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.