Simon Price talks to the enigmatic singer about Soho, Soft Cell and mortality.
THE TAPE ISN’T even rolling, and already he’s telling me about mortality and medical mishaps, with a cheery chuckle in his voice. Marc Almond’s first recorded words, when I play it back later, relate to an upcoming operation which will leave the singer with a massive bandage around his midriff. “I’ll have to put glitter on it! I’m just getting it sorted out now, then I’m back on the treadmill…”
The treadmill, on this frostbitten February afternoon, being the promotional campaign for The Velvet Trail, an album which represents something of a home win for Almond, alternating between the two dominant strands of his solo career since leaving Soft Cell: dark glam-pop, and lavish, string-drenched ballads.
Not that he ever makes it seem like a chore. Despite having packed more hard-living into his 58 years than most humans could manage if they lived to be 200, he’s still recognisably the same skinny-armed ingenu with a sparkle of sin in his eyes who stared out from Smash Hits covers and TV screens in 1981. Quick of tongue and conspiratorial of manner, he’s hilarious and endlessly charming company.
We’re sat sipping tea in the lounge of an intimidatingly posh hotel in Mayfair. At least, that’s the official address, though when I search for it on Google Maps beforehand, what flashes up is the ancient district of Tyburn, whose name ought to resonate with anyone who knows their British history as the location of the infamous gallows where dissenters and troublemakers were publicly hanged to deter any attempts to overthrow the monarchy. It resonates with Marc more than most: last year he collaborated with composer John Harle on an album and stage show, Tyburn Tree: Dark London, based on this gruesome chapter of the capital’s past.
These days, the machineries of power and coercion are subtle and unspoken, all in the politely passive-aggressive welcome nod of a leather-gloved, top-hatted doorman. Round the corner, however, the concrete bollards and machine gun-toting guards of the American Embassy merely perform the same deterrent task in a more naked manner.
The conversation takes place before the untimely passing of Almond’s fellow ’80s synth-pop star Steve Strange, an event which in retrospect lends an even greater poignancy to any discussion of our own certain demise. For that, in the light of Marc’s numerous scrapes with the Reaper, is how we shall begin.
SP: Let’s talk about death, shall we?
Marc Almond: I always like talking about that. It’s waiting just around the corner for us, Simon. “Come, sweet death”, I always say.
In the second of your two autobiographies, In Search Of The Pleasure Palace, written when you were a mere baby of 45, you were already confronting thoughts of your own mortality.
MA: I’ve been in a mid-life crisis ever since! I’ve been looking at Tainted Life (Marc’s first memoir) for the last two years, thinking it needs a rinse. So much has happened since, and I need to integrate some of the Pleasure Palace stuff into it. With Tainted Life, I wanted to write a very brutal, honest, blunt, in-your-face kind of book. But sometimes, with autobiographies, it turns into a bit of score-settling. And looking back, I don’t feel the way I did then, and you kind of grow up and let it go behind you. Maybe I was a bit harsh on some people. But I was harshest on myself, really. So I’d like to go back to it with different eyes. In Search Of The Pleasure Palace was meant to be a laugh. Chris Lowe said he loves that book because he keeps it by his bedside and just dips into it occasionally. And a lot has happened since those books. The last decade and a bit, since 2000, has been quite an eventful time…
To put it mildly. Do you ever count the number of near-death experiences you’ve had? From a major operation to remove your spleen and gall bladder, to a serious motorcycle accident: you’re like a cat with nine lives.
MA: I don’t like to count, Simon, because a lot of things have happened to me and I might be up to eight or nine, so I’ll be looking over my shoulder every minute! I hate using the word – and I’m looking around for some wood to touch – but I’ve been lucky. I’m always aware of mortality. It’s weird to think that in two years’ time I’ll be 60 years old. How did ever happen to me? I don’t feel like that in my head. But then I catch myself sometimes in the mornings and think, [gasps] ‘Yeah, fucking hell.’ When I was growing up, people were really old when they were 60. It was that post-war thing. But they’re not now. 60’s the new 40, or something. And when I look around my peers in their fifties and sixties, a lot of them are still making really interesting music. More interesting, in a lot of cases, than young people are. Maybe that’s just how it seems to me, because I’m the same age and I’m on the same level as them but I’m thinking it’s not. Things have swapped around. A lot of youth today have become very narrow and conservative in a way, whereas we in the older generation are kind of living it. But when that year, 60, comes I know it’s gonna be a year of re-evaluations and retrospectives, and I’ll be delving into my back catalogue and all that stuff, anthologies, blah blah blah. It is a turning point and I will be thinking, where do I go from here? What can I do and what can I not do?
