Marc Almond


“The amount of people that meet me and say, ‘I can’t believe the things people say about you’,” Marc Almond exclaims, trying and failing to be outraged.

Playing the role of pop’s Pee Wee Herman, its Jean Genet and Shirley Maclaine combined has not always made Marc Almond’s life or career straightforward, but at least his philosophy has always been clear.
“It is ‘live the life you sing’ with me, definitely.”

After a ten-year career in which he’s sung and lived the life he’s sung with everyone from Lydia Lunch and Nick Cave in The Immaculate Consumptives to Gene Pitney in Las Vegas, at 34, Almond, “the Acid House Aznavour”, has come to make certain choices.

“I’m glad I don’t make albums like ‘Mother Fist & Her Five Daughters’ all the time. I couldn’t. If I had done, I’d be dead by now.”

If he doesn’t laugh it’s probably because he is not joking. As if to prove he can afford to laugh, his new album features a song ‘Vaudeville & Burlesque’, where with true Shirley style, he has condensed his chaotic, always compelling, ten-year career/life into two lines: “We’ve tasted every thrill, every powder, every pill/And we’re still here !”

From the days when ‘Sex Dwarf’ vied with ‘Tainted Love’ as Soft Cell’s most representative and popular song, Almond long ago became pop’s embodiment of a star who was cuddly yet corrupt; who sang infectious songs about an infected lifestyle; wavering between extremes, yet always wearing his heart on his sleeve, open for all to see; a deeply theatrical performer, yet an admired dance-music innovator (‘Memorabilia’, produced by Mute’s Daniel Miller, more or less invented Acid House, while ‘Non-Stop Ecstatic Dancing’ pioneered the dance-remix album as one of the first ecstasy techno records).

Marc Almond’s trials have often been torrid and rather traumatic (and always very public) but he has, at least, survived, and, with the lush and hypnotic new record ‘Tenement Symphony’, triumphed.

And in his rampaging house version of Jacques Brel’s ‘Jacky’, Almond has found the quintessential Almond song, detailing as it does the classic existence of the corrupt crooner/gigolo whose seamy double-life shadows his success – an image mythologised in films like ‘The Godfather’ and ‘Angel Heart’ and the work of Brel, David Lynch and, latterly, Nick Cave.

“It’s about a gigolo/pimp/opium seller who wants power but also yearns for his innocence. Everyone thought it was the perfect song for me. When I looked at the verses, it was just kind of like my life, really.” The gigolo longs to be “for only an hour/ an hour every day/cute in a stupid ass way.”

Almond happily confesses that his fresh-faced, Pee Wee-esque image is his way of being cute in a stupid ass way, “playing up to the image, using it, like playing at innocence.”

This is ironic, if not because of Pee Wee’s own fate, because most pop stars of course have to play up their notoriety, not innocence.

When he recorded the (enormous) European hit, ‘Something’s Gotten Hold of My Heart’ with Gene Pitney, possibly only Marc Almond would have felt concerned at his co-star’s naivety in working with him.
“I thought, ‘doesn’t he know about me ? About my reputation !’” Almond remembers with mock horror.

Probably not. The “reputation” is based on years of stories of escapades in the streets and sex clubs of Tijuana (“my kind of town, trash town”), Berlin, Istanbul and New York – stories like getting mugged at knifepoint by skinheads in Barcelona (“they just wanted my Doc Martens, which I was quite happy to give them”), or being offered £10,000 to do a decidedly unhip bank commercial and scoffing “£10,000 – I’d blown that in a weekend in Bangkok.”

The proud owner of nearly 50 tattoos, unlike most pop performers, Almond’s flirtation with S&M isn’t one. His experimentation with drugs and sex has been, to say the least, thorough, as records like Soft Cell’s ‘This Last Night in Sodom’ or Almond’s ‘Stories of Johnny’ have made clear.

