It was the summer of ’82. I was lying in the sun on Santa Monica beach watching the girls go by. Bikini-clad girls with Hollywood looks on roller skates whizzing past like angels in the wind, infecting my libido and twisting my melons. And Tainted Love was all around. I felt it in my fingers… It poured out of radios and ghetto blasters and cafes and big cars full of big men with hot chicks eating hot dogs. It was fucking everywhere.
‘Sometimes I feel I’ve got to…’
‘… Run away, I've got to…’
‘…Get away from the pain that you drive into the heart of me.’
It was the biggest song in America. Why? Because it had a heart full of soul, Northern soul. But a juiced up, dirtier, spunkified, electrifyingly pornographic Northern soul coming all over that ultra-infectious ‘Da Da’. It caught the sleaze zeitgeist that blossomed in the damp, post-punk, early eighties wasteland and America loved it.
On 16 January, 1982, Tainted Love entered the Billboard Hot 100 at No. 90. It peaked at No. 64 and fell back to No. 100 on 27 February. After spending a second week at No.100, it suddenly started climbing again. Over two months later it cracked the US Top 40. It eventually hauled itself into the Top Ten – reaching No. 8 – and spent a record-breaking 43 weeks in the Top 100.
That’s how much America loved it.
And I loved it. I was biased. Soft Cell had recorded a song – Metro MRX – for a flexi disc featured on the cover of a magazine I co-founded called Flexipop. and Marc had also recorded Discipline for the mag. The disparate duo even appeared on the cover of our first anniversary issue holding a huge ‘Happy Birthday Flexipop.’ cake. I couldn’t help loving them. But it was more than that.
I was in Santa Monica because Flexipop. had just opened an office in Los Angeles and I had to ensure everything proceeded smoothly. It didn’t of course, another story. But I was on a real high. Shit. Me? With an office in L.A.? What the fuck?.
How could Tainted Love not crawl inside me and take up residence when it provided that endless soundtrack as I, sitting smugly in the sunshine with my brand spanking new office, watched the girls who watched the boys who watched the girls go by with the Pacific at my fingertips, a cold Bud in my hand and nostrils full of fine Colombian that made the day a beautiful thing?
Every time I think of California I think of Tainted Love. Mind you, every time I think of Cleethorpes I think of tainted love.
But this isn’t about California. Or Cleethorpes for that matter. This is all about the nutcracker Almond who can whipcrackaway with the best of them when it comes to the fine art of discourse. But it’s a heartfelt discourse, full of Northern soul.
Tainted Love was originally recorded in the ‘60s by Marc Bolan’s future partner Gloria Jones and played to death in Wigan Casino in the ‘70s, coursing through pill-stained veins as the platform soul (sic) groovers, their baggies billowing on the sticky dance floor, spun at the speed of light.
Did you ever get it on at the Wigan Casino?
‘There’s a myth about me going to Wigan Casino. That was Dave (Ball his Soft Cell partner in crime). I went to other places because around where I lived in Southport, like Blackpool and Preston, there were Northern soul nights and I used to go.’
How is Dave?
‘I haven’t seen him in a while. Our last meetings weren’t particularly friendly. We’d been on iffy terms since getting back together in 2001. It started wonderfully but then I began to remember why I gave it all up in the first place. From a promising beginning, it seemed to go downhill. I thought, I can’t do this. Our relationship is very cold at the moment although there are warm overtures being made.
Would you ever do something together again?
‘I’d probably say no. It’s all very complicated. It’s another chapter in my autobiography, Tainted Life, which I’ll have to refresh soon. When you read back your autobiography, and I know Morrissey did with his, you find you do a lot of score settling. I’ve grown out of that and don’t need to say those things anymore. So I’d like to give it a rinse.’
We’re sitting in a private cinema in a boutique hotel slap bang in the middle of Soho. God, Soho’s changed. As a 16 year-old, I used to walk around these streets when the pubs were empty, the pavements were filthy, the strippers were plentiful, the three card tricksters worked miracles and the living was easy.
Now? Now I’m in a private cinema in a boutique hotel slap bang in the middle. That kinda says it all.
Marc’s in black. So am I. Old habits die hard – and black is flattering for gentlemen of our slightly advanced ages. Makes us look mysterious if a little grey. Marc’s not grey, never has been, never will be. He’s ageing well. Lean and keen. But, at 56, he’s aware of the passing years.
‘I try not to sound like an old person. I still feel childish at times, but I am conscious of growing older. I like being the age I am because I spent the first 40-odd years of my life learning lessons and now I can apply those lessons and use them. Over the past decade I’ve tried to get a sense of who I am, where I am in life, what I want. And I doggedly dig my heels in to retain myself.’
Marc has doggedly dug in those heels all his life, sometimes in an almost masochistic way, and has survived because he chooses his own career path doing whatever takes his fancy, from starring in operas to performing one man song cycles set in the 17th century.
And now he’s back doing what he does so well, writing and singing shit hot songs for swinging lovers, this time with a little help from the man he always dreamed of working with, Tony Visconti. And this despite the fact he vowed after the release of the Variete album in 2010 that he would never write another song.
