Marc Almond may be mellowing in middle age, but who’s he trying to kid that he’s the Englebert Humperdinck of the ’90s? Betty Page meets The Crooner.
“EVERY DOG has its day,” says Marc Almond, and he ought to know. “Sometimes you’re let off your leash, the next week you’re back in the doghouse again.”
For the moment, this particular dog has been let loose from his reins: the mongrel has discovered he has a pedigree worthy of major attention. The major in this case is Warner Bros records who have scooped a yapping Marc from the kennels, brushed his coat and sent him scurrying up the charts.
For Almond’s harshest critics, who have always seen him as a rather tacky, grubby little person who – how sadly misguided – thinks he can sing, it must seem like he has fooled a lot of people. But from his minimalist beginnings with Dave Ball in Soft Cell through the maverick years of Marc And The Mambas, the peaks of commercial success and troughs of self-indulgence, an army of fans has stood by him. This old dog will not lay down and die. He’s recently had a hit with his version of Jacques Brel’s ‘megalomaniac’s anthem’ ‘Jacky’ (previous covered by purists’ favourite Scott Walker) and now looks less like the camp waif than ever.
His on/off affair with the record industry and Radio One back on again, this uncompromising pain-in-the-ass (according to legend) is now working with the powers-that-be instead of fighting them.
Almond fell out with EMI after his “most spectacular failure”, ‘The Lover Spurned’ single, which “cost more than an LP – it was one of the most expensive singles ever made”.
After underwhelming sales of his last LP, The Enchanted, the label offered him a reduced deal which he was able to turn down due to the intervention of Warner Bros’ chairman. Rob Dickens had always been a fan and had followed Almond’s career for years. So Almond waved a hanky to EMI to become Dickens’ pet project, leaving a debt of around £750,000.
EMI were still obliged to bring out a single, ‘Waifs And Strays’, which had been remixed by Dave Ball (now the in-demand remixer-producer with the Grid) their first collaboration in years. It disappeared without trace; but it brought the Soft Cell songwriting partnership back together.
“It broke the ice,” says Marc. “We hadn’t spoken for five years. There was no animosity, we were just afraid that if we sat down together we’d want to do something and we were running away from it. Some of the best stuff I’ve written has been with Dave and I think it always will be. There was no pressure to be Soft Cell again and Soft Cell will never happen again, so it was relaxed and we did three songs, the best of which is ‘Meet Me In My Dreams’.”
This will probably be the next single from the next LP, Tenement Symphony, an album Warners hope will be the Marc Almond album. As Dickens said to Marc: “You could do another good album but the world doesn’t really need another Marc Almond album, so what I really want to do is put you with Trevor Horn.” Marc was overwhelmed. “I went to dinner with him and it was like an audition. But then I found out we liked the same kind of things and he’d actually played bass in Gene Pitney’s backing band in the ’60s! He had a very clear vision of how he wanted me to sound.”
Marc soon discovered Horn does nothing by half measures: three studios on the go, 20 engineers, 70-piece orchestras, the lot. “I was given carte blanche,” says Marc. “With Trevor Horn, budget’s no object. I knew I had to surprise people – the more albums you put out and the older you get, the more you have to tantalise. With ‘Jacky’, particularly, I couldn’t quite see it as a single, but really, when you can go totally over the top, I thought: ‘What the hell, let’s go and do a big fat slab of camp’.”
With Horn’s melodramatic flourishes tempered by the hard clubbiness and simple melodies of Dave Ball, Tenement Symphony shows a more optimistic side of Marc Almond, a man with fewer demons to exorcise. His ultra-confessional days are over for now, along with his reputation for being difficult to work with. Or is that unfair? “It is to an extent. Maybe at one time I was really difficult, like in the latter Soft Cell days – times of frustration. I’ve sold myself short a lot before because I thought I knew what was best for me and how to do things when really I didn’t. I can be tough because I want to make fabulous records: I’d rather create an extreme feeling.”
So is he keeping his dark side in a dank cellar so as not to up-set the housewives?
“I’ve held back on that side of things, but then I don’t have to say: ‘Look, I’m dark and subversive and strange and pervy’. If they don’t know that by now I’ve been wasting my time! It’s still part of me.”
Having worked through his defensive, pugnacious behaviour, grown out of being a spoilt brat, lived through addiction (“The early to mid ’80s are a blur of drugs and alcohol – I can’t remember much of them”) and relinquished the emotional crutch of astrology, at 34, Marc Almond is looking forward to a healthy old age.
“I don’t drink or smoke. I do other things but not as much as I used to. I balance it out. I go to the gym.”
With Warners’ corporate muscle, Almond’s immediate future appears assured, probably because several of the rough edges have been smoothed and skeletons have been left in the closet. In 1991 Marc Almond is being sold as The Crooner. “In a way I kind of am the Englebert Humperdinck for this generation,” he says, with a degree of self-deprecation. Yes, every dog has its day. But some have more days than others.
© Betty Page, Vox, December 1991