In person, there is nothing cuddly about his face; though he talks as he sings, with melodramatic flourishes, exaggerated hand movements, the conversation is full of nods and winks and titters, anxious giggles. A shapeless raven tattoo is high on his neck. He eagerly shows me the others, all over his arms. The largest, across his shoulders, has two skulls inside an hour glass, two large wings and the inscription ‘My glass runneth quickly’ – in Dutch.

His reputation peaked (or plummeted) with the rumour that, while having his stomach pumped once, the contents were found to include dog-sperm. This story is worth repeating if only because so many people believed him capable of it. (He is, simply, appalled, and sorry for his poor mother.) But times change.

When encouraged by his new producer, Trevor Horn, and new label manager (Warner Brothers’ Rob Dicken) to record ‘Jacky’, it was Almond who, for once, found himself protesting that the song’s lyrics (about “getting drunk every night”, “bordellos”, “opium dens”, “procuring young girls”, “phony queens and authentic virgins”) might affect radio play.

“I thought, my God, I must be getting old !” he giggles.

The twist in the song is the way the gigolo misses his innocence: “I’d sing the song that I sang then/about the time they called me ‘Jacky’”.

Almond, who has quoted his happiest memory as “childhood days in Southport, playing on the beach”, sees this as reflecting some of his own feelings about his success, his pop-life.

“The gigolo’s got success in these underhanded and corrupted means. I love the line, “If I could only be/for only an hour/cute in a stupid assed way.” It’s kind of like the whole pop star thing – if I could just play this part and not be uncomfortable…I can play it, if I want to.”

Set to a 70-piece orchestra, Almond’s full-blooded performance justifies his role as the Acid House Aznavour to the full. Almond admits filling each song with “vocal histrionics”, describing the effect as “turning up all the colour on a television.”

‘Tenement Symphony’, the new LP, reflects all of his dilemmas but conquers them because, finally, a rejuvenated Almond has found a balance between his more experimental and commercial work, dividing the nine hypnotic techno-torch songs on to a ‘Grit’ and ‘Glitter’ side.

His theatrical, vaudeville influences are there with ‘Jacky’ and a marvellous cover of ‘The Days of Pearly Spencer’, balanced with his love of 60s beat-pop and hardcore dance, reuniting after 7 years with ex-Soft Cell member David Ball and his new production team, The Grid.

A recently released ‘Soft Cell’s Greatest Hits’ LP including ‘Torch’, ‘Say Hello, Wave Goodbye’, ‘Bedsitter’ reminds you how skilfully Almond and Ball married influences like Kraftwerk, Northern Soul, Scott Walker and Moroder with Almond’s seamy tales of romance and vice – like a pervy West Side Story.

After Soft Cell split Almond wandered through several hits, several labels, several changes of direction.

“I’d done Soft Cell, had a string of smash hits, did all those collaborations (Genesis, P. Orridge, Jimmy Somerville) and then went back in the other direction.”

Almond quickly found the other extreme. The Immaculate Consumptives’ “chaotic cabarets” only managed two performances (New York and Washington) but entered into rock ‘n’ roll legend.

While Almond was, forlornly, trying to keep up with the others’ level of abuse, Nick Cave started to “go Vegas”, stealing the shows with ‘In The Ghetto’. It’s Almond though who has the love of those songs and the voice to actually do it.

“Nick hasn’t really got the sense of camp to pull it off. What other people consider ‘kitsch’, I’ve always considered to be quite beautiful and naïve. I know my voice isn’t everyone’s cup of tea but I do feel I can sing any traditional song and make it my own.”

After The Consumptives’ period, where perhaps Almond’s depravity peaked, he moved back to a commercial extreme with the Pitney duet, filming the video in a Vegas neon-sign junkyard, having a No. 1 all over Europe, only to find the record unreleasable in America.

“They said ‘it’s two guys singing about love’. But I think they were suspicious because it was Me involved,” he giggles. “In the end, it’s more challenging to me, someone like me, to cross over into the mainstream. Doing Daytime TV and Saturday Night Variety shows with Gene Pitney, having all these housewives saying how much they liked me and were buying all my old LPs… It was wild. I loved it. I love the naivety associated with Vegas. A kind of purity. If I was offered it, I’d do it, absolutely, even 50th on the bill to Wayne Newton.”