‘I was devoid of ideas and just couldn’t see myself doing another album. But Tony was top of my dream list of people I wanted to work with. When I was 14 I bought a copy of Ride A White Swan in a picture sleeve disc after hearing it on John Peel. I felt so proud to own it and took it into school to show everyone. On the back it said – Produced by Tony Visconti. I bought all the T Rex records and always saw – Produced by Tony Visconti. I bought the Bowie albums and there it was again – Produced by Tony Visconti. I loved the simplicity and beauty of those three minute pop songs.
‘After I met Tony at a T. Rex tribute concert we decided to record together. I had no songs but Tony said he didn’t want to do cover versions with me. So I got together with my guitarist, former Sigue Sigue Sputnik member Neal X, and we were so inspired working with Tony that we wrote a bunch of songs on the spot which is how pop songs should happen. I wanted to exorcise that teenage glam rock demon in me.
‘The result is four songs that I’m really quite proud of, songs that are quintessentially Marc Almond, quintessentially Tony Visconti.’
Two of the songs – The Dancing Marquis and Burn Bright – were released late last year as a double A Side single. The other two – Tasmanian Tiger and Death Of A Dandy – appear on an EP out this month
If larynxes sweat, Marc needs 24-hour protection. His voice is still shot through with that hopelessly lost passion that devoured Bedsitter, Say Hello Wave Goodbye and Something’s Gotten Hold Of My Heart. And his proper pop songs still shine like crazy diamonds.
There are two other two songs on the EP, Worship Me Now and Love Is Not On Trial. ‘While I was recording the EP, a song from Jarvis Cocker, who I didn’t know, landed on my manager’s desk. Jarvis said he’d written Worship Me Now especially for me with his fellow Relaxed Muscle band member Jason Buckle. I thought it was brilliant – old school electro that I love.
‘I worked with Carl Barat of The Libertines and Dirty Pretty Things on the opera Poppea in Paris and I asked him if he’d write a song for me. The result is Love Is Not On Trial which reminds me of one of those great, over the top, Freddie Mercury ballads.
‘All the tracks lend themselves to a story about a dancing marquis. He was the 5th Marquis of Anglesey called Henry Paget, around a century ago, who used to dress up in wild outfits and perform exotic dances for his friends. I had an image of him and Sebastian Horsley who wrote a book called Dandy In The Underworld. He was the self-styled King of Soho and he’d walk around in stove pipe hats and velvet cloaks. There was a play about him but he died two days after the premiere. I went to his funeral in a church off Piccadilly and his coffin was brought in by six prostitutes dressed in full regalia, complete with whips, to the sound of 20th Century Boy.’
20th century boy Marc (he changed the spelling of his name in honour of his idol) fell in love with Bolan’s music while growing up in Southport. ‘I loved his lyrics. The imagery was amazing, a mixture of rock ’n’ roll and Tolkien, glamorous cars and magical kingdoms. Before then I’d always been a progressive music and blues rock fan. I started listening to music at an early age and if you grew up in the 70s before glam rock and were into music there were acts like Deep Purple, Free, Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, and the beginnings of prog rock like Van Der Graaf Generator. And then along came someone like Marc Bolan who made a huge impact.
‘I was such a hippy then and loved Tyrannosaurus Rex when I heard them on John Peel. I listened to Peel all the time and got all my musical knowledge from his show. I found their sound intriguing and when I saw this elflike figure feminine/masculine figure with glitter on his face and ambisexual clothing on Top of the Pops, I was hooked. My parents’ reaction was OMG. I’m sure he was completely heterosexual but he exuded ambisexuality. This was a portal to something so different, so exciting. The potency of cheap music.
‘Then Bowie came along who I’d read about long before I heard him. He just seemed so fascinating in his interviews talking about writers like Jean Genet and William Burroughs and mime artistes like Lindsay Kemp. I never realized pop music could be so seductive, so interesting.’
‘I’d like to think Soft Cell did break down barriers like Bolan did. When I saw Bolan and David Bowie on TV for the first time, it made me realise there were other things out there other than the laddie rock thing. Judging by fans I’ve spoken to over the years, to them I was a figure who, when they were alone in their bedrooms, also showed them there was another life out there and it was okay to be a bit different. I’d like to think I had a part to play in that.
‘I saw T Rex on the Futuristic Dragon tour and he was playing Southport Floral Hall where bands sometimes used to play warm-up gigs before starting their tour properly in Liverpool or Manchester. A friend and I just walked straight in when they were doing a sound check and sat in the front row. There was Bolan on stage with an acoustic guitar singing Cosmic Dancer. Nobody told us to leave. I thought what a change, there was this superstar wearing normal clothes and rehearsing. It was a poignant moment.
‘It made me like him even more. He was my personal pop star after that. I felt like I understood his songs and the press just didn’t get it. As Bolanites we stood up for him because he was really bullied in the papers.
