LURCHING ALONG a dark street, hellhound on my trail, underpants on my head…A new life around the corner.
Suddenly out of the shadows, a hand. Fingers of ice in my throat, anus breath in my face uttering sharp commands. Goodbye domestic bliss, for it is Zigzag, rearing back like an angry boil.
But who prods the writer’s adrenalin glands in these valium-safe days of bank-clerk copyists desperately grabbing black music udders, sanitised popsters and sheer BOREDOM?
“It’s called Vermin In Ermine. It’s like the title of an imaginary show really – ‘Marc Almond in Vermin In Ermine’.”
Eleven o’clock the morning after the Bat Cave. Wilde-beasts tap-dancing on my cranium are rapidly being shown the door of the Some Bizzare offices as Marc Almond gets into gear on his latest project. Upupup, crackling energy, torrential enthusiasm – Marc always lets the words carry him in a swift flow but this merry morning it’s not anger at his record company, frustration at being pinup or nursing a million manias. He is over-the-moon with his first ‘Marc Almond’ album, his first proper band and generally The Way It’s Going.
1984 was the terrible beauty of Torment And Toreros, record company two-tribes and poising to pull the chain of Soft Cell’s albatross. The final exorcism with the Immaculate Consumptives.
In 1985 the boy came back, shorn and smiling.
Vermin In Ermine could be everything you want from music – fast and pulsing, torn and bleeding, heart and soul, happy and sad, fear and loathing, little and large.
This heady brew of exotic influences all made Marc, and Marc made with his new band, the Willing Sinners. He’s never sounded in better voice, often disappearing over the rooftops when he’s not fondling the nether-regions of your sickly bodies. The huge backdrops are perfect. Still leading the sensuous fray is the vastly-underrated piano-stroking of the brilliant Annie Hogan, who even manages to chuck a snatch of the ‘1812 Overture’ into the anthemic ‘Gutter Hearts’.
In the space of 50 minutes I loved my loved one, hated myself, dismissed a so-called ‘mate’, giggled, shuddered, bathed in bliss and got quite carried away singing along with the sicko chorus of ‘Ugly Heat’ (Ugly-ugly-ugly!).
Torment and Toreros, the last harrowing epic from Marc and his Mambas, was ripped sobbing from its creators’ guts and gouged into tape with a blood-crusted blade. It was obvious he could not traverse these dark paths again without falling off the edge.
Vermin In Ermine is a new Marc. Soft Cell finally laid to rest along with the spectres of abuse and depression. The mood was ‘up’ and Marc took his pals to the mountains to avoid falling into temptation. Donning lederhosen and plumed hats, they tripped off to a little studio in Bavaria – land of yodelling and huge frothing beer flagons. Every morning Marc felt the urge to race across the wide open spaces, wind pulling his hair, and launch into a booming chorus of ‘The Sound Of Music’…well, sort of.
“Going to Germany was a culture shock really. All the other albums have been done in the dirt and grime of the city, which are very suitable surroundings for my albums! It was a real change this time, but it worked really well. We were in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by countryside and mountains and fresh air. Your lungs nearly collapsed with all this fresh air hitting you. It was a shock!”
Marc’s first singles under his own name were both racey, breezy excursions with the sting reserved for the lyrics. (Despite their summery tingle, radio chose the Goth wastes of ‘Agadoo’).
“I’ve been writing sort of ‘up’ songs, but with deceptively dark, sad twists in the lyrics. It wasn’t so much the environment that did that, because I had all the songs written before I went to Bavaria. I think it was good being there because when I’ve recorded in London there are so many distractions, so many clubs to go to, and excuses to get drunk all the time – there were still excuses to get drunk with the German beer festivals, but all there was to really concentrate on was doing the album and making the songs really work. Once I was out there I wrote loads of new things as well.”
Looming at the controls as Marc beavered was Mike Hedges, of Banshees-Creatures albums, who shares Marc’s disdain for clean pop.
