Talk About… Pop Music

Ahead of a new (giant) retrospective box set, Marc Almond sat down for a conversation with Sam Walton

The results of a Google image search for “Marc Almond” make for curiously engrossing viewing. As with any pop figure 35 years into his career, there’s an immediate compression of time, as mop-headed Marc, fresh from his Top Of The Pops debut with Soft Cell in August 1981, mingles with unflattering modern pap shots from clickbait websites. Candid documentary photographs of him applying his makeup in front of a dressing-room mirror, tattooed and toned, are interspersed with the results of sumptuously styled shoots.

Yet for all the diversity of image, there’s one constant: eyeliner. Almond’s theatrically darkened eyes feel like a springboard from which every mutation has sprung, and well it might: he has named his huge career retrospective box set ‘Trials of Eyeliner’ – though, given its prevalence, it could just as easily be “trails”.

Almond’s box set performs a similar temporal compression, albeit on a grander scale. While there’s something rather daunting about attempting to digest nearly 13 hours of music made by one person (especially when five minutes of it – ‘Tainted Love’, the song that catapulted Marc Almond from Leeds Poly into the nation’s living room – is one of the most famous pop songs ever recorded) ‘Trials of Eyeliner’ is surprisingly lithe for its size, never feeling overly weighty or viscous.

Over the course of ten discs, you travel from a late-70s post-punk art-school wasteland reminiscent of Throbbing Gristle and early Pulp, through proto-acid house, show tunes, throaty ballads, glam rock, and of course bulletproof pop songs. But alongside the big (and the not-so-big) singles are Almond’s forays into the esoteric. There are rather startling selections from an album of Russian romance and folk songs, played with local musicians in Muscovite hovels; there are cuts from a song cycle about the 1665 Great Plague of London, ‘Ten Plagues’, that serves as a metaphor for the public hysteria that greeted the emergence of AIDS; there are excerpts from his 1983 double LP ‘Torment & Toreros’, recorded as Marc and the Mambas, which gathered dust until Antony Hegarty exhumed it for his Meltdown festival in 2012.

The result is a portrait of a singular musical ambition that dances between unapologetically commercial singalongs and occasionally bloody-minded slices of performance art. It’s also a peculiarly British image of popular music: high camp nestling with the art school, unexpected hits alongside lost gems, and a seam of non-conformity and even self-deprecation running through it all. “You poor thing!” Almond exclaims, when I tell him I’ve spent the last week listening to nothing but Marc Almond. On the contrary – the result has been rather enriching.

“There’s a mainstream public that know me for Soft Cell and those hits”

But I’ve had these two careers going on, so people are unaware of lots of stuff I’ve done. I’m very lucky, because I’ve had this bunch of hits, which has then given me the chance to do these underground, theatrical and experimental things. ‘Tainted Love’ gave me the opportunity to do everything really. If it hadn’t been a hit, I probably would’ve gone off into experimental theatre, and maybe music, but it would’ve been a lot more leftfield, much more the level of the early stuff in the box set. Then again, I’ve still been able to do stuff like that anyway – I did ‘Ten Plagues’ the other year, and the stuff I did in Russia, which I really value, and I’m working on another thing of my own at the moment. So I’m still able to go into that world if I want to.

“I don’t just write about seediness and griminess”

I write a lot about loneliness, about yearning and looking for things, about trying to find some place in the world. There’s an outsiderness I think to the music I make, and that’s how I’ve been all my life – just trying to fit in, but never quite managing. As a kid, at school, at home, I’ve never been able to connect with people very well. Even with the whole Blitz Club scene in the early ’80s, Soft Cell were the poor cousins of that. It was always the Human League, ABC and that lot, all the glossy number-one bands, and even after we had a number-one hit we were still the poor northerners. I remember at one of our first gigs down south, we were supporting Depeche Mode I think, and there was another band in the audience, who shall remain nameless, who threw pennies at us because we were the “poor northerners”. We always felt like the rejected people.

“I’ve loved pop music since I was little”

Back then, I never thought I’d be able to get the chance to actually go on Top of the Pops, to be a pop star and all that. But my first experience of success was difficult, because I was still very much the art student, and very much in that mindset of wanting to be experimental and subversive, while working with a corporate record company who wanted to show me how to move on Top of the Pops and bring in stylists to tell me what to wear.

“I realised pretty early on that to last in the music business, you’ve got to commit commercial suicide”

When we first had pop success there was of course a pressure from the record company to do more more more of the same same same. But we saw other bands doing that with diminishing returns, and they all burned themselves out. So we thought – and you must remember that we were bastard-minded art students as well, belligerent and totally difficult, with this art school training that Soft Cell was an extension of – if we’re going to last, we don’t want to be written about in Smash Hits. We want to be written about in NME. But we ended up being a Smash Hits band, wearing party hats on the cover of the Christmas special, and it was horrible. We realised that the irony wasn’t really coming over so we had to do something different – we had to move in a way that was more Birthday Party than Depeche Mode.

