We could bang on for hours about all the things that make Marc Almond a legend. This is a man who performed a song about rent boys (Stories of Johnny) on Terry Wogan’s chat show backed by a children’s choir. But he’s also a vital recording artist who’s ha
No artist gets through a 35-year music career without weathering a few ups and downs, but Marc Almond is currently enjoying a real renaissance. In March, a careerspanning compilation album featuring Soft Cell and solo highlights, Hits and Pieces, returned him to the top ten. He’s also signed a new, major label record deal with BMG, a company with form when it comes to reinvigorating what Marc calls “older artists with a good body of work and a good following of fans”. So far, it’s paying off. A few weeks after this interview, Marc’s new album Shadows and Reflections enters the charts at number 14 – his best ever position with a solo record.
We meet at Marc’s office in an upmarket part of central London, in a building he shares with a major fashion house – let’s hope they’re neighbourly and give him a decent discount. Marc’s clearly in a great mood and it’s a pleasure spending an hour with him talking about music, gay history and career longevity. But first: that new album, on which Marc adds his own unique vocal drama (and loads of strings) to a selection of 60s classics.
His cover of How Can I Be Sure, a song you might associate with Dusty Springfield, is as intense and satisfying as your last big fight with your boyfriend.
The idea of recording an album of orchestral cover songs came from his label, but Marc found a way of making it true to him. “There was a danger of ending up with an album of standards, you know. Those are great songs, but everybody does them”, he explains. “But I did a live show where I sang a few songs from the 60s, so I figured that could be my starting point. I had young parents who listened to pop music on the radio, so I grew up with the dramatic ballads of that time. I always loved the way rock ‘n’ roll mixed with an orchestra: big singers, big songs. That became my theme for the album. I wanted to make not just an orchestral album, but a great vocal album and an album whose songs have a certain gothicness to them – kind of baroque pop.”
As Marc points out, this musical era has been a touchstone throughout his career. Think about Soft Cell’s cover of Tainted Love, his Gene Pitney duet Something’s Gotten Hold of My Heart, and his solo smash The Days of Pearly Spencer: they were all 60s songs that Marc reinvented for a new generation.
Marc fell in love with music in the 60s, but the decade also shaped him in other ways. “At school, ‘queer’ was kind of a poisonous word”, he recalls, almost recoiling slightly. “I still find it very hard to adopt that word to myself. It still feels a bit alien. Growing up, I think I was scarred by it more than I realised.”
However, he says his school days yielded pleasure as well as pain – a very Marc Almond combination. “I went through the bullying and the name-calling and the making up of girlfriends – I even had a couple [of girlfriends], though nothing much happened”, he says with a knowing smile. “But I also found that a lot of boys my age gravitated towards me because they wanted to find out about their sexuality. They wanted to experiment with me. So some of the time, certainly, I was having a great time! It was clandestine and all very hush-hush, of course. But school wasn’t entirely a bad time for me.”
Compared to the “camaraderie and fighting the same fight” of the 70s, when he came of age, Marc says today’s LGBT+ community feels a bit “fractured”. At the same time, he admits: “I can’t speak on what a young gay person’s experience is like now. I’m sure it’s as profound in their way as mine was profound in my way.” Yet he expresses dismay that an implicit and pernicious pecking order still splits our ranks. “There’s still a great prejudice in the gay community against people who are camp or effeminate”, he says. “The hard, loud, gay man who’s maybe been brought up in quite a tough situation – maybe in a tough provincial town – he is often dismissed.
People say, ‘Oh, he’s just camp.’ But that kind of gay man is often hard as nails. That’s his armour and it takes some survival to be able to do that. I think it’s a prejudice that’s really bad for the gay community.”
At one point in the interview, Marc borrows a line from Quentin Crisp that he has absolutely earned the right to borrow. “I’m one of the stately homos of England now”, he quips. So we end by asking why he thinks he’s endured. After all, not many artists who appeared on Top of the Pops in the early 80s are still able to book 18-date UK tours, as Marc is currently doing.
“I’ve just been relentlessly banging down the door, really. I’ve just been belligerently there, crawling along and getting up again. ‘Oh here he is again!’ It’s sheer bloody-mindedness really!” he jokes. Then he allows himself to become a little more serious. “It’s taken a long time, but in the last few years, I feel like I’ve really had respect from the music business. There were times when I was just tolerated and treated as an outsider. People thought, ‘He’s good but he’s gay, so let’s put him in the gay corner.’ But I really feel like I’ve persevered and I’m starting to enjoy the fruits of some musical respect.”
Shadows and Reflections is out now, marcalmond.co.uk, @marcalmond