“He’s a very good producer because he experiments. He’s not interested in sounding safe. He likes to use voices, which really pushed me I think, and gave me a lot of confidence. My singing has been getting a lot better. He does all sorts of strange things with voices, turning them into instruments, not in over-obvious ways. There’s a very big sound on the whole album, almost like a mutant Phil Spector!”
“There’s all sorts of elements which come from the music I listen to. They all creep into the album, but are mixed up together in this huge pot-pourri of musical styles and tastes and ideas. What comes out of it is very me and very unique to me. I don’t think it’s like anything else. You get things like big 60s ballads meets Middle Eastern music meets blues meets trash-rock meets orchestral meets Spanish. Working with the Mambas string section – Martin, Bill and Ginny – the orchestral side has become more and more important. I’ve almost got my own mini-orchestral section in the group.”
Other changes: Marc struggles from the cramped confines of the drum machine to use ‘real’ percussion for the first time and gets “a real earthy, hard sort of sound”. Say hello to Steve Humphries (although good old Zeke Manyika pops up here and there).
Get on the subject of the Willing Sinners, Marc’s new group, and watch him bubble, Marc Almond NOW is about this record, which in a perfect world would sell a million, and the first time he’s been part of a group. That’s why I didn’t rake the slime of ground much-travelled already and let him go go go!
“I’ve always hated the idea of being backed by a line of faceless session musicians who haven’t got any personality or anything. The band I’ve got now works really well together, they’re getting better and better and they’re not worried about making mistakes.
Apart from the HM-meets-Flamenco guitar-stroking of Richard Riley, please welcome Enrico Tomasso and the rampant sleaze of his golden trumpet. “It’s coming together as a whole new sound – it’s a strange mixture. They all can help me realise all these ideas – anything from an Eastern string piece to a heavy blues bash.”
Ah, de blues! Marc agrees that he’s got a lot in common with those wonderful old soul-dredgers. And he’s rarely got closer to the basic form than on the rollicking ‘Pink Shack Blues’ (which will now partner a future 45 – its pruning was necessary to bring the album down to a mere 48 minutes).
“There was always a strong element of blues with Soft Cell, especially R&B, things like ‘Down In The Subway’. My lyrics have always been rooted on blues, Torment is very much a bluesy album – I don’t mean the 12-bar variety but Billie Holliday-type torch-song type blues.”
Torment still stands as last year’s barest, bravest wallow. The knife not only pierced the heart, it twisted, squirmed and wrenched the last drop of venom, tears, blood and venom from the soul inside. I know Patti Needs was never the same again…
It would probably be very painful for Marc to go back there again; “I don’t think I could do another album like Torment! It stands on its own as a statement of the time. I could sit down and contrive another album like Torment, but something like that comes directly from the soul.
It happend very naturally.
“That was one of the beauties of the Mambas – it seemed to happen from nothing, in a way. It was like a very chaotic get-together.”
But…”It was time to tighten up and do something a bit more solid and a bit stronger. The new album…I had the idea in my head but I didn’t know how it would turn out. In the end it was better than I imagined it could be.
“It’s certainly very dramatic. Every song is almost like a film or play.”
“It’s always good fun hearing the inspirations for Marc’s latest crop of lyrics. He scrapes under rocks, observes and adopts characters. Personal experience can be a jumping-off point, as in the opener. ‘Shining Sinners’, a menacing rant of eternal regret and cold fear.
“I had my usual obsessions and my little favourite themes, etc, but quite a few of the lyrics, like ‘Shining Sinners’, ‘Solo Adultos’, ‘Hell Was A City’, are almost like American city observations, maybe because I’ve been spending quite a lot of time writing lyrics there.
