I wouldn’t ordinarily mark a birthday on here, but I make an honourable exception today because I felt like it. Marc Almond is 60 today – yes, you heard it right. Bloody sixty! Anyone witness to the dramatic debut of the twenty-something Soft Cell on ‘Top of the Pops’ in 1981 will probably struggle to accept that fact, but it’s true. In a way, however, Marc Almond has grown into his middle-aged skin rather well; a noted admirer of older performers such as Scott Walker and the whole torch-song genre, Almond never possessed the juvenile mindset of Rock ‘n’ Roll and its desperate search for a fountain of youth. He seemed suited to the crooner persona, and you can’t be a crooner in skinny jeans.
To have made it to 60 at all is quite an achievement for Almond. In 2004 he was involved in a potentially-fatal road accident when he was thrown from his motorbike near St Paul’s Cathedral, leaving him in a coma for several weeks. It was quite disconcerting watching the regional news on Yorkshire Television at the time this happened, as the accident was presented as a virtual obituary. Thankfully, Almond pulled through, and the proper obituaries could be shelved for another day. The fact YTV covered the accident in such a major way reflected the impact as a ‘local act’ Soft Cell had in the early 80s; but they had quite an impact nationwide.
Gary Numan had pioneered the escape of electronic music from the experimental, avant-garde ghetto it had long been assigned all the way to the top of the charts. ‘Are Friends Electric?’ hitting No.1 in the summer of 1979 was a pivotal moment in the transformation of synthesizers being merely rock band decoration to becoming lead instruments in their own right and it proved such a sound was commercial dynamite in the right hands. It took a year or two for Numan to be joined by other electronic (or ‘Synth Pop’) acts, but 1981 was a crucial year in the change. It began with Ultravox’s grandiose ballad ‘Vienna’ stuck behind Joe bloody Dolce at No.2 and ended with The Human League occupying the pinnacle with ‘Don’t You Want Me?’ In between these two events was a minor revolution.
Along with the arrival of a band such as Depeche Mode, who dispensed with the guitar-bass-and drums formula altogether in favour of a purely electronic armoury, there was a rash of painted faces gate-crashing stale pop programmes that signified a sea-change. Inspired by the ‘anyone can do it’ DIY Punk ethic as well as the synthesized soundscapes of Kraftwerk and the arty Glam of the previous decade (as represented by Bowie and Roxy), the newcomers were often lumped in with London’s New Romantic movement and its most striking spokesman, Steve Strange of Visage. But the likes of Phil Oakey, David Sylvian and Marc Almond had been operating in isolation on the underground grapevine for quite some time, biding their time until the mainstream caught up with them. And in 1981 it did.
Marc Almond and David Ball were both refugees from rundown British seaside towns (Southport and Blackpool respectively) who forged an alliance at Leeds University in the late 70s, a seat of learning receptive to musical misfits at the time; Scritti Politti were formed there more or less simultaneously with Soft Cell. Ball and Almond’s project was initially more of an experimental performance outfit; few would’ve earmarked the pair for future pop stardom. But the kitsch theatrical garishness they embraced, combined with Ball’s synths and Almond’s outré appearance, was soon to cross over from limited cult appeal to the top ten because the top ten was suddenly ready for them.
Signing to one of the numerous thriving indie labels of the era, Soft Cell’s recording career began inauspiciously with a characteristically uncommercial electronic work-out called ‘Memorabilia’; but following a headline-grabbing turn at Leeds’ Futurama Festival, one of the must-see showcases for new ‘alternative’ acts at the turn of the 80s, they covered a little-known Northern Soul classic called ‘Tainted Love’. Marc Almond had been introduced to the track via his teenage devotion to T.Rex; Marc Bolan’s girlfriend Gloria Jones had sung the original. Released in the summer of ’81, the rise of ‘Tainted Love’ gathered pace when – as happened so often back then – Soft Cell were invited on to ‘Top of the Pops’.
The Sex Pistols remained the benchmark for outrage at the beginning of the 80s and few thought their particular brand of it could be surpassed. But 1981 was the year of a new kind of subversion, and – along with Phil Oakey’s unique haircut and pierced nipple – few did it better than Soft Cell. Clad in black and camp as a row of tents, Marc Almond provoked an instant generational divide in the nation’s households, one that accelerated when ‘Tainted Love’ went all the way to No.1 and ended up as the year’s best-selling single. It even made the US top ten, spending more weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 than ‘Rock Around the Clock’ (excuse the Paul Gambaccini moment).
The first duo to have such an impact on the charts since the equally eccentric Sparks in the 70s, Soft Cell became an overnight sensation, following ‘Tainted Love’ with a string of top tenners over the next year, including the brilliantly overwrought ‘Say Hello, Wave Goodbye’ and the fantastic ‘Torch’. Their foray into the US charts enabled them to become regulars on New York’s club scene, where they sampled ecstasy years before it became the clubbers’ drug of choice this side of the pond; but the unexpected pop stardom they were hardly prepared for punctured the left-field principles their generation still held dear, and they embarked upon a somewhat self-destructive path; this was particularly evident on the superbly fractured albums, ‘The Art of Falling Apart’ and ‘This Last Night in Sodom’.
Already fronting Marc and the Mambas when Soft Cell were still operational, the band’s split in 1984 saw Almond establish an idiosyncratic solo career that has remained his trademark ever since. He stubbornly follows his own path, occasionally gracing the upper echelons of the charts and even returning to the top spot in a duet with Gene Pitney in 1989; but what makes Almond special is that he belongs to that elite group whose members have included the likes of Julian Cope, Roy Harper, Richard Thompson and Billy MacKenzie, the Great British Musical Outsiders who do what they want to do, whether the wider public wants it or not.
Almond’s sexuality, whilst as obvious as Freddie Mercury’s, remained something that was left to the imagination to begin with; being openly gay was still perceived as career suicide in the early 80s; even Boy George avoided the issue. Come 1984 and the arrival of Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Bronski Beat, however, the closet door had been kicked open and Almond no longer had to change the subject. But their breakthrough wouldn’t have been possible had not Marc Almond invaded our living rooms before them. Lest we forget, the gloriously kinky ‘Sex Dwarf’ video appeared two years prior to ‘Relax’. We live in different times today, and it’s thanks to the likes of Marc Almond that we do. So raise a glass to one of our one-offs. They’re fewer and far between in 2017, so we need to cherish the ones we’ve still got.
© The Editor