Marc Almond: Revenge Of The Sleazebag

AS LONDON swelters, there’s one back alley in Soho’s underarm narrow enough to escape the sun’s onslaught. Damp and dingy it seems to seep moisture from some undisclosed source.

There, underneath a workmen’s scaffold, they sit, their pasty faces protected from anything as unbearably healthy looking as a tan.

Individually they call themselves by names like Lisa, Melina, Lucia, Natashia. Collectively they were once called Cell Mates. Now, since Soft Cell ceased to be, they’re known as Gutter Hearts.

A number of them will drift to this spot, outside the headquarters of Marc Almond’s fan club. From Scotland and way up North they come to pay homage to the source of the images of sleaze that first captured their imaginations in Soft Cell. But there’s ten or so that seem permanently rooted here.

Lucia, dressed in regulation black, with a neat Siouxsie crimped black haircut falling over a cheerful, slightly rounding face is in the last year of school. But even during term time she comes up here – not even she really knows why. Partly, she supposes, it’s to catch a glimpse of Marc, even get to talk to him. But beyond that there’s something more – she just loves this place.

Her and Melina were just sitting around here the other day when David Bowie walked past. David Bowie! Imagine! Melina’s got his autograph and Natashia, the boy with the broken teeth and the black leather mini-skirt – she’s jealous as hell.

They’ve all lost friends through coming down here – people think they’re mad, and they’re in no great hurry to disagree. But their friends are so normal anyway. They all like Duran Duran, the sort of stuff that makes no sense to them, that’s got no feeling, no excitement, nothing. Melina’s best mate has just turned casual – how boring!

Of course they all went through hell during that retirement scene he threw last year. But Melina, who secretly reckons Marc’s a bit bonkers, reckons they’ve got him under control now. All those tantrums have even brought them closer.

What they’ve got, although they may not realise it, is ringside seats for a particular battle of the pop war circus.

BACKSTAGE, Marc Almond is preparing for a performance. But this isn’t the type he can fully control, it’s not a matter of how he can sing in the spotlight, but of how he can dance in the chart parade. This is the preparation for the performance of a record.

The record in question is Vermin In Ermine, his third solo LP and his most restrained and accessible. On it he returns to the subtle intertwining of fact and fantasy that made Soft Cell’s magnified dramas of real-life so irresistible. The cold and harsh, traumatised outpourings of ‘Torment And Toreros’ have made way for a warm, sexual sound and a jazzy swing. These are songs of the dreams of the street scum that Suicide never got to, of the sexuality of crime and the crime of sensitivity.

It will be loved by some and it will be watched by others with an eagle eye on how many units it can shift.

So Marc and designer Huw Feather sit in the Some Bizzarre office and prepare a promotional campaign they’re lucky enough to have some control over. Behind them on the wall are displayed birthday cards sent by fans – countless tap-tap nudge-nudge innuendo cards, more than one teddy bear in bondage gear and several distorted little portraits of Marc.

Is this how his fans see him, I wonder.

“Mmmm,” he nods, “a grotesque little mutant.”

He turns his attention back to the photos and scans for the image of himself he wishes to see on his promotional displays.

By the rules of this game it should be another smiling face with airbrushed skin and retouched teeth. In fact the chosen image is a full length nude shot in lurid red.

Nothing really wildly outrageous about that, of course, and nothing intended, but it won’t make the business feel any the easier about this Marc Almond – the man who wants to sell records without being a Pop Star.

THERE is no theatre for the War of Pop, it all takes place in this circus where the audience have taken their seats and fallen into an expectant hush.

The lights dim and the spotlight hits the fat little circus master in his top hat and white tuxedo. He beats his drum and bellows:

“Taboos, this show’s about taboos. The greatest show of the century, big business, the show of shows.

“Either you bang people on the head or you stay at home with your canary.”

The snake charmer, Marc Almond, stands in the wings. If he dies a death out there, the popular verdict behind the scenes will be a gloatingly delivered one of commercial suicide. It seems as if he’s set his career quite deliberately to self-destruct.