What do you mean, in particular?
MA: Well, I’m already thinking about my live show. I’ve always loved the rock & roll element to live shows, because whatever else I do, I’m basically a rock/pop performer, and that’s what I like. More rock than pop, actually. When I was 16 I started off in bands pretending to be Ian Gillan, ha ha. With long hair and microphone stands, you know. And I never want to really lose that. But I’ve been through so many things in the last few years, with the accident and having bits removed and generally being stitched up like an over-worn teddy bear, I’m thinking I can’t do that anymore and it’s going to become a case of smoke and mirrors. I did a support act to Cher a few years ago, on her Believe tour in Europe, and she must have been onstage for about 35 minutes out of two hours! Everyone did a solo, and there were bits where she showed all the clips, “Here’s me and Sonny, here’s me at the Oscars.” Then she’d do a song and amble around the stage looking like someone who’d gone through an Arabian bazaar with a magnet on, [laughs] singing of all things ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’, her nod to rock. And I was thinking, “God, that’s the way to do a show!” She was away in the helicopter before they’d finished the last song. Unfortunately, I can’t afford to do it the way Cher did, but I’ve been thinking how I can possibly smoke-and-mirrors it to do as little as I possibly can for as long as I possibly can, while still giving people their money’s worth.
It might work out well. Necessity being the mother of invention, and all that.
MA: I like situations that force me to rethink things. I lost my bass player this year and I thought about how we can do it without a bassist, maybe by making it a lot more electronic with samples and stems, much more stripped down with keyboards, guitar, a drummer triggering samples, two girl backing singers and I’ve been thinking of songs that work better with that. And it means I can be static a lot more. Instead of leaping around, I can channel my Phil Oakey as opposed to my Iggy Pop!
Your main creative foil in all this is Neal Whitmore, who you’ve now worked with for far longer than you did with Dave Ball in Soft Cell. When he was Neal X, the guitarist in Sigue Sigue Sputnik, few would have guessed that he had that much creativity in the locker.
MA: Neal’s my right-hand person, but he’s also my grounding and my pop sensibility, cos he’s the most positive person. We can have 100 people turn up to the gig, and he’ll still say, “Yeah but we sold two T-shirts, isn’t that fantastic?” He’s a fantastic person to bounce off. I’ve thrown everything at him in the last 25 years, and forced him to try things he’d never tried before. And when I go off in too much of an arty direction, he drags me back.
You seem to have gone out of your way, since the Millennium, to explore these ‘arty directions’, from the aforementioned Tyburn Tree project to recording albums of Russian folk songs to performing Ten Plagues, an operetta about the Black Death.
MA: The original Tyburn was actually near here, but they had another one at Hyde Park, a multi-armed hanging tree. An X marks the spot. For the last decade, what it’s about for me now is things that are challenging and interesting. You can’t keep pursuing pop success, and chasing the past. I’ll celebrate that, I could do those ’80s package tours forever, and I love doing them sometimes, the Rewind shows. And I can’t tell you some of the crap PAs and corporate things I do, but they pay well, and allow me to make an album. Anyway, I don’t only do those. I’m always more interested in trying things that will push me, and I don’t care if I fall flat on my face doing it. It’s like that Winston Churchill quote, which goes something like: the definition of success is someone who goes from one failure to the next with undiminishing enthusiasm. I worked very hard on Ten Plagues, at home on my own. I can’t read music and I’m crap at learning lyrics. Especially since the accident I have memory problems. I can’t remember words, names, places. Which comes with getting older, anyway: if I was 21, I’d have recovered a lot quicker. So I did a tape with the words on, and I listened to it 60 times over and over. And I did it. There’s no such thing as ‘I can’t do it’.
