64. Nothing has been released publicly about the cause of death at the time of writing, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he was another victim of cancer, reading between the lines from a (reported) quote by his former manger, saying he died after:
“A short illness from which he never recovered.”
Lauded as a ‘genius’ songwriter in various obituaries, I was quite unaware he was the driving force behind the music of Talk Talk. Choosing to remove himself from music and public life at the end of the 90s, I could only assume he invested his song-writing royalties wisely in order to disappear so successfully. I doubt very much the artists of today will be able to leave the Hamster-wheel so easily, being forced to endure a lifetime ‘on tour’ to sustain an income, now that music is ‘free’. I equally doubt the remnants of what we knew as the music industry is equipped to find, fund and nurture another Mark Hollis. So whilst we mourn the passing of Mark, we should also throw in a memorial service for the passing of an era which regularly gave birth and sustenance to creative offspring like him.
My introduction to Mark Hollis and Talk Talk was very much an unintentional circumstance, a by-product of standing shin-deep in mud in a large field in Milton Keynes during early October 1982. The occasion was the Genesis/Peter Gabriel reunion titled ‘Six Of The Best’, a benefit-gig to help Gabriel sort out his finances following the disastrous WOMAD music festival he had organised earlier during the year which had left him in serious debt. Although I could never have been described as a real Genesis fan, the novelty aspect of seeing the classic Gabriel/Banks/Collins/Rutherford/Hackett line-up was an opportunity too good to pass on – and extremely affordable at just £9.00 a ticket!
Chris Mason, the keyboard player from my ex-band Tomorrow, who was obsessed with all things Genesis/Tony Banks (and yes, he did have Banks’ solo albums) had a friend who had passed his driving test, so we had the transport to the gig sorted. Chris booked the tickets via mail-order (no internet in those days) for I think, 5 tickets, though it could have been 4; but apart from Chris and the driver, I definitely remember party-animal Bass player Paul (Dodd) from my then current band, Threshold, being with us. I never had Paul down as a big Genesis fan as like me, he enjoyed the more lairy side of Rock music from the era, but he too realised the uniqueness of the event.
Oh, for an Umbrella (10 holes are better than 8)
The second day of October in 1982 wasn’t particularly cold, reaching a max temperature of 18 degrees celsius in Kent. In our part of north-west Cheshire, we were blessed with a dry, early morning to see us our way, but as we moved further south, a taste of the precipitation to come bounced off the car’s windscreen.
I had never been to a ‘stadium’ sized gig before so the sight of the Milton Keynes Bowl with its 65,000-capacity field was quite overwhelming. We arrived in good time (probably too early) and made our way down to the bodies already crowding in front of the stage. We got a pretty good viewpoint at a comfortable distance from the stage and seeing as the vast majority of the audience were older hippy types, there was no sign of the potential madness breaking out I’d experienced at a recent Ozzy Osbourne gig. No, these guys seemed more at home with a joint and a library full of Tolkien-thickness books than a makeshift mosh-pit of juvenile fools. So having established our tiny piece of territory in the grass amphitheatre, we stood and waited under what we hoped would be temporary weather conditions.
Dressed in 10-hole Dr Marten’s boots, Jeans, T-Shirt and topped off with a black leather biker jacket purchased 3 months earlier from ‘L For Leather’ in Liverpool (no, it definitely wasn’t a dodgy S&M outfitters), I wasn’t exactly dressed for what was falling out of the sky. My friend Paul was identically dressed and neither of us had given any thought to the potential discomforts of standing in the open air for 12 hours on a land-filled clay quarry…
Ticket? Check; Packed lunch? Check; Money? Check; Umbrella…?
And therein, lay our downfall.
Surely the rain will stop at some point? we naively assumed; but it didn’t.
