An in depth interview with Marc Almond.
Who’s the real Marc Almond? The smiling, faux-Sixties superstar of new, killer single A Kind of Love, the benign choirmaster of Stories of Johnny, or the impish male diva of Memorabilia? But why bother cherry picking? Frankly, Marc’s all of the above and more, but every one of his kaleidoscopic selves shares a consistent thread – extremity. Peek beneath even his cosiest, most user-friendly performance, and there’s gorgeous hints of excess lurking as obstinately as the suburban outrage behind Joe Orton’s prissy lace curtains.
Quite aptly, Marc’s been called the Poet Laureate of polymorphous perversity. It’s not surprising. Torment and Toreros – his superb second album with Marc and the Mambas – showcased our favourite lyrics ever. ‘Can you smell the herpes/from the scum-smelling fucks/who hang round the same suckers each midnight?’ sang Marc in ‘Catch a Falling Star’.
That’s just the tip of a stunningly depraved lyrical iceberg, set to a disconcertingly lovely, grand waltz tune that makes Marc’s irony savagely beautiful. Already, with Soft Cell’s first four albums, he’d spurted out bizarre, panoramic sex-scapes that Francis Bacon and Tracy Emin could wank themselves to paradise with. The titles spoke for themselves – Seedy Films, Sex Dwarf, Tainted Love, Secret Life – all suggesting deliriously melodic debaucheries even the sickest priests would adore!
But maybe – as Willie Shakespeare suggested – the fault lies not with Marc’s radical lyricism but our panting, think-the-worst imaginations. After all, it’s hardly Marc’s fault if we people his songs with puking angels and dildo-strapped nuns slurping spunk from python-thick pricks. Still, extreme imagery runs a high risk of being misunderstood, so Marc once – as you do – threatened a sneering journalist with a bull-whip! Ahhh – bless. How wonderful. Why can’t today’s brain dead boybands have a pinch of Marc’s punchy panache?
But let’s get one thing dead straight – Marc’s hardly a one-trick pony. Unlike any of his contemporaries, he’s married initial cynicism and bleakness to jaw-dropping melodies. He’s created a pop chansonnier persona barely imagined by Brecht or Weill. As his career’s unspooled through the years, Marc’s become a multi-media diva, embracing theatre, poetry, acclaimed memoirs and autobiographies. Right now, fittingly, he’s enjoying a major record deal, recently released Trials of Eyeliner, his complete career retrospective, and Hits and Pieces, a greatest hits compilation. But, how did all Marc’s thrillingly perverse artistry begin? Today – this bright day in Sodom, AKA Soho – he’s eager to kiss and tell, still looking like an astonishingly youthful Dorian Gray untouched by the years.
Even more than Bowie, Marc’s blended dark, European angst with a simply gorgeous pop sensibility. How did that happen?
‘It’s not something I’ve consciously done; I’ve always tried to find my own path. I grew up in the 70s, and there were so many music genres then. It started with blues-rock, then Bolan and Bowie’s glam-rock, punk, disco and electro, all of those were so pivotal. Above all, Bowie was so interesting to watch, even more perhaps in his interviews than his music, he’d talk about so many different things. Lindsay Kemp, ballet, Lou Reed, the Velvet Underground, American books and writers – whenever he mentioned what he liked, we’d always follow up on that. Remember, this was pre-social media, we had to scavenge books and magazines, we had to search out that information. And whether it was commercial or uncommercial, it was always him, this unorthodox sensibility at the heart of everything he did. And that’s what I try to do as well – put myself at the centre of something, and infuse it with a pop sensibility so it always becomes accessible to people’.
How true. Unlike modern, mercenary jerk-offs who’ll gleefully endorse anything from burger jingles to soapflakes, Marc’s dark, satirical artistry infected even his prettiest tunes. Accordingly, Soft Cell’s hits were musically intoxicating and disquieting.