After which, The Velvet Trail is a bit of a return to the styles you’re most known for.
MA: I hadn’t planned to do an album at all. Albums, with me, have never had an easy birth. Especially when all the songs are self-written songs. With Varieté, which was my last proper ALBUM-album, Tris Penna produced some of it but I produced a lot of it myself, and I’m the most indecisive person in the world. I’ll do three versions of a song, then think, “Is the demo better?” I’ll think that I wanna have strings on it, then no, I don’t wanna have strings on it. Which starts getting expensive, because most albums you have to pay for yourself these days. And I thought, I’m in my late 50s now, am I ever gonna get the chance to do another album again?
So how did you end up doing one?
MA: I’d had the chance to work with Tony Visconti, when we did a T. Rex tribute show together a few years ago, and he said, “We’ve really got to work together, you’re one of the British artists that I really like.” Seven years later, we still hadn’t got round to it. So I said, “Right, let’s do it”, and booked a studio for four weeks’ time. So Neal and I had to quickly busk some songs, then Tony came in and we recorded them. And Jarvis Cocker had written me a song, Carl Barat had written one, I’d done one with Steve Nieve ages ago, so we had the beginnings of a mini-album, at least. Then, out of the blue, some songs arrived in my email inbox from a guy called Chris Braide, who I was sure I knew from somewhere. He’s written for Lana Del Rey, Beyoncé and all these American ‘posh pop’, big production stars. And I was a bit huffy about it, because I thought, “I can’t write for these people.” Well, maybe I could write for Lana Del Rey. But he came back to me and said, “Um, they’re for you, actually. I’d like to make the ultimate Marc Almond record.” So we bounced ideas back and forth in this strange email repartee, writing quite spontaneously. The lyrics are all me, and the music is Chris. We’d swap pictures of Marc Bolan, saying, “Doesn’t he look great in this one?” And we’d talk about Jobriath and Bowie, and other things we had in common. And he’d say, “I imagine you singing this one in smudgy black eyeliner. This is a black eyeliner song.” So I’d write with that in mind. I’d send him three versions of a vocal and he’d send it back completely mixed and sounding amazing. I said, “We should never talk on the phone, that would spoil the magic.” In fact, we didn’t meet until the whole thing was finished. And sometimes I’d mention a Soft Cell song for reference, or Marc & the Mambas, and I gave him permission to take me as Eighties as he wanted. Because I’m ready to embrace that. And 13 tracks later, here we are. It was only afterwards that I realised where I knew Chris Braide from: he’d sung backing vocals on the Soft Cell reunion album Cruelty Without Beauty, and I’d passed him in the corridor.
Do you have a certain established lyrical vocabulary now? When I saw the title ‘Zipped Black Leather Jacket’ I laughed out loud, because it’s the most Marc Almond thing ever.
MA: I do, yeah. Ha ha, I suppose there was a bit of humour in that. I didn’t set out with any themes or concepts for this album, but themes and concepts started to come out. I love this idea of shape-shifting and changing when you put on clothes, and turn into somebody else. I’d always wanted to write a song about a leather jacket and how wearing it makes you feel. I love leather jackets, and I’ve got a big collection of them. So it just came naturally, and I thought, “It doesn’t all have to make sense.” What I love about a lot of Bolan stuff is he’ll suddenly talk about a car like a Zephyr or a Cadillac, but it’ll be a “sabre-toothed Cadillac” or something. And you sort of know what he means. And writing like that gave me such a lot of freedom. It was a bit like working with Dave in Soft Cell, where I didn’t have to worry about the music, and just concentrated on the words. It was a good way of making a modern pop record.
There’s a great line, “So much beauty, and none of it mine”, in the song ‘The Pain Of Never’. So much poignancy packed into that double-meaning.
MA: It was kind of like when you go into somewhere, like a shop or cafe, every day and you see them working behind the counter, and you fancy them madly and you build up this imaginary love affair, and you find yourself buying things you don’t even need. And it’s this illusionary relationship that’s never gonna happen. And yeah, it’s a double meaning: I don’t have the attractiveness to attract that person. I felt very proud of the lyrics on this album. Not in a smug way, but I’m often prone to self-doubt about everything I do.