As the segments of minutes turned into hours, the oppressive water-torture from above continued, with only the briefest of respite moments to humour our optimism. Add into the mix(er), 60,000 pairs of feet turning the claggy soil in unison to create a gigantic industrial-strength ploughing machine, we were rapidly losing inches underfoot before the first band played a note. Looking down at my feet, the mud had quickly crept up to shin-height but my new Docs were holding back the moisture, not yet weathered enough to allow penetration by water. The extra 2 inches on the 10-hole version had really paid off preventing the mud violating the last frontier of dryness on my increasingly saturated state. No one else was faring any better and I guess we had collectively resigned ourselves to being soaked to the skin for the duration.
My biker jacket gave me its best shot at protecting my upper body, eventually surrendering my T-Shirt and pale skin to the wet invader. But despite my discomfort, the phenomena of being in close proximity to thousands of other bodies meant my body temperature stayed comfortably warm, enough to see the visible wisps of steam evaporating from my nearest neighbours.
The main event wasn’t due on until around 7pm so I knew we’d be standing through three other support acts, none of which I had any real enthusiasm to see. Having purchased the ubiquitous souvenir program, I already knew what we had to look forward to – Talk Talk, John Martyn and The Blues Band – none of whom I had the slightest desire to see. Reading the bio about Talk Talk, complete with a profile pic in full New Romantic glory, only served to reinforce my disgust at having to suffer watching a group who’d been put out as support on a recent Duran Duran tour. What they were doing opening at a Genesis gig was surely somebody’s idea of a punishment for the band?
The abuse started within seconds of Talk Talk walking on stage. Fashionable haircuts, white pants, lack of a six-stringed guitarist, keyboards and electric Simmons drum pads knocked home every nail in their coffin, and I couldn’t wait for the crowd to start burying them. My friend Paul turned to me smiling and said something along the lines of, “these guys are going to get destroyed!” and he wasn’t wrong.
Their overall sound was very electronic, closer to OMD than say, Depeche Mode or The Human League, but they certainly had a more human feel, thanks to what turned out to be the excellent rhythm section of (fretless) Bassist, Paul Webb and Dummer, Lee Harris. Although this redeeming feature was admirable, it wasn’t enough to curb the audience who wasted no time in pitching plastic bottles of what was probably the expelled contents of 2 hours worth of full bladders. Mark Hollis having to single-handedly front the band, managed to dance and weave his lithe frame away from the incoming missiles with some skill. “Missed!” he taunted back to the batteries of muddy artillery.
By the third song in, my initial hostile prejudgements about the band were rapidly waning as I began to fixate on the impressive drumming of Lee Harris. For a weedy pop group, the drummer was driving the band hard on his mix of acoustic and electronic drums, leaving me in no doubt he deserved to be where he was. In fact, not only was the drumming inspiring me, but I found myself warming to the songs as well – not that I would have openly admitted to it at the time! But the crowd were not in the mood for giving quarter and at one point, either speaking truthfully or sarcastically, Hollis introduced one of the songs as a Pink Floyd number.
The only reproduction of their set-list for the gig suggests a reduced performance and all songs played being from their debut album, ‘The Party’s Over’, so maybe he was talking with tongue firmly in cheek.
After they had left the stage begrudgingly convinced myself I’d actually witnessed a really good band who didn’t deserve to be bottled off by the Prog-Rock army assembled in the mud-bath. Perhaps if the weather had been a bit more forgiving, the audience may have followed suit. The loose irony of the situation will always reflect in an historical analysis of the musical progression of both Talk Talk and Genesis. As the 80s rolled on, the former moved further away from their initial ‘Pop’ debut and further into deeper, more meaningful songwriting, a lot of which could be comfortably described as ‘progressive’. In comparison, Genesis seemed to move further into the territory inhabited by Phil Collins’ solo career, at times, making it difficult to differentiate between the two. Maybe there was a subliminal consensus for Genesis to inhabit the same commercial territory as their singer, who had earned himself incredible success within the super-consumer-friendly 80s pop-ballad genre. Whatever the reasoning, between both bands, it was Talk Talk who irrefutably carried the baton from Genesis to go forth and create music beyond people’s expectations.
