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Marc Almond

+ {Marc And The Mambas}

Love him or loathe him, dramatic singer MARC ALMOND has had his fair share of the trials and tribulations of the fickle pop music business, but reaching No.1 twice with covers of `Tainted Love’ (with SOFT CELL) and `Something’s Gotten Hold Of My Heart’ (a duet with 60s icon GENE PITNEY), surely puts everything else in the shade. Verbally uncomfortable at being typecast as an iconic “gay” artist (although he’s lived in London, Barcelona and Moscow for a number of years with the same partner), the prolific MARC ALMOND has released well over a dozen solo albums, some that might’ve sold even better – he’s stated – had he not been unduly pigeonholed by the media.
Born Peter Mark Sinclair Almond, 9 July 1957, Southport in England, the early life of Marc was beset by illness, having suffered from asthma and bronchitis before he even reached the age of puberty. For years raised by his grandparents with his younger sister, Julia, until he was around 14 or 15, when the siblings moved to their divorced mother’s abode in Southport, the bright, music-loving ALMOND was steered into performance art after studying at various colleges.
Drawing heavily from these heady times, Marc and his newfound buddy, Dave Ball, formed in 1980 what was to become the UK’s most intentionally camp and sleazy synth-pop new romantics, SOFT CELL. When the hypnotic, Ed Cobb-penned `Tainted Love’ injected a bit of life – and soul – into the top of the charts in ’81, and the excellent “Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret” set put Leeds back on the musical map, SOFT CELL looked to have the world at their twinkling little toes. But with tensions between the pair rife and almost untenable, the writing was on the wall by 1983’s “The Art Of Falling Apart”, and more so by 1984’s “This Last Night In Sodom”.
Squeezed somewhere between the triumvirate of albums was ALMOND’s two-album escape-route project, MARC AND THE MAMBAS. Augmented by Annie Hogan (a classically-trained pianist) and guest star Matt Johnson (of THE THE fame), torch-singer Marc was in his prime on the album-and-a-half: UNTITLED (1982) {*7}. Often unfairly derided as too self-indulgent and avant for avant’s sake, and intertwined by covers of JACQUES BREL’s `If You Go Away’, LOU REED’s `Caroline Says’ and SYD BARRETT’s `Terrapin’, the Top 50 record opened beautifully with the dreamy `Untitled’ track, followed by the exotic `Empty Eyes’ and the 8-minute `Angels’.
Involving a fuller band incorporating Hogan, Martin McCarrick (cello), Billy McGee (double bass), Steve Sherlock (saxes, flute), Lee Jenkinson (guitars, bass, drums), plus The Venomettes: Gini Hewes and Anne Stephenson (violins), the Mediterranean-infused double-set, TORMENT & TOREROS (1983) {*4}, was his unrestrained theatrical detachment – supposedly to coincide with his retirement in answer to his media critics. Almost fixated with BREL (or even the Belgian’s American interpreter SCOTT WALKER), Marc wore his heavy heart on his toreador sleeve for `The Bulls’, while other nostalgia-styled covers came by way of `In My Room’, Bizet & Hammerstein’s `Beat Out That Rhythm On A Drum’ and the medley-ised `Gloomy Sunday’, the latter tied in with PETER HAMMILL’s `Vision’ and his own `Narcissus’. Almost embarrassing in places, maybe a single-set would’ve sufficed as some of the cues were almost wrist-cutting (example `Once Was’ and `Torment’); but then there was the minor hit, `Black Heart’.
After many more threats of impending retirement, ALMOND was back in his beloved spotlight almost immediately with the VERMIN IN ERMINE (1984) {*5} top 40 album, cut with new backing band, The Willing Sinners; basically the Mambas and a few add-ons. With the new romantic age at odds with crooner Marc’s outer-limit dabbling, producer Mike Hedges (responsible for the twee-pop side of The CURE) tried to steer him towards the alternative mainstream, and at times it worked, as minor hits `The Boy Who Came Back’ and `You Have’ revealed. But for many it was like pulling teeth at a funereal theatre/musical production.
Developing further as an interpretive balladeer/torch singer with each successive release, ALMOND’s next venture was as guest singer with BRONSKI BEAT in their Top 3 interpretation of diva DONNA SUMMER’s classic dance-floor dirge, `I Feel Love’. And continuing his fascination with Euro-disco and burning ballads, STORIES OF JOHNNY (1985) {*6} – featuring three hits by way of the title track, `Love Letter’ and `The House Is Haunted’ – Marc was at least “stage-ing” a comeback of sorts.
Notable for exercising his rights to try his hand at other covers, the extra B-side tracks on Marc’s take of April Stevens and Nino Tempo’s `A Woman’s Story’ single, were commendable if not dazzling; these included `The Heel’ (once sung by EARTHA KITT), `A Salty Dog’ (PROCOL HARUM), `The Plague’ (SCOTT WALKER), `The Little White Cloud That Cried’ (JOHNNIE RAY), `For One Moment’ (LEE HAZELWOOD) and `Just Good Friends’ (PETER HAMMILL).