There’s a big showstopping ballad, ‘Life In My Own Way’, in which you sing, “I’ve learned how to dance on my own, not to answer the phone/I always make sure I’m just out of reach”, and admit that when friends try to drag you to clubs, you’d rather stay home with a nice cup of tea.
MA: I think it’s the realisation that I’ve “been there and done that”, so many times and sometimes I just want some Corrie and a cup of tea. And it’s about that kind of acceptance. Sometimes I ask myself, “Should I be out in a club?” But it’s about realising I don’t need to be always chasing after being who I was 20 or 30 years ago. And I liked the idea of writing a song saying I’m happy with who I am, and I don’t mind if people think I’m some old git.
Again, this harks back to a section of In Search Of The Pleasure Palace, in which you admitted that you’d quite like to live out your later years like Marlene Dietrich, this “fabulous monster” of a solitary recluse.
MA: There’s a great documentary film someone made about Marlene in her later years, living in Paris. She’d surrounded herself with everything she needed – the phone, even pots to piss in – and she’d ring people up in the middle of the night from her bed. And she barely appears on camera. Sometimes you just catch a glimpse of her in a mirror, or the corner of the frame. They had to film the wall of the apartment instead. It’s made by this German director, and he asks quite tough questions. And when she talks about her films, she shouts at him: “Kitsch! Kitsch rubbish. All that trash that I made.” Absolutely fascinating.
In reality, though, your middle age has played out in completely the opposite way. Apart from a couple of illness-enforced absences, you’ve been out there non-stop, performing and recording the whole time.
MA: It’s that thing of dancing as fast as you can. Because you think about mortality and you think, “How many years have I got left?” And I’m held together with sticky tape and glue, literally! And I’ve got so much I want to do, and not a lot of time to do it in. People say to me, “You really shouldn’t do so many records”, because it actually harms your career. It’s that Prince thing – not that I’m comparing myself to him – where you just can’t stop. People say, “You should have had a three-year gap between these albums because the media would give it more attention then. But would they? It would just be, “Oh, it’s a comeback”.
Even that wouldn’t be earth-shattering news. You announced your first retirement as long ago as the early ’80s…
MA: Hah! Yes I did, and made a very quick comeback. “I’m gone… and I’m back.”
The real comeback happened after the motorbike crash: firstly guesting with Antony & the Johnsons, and then playing a whole show at Wilton’s Music Hall. And in the first song of that gig, a Hispanic flamenco number, there was a power failure and you belted out the whole thing without a microphone, stamping your feet. It was one of the bravest things I’ve ever seen.
MA: My first singing words weren’t amplified. Yeah, sometimes magic things like that happen, and it’s great. It was a strange time after the accident, because I was living on this strange euphoria of still being alive. I got offers from the BBC to talk about it, and I went on TV before I should have done, really. I look back on it now, and I’m garbling and struggling to talk, with my head nearly shaved and a gigantic scar because half my skull had been removed, and looking really thin because I’d lost about 5 stone. And it wasn’t the greatest thing to do. When Antony asked me to come onstage, I said I wasn’t sure it was the best idea. He wanted to do ‘Say Hello Wave Goodbye’ but I said, “No, let’s do one of your songs”, so we chose ‘River Of Sorrow’. And when it came to it, I was standing in the wings thinking, “Can’t remember the melody… Can’t remember the melody…” But I went out there and it just kind of happened. And it was such a great moment for me, because I felt that I’d crossed a line. And I thought, I might not look my best, I’ve forgotten half the words to my songs and I’m suffering from post-traumatic stress, but I’ve just got to get out there and do it. Because if not, I’ll sit on the sofa with Game Of Thrones or whatever the equivalent was back then, and never leave the house, and that’ll be it. And that’s happened to so many people. So what I did was kind of recovering in public. But the accident was ten years ago now, and I don’t like talking about it too much, because you can’t let things like that define your life. I’m always watching these things like The X Factor where they have a tragic backstory, “Oh, I was so ill…” And they milk it. Well, I’ve done my milking and I’ve moved on.
