Marc Almond: ‘Sometimes I feel I’m sewn together’
The Soft Cell pop survivor on songwriting struggles and near-death experiences
Marc Almond on stage in Perth, Scotland, last year. Photograph: Lorne Thomson/Redferns
“Music always finds a way of reinventing. What is original now is people taking music from other decades and making something with it. Is there going to be another musical revolution? There is not.”
At the age of 61, and with a career in music that stretches back 40 years, Marc Almond has earned the right to defiantly hold forth on any number of topics. That he is still alive to tell tales is a matter not lost on him. He is a genuine survivor.
In 2004 he was involved in a near-fatal motorcycle accident that left him in a coma for weeks, and with multiple fractures, damaged hearing, a collapsed lung and serious head injuries.
It took him more than two years to recover, and 13 years later his short-term memory is still an issue. Long before the accident, however, there was electro-pop duo Soft Cell, with their sequence of songs about sleaze, sex, drugs, Soho, prostitutes, S&M, transvestites and bedsits. For Almond and his lyrics all manner of human life was there.
“Sometimes I feel like I’m sewn together,” he says in a soft northern English accent that is occasionally accompanied by a stutter, a remnant from an unhappy childhood that stemmed from mistreatment by his father, a military man who was both alcoholic and homophobic.
Almond realised he was gay before his teenage years. He was enthralled, he recollects, as he watched risqué, ambiguous glam rock stars such as Marc Bolan and David Bowie on Top of the Pops, and took secret delight at the way such figures visibly discomfited his parents.
Almond’s first commercial performance in 1981 (as a member of Soft Cell, whose other member, Dave Ball, he had met while a student of performance art at Leeds Polytechnic) caused the same level of consternation.
Making their debut on Top of the Pops with Tainted Love, a cover version of the well-known Northern Soul classic, Almond – embellished with studded leather bracelets, bohemian polo-neck and an approachable twinkle in his kohl-lined eyes – drew equal measures of anti-gay commentary and call-to-arms admiration.
Over the decades the latter has outmanoeuvred the former, but the edginess that Soft Cell generated with a run of hit singles and their first two albums – Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret (1981) and The Art of Falling Apart (1983) – has been carried throughout Almond’s solo career.
Back to the beginning
Clean since the end of the 1990s from his grim dalliances with hard drugs (“that’s all behind me now,” he says wearily but firmly), he seems more aware of the years passing than other people his age. It is, perhaps, the reason behind his latest album, Shadows and Reflections, a collection of cover versions that references the pop music he listened to as a child.
“In 1963, by the time I was six, I was watching all of the pop music shows like Thank Your Lucky Stars, Top of the Pops, Juke Box Jury, and Ready, Steady, Go. All of the pop genre – which was quite broad back then – was imprinted on my mind.”
He enthuses about this specifically 1960s genre of baroque, orchestral pop. “It was pop music that had string arrangements, great singers, dark melodies and really serious subject matter. I would have been too young back then to know what the songs meant or were about, but I remember watching all of the shows.”
Two pop music acts, in particular, made a lasting impression – the Walker Brothers (whose pivotal member, Scott Walker, would hugely influence Almond) and Gene Pitney (whom Almond would collaborate with on 1989 worldwide hit single Something’s Gotten Hold of My Heart). “That’s how it started for me,” he says.
Outré performance art
Almond grew up in the Merseyside seaside resort town of Southport. Following a childhood marred by stern discipline and acts of violence by both parents, as well as schooling problems heightened by dyslexia and slight autism, an interest in outré performance art took hold.
Not everyone liked what he did in this area. The Yorkshire Evening Post theatre critic described his Leeds Polytechnic theatre work Zazou as “one of the most nihilistic, depressing pieces that I have ever had the misfortune to see”. Time subsequently spent in a covers band made him rethink future career options.
