Marc Almond: The Innocent Exhibitionist

His search for inner fulfillment took him to places that respectable folk would sooner not know about. Now Marc Almond has decided where he truly feels at home. “I always loved the spotlight,” he tells Phil Sutcliffe. “I didn’t feel the outsider. People gave me their love.”

“MY TATTOOS? THEY’VE BECOME LIKE A travelling diary or a series of post cards,” says Marc Almond. “Souvenirs of places and experiences. One day the jigsaw will join up and tell a story about my life.” He proffers his forearms, fires a machine-gun burst of laughter as he comes under close scrutiny like some impersonal object d’art, and launches into his anatomical travelogue.

On his right arm a scrolled “Amsterdam”, a skull, at the centre of a ring of peacock feathers, stars, moons, a dragon. “I’ve always liked death symbols and astrological, mystical things. And this,” he says, “is a magical bull (a crude head set in a triangle) – my very first tattoo, in 1981, done by Mr. Sebastian and designed by Genesis P. Orridge after I’d sung a couple of songs for him on a Psychic TV album.”

He roams onward via “Frisco”, a cherub (“My sweet and innocent side”), a galleon, a flying angel and a falling devil – though never, mercifully, a “Hello sailor” nor even a “Mother” – until, at length, he reaches shoulder level. “And then,” he says, unleashing another gleeful volley of laughter in the face of conventional embarrassment, “I have to take my T-shirt off!”

He wrestles it up around his neck to reveal a chest unadorned, but twists and points over his left shoulder at a tattoo of an hour-glass. “It’s taken from a Dutch wood cut,” he says. “The motto (‘Myn glas loopt ras’) means ‘My glass runneth quickly’, which I’d interpret as ‘My candle burns at both ends’.” He runs down the left arm – a heart with a dagger through it from the Vermin In Ermine sleeve, a raven, a naked woman with a snake wrapped round her – and concludes, “So, that’s the scrapbook.” ‘

But it’s a scrapbook you carry with your always, whether or not the lurid colouring and gaudy cliches of the tattooist’s craft remain quite your style.

“I like that about tattoos, they’re a commitment. They remind you who you are and what you’re about. It’s people setting themselves apart from society. It’s brave. The pain is very real too and I love the ritual. It’s like an initiation:”

You plan to become the fully illustrated man, then, in due course?

“Yes,” he says. “You know, the Japanese mafia have tattoos from their shoulders down, every inch, but they hide them under respectable clothes because they’re taboo. I love that idea, tattoos under a business suit. The wolf in sheep’s clothing.”

*

MARC ALMOND IS A PERSON WHO CAN draw a pretty good map of himself even though he might occasionally hesitate to trace the wilder shores in explicit detail. Still, in Soft Cell’s hit, ‘Where The Heart Is’, he sang, with that confessional air that endeared him to a million teenagers in the early ’80s, “They say that home is where the heart is/But home is only where the hurt is”. This sounded very much like a summing up of his own childhood in the genteel South Lanes seaside resort of Southport.

“My home life was pretty upset and turbulent,” he says. He stammers energetically but never stalls. “It was, erm – oh God, I really hate talking about this – my father wasn’t a very easy person. My mother took too long to divorce him. That made it very difficult for me and my sister. At school I didn’t fit into the sport or academic side of things, so in class I played for laughs and I tried to lose myself in artistic things, sneaking off to the school library every lunchtime to escape into books. And I used to walk on the beach on my own for hours.

“I suppose I was a very disturbed person. I used to play truant and run away from home quite a lot. None of this is unique as the background of a pop musician, though, is it?”

But, it appears, he would have had one little extra adolescent conundrum to cope with – the discovery that his sexuality lay in the bi-to-gay sector of the spectrum.

“Actually, it wasn’t a big crisis for me,” he says, reflects a moment, then affirms: “No, it never has been. I never wished I was different, I never felt trapped by my sexuality. If I liked a boy or liked a girl, it was OK. I had lots of girlfriends too – because I wasn’t like the other boys. I’ve been lucky in my sexuality. Enjoyed the best of both worlds.

“I think that’s why I’ve never pushed the gay issue in a campaigning way. I don’t feel part of any community, none of the ghettoes, none of the stereotypes. But I was fortunate to grow up in a time before – God, I was hoping to get through an interview without mentioning the word – before AIDS, when there could be a lot of sexual experimentation without putting your life in danger.”

While his youth could have prepared him for nothing more than life as something of an oddball and recluse, in 1978 his move to Leeds to study art showed him how a change of place could change his life.