How do you think you’d fare on The X Factor, if your 21-year-old self turned up now, with the voice you had?
MA: I either wouldn’t get through, or I’d be put in that comedy section, with the novelty acts. They always have one or two every season, don’t they, so everyone could have a laugh at them. I hate that thing of, “This is how you have to sing”. Frank Sinatra said this great thing, that singing isn’t about singing in tune, or great technical singing. It’s about making people believe in the story you’re telling. I hate that Mariah Carey thing of turning singing into a ballet, singing 50 notes a second. Stick to the fucking melody! And tell the story. If I was a judge on there, that’s what I’d be saying. And don’t sing a song you can’t carry off, like some 16-year-old kid singing ‘My Way’. That song’s not for you. You haven’t lived that.
Most of the wonderful individualistic singers of the early ’80s would completely baffle the judges. Imagine Kevin Rowland on there.
MA: Yeah, Kevin Rowland! How would they ever understand Kevin Rowland? All the great singers, a lot of people from that era. And so often, the singer is the sound of the record. People think they can cover anything, but the whole voice is the thing that’s unrepeatable. Like Boy George or Adam Ant. I still haven’t seen Adam on his comeback. I turned up to an Adam Ant show a MONTH early. I was stood outside the Indigo2 and no-one was there. I was thinking, “Has he cancelled the show?” And I looked again, “Bloody hell, I’m a month early!”
You, George, Adam, Kevin, you’d all be laughed out of the record company lobby now. Especially if you didn’t have a hit at the first attempt.
MA: What was great about the ’80s was that you still had record companies who would get behind developing you as an artist. You had these bonkers heads of department and A&R people who, even after a flop album, would let you make another one. Or pursue some crazy idea. Phonogram, EMI, Warners, Virgin, Chrysalis, Echo, Cherry Red, I’ve been through them all – I think I ruined them all, one by one! They’ve all collapsed behind me. I’m the serial killer of record companies, I think. But they allowed me to do something like Marc & the Mambas and make a double album like Torment And Toreros. When Antony asked me to perform that album live for Meltdown I thought, how can we recreate something that came out of late nights at Trident Studios and loads of drugs? Because we never properly toured it at the time. We recorded it over three weeks, late at night because it was really cheap, and made it up as it went along. I’d come in and I’d say, “Now we’re going to do this, right?” And I’d have a tape loop of something and we’d turn the tape backwards, and Matt Johnson (The The) would come up with something, and Jim Thirlwell (Scraping Foetus Off The Wheel) would come in… He’s amazing. One of the things I enjoyed most about the Meltdown show was getting to work with Jim again.
Speaking of burning the candle at both ends, there’s a brilliant bit in Non-Stop Exotic Video Show, a portmanteau of promo clips joined together by Soft Cell’s guided tour of the people and places of Soho, in which you exclaim “Pissed again…”
MA: Pissed again, and it’s only 11 o’clock in the morning! Yeah, it’s a bit hard in a way to directly relate to that person, cos it’s 35 years ago, but I do watch those videos curiously, trying to put myself in that mindset. I was very much a mess, as a person. I’d come from a very turbulent teenage life, with parents who had broken up in a very bad way, and a lot of illness at school. I had pneumonia when I was 16-17, which I caught when I went to see Roxy Music in a festival in this big bus station in Leeds in 1972, which kept me off school for six months. It was worth it, ha ha. And great to be off school. But I had all those years of going off the rails, and I went completely bonkers at art college, so by the time we formed Soft Cell, I was in a very emotionally-disturbed place. Both Dave and I were, in different ways.
But a hyper-charged, vibrant, super-creative mess.
MA: I made a creativity out of that messiness, yeah. We both did. I have a sadness whenever I talk about Soft Cell, because it was a very quick situation. And that’s before we even get onto Stevo [the band’s notorious manager and Some Bizzare label boss]. The whole thing with Soft Cell is that no-one was steering the ship. It was a whole series of missed opportunities and misdirection.