“Being in that local band, covering songs by the likes of Free and Atomic Rooster, changed me, but even then I never thought I’d be a singer or a pop performer. It had always been experimental theatre for me, but I suppose songwriting came to me gradually, and then early songs became more and more structured.”
And certainly more sophisticated. Although he says he has “never been a natural songwriter”, he graduated from cowriting decadent, dinky and naive commercial electro-pop to embarking on a non-mainstream solo spree that has embraced operetta, song cycle, Russian folk, French chanson, European cabaret, cover versions and concept albums.
He has never avoided or hidden his sexuality, nor has he wanted to be defined by it, claiming (in his 1999 autobiography, Tainted Life) that being described as a gay artist “enables people to marginalize your work and reduce its importance, implying that it won’t be of interest to anyone who isn’t gay”.
Almond has succeeded on his own terms. It is difficult, nonetheless, to agree with his claim that he has never been an instinctive songwriter.
“Oh, yes, well, you’re wrong! Even now, I sometimes struggle to write songs. I work with different people when I write because I can’t play an instrument.
“It has become easier as the years have passed, but when I first started I didn’t have any idea of what kind of artist I wanted to be. I couldn’t see any further than the records we were making at the time, and of course, back then I had no idea whatsoever that I would go on to do all the things I’ve done.
“I always harked back listening to the music I grew up with and which influenced me. My songs have always had to have strong melodies, which I know is somewhat old-fashioned. These days, so many songs are quite linear and arrive without the verse-chorus-verse structure. While I like some of that, I know if I started doing it I just wouldn’t be true to myself. The classic structure of pop has always stayed with me.”
Feeling his age
He says that he feels all his 61 years and has recently admitted to not being fond of photo shoot close-ups. Yet he asserts that the age these days of a performer or “practitioner of pop music” no longer matters as much as it used to. Last year Almond signed a two-album deal with major label BMG. It is, he says, an indication of the times that major labels are now more interested in signing older artists.
“It’s because we have a back catalogue, a history, songwriting experience, stagecraft,” he says. “The people who have that level of steady album sales are older artists, and that seems quite prevalent. It’s through streaming and downloading that younger people are discovering older artists and older music genres that have likely influenced the groups they’re into. It’s a much wider range of music, frankly.”
Almond views his achievements lightly, but there’s a sense of pride in them nonetheless. He comes across as a gentle man and a tad regretful of a past that perhaps burned a bit too brightly for him. He has loads of projects on the go, he says, which is how he likes it.
“In a way, I’m no more than a musical curator. When I’m given the chance to make a record, to be an artist, I’ve always enjoyed making some kind of musical journey. I also like to acknowledge that my fans might be into hearing a song that I grew up with – not with the original singer, but with me doing it.
“And so I’ve always wanted to be on a musical adventure, discovering music and reminding people of music they might have either not heard before or been completely unaware of. That’s why I’ve always written songs, or chosen songs, that are slightly left-of-centre. Great songs need, or should have, a wider audience.”
Shadows and Reflections is out now through BMG
ALMOND ON JACQUES BREL: ‘THE FIRST EVER PUNK’
The Belgian musician Jacques Brel has had a profound influence on Marc Almond. “My love of Jacques Brel started with David Bowie in 1973; when I flipped over his single, Sorrow, there was Brel’s Amsterdam, and I’d never heard a song like that before. Then I saw the Sensational Alex Harvey Band doing Next, and that was fantastic, too. Subsequently I heard a version of Brel’s Jackie by Scott Walker, and so the name kept came cropping up.
“When I listened to more of Brel’s music, I realised that Bowie was quite influenced by him, his songs referenced the man or were Brel-like in their structure. For me, Brel’s songs told stories of love, death and the gutter, and he used language in a very visceral, very unromantic way.
“I’ve always thought of him as the first ever punk performer – in videos of his performances he uses his body to express himself, and you can see how he squeezes out the lyrics. As a performer, I have been influenced by him more than anyone else.”