“My family is very close-knit, the kind who visit each other every day, always popping round for tea, and when my father went, they closed ranks even tighter,” he says. “Then, to me, Leeds was the big city: my own flat, my own freedom, the chance to express myself. In fact, I remember going back to Southport with my hair dyed orange and yellow, tight black trousers and a T-shirt splashed with paint – and they threw rubbish from the dustbins at me! It was just too much for the people there to take. Since then, I’ve hardly ever been back. I met David Ball in Leeds, we became Soft Cell, I moved on.

“I still feel sad about all that sometimes. I mean, I love my mother, I love my sister, I love my grandmother, but there’s something missing. I’m a complete and utter stranger in some ways. I do the small talk, ‘Hi, mum,’ my mother says, ‘like your new record, I’m very proud of you,’ and that’s great. But I don’t know them and they don’t know me. My mother doesn’t know . . . she has an idea of my life from what she’s read about me.

“You know, when I do concerts and she wants to come, or other members of my family, I say ‘Please don’t’. I feel I can’t be me. Know they’re there, it’s a fake me on stage. I’m not giving myself. I can’t talk.”

*

IN 1981, ALMOND AND BALL – IN APPEARANCE, Bill Beaumont to Marc’s Pee-wee Herman – were licensed to Phonogram by their boy wonder manager Stevo’s Some Bizarre label, and immediately knocked off their million-selling Northern Soul cover, ‘Tainted Love’. Suddenly big bucks were available for an LP and the small-town nature of Marc Almond was up for another change of place and pace.

“Originally, I didn’t want to go to New York at all,” he says. “I was having a love affair here. I didn’t want to be torn away. And success was happening so fast I’d become quite afraid of it. But the producer on the first two Soft Cell albums, Mike Thorne, refused to come to England. So we went, and it changed my life. I fell in love with it. Though I also think that the moment we stepped into the studio in New York was the beginning of the end of Soft Cell.”

With unfettered gusto, he threw himself into the Manhattan club scene: “Interferon, which became Danceteria, The Hellfire, the Paradise Garage sometimes. I’ve always been too excessive, addictive. It opened the door to a lot of things which could have ended up destroying me.”

What, exactly?

“Too much speed, too much Ecstasy, too much smack, too much alcohol, too much of everything at the wrong time with the wrong people. But I don’t regret any of it.”

He seems to mean it, though he must have feared that cause for lamentation would follow when he wrote the self-disgusted lines of ‘Catch A Fallen Star’ (from Torment And Toreros, Marc & the Mambas, 1983): “And this town is a potpourri of disease/Can you smell the herpes from the scum-sucking fucks that hang round the same suckers each night?”

“Because of the life we were leading, it became impossible for us to get anything done,” he avers.

And yet from December ’81 to March ’84, you released all four Soft Cell albums and two Marc & the Mambas doubles – an orgy of productivity to match the misbehaviour?

“It stuns me to see what did come out. But a lot of friends were lost in the process, a lot of enemies were made, a lot of blood was shed. I’ve had to spend the latter half of my career salvaging what I wrecked in the first six years,”

By the lime Soft Cell released their farewell album, candidly titled This Last Night In Sodom and including a song called ‘Mr Self-Destruct’, it had all got too draining and too dangerous. For one thing, the full implications of AIDS had become clear,

“Strangely enough, the first I heard of AIDS was when I was driving into Manhattan for the first time,” he recalls. “There was an item on the radio about two guys who’d died of this mysterious disease. They weren’t calling it AIDS then. Nothing much was known about it and, of course, the New York sex club scene was in full swing. What can I say? I was lucky.

“I’ll always have to have that fix of New York. But the last time I went there, it had changed. It was going through a very black period. The devastation of AIDS, the devastation of crack. You could feel the cold wind blowing.

*

A RESTORATIVE WAS CALLED FOR. IN THE mid-’80s he discovered Barcelona and, to a degree at least, the participant turned spectator.

“It was a beautiful place,” he reminisces, “a perfect setting for the songs I was writing (Mother Fist And Her Five Daughters, 1987). Little coffee and absinthe bars, shady streets, the port, lazy, slightly decaying. It had that opium feel, surreal. You walked down the street and saw people standing like living sculptures or doing strange things with buckets of fish. Trans-sexuals riding unicycles.”

But how did he deal with the practical details of living abroad, communicating with the native?

“I don’t speak much Spanish, but I like that. I don’t have to talk to people. I go to Barcelona to be on my own. I felt I was free, free from people.”