Like not putting one of your own songs on the B-side of ‘Tainted Love’, so you missed out on millions in songwriting royalties?
MA: [Visibly flinches] It was all of that. I’ve spent the last two years in a court thing with Stevo, getting the rights back to my songs. Which, eventually, I did. I could go on about him, but that’s another story. But when Dave and I finally got back together again, 17 years later, I felt it had been an unfinished story when we broke up first time. There was never any animosity, but we were just heading in different directions. Dave hated live, and I got bored in the studio. This Last Night In Sodom, our final album before breaking up first time, was a really big “fuck off” to the world, in a way. “Let’s make an electro-rock album, let’s do it in mono, let’s make it really raw, and say ‘fuck off’ to everyone.” Me, I love that record. I think Paul Morley at the time said, “Piss off, Soft Cell” or something. He said the first and last words about us. He damned us to start with and told us to piss off at the end. That riled me more than anything. Anyway, when we got back together, I was really pleased to be working with Dave again, but again there were missed opportunities. Because there were three people in Soft Cell. And because we were doing all the old songs, we had to bring him (Stevo) into the equation. And he ended up managing Dave, cos Dave didn’t have a manager, but he wasn’t managing me, and all the old ghosts and demons came out. I loved a lot of Cruelty Without Beauty, but I felt a lot of the extras that got put on other things should have been on the album, and a lot of the tracks on the album should have been the extras.”
How do you feel about ‘Tainted Love’ nowadays?
MA: I’ve been involved in a bit of a legal thing with it recently. Because I’m going to go out on a limb and say that anyone who’s covered ‘Tainted Love’ since we did it has covered us. Even when they’ve gone back to Gloria Jones’ version, they’ve been driven back to it by our version. It was quite well-known within the genre of Northern Soul, but it was just one of hundreds of soul classics at that time. Since us, it’s taken on a life of its own. And I started getting quite upset when people started using our arrangement of it, because you can’t copyright an arrangement. And I got incredibly angry when the publishers weren’t treating it with any respect, and it was being used for teeth-rot adverts, with that da-dink-dink backing, so people were associating Soft Cell, and this record which meant an incredible amount to so many people, with teeth-rot. Or haemorrhoid cream or something.
I want to ask you about this story that Soft Cell were the first British people ever to take ecstasy, on a trip to New York. How did it differ from the E that Britain came to know and love?
MA: It was a very new thing. There was me, the journalist Adrian Thrills, Cindy Ecstasy (Soft Cell’s dealer, who they snuck onto Top Of The Pops by getting her to duet on ‘Torch’), Dave Ball and a few other people. And Cindy Ecstasy was the ecstasy girl of New York. I’d never heard of it before in my life, and it was my third or fourth night in New York, and she said ‘Come round my house, I want to give you something special’. So I did, and it was an amazing experience. I remember the record that was playing was Faith by The Cure. And I know it sounds weird, but ‘All Cats Are Grey’ is the most perfect ecstasy record. Whenever I hear that now, instantly it’s like I’m on ecstasy. It was very pure then, not cut with anything, and hadn’t become the love-thug drug it later became. I love all that, how it turned thugs into love-thugs.
Can you see yourself ever working with Dave Ball again?
MA: It’s strange, because Dave’s got to face a few things of his own first. The last thing that happened between us was a thing of great animosity. It shouldn’t have been, but it was. I don’t know if we’ll work together again, but I’ve got to a stage where I never say ‘never’ to anything. Cos I’ve said that too often and been proven wrong. What I’d love to do, in my sixtieth year, is a great Soft Cell box set. Ideally in conjunction with Dave. We’ve got a lot of stuff together, a lot of great old bootleg recordings. Crappy-sounding, but of great interest to people. I’ve got Soft Cell live in New York, Soft Cell live in LA, Hammersmith Palais, and a DVD of one of our first-ever gigs, live at the Amnesia club. You can barely see us among all the people dancing around, but it’s really great. I kind of love the Live In Milan DVD we did in 2002, and I liked the live album that came out, and we did some great shows at Brixton Academy, but… looking back, it was wrong to relaunch ourselves at some club in Hackney (the now-defunct Ocean). We should have done it bigger. We always undersold ourselves, so much. It was a bit low-rent, that comeback, and it just kind of fizzled. But I’d like to do a box set and I’d love Dave to be involved. And who knows what might come of that. I feel a lot of sadness about it. I shouldn’t say this, but I always felt that when we went, we left a gap for a dark, gothic electro band, which Depeche Mode stepped really nicely into. And they went on to play stadiums and it should have been us, ha ha. But I do love Depeche Mode so, good for them.