Dressed on the cover as a sailor-boy on leave – one assumes – Marc and his Willing Sinners explored classic Euro cabaret to the extreme on the more-than-suggestive and sleazy ode to Truman Capote: MOTHER FIST AND HER FIVE DAUGHTERS (1987) {*6}. Written with long-time cohort Annie Hogan, the record was as close to Judy Garland as it was to LOU REED in his “Berlin” era, but finding a major hit again through `Ruby Red’ and `Melancholy Rose’ was never going to be easy. Marginalised to cult appeal, Virgin Records dropped him.
Culling his ensemble down to three (Hogan, McGee and drummer Steve Humphries: aka La Magia), ALMOND duly inked a deal at Parlophone (Capitol in the States). This approach finally paid dividends with his biggest hit in ages, `Tears Run Rings’, spawned from the return-to-form effort, THE STARS WE ARE (1988) {*7}. On the back of another Top 40 record, `Bitter Sweet’, an inspired pairing of ALMOND and one-time heart-throb hit-maker GENE PITNEY on the man’s 60s smash, `Something’s Gotten Hold Of My Heart’ (a solo recording on the album), gave the duo a sizzling UK chart-topper in the early months of ’89. Despite this, his exploitative re-workings of BREL classics under the JACQUES (1989) {*7} motif, and the critic-dividing ENCHANTED (1990) {*4} album (his first solo venture without Hogan), were just a tad too staged and dated for long-serving acolytes.
As the co-billed SOFT CELL and ALMOND enjoyed a bit of a renaissance with re-mixed hit versions of `Say Hello Wave Goodbye’ and `Tainted Love’, so too did a rejuvenated solo Marc, as he scored a surprise Top 20 hit with a dance-floor re-working of BREL’s `Jacky’. Lifted from the Top 40 mini-concept album, TENEMENT SYMPHONY (1991) {*6}, this slight upsurge in popularity resulted in further spawns, `My Hand Over My Heart’ and `The Days Of Pearly Spencer’, the latter another blast from the 60s past and originally a hit for DAVID McWILLIAMS; it also boasted collaborations with Dave Ball’s The GRID and kingpin producer Trevor Horn.
ALMOND continued to work on various idiosyncratic projects, including a concert CD, 12 YEARS OF TEARS (1992) {*6} – “live at the Royal Albert Hall” – and a set of old French songs via Rimbaud and Baudelaire poems recorded a few years back in ABSINTHE (1993) {*5}, although not everything on the latter made one’s heart grow fonder; through Aznavour, Ferre, Grego et al, it seemed Marc was auditioning for an imaginary cabaret.
Having delivered what was to have been a one-off album, FANTASTIC STAR {*5}, belatedly released in early ’96 for Mercury Records, and featuring “comeback” Top 50 hits, `Adored And Explored’, `The Idol’ and `Child Star’, it again looked promising for ALMOND. Working with Neal X (once associated with SIGUE SIGUE SPUTNIK), plus Mike Thorne and avant-punk veterans, DAVID JOHANSEN, JOHN CALE and CHRIS SPEDDING, it had enough glitz and glam to satisfy most of his fanbase. To end the year, another pop nostalgia course was given light when PJ PROBY and Marc combined their efforts for a minor hit version of `Yesterday Has Gone’.
The long-suffering tainted soul that was MARC ALMOND made his re-appearance with `Black Kiss’, released for Echo Records in late ‘98. Having set up his own Blue Star record label when Echo saw little or no returns, the wee man unleashed his most advanced work since his early days, in the shape of OPEN ALL NIGHT (1999) {*7}. Again overseen by Neal X and featuring the likes of vocalist SIOUXSIE and session trumpet player Roddy Lorimer, highlights included `Threat Of Love’, `Tragedy (Take A Look And See)’ and `My Love’. With medium to rave reviews (for once!), ALMOND set about publishing two works, the first a lyrics/poems collection entitled A Beautiful Twisted Night, the second an autobiography, Tainted Life.
Indeed, STRANGER THINGS (2001) {*6} happened to ALMOND in the new millennium, as he joined forces with Icelandic leftfield beats merchant Johann Johansson. Well, not that strange, merely a trip into more widescreen territory courtesy of the latter’s luxuriant string arrangements; the record even featuring the obligatory guest spot from SHIRLEY BASSEY to add that crucial 007-meets-JOHN BARRY touch; example `Born To Cry’, `Come Out’ and `Under Your Wing’.
Spurred on by a Top 40 “Best Of…” collection, and with nearly every other post-new wave outfit re-forming and recycling to rake in the spoils of cash (or credibility!), it was no surprise that Messrs Almond and Ball would resurrect SOFT CELL; it had been a full 18 years since their… er “Last Night In Sodom” came out; “Cruelty Without Beauty” (2002) stepped back to these heady days of yore.