Certainly, on that miserable afternoon in Buckinghamshire, nobody would have expected what was to come in the future for the Talk Talk back-catalogue.
I am a blue-skin!
After the ritual humiliation of Talk Talk, the next supporting artist to face the audience (I’m fairly confident this was the running order) was the late John Martyn, whom I had never heard of. For a 16-year-old Rock fan into Iron Maiden, AC/DC, Ozzy Osbourne and their like, this was going to be a stretch too far for my attention span. Martyn took to the stage with his band, sat down with his guitar and proceeded bore me for however long his set was.
Who the hell is this boring bastard? I thought, wishing I was somewhere else out of the rain and earshot of what I considered to be music to fall asleep to.
Much to my confusion, instead of getting the ‘Talk Talk’ treatment, the crowd seemed to be warming to what I had deemed to be Martyn’s somnambulist ramblings. What? These old hippies like this sort of shit? I could not comprehend what possible pleasure they could be getting from the beardy, growling, bore on the stage.
Had I been a truly gifted teenage musician (like Jeff Porcaro was), then I would have realised that during my moment of extreme disinterest, I was actually (not) enjoying the privilege of witnessing one of the most critically acclaimed songwriters of our time. I was too stupid to realise that John Martyn was on the show because Phil Collins loved his songwriting, was a huge fan, and had recently played drums on Martyn’s recordings. If I could time-travel, I would go back to watch Martyn’s performance and savour every second of the education. More than two decades would have to pass before I realised exactly the level of brilliance I had foolishly chosen to shut out.
The final support act were the Paul Jones (ex-Manfred Mann) fronted Blues Band, serving up their very British-styled interpretation of R&B music. As I had at least heard of the band and not possessing the first clue about how authentic R&B should sound, I decided in my wisdom these were way better than John Martyn and deserved their place on the days program.
Having now spent a great deal of time since the 1990s studying the history of the drum-set and its birth within African-American music, I realise what I saw The Blues Band do during that afternoon was a snap-shot of what young white Europeans were naively interpreting as ‘Blues’ in the late 1960s. Though easy for me to scoff at now, they served a purpose to perk up a sodden crowd, desperate for the main event to begin. Watching Jones whip up the crowd to collectively chant “I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more”, I could never have guessed he would be playing my band on his radio show 30 years later, for which I will always be grateful.
Genesis came on at 7pm for what was apparently a dodgy performance (as they expected in advance so deliberately didn’t film it), but I don’t remember hearing anything obviously under-par during the 2 hours they played. As is normally the case, when musicians of a high calibre have a ‘bad’ gig, it’s normally better played than most average player’s ‘great’ gigs. Trailing through the mud back to the car, I knew I’d witnessed something special in the reunion, but I also couldn’t get that pesky Pop group out of my head. How could a band who looked like that have such an impact on me?
At 16, I had little idea of the importance of strong songwriting, my only passionate ambition being to play for a band who sounded like Iron Maiden. But something about the short set Talk Talk played had picked up on my musical radar and despite my basic instinct to shun such awareness, I had no inkling of the powerful musical diversions coming the following year.
Having managed to dry out somewhat on the journey home, a strange sight unfolded as I peeled the gross clothing from my body in the early hours of Sunday morning; I had blue skin.
Being new, the black dye in my leather jacket had seeped out through my now grey T-Shirt and settled on my arms, back and upper chest to leave its blue pigment embedded in my skin. My Jeans had done the same thing to my legs, but I would sleep until the daylight hours before bathing myself back to pink. According to recorded data, 16mm of rain fell over the Home Counties during that Saturday, but anyone sinking in the Milton Keynes Bowl on the day will swear the figure was underestimated!
