November is an odd month. Once Halloween and bonfire night are out of the way, the month drifts inevitably towards Christmas. Decorations go up in shops, lights go on in town centres, adverts start appearing on TV – in my youth it was the Woolworths adverts I used to look forward to, but now there is such hoopla about John Lewis and Waitrose and Coca-Cola’s “Holidays are coming” (it’s not a ‘holiday’ it’s Christmas ok?). Anyway Woolworths had some fantastic Christmas adverts in the past – there was a late seventies ad which ended with an old bloke waving his glasses at the camera exclaiming “From now ’til Christmas day”. There was also a mid eighties Woolies ad which centred around a youngster desiring a copy of “Raw Power” by Iggy and the Stooges. Strange days. Now it’s all female singers doing soggy piano ballads and that’s supposed to signify Christmas somehow, rather than bare faced commercialism and Christmas Specials recorded in early October.
November doesn’t exist any longer. November has no significance of its own now.
November has often been a great month for me, and I’ve decided to celebrate it – slightly late admittedly. Over the next three weeks or so I’m going to write about a November in a certain year and the music I associated with it. Because I always associate music with everything, and nothing captures a moment better than music – in my mind at least. It may be one song or both sides of a single or an EP or an entire album. It might work or it might not, but it’ll be more music and memories. As ever, I’ll advise that I offer no blinding insights or revelations just what I know, what I think and what I hear.
So it’s appropriate to start at the darkest November I knew.
November 2000 – “Mark Hollis” – Mark Hollis
Darkness. Early November 2000 and everywhere was darkness. I had been on anti-depressants for around four months, as various people around me seemed to think my problems stemmed from depression. They would be wrong, but nobody knew that. The tablets didn’t help, they just obliterated the sensation of living and replaced it with a numb sense of emptiness. The various counsellors and doctors I saw didn’t really suggest any further therapy or diagnosis or help, just talk about your problems, write them down, make sense of your world. I achieved a state I called “paralysis by analysis”, I could get no further, I’d analysed myself into a corner. And everything was getting darker. The nights drew in earlier, the bus rides home from work were frequently around dusk, headlights shining in my eyes, and why did I have these headaches all the time? And why was everything looking more blurred than before? I couldn’t even see the computer screen I was meant to be programming on in work. I finally noticed something was seriously wrong when I attended a management course in a hotel in Shrewsbury in late October. I just remember lying on this odd bed with the latest issue of Uncut in front of me (it was the issue where Simon Reynolds reviewed “Kid A”) and realising that I couldn’t read a word of it. And at the table in the hotel dining room I couldn’t see any of the people, or read the menu. What the hell was going on?
I struggled around town and in work and at home until I got to the point where I couldn’t go any further. I booked an appointment at my opticians for an eye test and on the way there stopped at Woolworths to look through their CD bargain bin. Through all the bland compilations I spied a white sleeve with a strange black and white picture on it. Two words – Mark Hollis – in a tiny font and a sticker saying “Mark Hollis was in Talk Talk”. Like I didn’t know. And like someone who enjoyed “It’s my life” or “Life’s what you make it” would be interested in this album. It was only four quid so I bought it. I adored “Spirit of Eden” which I’d known for a few years and admired “Laughing stock” which I’d known a few months and was getting to know. And then I headed to the opticians….
The optician was horrified by what she saw – the cataract which had been in the lens of my right eye since I was born had progressed quickly in the previous few months since my last eye test to cover the whole lens. As my left eye had a fully formed cataract from birth too – so was effectively a lazy eye – I was now pretty much blind. The optician recommended I see my doctor to sign me off work because staring at computer screens wasn’t going to help me. From that point onwards life did get darker. I had sunglasses on at all times – indoors and outdoors. Most of my time I stayed in my bedroom with the curtains drawn, any light at all hurt my eyes too much. I was drugged up to the eyeballs on anti-depressants. It felt like a depressing one-man Warhol movie.
And through all of this I listened to “Mark Hollis”. It was quite unhealthy, I spent hours playing it over and over. I didn’t understand it to begin with – yes there were conventional songs but it was the sprawling eight minute “A life” which I found difficult. And all the woodwinds – is this the soundtrack to “The Clangers”? But I persisted and the music drew me in. And so did the silences.
The album opens with… Silence. About twenty seconds of it, it’s the sound of a room. There’s air and breath. Then a slowly measured piano enters playing two chords quite simply. And Hollis sings in his characteristic murmur. I’ve never really focussed on the words of the album, it’s not that they aren’t important – but I can hear the ebb and flow of emotion within Hollis’ voice. The piano is simple but devastatingly powerful. Around the three minute mark of the opening song “The colour of spring” there are gentle hints of a harmonica somewhere, otherwise it’s piano and voice. No note is wasted.
