Nine years on from ‘Tainted Love’, MARC ALMOND is back working with Soft Cellmate Dave Ball on his new single ‘Waifs And Strays’. BARBARA ELLEN hears him open his gutter heart on label changes, suicide attempts, Valium addiction and, erm, everything really.
“THEY’RE TORTURING ME!… WHY?… I HAVEN’T DONE ANYONE ANY HARM!… WHY CAN’T THEY JUST LEAVE ME ALONE!…”
The trouble with some interviews is you never know whether to turn up with a box of Kleenex or a stun-gun. As something of a long-term fan of Marc Almond, I have him safely categorised in the talkative, nonviolent, confessional bracket. So when I click on my tape recorder I am ready for anything: tears, mood swings, violent personality shifts, the occasional bladder mishap, sudden bursts of primadonna pacing about the room, gratuitous holding aloft of untipped French cigarettes, the sudden revelation that he’s wearing ladies underwear… all the things you’d expect from a Marc Almond interview.
So I don’t know whether to be delighted or disappointed when he turns out to be remarkably well-adjusted. It is Some Bizzare boss Stevo who ends up waving a champagne bottle, screaming tearful abuse (see above) at some imaginary foe in the doorway (is he mad?). Marc becalms, then dispatches the Moet-wielding supremo with practised ease.
Though Almond is, by his own admission, “emotional, too emotional sometimes” the only time he seems it is when he tells me why he’s changing record companies. (Some Bizzare license him out: say hello Warner Bros, wave goodbye EMI.) He doesn’t actually cry, but there’s an expression on his face horribly reminiscent of a kitten abandoned on the M1 motorway. This is odd as, by all accounts, Almond reacted with consummate speed and dignity to a potentially humiliating situation. When certain EMI Big Noises started taking liberties with his peace of mind, Almond simply kissed his “genuine friends there goodbye”, gave the finger to the rest, then sped off in a powder pink limo to the loving bosom/offices of long-term admirers Warner Bros. A brilliant and distinguished exit, but Almond is gutted!
“It’s just that I didn’t really want to leave EMI. Lots of people — me included — were very shocked when I did so. Still, I like these turbulent things to happen. It gives me a kick up the backside.”
WE ALL remember how Almond and his Soft Cell co-conspirator Dave Ball took the dull, dead bod of ’80s pop and electro-shocked it back to life. Now, with bands like the Pet Shop Boys effortlessly trouncing the riff-raff at every turn, it’s too easy to forget those who plinked and plonked with pride in the bad old days when plectrums were considered the real tools of the Gods.
“I smiled a bit when reviews of my last album said a couple of tracks sounded like the Pet Shop Boys. I’d considered them my most Soft Cell-ish tracks for ages. I like and admire the Pet Shop Boys but that whole Eurodisco, melancholic, introspective, electro-cabaret thing was what made us famous in the first place.”
Tracks like ‘L.O.V.E. Feeling’, ‘Memorabilia’ (which Almond accurately cites as “One of the first non-stop ecstatic dance-tracks” and ‘Girl With A Patent Leather Face’ were low-profile appetite whetters. It was chart manna like ‘Tainted Love’, ‘Bedsitter’, ‘Torch’ era/that inspired parents everywhere to start making long, funny speeches about the benefits of National Service.
Soft Cell had the nerve to flaunt the darker sides of their erotic natures, first in their music, then again in the rude, unmacho way they insisted on writhing against neon signs in videos. Ball’s Igor Of The Keyboards anonymity contrasted sagely with Almond’s doe-eyed sleaze appeal. For my own father, the Soft Cell TOTP experience couldn’t have been more devastating had Christ himself appeared in our living room and ejaculated into my mother’s handbag. “They’re freaks, y’know,” he raged, tying me to my bed for the night, “I was in Bahrain with the RAF and I know a puffy weirdo when I see one.”
