Perfect 10: Marc Almond

When he’s 64…

From his early days as frontman for seedy synth-poppers Soft Cell, Marc Almond’s work covers a vast range, and has excelled in mixing different genres of music ranging from new wave, electronica and goth glam, to torch song trilogies of cabaret jazz, trip-hop and soul music. Few singer/songwriters out there have vividly painted dark and dispossessed landscapes of the lonely and the heartbroken as well as this Lancastrian cum Yorkshireman has. His lyrics echo evocatively like pure poetry, vehicled by his unique expressive voice. 

An icon of transgression, Marc tends to balance serious artistic projects  such as his albums based on Russian music, or the Ten Plagues theatrical project written for him by Mark Ravenhill – with music that focuses on his easy way with a torch song and his Eighties pop history; co-opting all sorts of personages along the way, from gutter glamour to stars of the indie bars such as Nico and Siouxsie.

Unsurprisingly, his musical influences are as varied and rich as his own compositions: having been born Peter Mark Sinclair Almond, T.Rex’s Marc Bolan was more than a titular inspiration. And then there was David Bowie, Lou Reed, Scott Walker, Edith Piaf, and most importantly his unparalleled love of Jacques Brel, which even gained Almond the accolade from the Brel estate as being the best living interpreter of the Belgian’s songs. 

Now 64, and the dark star with the Tainted Life is still going strong, leaving a history of accidents, addictions, obsessions and betrayals behind.

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Soft Cell may have called it a day on the live front but with the 40th anniversary of their breakthrough Northern Soul smash spurring all kinds of reminisces and rejigs it seems the perfect time to focus on a few gems from the boy’s stuff that came after: the “tricky” transition known as the solo career.

Normally, I wouldn’t care too much for lists. I don’t mean grocery shopping lists, those are kinda handy. The ones I don’t care for are music lists that seem to be floating around in the ether endlessly each time some pseudo-authoritative figure, magazine, webzine, fanzine has an urge to share with the world. 

Then again, if they can serve as an introduction to someone’s work and encourage people to become better acquainted with an act that had hitherto passed them by then perhaps they serve a purpose after all.

So without further ado, the debut Perfect 10 feature at stevepafford.com is an almost dozen of my favourite Almond ‘solo’ tunes, because…well, just because.

Black Heart (1983)

From the beginning, Almond and Dave Ball had nurtured sideline projects, and in 1982, just a year after Tainted Love, Marc had already branched out with Untitled by Marc And The Mambas, a loose collective of musicians that included The The’s Matt Johnson and fellow Leeds University alumni Anni Hogan.

Despite boasting additional turns from members of the Cure and the Banshees, Marc received little support for the Mambas project. Smash Hits journalist and future Pet Shop Boy called it “self-indulgent” while Almond’s label Phonogram viewed the material as non-commercial and a disquieting pointer to the inevitable split that would occur within Soft Cell. Cheap and starkly recorded, the experimental double album Torment And Toreros — which Marc has called “a nervous breakdown put to music” — is stuffed full of frantic explosions of lyrical bile, including the dark ruby that is Black Heart, replete with tinny percussion and neogoth Doors-like organ. If anything it was this that put Marc in a unique musical place that had one foot in starry mainstream and the other in the gutter of underground.

Tenderness Is A Weakness (1984)

Soft Cell parted amicably in the spring of 1984 to pursue other avenues. Adopting a back-to-basics approach as a reaction to the mechanical limitations of the erstwhile synth duo, Almond produced many fine songs in his trilogy of albums with The Willing Sinners, comprising an ensemble of musicians many of who’d been involved with the Mambas. Free of musical constraints, Almond developed his pierced tenor theatrics and sounded more melodramatic than ever.

Continuing the tradition of the Decadents, Marc dedicated to merging the gutter with the stars. And the title of his first ‘solo’ album Vermin in Ermine is an hilarious example. Produced by Mike Hedges (Associates, Siouxsie And The Banshees), for those who love the trashier side of Marc Almond, this is the album for you. Tenderness Is A Weakness, its third and final single, was a remarkably passionate song, regardless of genre, and this one is dripping with grime, though it’s melodious torchy grime.