“‘Shining Sinners’ was written about one day when I was walking through the Lower East Side of New York and I walked down this side street which I shouldn’t have walked down. I was walking along thinking, head down and feeling quite self-conscious because I had quite a lot of money on me. Suddenly I was surrounded by these Chicano gang-type people, who were just watching me. All eyes were on me as I walked down the street. So I remembered I had to try and act very – what’s the word? – street-wise. I just walked along in the middle of the road, as it was all muddy and cobbled, humming to myself and luckily reached the end of the street. I gave a big sigh of relief cos I was shitting myself totally. It was almost like a West Side Story-type scenario – me coming up against the leader of a ‘Warriors’ – type gang.
“‘Solo Adultos’ is from reading about this murderer who was going across America and eventually murdered about 300 people, including a lot of young kids. It stemmed from that, but was basically about young Mexican and American orphans disappearing to be sold for child slavery in child brothels, like chicken ranches. It’s a song about murder and abuse of young kids, almost set as a film through the eyes of a madman who works in this place in charge of the chicken ranch. There’s elements of African black magic going through it as well, because she practises Santeria, the African black magic, and she’s praying to Chango, the God of fire and thunder, for a better life. She wants to get away from the sickening scenes she’s been faced with and remembers how she was a well-thought-of Madam in one of those Mexican places and now she’s working in this den of child slavery!
“I s’pose ‘Tenderness Is A Weakness’ is the most personal song on the album, very much from personal feeling. That and ‘Crime Sublime’ are speaking more from a personal point of view. They’re two of my favourite tracks.”
‘Tenderness’, a sweeping Spanish-tinged ballad, will be the next single. It’ll be backed by Marc’s version of Cole Porter’s ‘Love For Sale’, which was debuted at the Festival Hall. 10″ versions will also feature ‘Pink Shack Blues’. The single after that will probably be ‘Stories Of Johnny’, which Marc was running off to record after our chat.
This one deals with an 11-year-old heroin addict in Dublin who Marc read about – just somebody that young in that lost situation, the sort of song they’d sing to themselves. “I was quite amazed reading about the problems there. They sell it to children coming out of school.”
(Horrified though he is, you won’t catch Marc joining Wham! sporting anti-smack, designer T-shirts.
“I can’t help thinking it smacks (oops-snigger) of self-publicity and being trendy. If they really cared they’d go down on the street and get their hands in the dirt instead of just wearing a T-shirt.”)
It’s a fair bet that the wildly-prolific Marc’s final stint in the Bavarian Studio – due to start that afternoon – probably yielded more than the couple of 45s planned – “I’ve already got enough for an album of new songs”. But it is the last time he’ll be in the studio until April.
The EP Annie Hogan recorded a year ago will shortly see the light of day on Doublevision. Three songs, three singers – Marc, Nick Cave and Annie.
“I want to encourage her to do a lot more of that, because I think she really underestimates her piano playing and it’s really good.”
So that’s it for vinyl. The rest of the time’s going to be taken up touring. Marc isn’t really renowned for endless stints On The Road. More the odd one-off. Looking forward to it, Marc?
“Yeah! I love doing live things more than anything. That’s what I really missed a lot with Soft Cell. I thrive in a live situation. I like having an audience to work with and work off. I’m not a performer who’ll go on and stand with my back to the audience and do a medley of greatest hits! I feel that a live performance is an experience for the audience and I like to talk between songs, throwing in little stories and scenarios, because you can’t get that on an album.’ A live performance should be a whole different thing.”
“I really enjoyed the Festival Hall. I was really sending up the whole rock’n’roll bit. It’s so unavoidable and tempting, as long as you take it in a fun sort of way. But it was the first time I’ve been onstage with a drummer behind me and a more conventional setup. It was quite an uplifting experience actually having something to feed on, not being tied down by any tapes.”
And not a Cell snifter or Mamba morsel in sight. Two hours of Almond ’84, vibrant ensemble surging rather than voice-and-piano torching, plus the odd cover like ‘The Plague’. And all introduced with suitable ribald cheek by ‘transexual superstar’ Alana Pelay – “She’s incredible! So admirable cos she’s herself all the time.”
