Sunday, 12 January 2014

On loving Mark Hollis and people who confound our expectations

I know what you're thinking: oh god, she's not still bleating on about some bloody '80s synth-pop band. This'll be my last word on the subject, promise!

It's just that I had no idea. In the mid 1980s I was working in the record shop and getting into just about anything as long as it didn't make it into the upper reaches of the charts. I was listening to... hmm, let me think... off the top of my head: the Fuzztones, the Godfathers, the Pebbles albums, Mighty Lemon Drops, Rain Parade,  the Prisoners, Sonic Youth, the Jesus and Mary Chain....   Bands like Talk Talk were easily dismissed in my young mind as too commercial, too mainstream for my taste. We had to play chart music every Saturday in the shop, it was compulsory. It became like a factory soundtrack. So I was a musical snob, I felt contemptuous to a lot of it, and it's probably for this reason that I never paid any attention to the back story on Mark Hollis and his band.

The back story, which I've only just discovered (and I realise this may be old news to anyone more in the know, but in case you're like me....) was that Mark was really one of those true artists who, having had some success, still maintained the desire to express himself musically, with whatever natural, personal drive he had, and without compromise. After providing his record company EMI with a couple of hit singles, he was given financial and artistic freedom to work on a new album (Spirit of Eden). And the result was not what EMI wanted. I guess they'd been expecting a dozen It's My Life facscimiles, but what they got instead was jazzy, improvised, dark and introspective with several tracks exceeding 8 minutes in length. I can imagine the look on the executives' faces when they heard it for the first time. ...

So what did EMI do? They sued Hollis for being wilfully obscure and uncommercial.

The case was eventually thrown out of court, but the damage was done. Hollis left EMI and signed to Polydor – but then EMI released, without his consent, a remix album of earlier Talk Talk material and re-issued It's My Life - which was of course no longer at all representative of the band's sound. So Hollis sued EMI. And this is all why I am a little bit in love with him.

That, and the way he comes across on this classic TV interview, alongside the rather lovely film director Tim Pope, who strikes me as being thoroughly funny too. I love the way they just won't "play the game".

And there was me thinking Talk Talk were just a fairly unremarkable, somewhat inane product of the anodyne eighties pop world. I love it when my expectations are confounded, when there is so much more to people than we think at first. It's a lesson in never being too quick to judge.


  1. Nice. So often we are surprised by an unexpected turn of events and could never have predicted the course that Talk Talk and Mr. Hollis would take. Of course, bass player, Paul Webb, went on to help Beth Gibbons make her lovely solo album, 'Ou of Season' under the alias, Rustin Man.

    1. Yes I just love stories like theirs. And many thanks for that snippet - I didn't know that about Paul Webb (or perhaps even if I'd read it before it may not have resonated much as I'd just never had any interest in them until now!)

  2. I have never understood that relationship between record companies and artists. Yes, they are investing large sums of money but if you believe in an artist you should surely expect to be surprised from time to time. Maybe they should call the "artists" sheep instead if they want to herd them and always be able to have control.

    I have just realised I can never call myself a Music Snob! I have only heard of 4 of those bands - I think maybe there are levels of "commercial" sounds: I didn't think of Talk Talk as all that commercial even though they had chart hits, there are plenty of 80's chart toppers who really curdle my blood and did so at the time... don't forget this was the age of Phil Collins as a sex symbol (well, that's a sentence I can't believe I just typed!!!) ;o)

    1. Yes, as you say, I know they're investing money but there still has to be room for individual creativity and freedom, and I hate the idea now that so much is geared at making things best-sellers, whilst sacrificing some of that creativity.

      I've heard.conversations with book publishers too, basically saying, "it has to be a best-seller, just selling an acceptable amount is no longer good enough, we can't take risks any more". So a huge amount of output is geared up to what THEY perceive the audience is seeking - and it all gets watered down accordingly. Risk is all part of it, surely...?! Maybe the audience doesn't know what it's seeking until it unexpectedly finds it? I'll stop ranting now :-)

      Phil Collins sold very very well when I was working in the record shop, by the way... at last I know the reason why ;-)


    2. My apologies for that dreadful spectre I mentioned before, I didn't mean to bring Phil Collins back into everyone's waking mind... I have been shivering in a dark corner ever since!

      What you are saying about things having to be massive sellers: I was listening to Lady Gaga on the car radio earlier and was thinking that when I look back over my record collection there is a section she would fit nicely into, namely, 'Great Production, Zero Substance', Singles (mainly) that I played to death for about 3 weeks then never played again - because they soon sounded dated and beyond the "Sound" there was no hook, no song, so soul.

      The other half of my music collection is stuff that could have been recorded any time and still sounds just as good. Take out the hollow 80's synths (or whatever) and it still sounds good. Those songs that can be covered by any artist and pulled into all sorts of different shapes and still sound brilliant.

    3. That's ok, Yve, I'm recovering now...

      Style-over-substance seems to happen a lot. I agree, those songs that grab you at the beginning are often the ones to fade early, it's like a quick sugar fix, a high at first but doesn't last... whereas others take a while to worm their way in, almost like they require a little more effort to appreciate, and they endure.

  3. I have a permanent soft spot in my heart for all those early 80's new wave bands. They are what started me buying records as a kid...Talk Talk among them.

    Phil Collins sex symbol...Suesuesudeo indeed.

    Tim Pope is funny.

    1. I love that you have that soft spot, I can see why. I'm appreciating so much more now in retrospect, glad to have lived through it.

      I thought Tim Pope was very endearing and amusing there (and I hear that he still is!)

      When I was at the record shop, Phil Collins 'No Jacket Required' album was a huge seller. I'll never forget how a customer came in one day and asked, " Can I have that Phil Collins 'Hang Your Coat Up' LP please?"

  4. Coincidently, in the mid-80's I was listening to virtually the same music as you. I have to confess that I've never been a fan of the early Talk Talk stuff, though theirs is a very interesting tale (didn't Geffen once threaten to sue Neil Young for making an un-Neil Young-like record?), but I did greatly enjoy 'Spirit of Eden' and 'Laughing Stock' at the time. I guess that makes me wilfully obscure according to EMI! That interview clip is great.

    1. Yes I just read that Geffen had tried to sue Neil Young for not being 'Neil Young enough' - how ridiculous is that?!
      Talk Talk just weren't on my radar at any point, funnily enough it all sounds so much better now, mind you I'm thinking that about a lot of '80s and '90s stuff, must be the distance!
      Glad you liked the video. Please stay wilfully obscure!


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