Marc Almond: “The Royal Family are the one continuous thread that holds Britain together”

The non-stop Soft Cell singer on his confrontational past, Twitter troubles, and why he doesn’t mind being part of “the establishment”.

IN 2018, AT the age of 60, Marc Almond hired a Daimler and rode to Buckingham Palace. The singer – whose video for his 1981 single ‘Sex Dwarf’ proved so controversial it was confiscated by the police – was accompanied in the back seat by his 77-year old mother, Sandra Mary, who “was really over the moon” that her only son was being awarded the Order of the British Empire for services to arts and culture. “I think she thought I was finally legit,” he laughs. 

There’s a long list of rock stars whose anti-establishment views prevented them from accepting honours from the Queen, but Almond couldn’t have been more thrilled. “I am very much a Royalist,” he tells me. “I think the Royal Family are the one continuous thread that holds the chaos of Britain together. I love so much about it. I love its eccentricities, and I love that about Britain, too… I think Britain is a great country. I think we’re an amazing place. We’re sometimes very belligerent, and we can sometimes be short-sighted, but we are a great country.”

Almond was received by Prince William. After being shown footage of previous ceremonies and standing in line “like I was waiting to go on a fairground ride,” the singer told the heir to the throne that “you’ve probably heard one of my tracks, ‘Tainted Love’, and will have danced to it at some point.”

He might have added that probably everyone in the world has danced to ‘Tainted Love’. Soft Cell’s corrupted cover version of the Gloria Jones upbeat Northern Soul standard was a top-10 hit in no fewer than 15 countries. In 1981 it was Britain’s bestselling single; in the United States, it remained on the Billboard Hot 100 for 10-months, a record that stands to this day. 

As durable as The Archers, the track casts quite the shadow. After the dissolution of Soft Cell, in 1984, Marc Almond formed Marc and the Mambas; when on tour, for the next five years he declined to play the song, or any other of his previous band’s hits. “I had to make it difficult for myself,” he says, “I like making things difficult for myself.”

But as years turned into decades, Marc Almond’s relationship to the track with which he will always be most closely associated has softened. He speaks with pride about ‘Tainted Love”s appearance on the soundtrack to the 2016 film La La Land, and of never tiring of singing the song in concert. He also speaks of his displeasure at a “miserable” faux version that appeared on an advert for Corsodyl, and of duly “going bonkers” at the song’s publishers. 

Those seeking the most apposite use of ‘Tainted Love’ need look no further than Michael Winterbottom’s 2013 film The Look Of Love. A biopic of the English pornographer Paul Raymond, played by Steve Coogan, the song plays as the lead actor walks through the neon buzz of Soho. The scene fits Soft Cell like a contact lens; sleazy and subversive, it’s not for nothing that the group titled its debut album Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret

“When Soft Cell first started… we did very confrontational performance art,” Almond says. “It was a very confrontational time. But I would be foolish not to accept that after being around in music for 40-years that I haven’t become part of the establishment in a way. That said, I certainly think I’ve still got a bit of anti-establishment in my heart. I do like to challenge things”

On a fresh Monday morning in January, Almond is seated on a sumptuous settee at the L’Oscar hotel on London’s Southampton Row. Dressed entirely in black – “I do sometimes wear blue,” he says – the 62-year old appears well suited to an establishment whose colour scheme seems to have been cribbed from a Parisian boudoir. On the offchance that the décor is too subtle, the handles to the taps in the toilets are shaped like butterflies. 

He’s different from what I expected. Picturing a cut-glass Morrissey-type sans the paranoid racist outbursts, instead I’m met by a gentle presence that answers questions as if he’s being paid by the word. In his memoir, Tainted Life, Almond writes “I hated interviews, I still hate them… I would often smoke a joint, or take several lines of cocaine before an interview, which only served to intensify my paranoia.” But that was then; this being now, today he’s sipping a small bottle of chilled still water. 

Occasionally he stutters, the result of a brain injury incurred after a motorcycle accident outside St Paul’s Cathedral in 2004 left him scrapping for his life and in a coma for a month. When news of the collision broke, one newspaper editor at the time asked the news desk to get Marc Almond’s wife on the trumpet for a comment. When told this today, the singer, who is gay, throws back his head and laughs like a fire alarm. “I’m glad I’m still fooling them somewhere,” he says.

Because of the success of That Song, as well as his cover version of ‘Something’s Gotten Hold Of My Heart’, a duet with Gene Pitney that topped the UK charts for five-weeks in 1989, Marc Almond secured the kind of fame that refuses to recede more than three decades later. Much of the music he’s recorded in the intervening years has been challenging – there have been no fewer than 20 solo LPs in the last 30-years – and higher in quality than in impact. But there has also been an astounding 13 compilation and eight live albums, each of which has done little harm to his profile. 

“At first I hated fame so much,” he says. “It was very alien to me to suddenly have people coming up to me. But the early days were nothing compared to what it’s like now. I can’t remember the last time I got into a cab when the cabbie didn’t go, ‘You’re Marc Almond’ and then told me a story of the first time they heard one of my records… and it’s ten times more now than it was at the height of ‘Tainted Love’. I don’t know, maybe it’s because I’ve been around for quite a long time. 