‘At the same time I was being bullied at school and I could identify with him. I wasn’t one of the lads, not sporty, not talking about football all the time and being gay obviously didn’t help. Kids are very perceptive and they home in on something that’s different like being ginger or wearing glasses or being fat.
‘I managed to get around the bullying by being the class idiot. I’d make a disparaging remark to a teacher and everyone thought I was a hero. I survived simply by behaving badly. I never concentrated on anything. It was a survival course. People say that your schooldays are the golden days of your life, but in reality, they’re hell. They scar you. When I left school I was the happiest person in the world.
‘But that bullying carried on after I left school – I must have the word “Victim” written across my forehead. I’ve always attracted bullies but I’ve learnt how to stand up to them now. In the early days of Soft Cell I got very upset, very personally wounded by things people wrote about me because it was like being back in the school playground. It was very difficult for me to be in the public eye. Massive success scared the life out of me and plunged me into such a feeling of anxiety that I got hooked on anti-depressants and prescription pills that led me down a pathway of despair.
‘Fame was a terrible shock at first. It invited things into my life that I didn’t want to invite. Marc admits he’s always felt disconnected from that outside world. ‘I’m very much a lone person. Over recent years I’ve made more of an effort to attend music receptions but I find I’m socially inept at that sort of thing. I don’t play the part of celebrity very well and find it all a bit fake.
‘Oh, you can have fun and I occasionally dip my toe in by attending the odd award ceremony. It’s a great privilege to receive awards.’ Last year Marc was presented with the Ivor Novello Inspiration Award and the Attitude Magazine Icon Award.
‘When you’re not in publications every five minutes you’re not cool – NME won’t touch me with a bargepole unless it’s in a freakish kinda way and they want to put you up as an 80s relic or something. Q completely ignore me. Mojo and Uncut are always really supportive.
‘So the awards are, I guess, a way of telling people you’re still around and that you still have some part to play in music. I follow my own path. I have a motto – it’s not about the past, it’s not about the future, it’s about the ride. I’m not interested to be massively successful. I’m lucky I can live comfortably, I work all the time. I can fill up my diary for a whole year doing various projects but I’ve never been in a position that I’m so comfortable I can give up work. I like that because you get spurred onto the next thing.
‘I’m a workaholic. So it’s all about the ride – what’s interesting, what will give me a great time, what will be of value, what will be challenging. People say you’ve got to do what the kids want. I don’t know what the bloody kids want.
‘I spent much of last year in the recording studio. I recorded an album with producer Chris Braide which should be out late summer. It’s the kind of record I haven't made since possibly Tenement Symphony or Enchanted. There’s even a nod or two to Soft Cell. I also recorded The Tyburn Tree album with celebrated composer John Harle which is due out in in February and I’ll be touring with that. John asked me to do the vocals on the album which is a theme of dark London, dark corners of the city and I’m the vocalist narrator on the album. I find London history fascinating.’
The longer you live the more shit happens. The motorcycle accident in 2004 that nearly killed him and left him in a coma for over a week, is still fresh in his mind.
‘The accident damaged my health for a long time. I was determined to carry on with my life and get back performing, even though it was such a difficult thing to go on stage. I’d completely lost my confidence. I put myself out on TV to do interviews far earlier than I should’ve done. I looked skeletal – I’ve got a shaven head, I was scarred, you could see I was suffering from post-traumatic stress. Yet I had to do it. It was painful to watch but it was part of my recovery.
‘Obviously, if I’d have had the accident when I was 21 I would’ve recovered a lot quicker. I punctured my lungs, my ear drums, all the things that singers need. I worked hard to get all that back. I still have an imbalance in my ear from time to time. I have to hear everything in bass notes as I can’t hear the top notes so much.
‘I knew what it was like to be infirm after the accident and when it eventually comes I’m more capable of dealing with it. You do become aware of your mortality. It’s a dignity thing, I had to learn to walk again, be taken to the toilet. Luckily, I had a really good friend who looked after me who’d been a nurse.
‘My surgeon was a big Soft Cell fan and apparently he played my songs throughout the operation.’
Removing bits of his body to Say Hello Wave Goodbye, maybe?
‘Might even be bits for sale on eBay now.’ he jokes. A dodgy tattoo etched into young Almond fresh skin many years ago went septic and Marc was stricken with Hepatitis B which has caused him a few health problems.
‘I was in hospital again a few years ago to have my spleen and gall bladder removed. I had a tattoo done when I was younger and wasn’t really careful about the hygiene and it gave me hepatitis B, that’s stayed with me all my life and given me liver problems. That creates other complications – my spleen grew to the size of a rugby ball and it affected my gall bladder. So I’ve suffered from bad health for the last few years as well as recovering from the accident. People ask if I regret the tattoos and I’d like to say no but maybe if I’d thought it through at the time I’d have been much more careful.’
Time to wrap this up.
I was under strict instructions from the kind gentleman at ZANI to ask Marc if he was a traditional board game what would he be?
He almost chokes.’ What a weird question. I simple can’t answer questions like that these days.’
I suggest Monopoly, he says Scrabble, then creases up.