Your persona in those days really troubled people. You weren’t a gender-bender or a female impersonator or a drag act, you weren’t freakish or theatrical, but you were recognisably a gay man in pop, and there was a sense that when you sang about sex, you actually meant it.
MA: And people found that threatening, didn’t they? When people talk about gender-benders and bracket me with George, I always think I’m not like that. I had more of a rock edge, mixed with the 80s electro. We were gothy, we loved the New York thing and people like Suicide, Dave loved Throbbing Gristle, we both loved the Sheffield bands and ‘Down In The Park’ by Gary Numan/Tubeway Army, we loved the darkness to that kind of electro. And when we chose our cover versions, we chose a gritty old soul number, or ‘Born To Lose’ by Johnny Thunders. But you’re right, there was a lot of hate directed towards us. And even now, 30 years later, I get echoes of that.
There’s an irony that as more government papers are released under the 30-year rule, we’re finding out that the Establishment who depicted Soft Cell as a perverted moral menace were actually the perverted moral menace themselves.
MA: Yeah. Isn’t that weird? We always thought we were anti-establishment, and we tried to be a bit of an antidote to what was going on at the time: Margaret Thatcher’s Britain. We tried to shine a spotlight into what was really going on in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain, the underlying darkness behind it all. When we wrote about Soho and the rest of it, it was really a representation of a microcosm of Margaret Thatcher’s Britain. It wasn’t really just about Soho, it was a metaphor. Some of the music at the time was very Conservative. And I don’t want to name names, because in the 80s it was a very bitchy scene and you were encouraged to have these bitchy rivalries with each other but, as time goes on, you meet all these people and you realise they’re really great guys and you see them on the circuit and they become good mates. But we tried to be an antidote to what was being presented as the clean, wholesome side to Conservative Britain. We weren’t political in the sense of waving banners and doing Rock Against Racism and all of that, but we tried to be a little bit more subversive, purely by being what we were. Us getting a record on the radio felt like a triumph in itself. Because I was what I was, and Dave was this psychotic person behind the keyboards. And he really was a psycho, as well, by the way. There would be times when he’d leap from behind the keyboards if someone was threatening me onstage, and he’d punch someone in the front row. A lot of ’80s pop was very glossy and well-produced, all with super tans and super good-looking, and we wanted to have a bit of dirty air, the dirt under the carpet. We saw ourselves as portraying the Britain that was crumbling under the facade.
The ultimate expression of that side of Soft Cell has to be ‘Sex Dwarf’, an instant club anthem which came complete with a (banned) video filled with chainsaws, carcasses, and actual dwarves in studded jockstraps. As if you were saying, “You want perverted? We’ll give you perverted.”
MA: It’s that tabloid ridiculousness, isn’t it? It’s satirical, about that obsession with titillation. I’m really proud of [Soft Cell’s debut album] Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret. I think it’s a great record. But it came out of a tough time. We both lived in Leeds, I had a little house, and it became very frightening to live there. To get myself through college I worked in the bar of the Leeds Playhouse at lunchtimes and The Warehouse in the evening, first of all in the cloakroom and then as a DJ. I took what I’d seen happening in London clubs like the Blitz and brought a bit of it to Leeds, playing electro and quirky things and a bit of Cramps. So by the time Soft Cell became successful, I was a really known figure on the Leeds scene. And I became the magnet for a lot of scary aggression. Cos it’s scary Up North! Especially in those days. It was very National Front-y. So inevitably you have to move to somewhere like London where it’s safer.
Are you a Londoner till you die now, for better or worse? Or can you see yourself leaving?