“But I’m very awkward,” he says. “I just don’t know how to behave in social situations. Probably I’m somewhere on the spectrum, but I’ve found ways of dealing with it. I find that as long as you’re nice to people and pose for photographs, it’s easier to do that than fight against it. I know other artists who just go, ‘Don’t speak to me, don’t speak to me’ and everything, but I find that that just creates more problems.”

Marc Almond’s latest album, Chaos and a Dancing Star, his 26th as a solo artist, was released this month. Supported by a headline appearance at London’s Royal Festival Hall, the 13-song set is a superior collection of ballads and torch songs, dance grooves and pop choruses. As with everything to which the author places his name, the LP seeks to celebrate lives less ordinary, whether exalted or depraved.

“I dreamed that on the day I killed you, I pulled on my black leather gloves, I drew the kitchen knife across you and hung you up with dancing doves,” are the opening lines of the reassuringly creepy ‘Giallo’. On ‘Hollywood Forever’, a paean to the glory days of Tinseltown so convincing that it could have been recorded on the roof of the Roosevelt Hotel, he tells the “driver [to] bring the Buick and we’ll cruise the boulevards, turning all the heads of those in duller cars.”

“I never thought of myself as the bloke next door,” Almond says. “I’m from that very old school where I’m drawn to bands that have something theatrical about them… I love that. I love old school Hollywood, and classic stars, where they’re not the man or woman next door – where they’re different. 

“I can wear a pair of jeans or I can wear an old t-shirt and I enjoy that sometimes,” he says. “And sometimes I enjoy music made by people who wear jeans and a t-shirt. But me personally, I’m old showbiz.” 

Marc Almond is also, as he himself will tell you, no longer young. “I’m not a person who has the future ahead of them,” he says. He speaks of spending Christmas feeling “exhausted” by more than three years of Brexit monkey business, but says that this “sense of doom that I felt about everything from turning on the radio and hearing everyone shouting at each other and carrying on” has since been transformed into something approaching optimism. 

As a citizen of London, he worries about the capital’s rapid transformation from a city of neighbourhoods into enclaves of foreign-owned luxury flats in which few people actually live. He opposes HS2on environmental grounds, which seems to have something to do with him currently studying druidism. “I worry about being a moaning old git who complains about things that he doesn’t like, but I fight against that because I don’t want to be that person,” he says.

Not everyone agrees. Last year, Almond was accused of transphobia following a number of tweets about gender identity. In one, he wrote ‘I always wanted a world without labels… Now I have a 100 to choose from. Sorry, not playing that game.’ The tweets were then deleted – “I delete things all the time,” he says – and replaced by a post that read ‘there I’ve made my point and got that out of my system.’ 

Organisations such Pink News – “and when did Pink News become the enemy?” he asks – attributed the post to his comments about transgender issues. Exasperated for the first time in our 45-minute exchange, Marc Almond claims they were in fact a response to a series of tweets about cruelty to animals. 

“What it [the experience] taught me is not to be on Twitter anymore,” he says. “The thing about it that was really annoying is that I like creating these little mischief things on Twitter sometimes, and what doesn’t come over is humour or sarcasm, or me being tongue-in-cheek. Everybody is so angry about everything; and if you make a mistake and call somebody the wrong thing, or don’t put the right label on somebody, then you’re pilloried for it. 

“But I thought that Twitter was never really for me,” he says. “It’s quite a toxic environment. Robbie Williams came off it because he said that he felt he was only ever one tweet away from ending his career, and I do understand that.”

Marc Almond’s career began on the stages of the smallest clubs and theatres in Leeds, where he and Soft Cell keyboardist David Ball pioneered a form of synthesized music that bore only a passing resemblance to the glamorous new romantic scene fermented at the Blitz Club just yards from L’Oscar. But the legacy of albums such as Non-Stop Erotic CabaretNon-Stop Ecstatic Dancing, and The Art Of Falling Apart has endured better than most, as a house-full reunion concert at London’s cavernous 02 Arena in 2018 proved. 

“The last time I saw Dave was when we did the 02,” Almond says. “And it was lovely to see him because I hadn’t seen him for such a long time before that. But we have been swapping tunes together recently. We have been doing a little bit of writing, so I think some recordings might come of that, under the Soft Cell banner. But I don’t think we’ll play live again. We did the 02, and that was a great way to bow out. So, no, we won’t play live, but I think that there could be some new recordings.”

Should a new Soft Cell record emerge, it will be the 46th album to which Marc Almond has placed his name. “I work all the time,” he says, while pointing out that his maternal grandmother lived to be 96. “I feel that it’s a new golden age for me” is how he describes a year in which he’ll play concerts in places as far-flung as Tokyo and Zagrade, as well as Blackpool and Bolseworth. In each town and city he will compose a set-list drawn from a body of work that features hundreds of songs. And on that list, without fail, will be ‘Tainted Love’. 

“I’m never content with life,” Almond says. “People say to me ‘can’t you just be happy?’ But I can’t. I don’t think it’s part of my makeup. I suppose since I had the accident back in 2004, I can’t find a place of happiness and contentment… I’m always trying to attain something that’s a bit better than myself. I play ‘Tainted Love’ because I love singing it, but I never want to be someone who rests on my laurels. I never want to say ‘oh I’ve done it now, I’ll coast along and just do a few hits.'” 

“I want to celebrate my past but I don’t want to live in it,” he says.

© Ian WinwoodDaily Telegraph, 13 February 2020

Leave a Comment