AFTER THE perfect sheen of the glossiest trio of singles, ‘Say Hello’, ‘What’ and ‘Torch’, the attempt to slip in the soiled-linen scenario of ‘Numbers’ with its tale of promiscuity (however cautionary), was guaranteed to leave a nasty mark on Soft Cell’s clean pop sheet.

But if that was subterfuge then the second Marc And The Mambas set, Torment And Toreros was a testament to just how far he was prepared to push his penchant for melodrama.

Ceaselessly ridiculed at its time of release by people incapable of making the distinction between ambition and pretension, Torment is an LP on an all time low. But when wallowing, Almond wallowed deep. The result sometimes shoots shrilly over the top, but sometimes, on ‘A Million Manias’ or ‘Little Book Of Sorrows’, it penetrates the resistance to such a torrent of emotion with a sharp-pointed poetry of hysteria.

Artistically it took Marc Almond to extremes, commercially it took him to the cleaners, with lines like “scum sucking fucks” gaining it an immediate ban from chain-stores.

“Now everybody within the business is wary of me,” he says, “wondering what I’ve got up my sleeve. But I think that what I write about has to be written about, and I don’t care if it’s banned. It’s certainly not out to shock for the sake of being shocking.

“But with Torment And Toreros I was getting into the position…it’s like Nick Cave’s song ‘Well Of Misery’, it’s all very well being suspended in the bucket half way down, but you can get to the point of being drowned.

“I felt after that LP I was getting into such a miserable state that I was no longer able to examine it. You get to the point where people just know you’re going to be miserable and depressing – which I’ve never intended to do. With this new LP, the idea was to really simplify thoughts and lyrics and my whole approach.”

It was after Torment And Toreros that he made his fast exit from the music business, pausing only to crack a whip in the direction of Record Mirror journalist Jim Reid.

“What a drama queen,” he laughs in remembering the performance. “At least it livens things up a bit – who else does things like that? I’ll probably pull another one when I’m feeling bored.”

Marc is the incorrigible drama queen, with a talent for pumping up the smallest incident into a huge comic epic. All the same the public attention, which he ingloried so much, no longer holds so much appeal.

“For me the novelty wore off very quickly,” he says.

“I thought I was an exhibitionist, I liked to think I was, but probably I’m very much the opposite. It seemed attractive before, as a scream to be noticed, but now, when it’s there, it’s no longer valuable.

“All I want is to be left alone,” he continues, sinking again into some drama that’s part of real life, “alone with my thoughts,” hand held in the operatic overstatement close to the chest, “and my memories.” The scene subsides into a fit of giggles where there should, by the dramatic order, have been a burst of applause.

It always seemed as if success for Marc, as for Boy George, was a revenge. Although he never radiated the O’Dowd smugness there was a definite feeling of the loser’s revenge.

“I think that’s very true. There is an element of revenge in that, there are things that I went through at school and things like that. There are so many people you want to get back at and so many people you want to kick in the teeth.

“But you get yourself in that position of power where people want to know what you have to say, right down to the deepest meaning in a certain line from a song, and there is a great ego boost in that. But the trouble is you seem to magnify the number of people who hate you as well, and then suddenly you’re a dart board for the rest of your life.

“It’s like going from one hell to another.”

All the same you do take a perverse pleasure from being considered important enough to be hated on a wide scale.

“I think it’s the masochist in me. If you can’t get anything else out of this whole thing, you can get a certain satisfaction from getting up as many people’s noses as possible, because there is so much hypocrisy in the business.

“The whole pop music industry really sucks very, very badly. It stinks. It’s full of seeping hypocrisy. It’s this huge great pustule. It’s a sick, nauseating thing.

“The way I look at it you just have to try and annoy the people who run it as much as possible.”

“You were being your photo/And spouting your promo/Flinging back your limp wit/That’s as limp as your dick…And your sell-out assured/You were always a whore”
(‘Catch A Falling Star’).

How much were those lines from ‘Catch A Falling Star’ your attempt to squeeze the puss out of the pop pustule?

“I wasn’t attempting to squeeze the puss, because I think it will always be there. People say, ‘This is the thing that will cleanse the face of pop’.”

