“You’ll never see Boy George and Marilyn living in a squat off Tottenham Court Road again” — Neil Tennant, 2009
Remember those days, remember those days…
By the early 1980s, the Sombrero Club had been carving out its niche for over a decade, as a not exclusively gay basement bar on Kensington High Street, full of slinky secrets and countless poppers rushes to the head. This hushed, hidden place was where the video for Antmusic was filmed, but more than that, it was where Peter Robinson met George O’Dowd — almost a pound shop recreation of Freddie Burretti encountering David Bowie for the first time at the same watering hole at the start of the ’70s.
“It was full of freaks,” remembers Robinson. ”Rent boys and drag queens and old rich guys that wanted to pick up little young pretty boys. It was like a melange of oddness, so I liked that.”
By 1983, amid the “fashion” for leg warmers and shoulder pads, everyone in Britain was huddled around the telly for the BBC’s Thursday night mime show Top Of The Pops, where you bore witness to countless pop tarts sashing across the screen, using gender as one aspect of the self that could be manipulated as a style choice, seeing it as a way to outdo others in parallel club scenes.
O’Dowd, now calling himself Boy George, enraged suburban fathers up and down the land as skipped gaily to the latest Culture Club fluff behind a veil of make up while dressed in a tent as he tried to hide that big arse of his.
To a lesser but still London-centric extent, Eurythmics and Wham! were the new duos on the block as Yazoo said adieu, while fellow Blitz club luminaries Spandau Ballet and Visage were on the up and down respectively. And then came Marilyn. Ah, yes, Marilyn.
The girl child born Peter Antony Robinson in Jamaica is now 61, “celebrating” his November 3 birthday on the same day as Lulu and Adam Ant himself. Which is all the more bemusing as foul-mouthed Maz got chucked off of his non-starring crowd scene role as an extra on Adam And The Ants’ Prince Charming video for calling the chief insect warrior a “fucking cunt” in protest at being forced to learn the “new dance craze” that made said promo so memorable.
Fast forward to the late Lynn Barber’s illuminating interview with a Pet Shop Boy in a 1994 edition of the Daily Telegraph Magazine, who punctuates the quizzing with
“I reminded him we’d met before, in New York in March 1985, where we were both interviewing a hideously rude singer called Marilyn. Mariella Frostrup, the PR in charge of that junket, told me then that Neil Tennant would soon be famous, but I didn’t believe her.”
Crystal balls or not, the Neil and Maz show was one of the last interviews Tennant conducted for Smash Hits magazine before synth pop success beckoned. This is the highly entertaining transcript.
Marilyn: Does Anyone Still Want Him?
Neil Tennant, Smash Hits, 14 March 1985
“I COULD DROP DOWN DEAD TOMORROW AND I COULD COUNT THE PEOPLE WHO WOULD CARE ON ONE HAND.”
MARILYN IS TRYING TO MAKE “A COMEBACK”. HE’S IN AMERICA TRYING TO RECORD A HIT SINGLE AND PERFORMING LIVE FOR THE VERY FIRST TIME. BUT THINGS ARE NOT GOING WELL FOR HIM, AS NEIL TENNANT WILL TELL YOU”
MARILYN IS miserable and alone in the tough American city of Detroit. His last two singles, to the horror of his record company, have not been hits. Now he’s been dispatched to Detroit to make a hit or else with a famous American producer, Don Was. Arriving at his hotel in Detroit, he finds that no one has booked a room for him. No one has made any arrangements for his hotel bill to be paid. He calls England to find out what’s going on. No one answers his calls. He sits in the hotel lobby for nine hours, alone and friendless. Snooty staff glare at him.
“It was like being on the edge of a cliff. I knew that I had a week to record two really good songs and come back with two songs that everyone would hear and say, ‘Great, Marilyn. You’ve really proved that you can do it.’ And I had to go through so much to get those two songs recorded, I felt like a different person altogether. That was definitely the beginning of the change.”
And what a change… He made a decision to do something so drastic it would strike at the very heart of his… Marilyn-ness. It would alter the public’s perception of him. Utterly.
Marilyn decided to cut off his hair.
A couple of months later, a cropped Marilyn sits with me in a chic but gloomy New York hotel room. He’s still miserable. One of the tracks he recorded in New York, ‘Baby You Left Me’, has turned out fine. The best thing he’s ever done, actually. Now he’s got to make a video for it. New York’s most fashionable nightclub, Area, is throwing a party for him tonight and he’s going to sing in front of an audience for the first time ever.
The idea was that he would be filmed for part of the video but the film crew have been delayed. Marilyn’s live appearance is going ahead as planned, however. He’s nervous. A photographer from the New York Post has just given him a lot of grief. “There’s only so much I can take,” he moans and we have a gloomy chat in the semi-darkness as night falls over Manhattan.
Why did you cut your hair off?
