Soft Cell were the sleazy new romantic band. “Most 1980s bands sing about boy meets girl and boy loses girl, or boy meets girl and lives happily ever after,” Marc Almond once said. “We sing about boy meets girl and lures her into a life of drugs and prostitution.”
Boy meets girl? More like boy meets boy. We remember them for “Tainted Love”, their darkly subversive cover of a northern soul number originally sung by Marc Bolan’s wife Gloria Jones, but that only hinted at Almond’s proclivities. Songs such as “Sex Dwarf” and “Seedy Films” were more explicit: they drew us into a nocturnal gay demimonde, a pre-Aids bacchanalia. In comparison, Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Relax” was wholesome entertainment.
After Soft Cell dissolved amid heavy drug use and declining sales – unsurprisingly, the duo were ill-suited to pop stardom – Almond went on to parlay his fascination with low-life into torch songs and Jacques Brel-style balladry. It was a
departure from Soft Cell’s electro-pop, but the music’s air of lush melodrama suited his tales of hedonism and seediness. He was, as a wag dubbed him, the Judy Garland of the garbage heap.
His show at Wilton’s Music Hall was his first full-length UK concert since a near-fatal motorcycle crash in 2004, which left him in a coma. The 49-year-old’s recovery appears to be complete: he has an album of covers out next month, Stardom Road, and in the flesh looked trim and youthful in a black suit and shirt.
The intimate venue, a music hall relic of London’s East End, was the perfect setting for his chansons and ballads, which were ripe with a mood of loss and regret, yet also were sung with lyrical wit and showmanship. There was a pair of atmospheric Russian folk songs about soldiers, one featuring the audience stamping its feet like an army, and a Turkish number sung in English, in which Almond encouraged us to sing along to lines such as “Even if our love’s rose is fading”. Stadium rock it wasn’t.
When he was in Soft Cell, Almond portrayed clubland hedonism as pleasurable but melancholy. In the hit single “Bedsitter”, he sang about the “emptiness” of going home after a night of “dancing, laughing, drinking, loving”. Now he portrays nightlife as a fleeting, transient amusement. “The time has come for me to pay for yesterday when I was young,” he sighed in one song. In another, he instructed a lover “to hold me in your weathered arms” and lamented the disappearance of old Soho stamping grounds.
The extravagance of the emotions – Almond visibly relishing acid lines such as “I was happy and then I had you” – prevented matters from getting maudlin. So did his finely judged sense of camp, evident in songs such as “My Love”, which informed us that his ideal man “smokes like Bette Davis, in short vicious drags”. The knowingness was well-pitched. Almond rarely descended into kitsch (a jolly cabaret song about pornography being an exception): his love for the music meant that he didn’t treat it as worthless or artificial.
Backed by a declamatory pianist and a subdued guitarist, he was an exposed presence on stage, and confessed to suffering from stage fright. One song had to be restarted several times. Yet his performance was dramatic, with theatrical gestures and artful lighting. What his singing lacked in technical accomplishment – “It’s become part of my style!” he once said of his habit of singing bum notes – it made up for with character, as when he defiantly held a high note in a new song, “Beauty Will Redeem the World”. The quote was from Dostoevsky, the attitude was Edith Piaf.
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