But there is no Clearasil?
“Exactly, all you can do is just try to bring that to people’s attention as much as possible. To try and shatter the silly plastic icons that people put up as pop stars, that are very silly and trivial.

“Of course,” he adds in a sudden burst of tongue-in-cheek dramatic righteousness, “I don’t include myself in all this.” There goes that gesture again, the hand held arched to the chest, and here comes the torrent of giggles to follow.

THE STORY fits all too easily into some stereotyped script of the pulp novelist who wanted to write fiction – the Pop Star who wanted to be an Artist, the Circus performer who wanted to act Shakespeare.

What really is at stake, is how much room there is in this circus for the individual, the maverick, the master of theatrical hysteria. Must everyone who seeks, through whatever frustrations or urges, to drag something unpredictable into the routines be discarded, somehow crushed?

Two years ago, with the likes of Soft Cell, Simple Minds and The Associates on the roster it looked as if the rhythm of life and the beat of the circus drum could achieve some harmony. Look now at the legacy – Simple Minds have turned (or been turned) into an ordinary rock band. And as for the other two…

Marc Almond sees his last single, the simple and melodic ‘Boy Who Came Back’, flop – ignored by radio producers. Mike Read tells a friend that Marc Almond is not what people want in 1984.

So he sits in his flat, allowing the telephone to ring, not picking it up in case it’s some psychotic fan. He watches TOTP and flicks through pop mags, frantically trying to understand what’s going on here.

Meanwhile, across London, Billy Mackenzie – one time bright-eyed, whippet bearing brat of pop, breathing cold fire across the charts – stamps his foot, his face contorted with frustration as he listens to his latest single. It still threatens meltdown to 99% of modern day releases, but to Mackenzie it’s his vision of musical immensity squeezed into a shoe-box package, just so that it can fit on shelf space.

The original ‘Waiting For The Love Boat’, in all its high-orchestrated glory, appeared on one of last year’s best LPs – The Best Of You. But you never heard Mackenzie’s masterpiece because it was not released by WEA. It didn’t, they said, contain a hit single.

Really they had to tame Mackenzie’s excesses, calm him down and get him performing tricks that they knew how to sell on the circus billboard. What could they do with someone insane enough to split a successful group on the eve of a nationwide tour, with a single in the charts, just because he didn’t want to be a Pop Star.

By Pop Star, you know of course what I mean. A Pop Star is nothing to do with music and everything to do with the extraneous media – Mackenzie wanted to be the reverse and WEA threw their hands up in horror. Who can be bothered with aspiring artists when they can happily milk the bovine hordes who want to be Pop Stars?

And Mackenzie listens to the enfeebled sound of his music. He stamps his foot in a gesture of childish and helpless frustration.

Marc was never savaged as badly as Mackenzie – partly because he has the buffer of the Some Bizzarre organisation standing between him and the business. But he has had to deal with consistent pressures to maintain his commercial position.

“Record companies make it quite clear,” he says “that if you don’t sell records you’re nothing, and they’ll tell you that in no uncertain terms.”

It’s a process designed to drive out aspirations and inspiration.

“YES SIR, you there sir! Roll up, roll up! Entertainment for the masses, we deliver!

“Yes indeedy! When we hear the word Culture we reach for our Pop Guns…”

In the Big Top the kids are wrapt as they watch the Clown. The adults look on indulgently. His routine and his movements are familiar, they exude a feeling of security – but no-one notices, or thinks about, what the clown is really doing.

Off-stage the singer and snake-charmer Marc Almond talks about the star of the show. His comments are easily ascribed to jealousy, but he might just be talking sense.

“Boy George went on holiday and he invited No. 1 magazine along to cover the holiday. Now how the hell can he complain about reporters trailing around after him all the time, when he actually invites them along to photograph him swimming in the pool and sunbathing without his make-up on.

“Whenever anyone criticises him,” Marc observes, “he writes off instantly to the music papers. It’s like there’s this whole crack of insecurity and paranoia going on there.”