‘That’s what we wanted Soft Cell to be. In the early 80s, pop was becoming quite shiny, you had Duran Duran on glamorous boats with glamorous girls, and we wanted to do something which more reflected Thatcher’s Britain at that time. The dirt under the carpet, under the door, the secret gay lives that were going on, we knew there was something else, this secret truth and beauty. We tried to tap into a sub-culture and be subversive, we always tried to see what we could get away within the constraints of Radio 1 or TV. Maybe naively, we thought, what can we put in our videos that’s not really offensive, just mischievous. The other day, someone showed me this clip of me doing Bedsitter on Top of the Pops. I’m wearing this leatherman’s cap which I’d bought in New York, and wearing eyeliner, false eye-lashes and bangles, and my publicity people had their heads in their hands, saying, ‘Please don’t wear that, Marc!’.
‘Yes, it was making a statement, but I was very naive at the time, remembering watching the TV with my parents when Bowie, singing Starman, opened up a whole new world for me. I wanted to do the same for viewers with my appearance…’
Marc certainly did, but it’s easy to forget one other crucial influence on Miss Almond; Marc Bolan of T.Rex. Over a year before Bowie, Bolan melted bisexual hearts nationwide with his instantly addictive, confrontational gender blending. And Marc, predictably, was spellbound.
‘His appearance was even more shocking than Bowie’s, because he came first, we didn’t know how to describe it, it was such a mash-up of male and female. He had the rock pose which was masculine, the make-up, clothes and glitter which were feminine, it was a gasp moment on TV, a confirmation that there was something else out there when I was at school, exciting places like London, and it just threw a door wide open…’
Mercifully, Marc’s maverick genius was comprehensively fed by a system simply inconceivable today- free grants to college!
‘I had the luxury to explore myself, a whole university of subversion! I remember the first time I saw John Waters’ Pink Flamingoes, all these film images were incredibly important to me. I’d always had this image of transgressiveness, and I loved bands like Throbbing Gristle, but they were inaccessible. So I thought, ‘How can you be subversive?’, and I used pop as a doorway, using sweet music but saying something really quite dark, and taking a confrontational stance that evolved into a more streamlined, pop subversiveness with Soft Cell’.
Inexplicably, Marc’s pouting perversity received instant adoration, an unlikely event now with record companies so unwilling to take chances it’s surprising they don’t road-test albums to invited suck-butts. Still, finally, Marc’s discovered corporate stupidity is crumbling.
‘Record companies don’t know how to market me a lot of the time, they don’t know what bag to put me in, but I’ve been working with Marc Wood – half of the Duckie DJs the Reader’s Wives – on my Trials of Eyeliner boxset, and he’s working with a major label. It seems like there’s a return to a cultural lo-fi in virtually everything at the moment, you can feel the anti-corporate sensibility and it’s easier to filter things through, there are still guys in major labels who really like music!’
Just like Marc himself. Even more of a killer, karma chameleon than his contemporary Boy George, Marc has a frenzied thirst for cultural authenticity that’s expressed in non-stop experimentation. That’s obvious in how his unique voice – his ultimate means of expression – has achieved virtuoso range.
‘My voice has changed a lot in 35 years – you can’t hope to be the singer of naivety you were back in the 80s! I came out of a post-punk, anti-singing scene, very influenced by Siouxsie Sioux who made these fascinating screams and sounds, and now I feel I can tackle all kinds of music. That’s an ongoing process, because I want to develop a theatre project, and I like the idea of getting older, going full circle, getting back into performance like in my college days’.
I can’t wait. Marc, definitely, is the John Gielgud of post-punk sex. Ten Plagues, written for him by gay playwright Marc Ravenhill, was a stunning metaphor for the social dimension of AIDS, and there’s much more to come. But don’t take our word for it – Marc’s unleashing his full, pan-artistic glory at Camden Roundhouse March 22nd. Go – Marc, like Jesus and Buddha, completely changes lives!