“I did a thing in 1983 called The Immaculate Consumptive”

Which was me, Nick Cave, Jim “Foetus” Thirlwell and Lydia Lunch. It was a sort of alternative dark shambolic cabaret show. I think we only did it two or three times – people always wanted us to do more, but it was one of those things that was best left in myth. Nothing really survives from that project – I think I’ve got a bootlegged cassette that’s been copied about 50 times and done the rounds – but it’s good like that. Nick stole the show when he came on at the end and did Elvis’ ‘In The Ghetto’, and everyone’s jaw just dropped because he was really brilliant and everyone else was a complete mess.

“I hate the way London is being half pulled down, and every street now looks the same”

It’s not that I never want anything to change, or to bury myself in nostalgia – I like a mixture of the modern and the old. But you need history to have soulfulness, and what I like about London is that it always felt like a modern melting pot of old history and modern things happening. But I’ve felt that over a couple of years, London was losing respect for its older side, laying waste to all that in favour of monuments to “luxury living”. But the thing is these “luxury” apartments are not luxury living! Luxury is space, and time and air. These apartments are not luxury living, they’re upmarket council flats! I’ve lived in a council flat, and it was better built than most of these apartments. I’ve felt this change a lot recently. Maybe it’s a getting-older thing, watching different artists you know drop off the edge of the conveyor belt: when someone like David Bowie goes, you feel that it’s not just David Bowie you’re losing, but you’re losing a part of you, and who you are. It’s the same with buildings and places, too, that are part of your identity. They’ve made you who you are, so when they tear them down, they’re tearing down a bit of you, too.

“There’s no roughness or raw sexiness left in pop music”

You see these guys and girls on the first audition stage of The X Factor, and they come in looking quite rough and nice, and quite sexy. But even at the first audition, all their vocals are already mixed and put through tuners, and they’ve had a backing track mixed around them, so they just sound like a record from the first minute and there’s none of that bit where you see them grow. And then, once they’ve made it past the boot camp, they’re all coiffured and wearing the same hair gel! They’ve got too much makeup on and look like they’ve had facials! And none of them are wearing the clothes that they’d actually wear – they’ve all been bought in, brand new, by a stylist! There are no little denim jackets that have been scuffed a bit, it’s all shiny and new, and it’s awful. I’d have never got past the audition stage on The X Factor, unless I was one of those camp novelty acts that they put through who then get voted out three shows before the end: everything in pop now has to be TV-ready and unshockable. It’s as if there’s a mass conservatism, where it all has to be accepted by the establishment, lest someone complains.

“They say I’m a national treasure”

Which sounds like the kind of thing you’ve got to put away in a cupboard and forget about, or like some old relic that has to be displayed in a cabinet. I still try to be anti-establishment, though – a little bit against the grain – even though it’s increasingly hard to do that once everyone starts accepting you for being against the grain! That becomes your establishment persona: “Oh he’s anti-establishment, and that’s why we accept him as part of the establishment”! I’ve even started being invited to things and getting awarded for things, which was a shock because I assumed that nobody noticed me anymore. Perhaps it’s just that I’ve been around for so long now that everything else is dead or dying, or has fallen off the conveyor belt, so they’re desperately looking around for anyone that’s left! It’s hard to still be subversive when you’ve been around for a hundred years.

“I do those Big Reunion Hits Of The ’80s revue-type shows because it brings in the cash”

I have five or six hits that everyone loves and waves their arms about to and sings, and that’s good. But what I don’t want to do as I grow older is sink into a comfort zone, so I’ve decided that this will be the last year of all that, because I never want to feel comfortable. I did a couple of those shows this year and it just felt undignified: I was looking at the massive HD screens and thought oh god. I looked around at my peers, and everyone was getting a bit creaky and decrepit, and I don’t want to be on an ultra-HD screen, singing ‘Say Hello Wave Goodbye’! There are some people who do it really well – the Human League do it brilliantly because they’ve constructed this fantastic show around them, and Phil Oakey is great. But in my 60th year I’m looking for things that are more challenging, more difficult for me to do, and that still stretch me. Because being comfortable is what makes you old. You’ve got to keep training yourself with new things. Being comfortable speeds the ageing process.

“No, I’m not a Satanist”

That was a theatrical joke that got a bit out of hand. A friend of mine, Boyd Rice, who’s this experimental musician, was a priest of Anton LaVey, who founded the Church of Satan. Boyd said he wanted to do this ritual where he ordained me into the Church of Satan, and I thought, well why not – so we went into this special little stone place in this garden, and we did this little crazy ritual. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but it got a bit out of hand afterwards – for some reason people got really freaked out by it. I just thought it was something theatrical! It was quite fun to see people’s reaction to it, though; people got quite upset.

“I love teasing people with swansongs – I love saying ‘this is my last song’”

And I love saying ‘this is my last ever tour’. I like to fuck with people like that, just to see what people’s reactions are going to be. It’s a cruel streak within me – I have to play cat and mouse with my fans and say, ‘I’m not doing any of these concerts anymore’ – everyone goes weeping away, and then I come back the next year! So yes, this is it, I’m done! Bye!