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When Marc Almond was a child, growing up in the Merseyside seaside town Southport, he wanted to be a vet. But instead he became a pop star, selling over 30m records, first as a singer with Soft Cell then as a solo performer.
“I used to look at photographs of myself as a child and think: ‘Have I let you down?’ ” he says. “What have I become? Have I become some kind of monster from what you intended to be?”
The singer, 59, is sitting in the empty screening room in the basement of private member’s club Soho House in central London. Dressed in black, he twists sideways in his seat, teeth gleaming with gold crowns whenever he smiles; a stud glints discreetly in his nose. His T-shirt shows the cherubic features of Marc Bolan. Almond changed his name from Mark to Marc in tribute to the T. Rex singer as an art student in the 1970s. If a monster was born, here lie its roots.
Between us is a stack of 10 CDs, the fruits of Almond’s working life. They comprise the box set Trials of Eyeliner, released this week. It is a huge retrospective covering his unpredictable discography, which has been diffuse in range and impressively prolific considering how chaotic his personal life was.
He started Soft Cell with his fellow Leeds Polytechnic art student Dave Ball in 1977 as an experimental post-punk outfit. Their lives were transformed in 1981 by their third single, an irresistible synthpop cover of a Northern soul song, originally by Bolan’s girlfriend Gloria Jones. “Tainted Love” was a mighty international hit, spending a record 43 consecutive weeks in the US singles charts.
The duo continued having hits in the UK but broke up in 1984 after their third studio album amid heavy drug use and fraying personalities. They briefly reunited in 2001. Otherwise Almond has been occupied with his solo career. A theatrical, declamatory singer, he has explored interests ranging from Brechtian cabaret to Russian folk, interspersed with occasional hits like his 1988 cover of “Something’s Gotten Hold of My Heart” with Gene Pitney.
Almond had an unhappy childhood, dominated by his alcoholic salesman father. Trials of Eyeliner is named after an autobiographical song with the lyric: “Father saw you with your eyes of black/Responded with a violent slap.”
“I had a couple of suicide attempts when I was young,” he says. “I was sectioned when I was 17 after a suicide attempt and nervous breakdown. I’ve had near-misses on other occasions. But I’ve always had this thing in my life, of just wanting to get on with it.”
He knew he was gay from the age of 10 or 11, perhaps earlier. When a camp entertainer minced on to the television screen, he would blush as his parents fulminated about “pansies” and “poofs”. Pop music provided a refuge, and more. He remembers watching Bolan light up the BBC chart television show Top of the Pops with androgynous glamour.
“I kind of liked the way he annoyed my father. I sat silent when he said he was a poof and a pansy, but I rushed off to buy [T. Rex’s 1970 single] ‘Ride a White Swan’ as soon as I could.”
Soft Cell’s appearance on Top of the Pops performing “Tainted Love” had a similar effect in 1981. Almond was sylphlike in a Juliette Gréco-inspired black polo-neck, hands encased in bangles and studded leather bracelets, eyes outlined with kohl, miming with gothic drama, transgressive rather than camp.
“All hell broke loose the next day,” he recalls. “There were people camping outside the record company offices and trying to find out where I lived. I realised I had this power and I didn’t really know how to wield it, to be honest. I handled success very badly at first.”
He moved to London, a flat in Soho not far from our meeting place. “That’s what I thought London was,” he says. “I lived that B-movie dream of having the neon of the [strip club] Raymond Revue Bar coming through the windows and the thump of music. I could hear the girls in the changing rooms across from my flat, putting on their pasties and their feathers for the burlesque shows.”
The area at the time was a “pretty heavy place,” he says. “It was terrifying. Many a time I had to run for my life, especially when I started getting recognised.” He speaks quickly, caught up in the recollections, eyes sparkling. “It was dangerous, thrilling, quite intoxicating.”
“Sleaze” is a word that crops up frequently in Soft Cell’s press cuttings. “It was a very easy pigeonhole,” he says. Naming a song after a tabloid headline about a “sex dwarf” did not help, nor lyrics such as “Feeling sleazy in seedy sin city” about visiting pornographic cinemas. “We were our own worst enemy, we got a bit trapped with that. My fascination got carried a bit far,” Almond concedes.
Decadent writers and artists have always loomed in his imagination. A 1984 interviewer found him reading the Marquis de Sade, inspiration for the Soft Cell album, This Last Night in Sodom. His 2011 solo record Feasting with Panthers was named after Oscar Wilde’s boast about sexual adventures in male brothels. He is currently working on a collaborative project to stage Joris-Karl Huysmans’ 1884 novel Against Nature, a key text in French decadence. He is widely read but wears his intellectual curiosity lightly: “I’m really a dodger and a diver and a bluffer.”
When Soft Cell moved to New York to record their debut Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret in 1981, Almond threw himself into the city’s club scene, with its attendant temptations. He was an early adopter of ecstasy and fell prey to heroin and alcohol: “I went through every addiction.”
He fell out with Ball after their 2001 reunion, when “shadow people” came back into their lives, the hangers-on and bad influences. “It came to a head when I passed Dave in the street and said, ‘I never want to see you again as long as I live.’ I wish I had never said that. But I felt like that at the time. I don’t have any animosity towards him now. But we speak through legal people about Soft Cell things. It’s a shame.”
Clean of vices, he lives in south London. For the first time he has “fallen out of love” with the gentrifying city (“I can’t cope with what London is becoming”). He frets about his appearance and turning 60.
“I feel I should be at ease with myself but I’m actually becoming less so in a way,” he says. “I get anxious. I go and see someone like Charles Aznavour, whom I love, and I find myself thinking if only I could still be singing on stage aged over 90, looking so good. But every year that goes by, the anxiety increases. I can’t enjoy it. I’m conscious that I look too fat, I look too old, I can’t remember the words.”
In 2004 he had a motorcycle crash that almost killed him. He has suffered other episodes of ill-health. “Bits of me don’t work. I feel I’m stitched together in parts,” he says. But he continues working. There are two albums on the way, the first an orchestral record of torch songs, the other a set of original material. “I want to put everything into the next two years,” he says.
How about the boy in the photo frame? What does Almond see nowadays, when he looks into the innocent eyes of his younger self?
“With all my anxieties and everything else, I don’t dislike myself as much as I used to,” Almond answers. “I feel I’m not the bad person I used to think I was. I’m essentially quite a good person, except I’ve done some bad things. So I look at the photo of myself as the sweet little kiddie of five and say: ‘I don’t think I’ve let you down too much. I don’t recognise who you are a great deal but I don’t think I’ve let you down too much.’”
‘Trials of Eyeliner: Anthology 1979-2016’ is out on Universal