As written elsewhere on this BLOG, 1983 was a year of life-changing musical awakenings, mostly marked by my metamorphosis from die-hard Rock music fan, to U2 fanatic. For a part of that journey I was accompanied by Talk Talk’s debut album, unable to rid myself of the memories of their poorly received performance the previous year. Mainstream radio was still regularly playing their 1982 hit singles and for whatever reason, sometime during early summer ’83 I took a leap into the unknown and bought ‘The Party’s Over’. I guess my motivation was to find out how they performed on record and to dig deeper into Lee Harris’s drumming, the memory of which was still fascinating me.
My acquisition did not impress my friends who were still firmly loyal to their Rock music roots, whilst I was drifting, changing, metamorphosing myself into short periods of different identities. But with my hair cut and my desire to leave the old ‘me’ behind as a schoolboy memory, a Talk Talk album was another blatant statement telling my peers I was moving, I was changing, I was growing, I wasn’t afraid to embrace the unthinkable in pursuit of my personal development. 1983 was a bit of a fallow year for Talk Talk with only 2 singles released and neither breaking into the top 40, so I clung onto ‘The Party’s Over’ as another one-man life-raft to float me to into unknown waters. Lifting some of the drive and energy I heard coming from Lee Harris, I would try to play July’s gigs assimilating his style on my purely acoustic setup. By the end of the year I would be drumming firmly in Mark Brzezicki/Stewart Copeland mode, having morphed yet again; my search for identity was relentless.
Perhaps this restlessness is a universal trait shared by all musicians as they seek to perfect and find their true selves? For Mark Hollis, this can possibly be seen post-1984 after Talk Talk delivered their final Electro-pop offering to EMI, ‘It’s My Life’. 1986’s ‘The Colour Of Spring’ was a monumental pivotal moment, stating boldly a change in direction and speaking truthfully, a change I was far too underdeveloped to appreciate. I bought the album (on cassette) and found it hard work, being far too experimental for my liking. After this, Talk Talk fell off my radar screen in a similar way I had chosen to dismiss John Martyn at Milton Keynes; such a shame…
It’s never too late
Some time during the first decade of the 21st century I did an internet search to see what had become of Talk Talk. All reports told of Hollis’s final ‘experimental’ solo album and then a swift jump into total obscurity, having completely retired from the music business – not that there was much of a ‘business’ left worth sticking around for at that point. When I heard of his passing it was another shocking reminder of one’s own mortality and the legacy we leave behind. It also inspired me to write these words and also, to revisit ‘The Colour Of Spring’, the album I dismissed 33 years ago.
I only wish I hadn’t left it so long.
To think, the album took a year to complete, a testament to EMI’s belief they would get their money back on the recording advance. The band were writing with a maturity I was years away from appreciating which really is a shame, considering the subject matter of one of the songs, ‘April 5th’, in which Hollis evocatively describes the arrival of spring and the rebirth of nature. Even back in 1986, I had already established spring as my favourite season, so how I missed the genius wrapped within ‘April 5th’ is quite pitiful on my part.
I was fortunate to discover Talk Talk at their debut, but regret losing them on my way to what I thought were better things. I’m also a believer that true art is timeless and will always be found by its audience. It has taken the untimely death of Mark Hollis for me to look again at what I wasn’t ready to receive in younger days. Being that he’d chosen to leave his body of work as a rediscoverable time-capsule, I hope it would please him to know that it’s not the how or the when that matters, but the fact it continues to find its destiny.
Here she comes‘April 5th’ – Mark Hollis / Tim Friese-Greene
Silent in her sound
Here she comes
Fresh upon the ground
Come gentle spring
Come at winter’s end
Gone is the pallor from a promise that’s nature’s gift
Waiting for the color of spring
Let me breathe
Let me breathe the color of spring
Here she comes
Laughter in her kiss
Here she comes
Shame upon her lips
Come wanton spring
Come for birth you live
Youth takes it’s bow before the summer the seasons bring
Waiting for the color of spring
Let me breathe
Let me breathe you
Let me breathe
Let me breathe you
Let me breathe