“Because I got bored with looking the same way all the time and this is a bit different. People still see me as a sort of transvestite with a glittery suit and pink lipstick – but that was a year-and-a-half ago.”
Do you never wear make-up now?
“No, I don’t. I don’t like the feel of it on my face. I like to be able to rub my eye when I feel like it and come home and go straight to bed. I don’t like all that junk over me. It gets to be a trap.”
People treat him differently as a result, he reckons. “They talk to me like a person.” When he had his hair cut, the girls in his record company’s office “fancied me and the guys shook my hand. It was like I’d finally done it.”
Since he first shot into the charts at the end of 1983, he’s had to put up with some outrageous criticism in the press. Some of the tabloids seemed to blame him for the complete moral downfall of Britain.
“I was quite shocked, really, that someone could be so stupid,” he says. “You just expect that, after Danny La Rue and Quentin Crisp and God knows who else, that people would be able to accept someone with a bit of make-up. England is like such a bunch of old drag queens anyway. If you pick up a history book… I’m quite tame compared to a lot of people.”
He admits that he is “famous for the wrong reasons” and is under no illusion that his precarious stardom is founded on his musical talents.
“I think I’m famous for being somebody’s friend.”
Somebody, however, is never mentioned by name during our conversation. He doesn’t utter the words “Boy” or “George”.
“He’s a friend of mine and I’m not going to deny it. But if you talk about it, it’s like you’re dropping his name. So how do you win? It’s either completely losing a friendship for the sake of everybody else – people you don’t even know – or putting up with it and carrying on with life as normal and, if it gets written about in the papers, it gets written in the papers.
“I mean, I try not to be seen anywhere with him. If we go through an airport together I try and walk 30 paces behind with a passport over my lace or something.”
George is very “protective” towards Marilyn, apparently, almost to the point of being “suffocating”. Their relationship does have its ups and downs but, as Marilyn points out: “I have arguments with nearly every person I know and I make up with them.” George is no exception.
When I ask what their holiday in Jamaica was like, he grimaces.
“Horrible. I didn’t like it this time. It was just… difficult.”
“Just difficult. If I started to talk about it, I really would talk about it and that wouldn’t be very clever.”
It sounds fascinating.
“Well, you’ll be able to read all about it one day when I write my book.”
Do you have a lot of friends?
“It’s difficult to have a lot of friends. It takes me a long time to get to know one person, let alone a lot of people. I could drop down dead tomorrow,” he adds dramatically, “and I could count the amount of people who would care on one hand.”
Not only does he have few friends, but money is in short supply. He’s just sold his London home because “I couldn’t afford the bills. I need the money.” He doesn’t know where he’s going to stay when he returns to London: “Under the arches! No, something will turn up.”
You don’t seem very happy, I observe.
“Today hasn’t been a good day at all. It’s the wrong day to ask me about happiness.”
What makes you happy?
“Not having to deal with stupid people which I have to do an incredible amount.”
How do you enjoy yourself?
“Getting really out of it.”
“I don’t know. I don’t know where I go when I’m out of it.”
Do you fall in love very often?
“Yes I do. It’s the most horrible experience ever.”
“It’s like being on the edge of a cliff again.”
You seem to spend a lot of time on the edge of this cliff.
“It would seem so.”
Are you there now?
“Sort of. Quite close to the edge but not quite there yet. A couple of pushes more and I’ll be there. Sometimes I feel like going swimming in a pair of concrete stilettos. I have to put up with so much… shit from some people. I sometimes wonder whether it’s all worthwhile. But then you get a letter from someone who’s got cancer and you realise: who am I to be depressed about anything?”
Do you wish you had more “credibility” in the music business?
“I don’t want credibility,” he snaps. “I want respect. I hate all that street credibility stuff. It’s such a load of old rubbish. Half the people who talk about street credibility don’t even remember where the street is. I’ve lived in it.”
Are you hard?
“Yeah, I think so. I’m still here after all I’ve had to put up with.”
Are you worried about your new single being a hit?
“No, not really. Of course I want it to be a hit. In fact I need it to be because I’ve got no money. But if it isn’t, well, life goes on.
He is, to use an old show-business cliché, “a survivor”.
Six hours later and Area is crowded for Marilyn’s party. Joan Rivers is here and so is Christopher Reeve (‘Superman’) and Steve Bronski of Bronski Beat and Helen Terry. Marilyn’s records are being played, his photos are being flashed onto the walls and girls are dressed up as Marilyn Monroe. It’s time for Marilyn’s first-ever live appearance.
It’s a disaster.
As he saunters onto the stage to sing over his new single, the PA system shrieks with excruciating feedback, all but drowning out the backing track.
Marilyn motions for the tape to be stopped and the feedback fixed. But the dreadful noise continues.
He runs off the stage and does not return.
© Neil Tennant, 1985
Edited by Steve Pafford
Courtesy of rocksbackpages.com
Two towering talents. My bottom hurts just thinking about them…