There was a time when Thursday night Top of the Pops was a shared ritual. Living in a TV land that consisted of a handful of channels was a factor, but TOTP was a show everyone watched and talked about.
In 1981-1982, a black-clad duo playing electronic pop made several appearances. Kohl-eyed and wearing studded leather wristbands, Marc Almond was mesmerising as he sung Soft Cell's Bedsitter and Torch, or the band's biggest hit, Tainted Love, an old northern soul cover. He blurred the lines between performer and singer, playing with his sexuality.
More than 30 years later, Marc Almond is sipping herbal tea in London’s Ivy Club, playing down how provocative those performances by a gay man were at the time.
"I couldn't say publicly then that I was gay. My PR person would say to me, 'We've got to get you a girlfriend', and journalists would ask about my sexuality, so I'd give some Bowie-esque answer about ambiguity. I love mystery about people, so initially it was a mischievous game, but I felt untrue to myself. I'd seen a picture of [shipping heiress] Nancy Cunard that was very androgynous-looking, where she had this black eye make-up and bracelets all up her arms. I'd also grown up with Bowie, glam rock and Marc Bolan, so I didn't think I was making a stance about my sexuality but just playing around with blurring the lines."
Almond grew up in Southport in the north of England. As a gay youth with a stammer, he was bullied. He was "not very academic" and was kept back a year in school after becoming ill with pneumonia (which he contracted after he snuck out to see Roxy Music and stayed out all night). For a school show he performed the Beatles' She's Leaving Home, and "was left alone after that".
At art college he met Dave Ball. They began performing as Soft Cell and success came quickly. "We thought we'd be this underground electronic band," says Almond, "but then we got signed to a big label and covered a little number called Tainted Love."
The pair frequently clashed with the label over their clothes or behaviour. For one of the band's Top of the Pops appearances – which are on YouTube – Almond confesses he took opium beforehand. As a DJ in college, he dabbled in various drugs: amphetamines, Class As and prescription drugs.
“What started out as hedonism and fun led to reliance and using it to mask other things. I took tranquillisers, sleeping pills . . . and I figured out how to con four or five different doctors. It got worse and worse, until eventually I couldn’t put on a facade. Your behaviour is affected. You forget to show up for things, you’re late and in fairness to the record company, they paid for me to go to rehab because it was getting unmanageable.”
Almond's drug use took its toll on the band and they split in 1983. By 1984 Almond had released his first solo album. In 1988, his duet with Gene Pitney on the singer's hit Something's Gotten Hold of My Heart reached No 1 in the UK. If Pitney was something of a mainstream singer, Almond was also discovering chanson singers, and the work of Jacques Brel, Charles Aznavour and Juliette Gréco.
"I kept hearing about Brel through other artists like Alex Harvey, Bowie, Scott Walker. The chanson singers are storytellers, almost actors and often not technically great singers, but they tell stories that we believe. It didn't matter to me that Brel sang in a different language, it was the performance that convinced me. Chanson singing really influenced Say Hello, Wave Goodbye, which is a song about a prostitute, but it's all about interpretation. Some people can do it really well, like the way Camille O'Sullivan does Brel."
At 58, Almond looks well in the London sunlight, but he struggles with his health. He hasn’t drunk or smoked for 20 years, but he has a liver disease. In 2004 he had a serious motorbike accident that left him in a coma for weeks with multiple breaks, blood clots and head injuries.
“When I was in hospital, I didn’t think for a moment that I wouldn’t get out of there. I would have gone on stage in a wheelchair . . . but I had terrible PTSD and here I was doing TV interviews long before I should have been.”
Recovery was slow, and he still has memory problems, which has caused problems for live performance. He credits singer Antony Hegarty for getting him back on stage, and Jools Holland – whom he regularly tours with – for getting him back on the road.
In the past decade Almond hasn't been afraid to reinvent himself. In 2012 he took on the role of Roman philosopher Seneca in a musical adaptation of Monteverdi's Poppea, in Paris. The following year he performed a one-hour operatic song cycle, Ten Plagues, about the great plague of London, written specifically for him by playwright Mark Ravenhill and Irish composer Conor Mitchell. He worked with Tony Visconti (producer of everyone from T Rex to Morrissey) on The Dancing Marquis, and the pair recently toured Bowie's The Man Who Sold the World in its entirety.
"The last 10, 15 years of my career have been the most interesting creatively for me. I'm currently working on a project based on Against Nature by Joris-Karl Huysmans. It's the book in The Picture of Dorian Gray that Lord Henry Wotton gives to Dorian and it corrupts him. We've done the libretto, and there's a recording and a theatre piece planned."
Other people’s songs
From Tainted Love to Jack y and Something's Gotten Hold of My Heart, Almond is well known for reimagining songs written by others, but he has consistently written his own work. Does he prefer to sing other people's songs?
“It’s up and down, but I probably do. There’s too much baggage in my own songs sometimes. I never felt confident in myself as a songwriter. I like to write, though, and there have been lyrics and poems, but I can’t concentrate on things for very long because of my memory,”
Tainted Life, his autobiography, was published in 1999. He plans to write another one. "A lot has happened, not just the accident, but I want to give that book a 're-rinse'. As you get older, you see things with different eyes. I hated myself for falling into the trap of score settling."
Despite health issues, Almond remains productive. Last year's The Dancing Marquis, a homage to glam rock, featured a collaboration with Jarvis Cocker. The Tyburn Tree, a collaboration with saxophonist John Harle, was also released in 2014, as was a studio version of Ten Plagues. For his forthcoming National Concert Hall show, he plans to play some hits, including "one unmentionable one", but will also perform tracks from The Dancing Marquis and 2015's The Velvet Trail.
“I’ve thought about giving it all up many times but retirement is a dirty word. I think I’d like to be in a film, maybe a small part or a song, playing a decrepit cabaret singer in a broken-down club,” he says, laughing. “Maybe something like that.”
- Marc Almond plays the National Concert Hall on Saturday, August 1st. nch.ie
SOFTLY, SOFTLY: THREE CLASSIC TRACKS
Bedsitter: A classic paean to one-room living and student life in a seedy world.
Something's Gotten Hold of My Heart: A lovelorn duet with US singer Gene Pitney that got to No 1 in the UK charts.
Jacky: Almond is a brilliant interpreter of chanson singers, and this Jacques Brel number was a Top 20 hit.