Mother Fist (1987)

With colourful folky Flamenco arrangements courtesy of Anti Hogan, and various exotic rhythms and instrumentation including accordion and Spanish-styled strings via the fist for purpose Willing Sinners, Almond’s third ‘solo’ set was an impressive and reflective record that evoked an air of the otherworld that seems naive yet corrupted.

The provocative Mother Fist And Her Five Daughters takes its name from the short story Nocturnal Turnings Or How Siamese Twins Have Sex by Truman Capote, to whom the album is dedicated. Quasi title track Mother Fist describes a relationship with a woman who has a mysteriously strong hold on men. And if you believe that you’ll believe anything, because it’s obviously about a random stranger having his hand up Marc’s derièrre in a back room in Barcelona. Which begs the question, just the one, dear?

Tears Run Rings (1988) 

Even more so than 1985’s Stories Of Johnny, this is Marc with an eye and ear on making a commercial record while still being resolutely himself. The result was as sharp a single with a dramatic killer chorus as any he’d released. Considered one of his most overtly political songs (though with metaphoric lyrics that imply rather than spell out his point), Tears Run Rings is a cocky trashing of conservative repression and economic idiocy under Thatcher and Reagan.

As performed, its message is carefully sugared via the sweet purr in Almond’s vocals and the band’s brisk, dancefloor-friendly performance. Featuring a soft string arrangement mixing with Anni Hogan’s just-short-of-nagging keyboard hooks and a crisp, warm rhythm punch from bassist Billy McGee and drummer Steve Humphreys, it’s one of their most hugest efforts. As a solo artist, it was Marc’s only song to chart in the US, reaching number 67 in early ’89, by which time he was making a bit of a splash across the pond.

Something’s Gotten Hold Of My Heart (1989) 

Well, what a turn up for the books. 1988’s The Stars We Are contained a triumphant, everything-and-the-kitchen-sink-version of Gene Pitney’s ’60s chestnut Something’s Gotten Hold Of My Heart, replaced on later editions of the album with a belated duet version with Pitney himself after it was released as a single and spent four weeks at No.1 in Britain in January and February of ’89. Even Tainted Love only managed two.

Reaction amongst friends at the time was a sort of bemused approval: it was a Jolly Good Thing for this kind of revenant alliance to top the charts, but nobody really seemed to love it. My bestie Judi preferred Nick Cave’s warbly ironic rendition, identifying the Gothic streak in it which this cross-generational take acknowledges and ripens. Of course, that was the odd-couple appeal of it: a gentleman crooner from some ancient past allied to a leather-loving perv in his Kinky Elvis phase. 

The strings do the heavy lifting, the intro cutting through whatever else was on 1989 playlists and producer Bob Kraushaar’s arrangement helping the two singers locate the exact point where kitsch bleeds into mystery, with Pitney’s three-octave range able to give even the corniest material a sense of urgent dread.

A Lover Spurned (1990) 

No sniggering at the back please. Yes, we know what it sounds like when you say it fast. Come to think of it, Bob Kraushaar’s “technophile” production on the Enchanted album seems much more concerned at creating slick, sexy europop as opposed to the distinct blend of styles that Almond usually pursues. 

There are a couple of solid winners nonetheless, like the perversely Pet Shop Boysish Waifs And Strays, and A Lover Spurned, the Stephen Hague-helmed lead single that’s a dramatic tale of vengeance from the angry Other Woman, who’s determined to totally take down her former paramour. As if to hammer home the stake through the heart, it even boasts a talkie bit from the great She Devil herself, Julie T. Wallace. Throw in a sumptuous 48-piece orchestra and you have the Fatal Attraction of torch pop. Rabbits everywhere were thrilled. 

Jacky (1991)

Another perfect example of Marc Almond’s uncanny ability to reinvent himself at the drop of a hatpin, the epic Tenement Symphony highlighted his capability of leading an orchestra to achieve the perfection he envisions, or at least that of his new label boss Rob Dickins, who he largely credits with the concept and team up for the widescreen dynamics on the symphony side of the album with Trevor Horn, brilliantly bombastic producer of everyone from ABC and Frankie to Grace Jones and Pet Shop Boys.