Ever the wild card, ALMOND resumed his solo career via a post-Glasnost trek into frost-bitten Russian gypsy-folk, courtesy of concept-set HEART ON SNOW (2003) {*7}; he’d taken up residency in Moscow for a time. Backed by native musicians and even singing some original-language tracks, the adventurous Marc was back to his emotional, heartfelt best on the likes of `Nuit de Noel’ (with BORIS GREBENSHIKOV), the traditional `Oh My Soul’ (featuring Alla Bayanova) and `If Your Affectionate Smile Has Gone’ (with Ilya Lagutenko).
With his horizons having widened, they almost narrowed severely when on the 17th October the following year, Marc was nearly killed travelling as a pillion passenger on a motorcycle in central London. Against the odds, the singer was out of hospital inside a month, although his old musical sparring partner, GENE PITNEY, unconnected with the incident, wasn’t so lucky, suffering a fatal brush with mortality on April 5, 2006.
Turning 50 was marked with the release of ALMOND’s next solo venture, STARDOM ROAD (2007) {*7}. Accompanied by Sarah Cracknell (of SAINT ETIENNE), ANTONY & THE JOHNSONS Hegarty and “Later With…” presenter JOOLS HOLLAND, the covers set exhumed nostalgia in full torch-ability on `Strangers In The Night’, `Dream Lover’ and `I Close My Eyes And Count To Ten’. The usual CD/DVD-package concert soundtrack, in `BLUEGATE FIELDS’ live at Wilton’s Music Hall (2008) {*6} featured collaborations with Baby Dee, Little Annie, Neal X, Martin Watkins, John Contreras, Carl Holt and Celine.
Paying homage to a Russian pre-WWII singer-songwriter, ORPHEUS IN EXILE: SONGS OF VADIM KOZIN (2009) {*6}, certainly boosted his arty street cred in leaps and bounds. Sourcing deeper than a field-recording historian, ALMOND sung each romantic ballad with vigour, elegance and indeed spirit, accompanied by conductor/arranger Anatole Sobolev, the Russian Orchestra Ensemble and produced by Alexei Federov; the fact that Kozin spent his last days in the infamous Kolyma Gulag prison near Magadan for “homosexual crimes” probably spurred Marc on even further.
Absent from the charts since the mid-90s, there was still no change for cabaret crooner Marc when he unveiled the cocktail-lounge set, VARIETE (2010) {*5}, and the collaborative FEASTING WITH PANTHERS (2011) {*5}. While the former was derivative of WALKER and BREL once again, the latter Michael Cashmore (of CURRENT 93) cooperative paid literary homage to the classics; e.g. homoerotic poems from Rimbaud, Jean Genet, Gerard de Nerval and new kid on the block, Jeremy Reed.
After a lull of activity between 2012 and 2013, ALMOND was involved in no less than four sets, all released in the space of just over a year, kicking off in February 2014 with a classical-cabaret concept collaboration alongside John Harle: THE TYBURN TREE: DARK LONDON {*6}. Echoing the ghosts and horrors of London past (Jack The Ripper to the Tyburn gallows), while taking in the works of William Blake, and a few gory nursery rhymes, ALMOND and Co conjured up something akin to Phantom/Opera meeting Tim Burton – a million miles from his electro-pop days. The theatrical chamber-rock theme continued on one of ALMOND’s next album projects, a CD/DVD package incorporating something he’d premiered a few years back: TEN PLAGUES – A SONG CYCLE (2014) {*5}. Scribed for him by playwright Mark Ravenhill and musical dramatist Conor Mitchell, the one-man song-cycle dealt with the onset of AIDS (then referred to as the “gay plague”) and the aftermath of hysteria and grief.
Delivered a month earlier in June 2014, ALMOND worked with Tris Penna on electro-glam set THE DANCING MARQUIS {*7}. Included in among a contribution by JARVIS COCKER (`Worship Me Now’), was also time spent alongside legendary record producer Tony Visconti on the double-headed single, `The Dancing Marquis’ and `Burn Bright’, both of which opened the set with buoyancy. Dedicating one song (`Death Of A Dandy’) to his friend from Soho, the artist Sebastian Horsley, who’d died recently (and augmented by Danielz from tribute act T-Rextasy), Marc seemed to be on a pop renaissance.
March 2015 unveiled to many pundits, ALMOND’s best work since his heyday, THE VELVET TRAIL {*8}. Bolstered by long-in-the-can instrumental contributions by L.A.-based songwriter/producer and fan Chris Braide, who’d long inspired Marc to carry on in his own inimitable pop fashion, nostalgia was almost centre stage. Depicted in three acts, the album’s accessible nature gelled well with the lush and emotional singer; highlights here are the heartfelt `Pain Of Never’ and a duet with GOSSIP girl Beth Ditto on `Zipped Black Leather Jacket’.
© MC Strong 1994-2006/GRD // rev-up MCS Nov2013-Mar2015

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