MA: I can imagine moving out to the seaside at some point. I like Brighton, my sister lives there. I’m a seaside boy, from Southport, and whenever I go there, I find myself writing songs about it. If you were born by the sea, there’s always a magnet that draws you back there.
When I think of London of the turn of the ’80s, particularly Soho, you embody it. What do you think of what’s become of the old neighbourhood now?
MA: I’m part of that campaign, Save Our Soho. And I’ve been involved with Tim Arnold (singer-songwriter, currently a contestant on The Voice), who records as the Soho Hobo, who’s made a record about it with Guy Chambers and he’s got me, Adam Ant, Gary Kemp and various people on it. I feel really sad about it. On my Instagram, I’m always keeping a record of things being pulled down in Soho and shutters being closed. Every city – and London more than anywhere – has got to be a vibrant mix of all different things. We can’t allow it to become a monoculture. And Soho has got to be at its centre. It’s got such a history for rock, pop, poetry, jazz, writers, all those things, and I think it should be valued as such, and protected as this centre for bohemia. And working girls work there so, great, let’s have a place where they can work safely and be protected. People come from all over the world to see this little place they’ve seen in movies and read about in history books: Soho. It should be this untouchable area. They shut Madame JoJo’s down without warning, and they put up this bad, cheap imitation of the Paul Raymond sign, like, “Here you are, a little bit of Soho back for you, be happy with this”. You’ll probably get actresses playing hookers on street corners, for photo opportunities!
Like those fake Roman Centurions at the Colosseum in Rome.
MA: Exactly. I have a long history with Soho: even when I was at art college, I came down to Soho to work in the summer. I worked in a clip joint on Green’s Court. So I was a criminal, actually, ripping people off in clip joints. And the first thing I did when I made a little money from ‘Tainted Love’ was buy a little place in Brewer St, overlooking the Raymond Revue Bar. I bought one and Matt Johnson bought another. I lived there for about ten years and saw it gradually change. I had to barricade myself in when a load of football supporters came down, saw all the sex shops had been shut, and started smashing all the windows and banging all the doors down out of frustration. They saw me, and I had to run for my life! I place value in the past without wanting to wallow in it. I sound like some complaining old git, but I’m not one of these people who thinks everything in the past is great and everything modern is terrible. But I do think cities should be a mix of old things and new things, and there should be this place that’s valued as our bohemian centre. Denmark Street is going to be flattened. Berwick Street is going to be flattened and turned into a boutique hotel. ‘Cos we need lots more of those, don’t we? Really. People come here because they’re drawn to the history, but they end up sitting in a Starbucks, looking at another Starbuck’s across the road, wondering where it all went. It doesn’t all have to be luxury flats for overseas investors which stand empty for years, bumping up the house prices for people who do want to live here.
When you first wrote lyrics about sleaze and low-life, was the initial attraction that of an innocent outsider looking in? There’s a great story that you once lived in a brothel without realising it…
MA: People always go on about sleaze, but I think it’s only a small part of what I write about. I probably was, to begin with, a middle-class boy from the outside looking in. I was quite naïve, a boy from Southport. Southport is liberal posh. And yeah, when I went to art college in Leeds, I lived in a basement flat, and I heard clunking on the stairs all night, and I thought it was just nurses going to work on the night shift at the local hospital! Then I found out it was all working girls upstairs. I suppose I came from a protected background and had my eyes opened wide by that side of city life. So a lot of the early songs I wrote were about the experience of going to London and meeting rent boys and transvestites and drag queens. A lot of my early material is that: the wide-eyed adventures of a middle-class boy.
You later made up for that naivete. With a vengeance.
MA: I’ve always been the sort of person who immerses myself in things, and eventually you become part of that life. And later, you get the repercussions of the bad side of that life. It’s that saying: you lie with dogs, you get fleas. And I was a magnet for people who want to take advantage of people like me, who think they’re part of this life but they’re not. Especially when I had some money and I had some fame. And that’s how I went through all my money, living that life. But I’m happy that I’ve lived that life. Because I don’t care much about success or anything like that. I’ve only ever wanted life to be an adventure.
© Simon Price, The Independent, 17 February 2015