A full decade on from Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret, the project saw Marc reunite with his former partner Dave Ball on three songs, though it was Horn who had his handprints all over the three singles extracted, which all made the Top 40, the first time for an Almond solo LP, with a rendition of David McWilliams’ The Days Of Pearly Spencer giving Almond his last Top 10 hit to date. Though it was another cover that really shone.

Almond was still telling stories that were a bit gritty, only now he was sprinkling more than a little sparkle on them, and none more so on an epic version of a famous Brel number. Once a histrionic hit for Scott Walker, Jackie transitioned into Jacky to become an opulent, florid slice of glittery pop that gave pulsing nightlife one of its most spectacular makeovers. 

Adored And Explored (1995)

Not so much a cohesive album as a filled-to-the-hole-in-the-middle collection of myriad sessions in both London and New York, 1996’s Fantastic Star found Britain’s favourite Diva In The Undergrowth engaging in a spot of roots recovery, and even straps on the stack-heeled Heavy Stereo boots for a bit of glam ramming, just to prove the disco demon can still rock with the seediest of ‘em.

Not everything fully connected, but it did show enough of the artist at his magpie-like best, featuring everyone from Soft Cell producer Mike Thorne to Heaven 17’s Martin Ware and even mardy Velvet Underground veteran John Cale. But the big change in the music comes from Marc’s newest collaborator — none other than guitarist Neal X, previously known for his work in Sigue Sigue Sputnik. 

With a variety of experiments in styles and sounds, the strongest tracks were its singles, including The Idol, a wry, synthed-up glam rock stomp about fame that pre-dates Goldfrapp’s Ooh La La by an entire decade. Big dramatic weeper Child Star, and Brilliant Creatures — very much the lyrical child of Say Hello Wave Goodbye but with a shady hi-NRG pulse to it — were decent, too. Best of all though was lead 45 Adored And Explored, an energetic slice of techno rompery with Marc’s signature uncivil partnership of electro cabaret and sex and the city plus New York Dolls frontman David Johansen, on harmonica, no less. The video’s a hoot and sees Almond dressing up as all his favourite idols including Bolan, Bowie, Robert Smith and Alice Cooper. Super. 

Threat Of Love (1999)

Who’s been listening to Massive Attack and Portishead then? Under new manager Vicki Wickham, who had looked after Dusty Springfield, Marc signed to the independent Echo Records in 1998, but almost straight away, tedious record company politics intervened. 

The eventual album, the downbeat urban Open All Night was issued on his own Blue Star imprint and sonically was a more electronic excursion than he had previously attempted. Threat Of Love, a filmic trip-hop fusion with The Creatures — that’ll be queen of goth Siouxsie Sioux on vocals and Budgie on percussion then — was co-written with Neal X and lushly orchestrated with an amorous, but sinister Middle Eastern vibe that veers from tragic dissolution to “a ticket to damnation.”

Baby’s On Fire (2005)

A throbbing cover of Brian Eno’s cult classic from Here Come The Warm Jets, Marc always veered more towards being an admirer of the Roxy Music synth dandy, rather than the more sedate lounge lizard Bryan Ferry. 

The chameleon of cabaret relished the opportunity to cover one of his favourite ’70s songs and saw the collaborative adventure with Tasty Tim’s electro disco clowns T-Total as the ideal way to ease himself back into the recording process after a motorbike accident the previous year. The club reworking still retains much of the mad swirling spirit of the original, while updating the song for a new deviants on the dancefloor audience. Guilty feet do have rhythm after all then.

Steve Pafford

Wanna delve deeper? Try these crack covers: the Bronski Beat collab on Donna Summer’s I Feel Love (1985), Phil Spector’s song for Cher, A Woman’s Story (1986), while 2007’s Stardom Road album features the nut job tackling everything from Bowie and Sinatra to Dusty, Aznavour and a run through Paul and Barry Ryan’s Kitsch. And it most certainly is.

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