Years later, I remembered dad’s old habit of crying softly, whilst pissed, to his The Complete Gene boxed-set compilation and wondered how he’d taken the Almond/Pitney collaboration. By this time Almond had long abandoned Soft Cell (and the ‘Tainted Love’ “albatross”), exchanging his lame funsuits for a set of Scott Walker’s faded Vegas bow-ties. ‘Something’s Gotten Hold Of My Heart’ established Almond as an unlikely “Housewife’s Choice” and the album of Jacques Brel covers is another case in point. Only madmen or geniuses get away with weird shit like that and Almond appears to have both bases covered admirably.
Almond’s solo work has always thrown up easily identifiable recurring themes — disappointment in love, revenge, sex, death, disease and malice. All the Greats. Of the above, death emerges as his favourite songwriting toy. There’s even a track called ‘Death’s Diary’ on his latest album Enchanted which encapsulates all the big traumas of the ’80s whilst suggesting that The Grim Diarist has a turn of phrase Anne Frank would have melted for. When questioned, Almond tells of abortive teenage suicide attempts:
“What I didn’t realise was that it’s illegal. I was arrested and sent to a mental institution,” he breaks off, eyes rolling, “THE PEOPLE IN THERE! You wouldn’t believe it! It certainly made me think twice about attracting that sort of attention again…”
He then abandons the story to make me laugh with a tale about past Valium addiction — not usually up there in my Top Ten list of funnies, I can assure you. To Almond, death will always be interesting, simply because “It’s a door that will always be closed”. “I suppose I am obsessed with death, but it’s not something I sit at home brooding about over skulls and black crosses, reading Baudelaire and that sort of thing. I love life as well.”
THIS IS apparent from our conversation. At times, it’s like talking to a one-man enactment of the chariot race from Ben Hur. He is a fund of rambling, self deprecating, melodramatic (like all good crooners Almond delights in trauma), essentially comic anecdotes and opinions. Just one printed in full would fill the NME twice over, so here’s a lovingly compiled ‘Best Of…’
Marc’s hometown Southport: “On the surface a seedy seaside town… but underneath a hotbed of sex and vice… Every year I make a point of getting my Southport fix.”
Religion: “I like the imagery and the pomp… and yes — I do like the clothes… but Christian attitudes have always seemed very un-Christian to me. I missed the point somewhere.”
Touring with The Cure: “Their Italian fans are brutes. They threw bricks and coins at my head… NEVER AGAIN!”
Almond is an emotional chameleon. He can be thoughtful and a little sad discussing AIDS then launch into a self-mocking appraisal of his emotional state:
“I’m much better now. No more hitting the Valium and writing long, badly argued letters to the music press every time I get a bad review…”
NONE SHOULD be forthcoming for Almond’s last project for EMI; the single ‘Waifs And Strays’.
“No, it’s not about Dennis Nielsen,” he splutters, “It’s about emotional waifs and strays… Our constant need for love, that sort of thing.”
The big news is that it’s brilliant and has been remixed by Dave Ball, currently enjoying a fair amount of success with fellow mixer and former NME scribe Richard Norris as The Grid. Almond stresses that “Soft Cell the band will never get back together”, then hints mischievously that the duo will “most probably” write together again “perhaps for another artist… I’m really thrilled Dave wanted to do a mix of ‘Waifs And Strays’. It’s nice to feel our creative pulse is still there.” When I ask him if he admires himself most as a songwriter or a person, Marc chuckles heartily.
“A songwriter definitely!… I don’t think anybody would see me as an icon of fashion or good sense… Do you?”
One never knows. If nothing else, Almond can consider himself as (probably) the only modern day crooner we possess qualified to perform that most quintessential of ballads ‘My Way’. When I leave Almond is fussing over a trip to Paris. He’s probably looking forward to the plane crashing. Such a sensational end would appeal to a minx like Almond. After all, just wait ’til the doc sees his underwear.
© Barbara Ellen, New Musical Express, 8 December 1990