While Mother Fist‘s title track was a paean to the dependable pleasures of the jerk-off, the album also produced a key song about one of the central characters in the Almond cast list, the deviant, defiant diva. ‘Saint Judy’ is a drag artist playing the role of Judy Garland to the melodramatic hilt, tragic because she’s Judy, clownish because she’s a chap in a frock: “Well, a diva a day keeps the boredom away/They may find me on a hotel floor/High heels in a pool of gore/… And if I die before I wake up/I pray the Lord don’t smudge my make-up”.

“Well, of course, Saint Judy is me,” he says, with a positive cannonade of cackles. “I feel the diva is someone who makes her own rules for life. She won’t stand for being told what to do. And I know it’s often said that I’m difficult or temperamental, but I resent being told what to do. I resent having my life organised for me. I resent people interfering. I resent not being allowed to do my best!

“Anyway, this drag artist takes on the Judy Garland persona, uses this gay icon, lives through her, takes on the mantle of self-destruction. Because I enjoy building up and knocking down. I enjoy risks and – this must be a flaw in my personality – if I have a good love affair and roses are growing round the door, I have to cut the heads off the roses.”

The diva, Saint Judy/Marc Almond, closes perhaps in sheer relief at letting all the bottled-up emotion out at last, going right over the top: “Let’s all holler and beat our breasts/Ending it all in tears/Christ, I’ve wanted to do this for years”.

Somehow you give the impression that through experience and what you’ve discovered about yourself through your work, you stopped feeling afraid of more or less anything.

“I don’t feel vulnerable,” he says. “I don’t fear places. I’m quite streetwise. And I’ve had a guardian angel looking over my shoulder. I’ve been mugged at knifepoint a couple of times, once by a crack addict in New York and once by a bloke who wanted my Doc Martens in Barcelona. I handed over the cash, I gave him my boots. That’s what you do. Stay calm. Give them what they want.

“But all this makes me sound weird, whereas I think I’m just like anybody else. I like staying in at night with a cup of Bournvita, all those homely things. I don’t go out much any more. In fact, I think health is what I’ve become addicted to in recent years.”

*

YEAH, HE DOESN’T DRINK, DOESN’T TAKE drugs and he goes to bed early,” confirms Stevo. “He’s a gentleman to work with now. Out of all that debauchery has arisen a lovely guy.” He even goes on to mention the word “pussycat”.

Marc Almond has charted an erratic course. Sexually and romantically, as alluded to above. Musically, through the diversities of electro-dance, sleazo-sophisticated cabaret and Brel-influenced ballads. Commercially, through sporadic single hits from ‘Tainted Love’ to ‘I Feel Love’ and ‘Something’s Gotten Hold Of My Heart’ and, in recent months, ‘Jackie’ and ‘The Days Of Pearly Spencer’. Business-wise too, he has hopped about flirtatiously, licensed by Some Bizzare to Phonogram, then Virgin, Parlophone and now WEA – every major except Sony – always refusing to sign more than a two-album deal in accord with Stevo’s instinct to keep stirring the pot.

But out of all this turmoil, it is now proposed has emerged a new, more easily assimilable Marc Almond, who talks readily of “crossing over” and “the mainstream”.

“It’s been important to tone it down a bit,” he says. “I know I’ve scared people off with the diva side of me, the histrionics and the soul-baring. It can be embarrassing, especially to the British. They’ve always thought, ‘Marc Almond, what’s he about? Is he singing about men? Who is the object of his desires?’ I’ve been regarded as this dodgy person. If bridging the gap to a wider audience means most of my successes will be with cover versions, like the hits from Tenement Symphony, that’s fine. Whereas my own writing can become a confession and a catharsis, I enjoy singing other people’s songs because there’s a distance. It’s fun to cross over. I can be like the Japanese gangsters, the suits with the tattoos underneath.”

Unabashed by a propensity for bum notes which he breezily acknowledges – “It’s become part of my style!” – in September he’ll be taking his latest album, Tenement Symphony, and other favourites to the ultimate respectable diva gig, the Royal Albert Hall, full orchestra in tow. Stevo’s talking it up as the greatest night of his old friend’s career.

For Marc, though, perhaps it will merely be the latest greatest. “Thinking back to long-lost Southport again, he comes up with some faded images of his first excursions on stage – in school plays and a local band.

“I always loved the spotlight,” he says. “In the spotlight I didn’t feel the outsider; people showed their appreciation and they gave me love, which is basically all you ever want out of it. You’ve had a bad time in your childhood and you want to make up for it. But nothing ever can, never, so you spend the rest of your life wanting bigger and bigger audiences, more and more adulation. And it’s just never enough; you always want more – to try to fill the emptiness that’s there.”

Being Marc Almond, he says this with a dramatic flourish, but in high good spirits, the diva in command of himself, indomitable.

© Phil SutcliffeQ, August 1992

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