Almond is brave enough to admit if anything he’s over-experimented, lost direction – solo LPs, Marc & The Mambas, The Willing Sinners, cabaret tours, erratic release…

“I’ve been quite a difficult artist to follow. There used to be a certain type of Marc Almond fan. A lot of fans now haven’t even heard the early stuff. Early fans don’t like the new stuff. A lot of fans want to hold you back – want you to be a certain type of Marc Almond.”

Without a deal in America until two years ago, a particularly strong (strange) cult following grew (next year the whole lot comes out on CD). Those fans who have followed him throughout have had a tendency to be obsessive (romantics and junkies, waifs and strays, bedsit dreamers). A urine sample from one fan was just one ‘gift’.

“I had a lot of bad experiences. Had the police turning up on my doorstep – kids’ parents had complained their kids had run away to London to try and find me. I had so many letters asking me to give them the answers to their problems I couldn’t cope. The hardcore fans want me to do more records like ‘Mother Fist’, ‘Torment & Toreros’, some of which I can’t listen to. They’re too personal, embarrassing. Other people love them intensely for those reasons. There’s a lot of pain reflected in those albums.”

Given that, through Soft Cell, Marc & The Mambas and his solo work, Almond has charted the changing sexual mores of the 80s/90s perhaps more than any other artist, it’s tempting to see a song like ‘I’ve Never Seen Your Face’ – a dramatic Bassey-esque melodrama about cruising – as more “living the life you sing” realism.

“That’s quite personal, yeah – about looking for sexual experience, cruising. Cruising is an important part of gay sub-culture. Not only about the sexual encounter, the thrill and the danger. Quick sexual encounters might be safer than actually taking someone home.”

He makes no attempt to cover his sexuality, or his peccadilloes (“I like to be underneath…”) or his excitement about tattoos (“that really rough, criminal thing is very sexually attractive”).

“The gayest statement of all,” he has said, “is ‘I am what I am’,” and he is outspoken in his admiration for transvestites, drag queens, transsexuals, calling them “the true heroes of the gay movement, putting themselves on the line from all kinds of abuse, even abuse from within the gay community.” Even now, he says, “the word ‘resist’ isn’t really one of the words in my vocabulary,” he laughs.

Respecting the changing times he has, though, controlled his hedonism, partly because he feels lucky to even be a part of them.

“I won’t put other people at risk. I wanted to get tested for my own peace of mind but I can understand people who don’t. I’ve experienced a lot of things other generations coming through now cannot. I hate the way old pop stars say ‘I’ve had my drug experiences and they were really bad, so you shouldn’t have yours’. I think young people can make their own decisions.”

His life now is “semi-organised chaos” – with no plans about future musical direction. Having done only occasional low-key shows in a Greek amphitheatre or Berlin church with just piano and voice, he confesses he may not tour again.

“I have not a clue how to put things like that together. I hate the idea of having a group. I can’t really compete with the big rock spectacle.”

He’s been offered a West End musical which seems the logical way for him to go, but then he has rarely been logical.

“I’m very wary, they’re not my songs. I’m not afraid of failing – I’m quite used to failing.”

Only the idea of more tattoos seems definite – though he draws the line at anything phallic, saying: “I wouldn’t want to disfigure it.”

As far as his future is concerned, the main feeling you get from him is that he appreciates even having one.

“I like life a lot more than I did. I spent a lot of the mid-80s being very confused, a lot of problems, depressions, bad experiences. I feel a lot clearer with my life now. I’ve seen a lot of people just disappear. I don’t abuse things as much as I used to – whether it’s drugs or alcohol or sexually. I do feel that I’ve been very lucky. I could have not been here now. I’m here and I’m healthy and I’ve never felt better.”

Somehow, you know Marc Almond will be living the life he sings for some time to come.