“Watershed” is fuller. There’s creaking acoustic guitars, double bass, lightly brushed cymbals and more wind instruments. It sounds like the whole band is sitting in front of you playing – there are rumours the album was recorded in front of a single stereo microphone. The time signature makes everything sound like it’s skipping, falling over itself. And Hollis doesn’t have to shout to be heard. At three minutes the song halts, more guitars come in, there’s an actual drum roll which comes as a shock, and a solo. I mean I’m no expert, it’s a woodwind of some kind. The band vamp on one chord and then fall back into the original riff, parts interlocking like the workings of a clock, ticking in harmony.
“Inside looking out” starts with a Satie-esque piano piece which revolves around simple note changes to make powerful chord configurations. Add some effects and it could be Harold Budd. There is minimal bass, then acoustic guitars enter and Hollis murmurs again, then returns to the piano section again. This section is incredibly beautiful, and it’s this part that most reminds me of those times. In fact just hearing the introduction takes me back to the curtained bedroom – the chord changes reflected my feelings. It’s slow and stately, quite lovely and apart from a little shaker in the background it’s totally percussion free.
“The gift” could be a conventional pop song. It’s fast – well it’s faster than anything else we’ve heard so far – and there’s a rhythmic base of drums and bass and guitar but still hovering woodwinds and harmonica from time to time. It should be pointed out that the harmonica is played by Mark Feltham, and he is one of only two links back to Talk Talk – his distinctive work is all over “The rainbow”. Engineering genius Phill Brown should also be mentioned as he was also present on all the latter TT albums, and he makes this record sound so natural.
The Clangers woodwinds circle out of “The gift” and into “A life”. I didn’t understand this song for a long time, but now its peaceful moods make more sense, the changes in style and tempo for different stages of a life. It’s not easy music to assimilate though, and I know I struggled with it. “Westward bound” is so quiet, you feel like you are intruding on some private practice session with a few acoustic guitars. “The daily planet” starts with seemingly random woodwinds for a minute before cymbals call time and a rolling 6 / 8 drum and bass pattern is established, an easy swinging rhythm with the woodwinds playing along. If anything this makes me think now of “Drake” by Beth Gibbons and Rustin Man – another Talk Talk reference. The actual song features Hollis at his most forceful but still I have no real idea what he’s singing about. Maybe I should read the lyric sheet. But hell I couldn’t read it in 2000… “A new Jerusalem” closes the album and sounds like a natural closer, like “Wealth” did. It sounds random in places, like the players are stumbling over themselves but it still works, it teeters on collapse but the structure is still there. And then there’s more silence – about a minute.
I usually don’t like inarticulate singers. There came a point where I found listening to Thom Yorke unbearable – I kept wanting to shout “Enunciate, man, enunciate!”. That’s just me – I don’t like his voice, I get fed up trying to work out what he’s singing. But there’s some voices where I don’t care about that – Mark Hollis, Liz Fraser, Vini Reilly. They just sing and it connects to me. They may not have powerful voices or rich voices but they can touch nerves. Sometimes Hollis barely rises above a whisper here, sometimes he shouts but it’s all hidden within his tremulous voice. It works for me, and it worked then. I played the album almost all the time, it was a permanent fog around me like the permanent fog in front of my eyes – I couldn’t make it out but I could understand it by feel and previous knowledge.
So what happened next? Well those nice NHS people said the waiting list for a cataract removal operation was about nine to ten months so I put my name on that waiting list – for my left eye, which wasn’t so important. A member of my family paid to have the right eye cataract removed in early December, an operation which can honestly be said to be life changing. On the morning of the operation the drains in the house got blocked and pumped their contents all over the patio and lawn, so I spent my last morning of sightlessness clearing away sewage before being driven to the hospital for the operation. I wasn’t fussed on having a local anaesthetic so elected for a general. My eye would be opened, the clouded lens sucked out and a new fixed focus lens dropped into its place. I can remember being wheeled to the pre-op room, the needle in my arm, the counting down from ten… Then waking up dazed, blood all over my eye but with a strange brightness in my sight. My wife was there and the first thing I said to her was “Did Dynarod sort out the drains?”. After a few weeks of rest and recovery and eye drops (my God I hate eye drops) my right eye’s sight was wonderful, a new prescription for my glasses gave me new clarity. I could see things I’d never seen before – rain, sports of TV… And a few years later I achieved a long standing ambition by learning to drive, something which would have been impossible before. The only sad part of that particular achievement was that I passed my driving test the day after the person who paid for my eye op passed away from cancer
But “Mark Hollis”… I rarely play it. It is so engrained in that time period of a different kind of darkness. The music isn’t dark but the memories are.
Next time – another November. Will it be an Eighties one, or a Nineties one? Who cares anyway?