One thing marred a great evening – the ulgyhead bouncers. Looking like muscle-bound ‘Chopper Squad’ extras, they so revered their six feet of stage-front that if the merest slip of a teeny stole forward to hand Marc one of his many presents, it took at least four to hammer her back seatwards. When the happy throng did all get up and boogie the management threatened to pull the plug.
“That’s one thing that really annoyed me,” seethes Marc. “You don’t expect that sort of thing at a place like that. People aren’t gonna cause damage. The most they’re going to do is try and grab my ankles and pull me over, which is half the fun of it anyway. I was really annoyed to see over-zealous action by some – not all – of the bouncers. I saw things down the front like them punching girls, stomping on people’s cameras, taking cameras and not giving them back. I don’t mind if people take pictures at my concerts. They came into the office next day and showed me their bruises – they had big handmarks round their arms. That’s disgusting and really unnecessary. It’s these total boneheads with a place of power where they can have a good grope at the girls and bash a couple of young lads in and get paid for it. It’s sickening. I think you should mention that in the article.”
Done. Anyway, despite the buttock-brains, Marc hit a rapport with the gutter hearted and has so grown a taste for informal stage banter that he wants to do a Christmas special at the Duke of Yorks Theatre where the songs punctuate the chat. Just him and piano on old Mambas stuff or covers – “I’m always for trying and if it doesn’t work no-one’s going to die.”
Earlier, Wham! slid into the conversation. Do you ever look at someone like them and think ‘it could’ve been me’?
“I try very hard not to look at them! I’m so out of touch chart-wise, because the charts at the moment are like that mid-70s period when it wasn’t Glam or Punk, just that limbo period. There was nothing exciting happening. No movement or risk or revolution or anything. Dull. I’ve looked at myself as an antidote to what I called a disease in NME. I think it’s a disease and there are enough people there for an antidote, but I still think what I call the pop-disease is going to prevail for quite a while. It’s so safe but it’s a whole reflection of the conservative environment.
“Something like Frankie creates a stir because people say it’s safe. Whether it’s a good or bad record, I find it totally un-outrageous. I’m not interested in most of the trendy, hip groups that are around. I just do my own thing in my own way and I don’t think I’m like anybody else that’s around. I’m there for the people that like me and are interested in what I’ve got to say. I think I’ve got things to say but I’m not going to pander. I want to make records that are exciting and have a bit of spark and heart and soul about them. Being tailor-made like the Thompson Twins…it’s awful, it’s terrible, it’s manufactured. They’ve found a formula for success and are sticking to it. People in power, the really big names, get their little niche and stick to it. They’re not going to use that position of power to do something that’s incredibly stunning and will shake the dog by the neck.
“It’s government music. Sedatives. They should put Government-approved stamps on it because it keeps people sedated with nice empty smiles on their faces. There’s no challenge or thrill there…or anything really.
“I think we’re entering very scary times. Anyone who can call this counttry a democracy anymore is crazy. You can’t! Anything that can make us more aware and maybe put us on the knife-edge, endangering our morals and widening our horizons, making us think or shocking us, or making us feel anything at all, is suppressed. The whole video nasties joke, which is just ridiculous.
“If you make a video for a record and you want it shown on TV the list of what you can’t do is incredible – you can’t have somebody smoking in it. The ‘You Have’ video had a scene where I was laying naked in a gutter in the rain, but it wasn’t that they were bothered about. There were two versions, one with the naked shots and one without, but there were two young kids as street urchins playing trumpet and guitars sitting on dustbins, really amazing kids. The reason they wouldn’t show it was because of the two little boys…well, they didn’t ban it, cos then you can get publicity. They just say we’re not showing it – ‘well, it’s a bit dodgy having two little boys.’ They must think I’ve got a dodgy image. But who’s got the dirty minds?”
Help! Why do we need Marc Almond and his antidote? These reasons for a start.
Vermin In Ermine is the serum-syringe of sweet poison. And Marc’s medicine cabinet once mated with Pandora’s Box.
© Kris Needs, ZigZag, November 1984