It’s an intriguing thought, the star who spends all the free time he has monitoring his own performance in the press and on TV, who can’t let the tiniest reference go past without despatching one of his clever but contentless little communications.

But what of Marc Almond, what is his position?
“Well, I think Richard Cook made a really good point in his article on Sade. He said it is impossible now just to be a singer of songs – that role just does not exist any more. And I sometimes yearn for that simplicity, just to be someone who interprets lyrics, whether my own or other people’s, in a very simple manner. The position is far too complicated now, and I suppose I’m too complicated a person to really be like that.”

Was it ever easy, though, to be a singer of songs? It seems perhaps, oversimple to someone like Sade, who has a voice and a face but somehow nothing else.

“It really annoys me when people put someone like Sade on the same level as Billie Holiday or Judy Garland, just because they fit into the same gross category of being female singers.

“It really has to do with much more than simply singing in tune. The singers that I really admire, like Libbie Holman or Helen Morgan, they used to be really out of tune sometimes. Libbie Holman particularly used to be way off, but it really didn’t matter – it was tremendous the way she sang something like ‘Love For Sale’. And the life she had, she was involved in murder incidents and things like that.”

Marc will give a whole gamut of off the record biographical facts that will prove just how hard a time he’s had of it, that he’s not “Some snotty little sleaze bag from up North that read a bondage book once.”

Whether it really is that ‘it ain’t the singer but the bad times makes the blues’ mythology or not, there’s a timbre to Vermin In Ermine that I find missing in the rest of modern pop music, an impossible thrill that brings an almost sinister shiver to the interaction of ‘You Have’s’ simple melody and its tale of love and suicide.

It’s not that old cliche that Marc means what he sings, more that every part of him is involved in the sound. After the frigid sound of Torment, there’s a new warmth in Vermin that resonates with sexuality.

In ‘Crime Sublime’ there’s a sense of guilt and forbidden pleasures that could never be reduced simply to the meaning of the words. Sexuality throughout is associated with crime and crime with sex – like the Genet of Thief’s Journal it seems Almond has the hots for the corruption of the criminal world.

“I am obsessed with the whole idea of death and crime,” he says, “it’s often all I think about these days. A lot of people that I involve myself with and that I’ve been involved with have been criminals – my father included.”

BACK AT the circus, the circus master beats his drum and speaks to the captive Big Top audience:

“Yes indeed! The Greatest Show on Earth! Music for the Masses! The Pop War Circus!

“You’ve heard about the Circus of Death, you’ve even heard the Human League record! Now welcome to the Circus of Disease! Yes, Ladies and Gentlemen – the germ warfare of Pop.”

Meanwhile the snake charmer, whose dark and mysterious act has been shifted to a side stage since the disease took over, comments:

“I want to keep a certain amount of relevance, I want to be in a position where I can influence people, but I don’t want to be a pop star. I don’t want to put myself up as this really shallow packet of breakfast cereal.

“It takes a hell of a lot of strain to be in that position, I suppose it takes a type of self-destructive impulse to want to do it. But I don’t have anything else – I have to take myself to those extremes.

“It’s like Jim (Jim Foetus – a strongman, currently tearing out all the Big Top’s tentpegs) talking about positive negativism (the theory that a double negative is the strongest positive). From pushing yourself to the limit of negativity, from fucking yourself up, you can come out with something stronger. I hope it will put that extra kick into something musical.

“I think it’s good for me that I’m discontented, and that I’m in this situation, even though I hate it.

“There are people that I think are great and people that I think are the disease. I’d just like to see people like Jim Foetus and Nick Cave overcome. It’s a very virulent disease, though…it’s probably incurable.”

If the disease of apathy and mediocrity that’s being spread under the guise of this circus is a powerful one, the opposition – people like Marc Almond, Nick Cave and Jim Foetus – are too strong in themselves to play a role as neutral as that of antidote.

More like an anti-strain – active and very virulent in itself.

“Roll up, roll up, the germ warfare of pop! The greatest show on earth!

“Take your seat and pick your poison!”

© Don WatsonNew Musical Express, 8 September 1984

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