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Sunday 20 October 2019

Obituary: Mark Hollis

Enigmatic singer who found fame with 1980s band Talk Talk before retiring into wilful obscurity

Shy: Talk Talk singer Mark Hollis. Photo: Martyn Goodacre
Shy: Talk Talk singer Mark Hollis. Photo: Martyn Goodacre

Mark Hollis, who has died aged 64 following a short illness, was the lead singer and moving spirit of the 1980s art pop band Talk Talk. They were best remembered by casual listeners for singles such as It's My Life and Such a Shame, only minor hits at the time, but the group's reputation has grown markedly since the release of their now-lauded experimental final albums, after the release of which Hollis more or less walked away from the business.

Influenced by his elder brother Ed, who was a music producer, manager of the band Eddie and the Hot Rods and the owner of a vast collection of records, Hollis formed his first group, the Reaction, at the time of punk in 1977.

Prompted by his brother, who knew bassist Paul Webb and drummer Lee Harris from being around Southend, Mark subsequently started Talk Talk and gained a deal with EMI.

Their modish synthesiser-based sound - Simon Brenner played keyboards on the band's first album before leaving them - saw Talk Talk compared at first to their labelmates Duran Duran. While EMI styled them in New Romantic clothes, and though the groups had a producer in common, Colin Thurston, it soon became clear that Hollis would take his own path.

After some success with their early singles Today (No.14 in the UK) and Talk Talk (No.23), and the debut LP The Party's Over (1982), Hollis chose Tim Friese-Greene to produce the follow-up. Friese-Greene became Hollis's co-songwriter.

The single It's My Life reached No.31 in the US in 1984, but in fact failed to make the Top 40 in the UK (as did Such a Shame), though it did make No.13 when re-released in 1990. Nonetheless, the band sold well in Europe and enjoyed another hit in Britain when the single Life's What You Make It reached the Top 20 in 1985. The accompanying album, The Colour of Spring, was to be their best-seller.

Hollis, whose eclectic influences included Otis Redding, Miles Davis, Burt Bacharach, Debussy and Shostakovich, was an unexpectedly powerful presence on stage, but his refusal to tour proved another cause of friction with EMI. Even so, it agreed to fund the next LP, Spirit of Eden (1988), which was to prove a yet more radical departure from their early music.

Both improvised and intricate in feel, it layered jazz, folk and blues, giving full rein to Hollis's gift for a peculiarly English-sounding melancholia. EMI initially refused to accept it, calling it "anti-commercial". Many critics at the time thought it pretentious and it only just reached the Top 20 in the UK.

The next album, Laughing Stock (1991) - essentially by then a collaboration between Hollis and Friese-Greene - was still more minimalistic, though it got to No.26.

"For any music to be good," maintained Hollis, "it's really important that it's got power, emotion, that it's felt, basically. The minute it runs outside then it's cabaret - that's the only word for it."

Talk Talk broke up in 1991. Although Hollis released an eponymously titled solo LP in 1998, and featured briefly on others' albums, he thereafter largely disappeared from the music business, declaring he wanted to concentrate on being with his children.

In the decades since, many musicians have hailed the influence of the group's final two LPs, seeing them as precursors of a "post-rock" movement that allowed bands such as Radiohead to flourish.

The second of three brothers, Mark David Hollis was born in Tottenham, north London, on January 4, 1955.

He was educated at Tollington School in Muswell Hill and Southend Technical School.

His wife and children survive Mark Hollis, whose death was announced last Monday.

© Telegraph

Telegraph.co.uk

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