Mark Hollis

Talk Talk’s Mark Hollis famously retreated from the limelight long before his untimely passing in 2019. But a recently unearthed mixtape given to producer Gareth Jones reveals the early musical influences behind this most reclusive of artists

It’s a rare and special thing to uncover a previously unseen musical artefact. Even a minor one, like the love letter written by Jerry Garcia to a Vogue cover model in 1982, can be exciting, shedding new light on a figure’s life or work. Safe to say it’s even more so when the life of that person is decidedly oblique. Such is the case with Mark Hollis.

When he died in 2019, it’s said there was a scramble to find enough information about the Talk Talk frontman to write his obituary. So when my friend, producer Gareth Jones, mentioned that he still had a mixtape Hollis had made for him, my ears naturally pricked up. A few months later, we’re at his east London studio to listen to the tape.

“Such tiny handwriting,” murmurs Jones, looking closely at it. “Two songs to a line, some of them. ‘The Mark Hollis Selection’ is my title – his is just ‘Various’! That’s my inlay. I loved the fact that you could put a picture in such a nice little frame.

“When Mark died, obviously we all re-examined our relationship with his work. I nearly shared this on Instagram, but I kind of felt it was inappropriate. I don’t know why. I wasn’t that close to Mark at all, we had a fleeting connection. But it was such a special object.”

You may know Jones from Sunroof, his joint project with Mute founder Daniel Miller, or from his solo work as Electrogenetic. His production discography includes the likes of Depeche Mode, Wire, Nick Cave and Einstürzende Neubauten, but he was a young engineer when he met Hollis.

“This was in 1979 or very early 1980,” recalls Jones. “‘Metamatic’ was the first record I recorded and mixed, so I think I met Mark through John Foxx, who was my mentor. The first 16-track studio I went into was with John, which was the one in Camden Square owned by The Buggles. That’s where I recorded some demos with Mark. We’d have been 25 or 26 at this point.”

To help make sense of the tape, as well as triangulate a few details of Jones’ fleeting engagement with Hollis, we’re joined by Ben Wardle, author of the recent, acclaimed Hollis biography, ‘A Perfect Silence’.

“This may well have been just before he’d signed the Island Records deal in 1980,” says Wardle. “Howard Thompson at CBS paid for some demo time. I’ve never heard those original demos. ‘Talk Talk’, ‘Mirror Man’ and ‘Tomorrow Started’ – I think those were the ones. Thompson paid for two lots of demos. Quite a lot of songs!”

In his studio, Jones inserts the cassette into the player, rewinds it to the beginning and presses play, gently pulling up two faders on his console. With all the wow and flutter of a 40-year-old tape, the melancholic choral introduction to Van Morrison’s ‘Snow In San Anselmo’ drifts into the room. It’s a wonderful moment.

“That choral stab that came in at the beginning,” says Wardle, “that’s straight out of ‘I Believe In You’, isn’t it? Uncanny!”

I remind Wardle of another parallel between those two songs – the working title of ‘I Believe In You’ was ‘Snow In Berlin.’

“Yes! That’s very interesting, isn’t it?” exclaims Wardle. “I wish I’d had this when I wrote the book – that’s a revelation! The key to this tape, as far as I’m concerned, is Mark’s brother, Ed.”

Ed Hollis, producer, and manager of Essex pub rockers Eddie And The Hot Rods, was ostensibly Mark’s music mentor, even co-writing the song ‘Talk Talk’.

“Back in 1979, it was hard to have such eclectic taste so young,” continues Wardle. “Ed was always buying records from a well-known shop off Oxford Street, where Elton John actually used to work. They dealt with all the imports that were difficult to get hold of. Mark was exposed to this from a very early age because Ed was constantly playing it.”

Hollis, says Wardle, would enthuse about John Coltrane. He cites the jazz standard, ‘In A Sentimental Mood’, which Coltrane recorded with Duke Ellington.

“During the opening, it sounds like the drummer’s still adjusting his kit. That studio atmosphere… Mark wanted to emulate that on his solo album.”

I point out that ‘In A Sentimental Mood’ is on the cassette.

“There we go!” says Wardle, clapping his hands together. “Another key to this is to understand that it’s showing off. It’s interesting that he goes for The Nerves’ original of ‘Hanging On the Telephone’. There’s definitely a bit of the record collector, the musical snob there, saying, ‘You might have thought that Blondie wrote this, but no, it was The Nerves’, who were an obscure American powerpop band that probably never even got a release in the UK.”

“It’s an incredible list of tunes,” adds Jones, holding Hollis’ meticulously handwritten tracklist in the light. “Bands that I’d not even heard of at that time – Love, for instance.”

“Oh, he was a huge Arthur Lee fan,” says Wardle. “His voice was compared to Lee’s several times.”

Hollis had recorded onto the tape ‘Alone Again Or’, from Love’s 1967 album, ‘Forever Changes’. Also from those sessions, ‘Your Mind And We Belong Together’ was released as a single. The name of the track on the flip-side? ‘Laughing Stock’.

“That’s clearly where the Talk Talk album title comes from,” says Wardle. “Some stuff like Marvin Gaye, you might think, ‘OK, a bit obvious…’, but back then, not so. At that time, some things were hard to find. You had to really invest in buying the records, listening to them and curating the tracks.”

Later, Gareth Jones and I reflect on the extraordinary tunnel vision represented by the selection of tracks on Hollis’ tape. Many of these influences would not be palpable in Talk Talk’s music until their seminal brace of albums a decade or more later, and beyond that even, on Hollis’ solo record in 1998.

“That’s the arc of the trajectory,” considers Jones. “He was aiming at something. He was obviously very meticulous and focused. Very clear. ‘Look, here are my influences, this is what you need to listen to if you want to engage with what I’m trying to do’.”

‘Mark Hollis: A Perfect Silence’ is published by Rocket 88

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