THIS IS THE FULL VERSION OF AN ARTICLE THAT APPEARED IN THE GUARDIAN HERE
Think back to the chart-toppers of 1981 and imagine the one least likely to end up performing a song cycle about 17th-century pestilence at Edinburgh's Traverse theatre. Of all the candidates, Marc Almond would score most highly. Thirty years ago, this slightly built man in black eyeliner and studded wrist bands, whose cover of Gloria Jones's Tainted Love had more passion than tuning, would have seemed the most unlikely candidate to play the art-house theatre circuit.
Yet reset the clock to 2011 and here he is, gearing up for a prime Edinburgh fringe slot in Ten Plagues, a sophisticated piece of music-theatre written by playwright Mark Ravenhill and composer Conor Mitchell, directed and designed by Tony-award winner Stewart Laing. "It's been a great learning challenge," says Almond, now 53 but looking puckishly younger. "I'll either sink or swim, but that's how I've always gone for things."
Appearances, though, can be deceptive. Yes, he was at the vanguard of electropop as the singer of Soft Cell. Yes, he sang about seedy films, sex dwarfs and extravagant parties. And, yes, he would spend the next 20 years in a very rock'n'roll haze induced by cocaine, crack, ecstasy, ethyl chloride, Halcion, heroin, LSD, MDA, mescaline, opium, purple haze, special K, speed, sleeping pills and Valium – and those are just the ones he admits to. "I look back on a lot of the 80s and 90s and I can't think of them with fondness," he says. "I look back with a shudder. I wasn't in a very good place for a lot of that time. It all ended in tears."
Where other acts of the era added detached vocals to the mechanised beat of new musical technology, Soft Cell broke the mould with Almond's vulnerable, impassioned and very human sound. The band forged the missing link between Kraftwerk and northern soul, a strategy that, in Tainted Love, got them to number one in 17 countries. Acclaim continued with Bedsitter and Say Hello, Wave Goodbye, but Tainted Love remains the calling card. "Thank God for Rihanna sampling it in her song," says Almond, referring to the singer's 2006 single SOS. "I really like Rihanna – I download her singles from iTunes – so I loved it."
This, though, is the same Marc Almond who, with only two O-levels to his name, talked his way into Leeds Polytechnic to study fine arts. Here, under the guidance of the late counter-culture activist Jeff Nuttall, the sometime Guardian poetry critic and co-founder of the People Show, Almond became a specialist in performance art. In one student show, he shaved half his body and performed naked but for his boots and a "strategically placed swastika". In another, he smeared his naked body in cat food.
When he met fellow student and future Soft Cell comrade Dave Ball, he drafted him in to provide electronic "squelches, squeaks and swoops" for highly theatrical performances about androgynous nightclub singers and rent boys. His theatre credentials, in other words, are long-standing.
As further evidence that he is not the man he once was, we meet not in the kind of Soho dive he described in such lurid detail on Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret, Soft Cell's debut album from 1981, but in the bare-brick splendour of Wilton's Music Hall. The grade II-listed relic in London's East End is the oldest surviving grand music hall in the world. As its patron, Almond wants it to survive some more. The failure in a recent bid for Heritage Lottery funding puts that in doubt.
Elements of the moody rock'n'roll star remain. This morning, he has shown up in regulation rock-star black. He has black shades, black leather jacket, black shirt, black hair . . . even his eyebrows are the colour of coal. He has a skull ring on his right hand and another skull on a chain round his neck. He was doing goth before the goths, yet one less lucky break with the nascent Soft Cell and he could have been a man of the theatre.
"I always wanted to be a dancer rather than a singer," he says. "But because I have no coordination, it never worked for me. At art college I put on performances involving slides and films, with me at the centre doing very theatre-based things. It evolved into something more pop-orientated. My problem was I can't memorise lines, because I'm dyslexic and I had minor learning difficulties when I was at school. Having a stammer as well – it was very bad when I was young – meant music was a great way for me to go. When you sing you don't stammer and for some reason I could always memorise songs."
Despite his professed dislike of interviews, he talks in an excited babble, animated, intelligent and chatty. He breaks off only for the occasional giggle and refuses to be cowed by the mild stammer that returned after a motorcycle accident in 2004 that also left him with a collapsed lung and a punctured eardrum. When his assistant points out our allotted time is up, he cheerfully carries on regardless.
It is because of Almond's love of theatre that Ten Plagues came about. After seeing Ravenhill's Mother Clap's Molly House, a vision of 18th-century sex and commodification at the National theatre, he told the playwright he would love to collaborate. Ravenhill returned the compliment by writing a libretto with Almond in mind. It was about the great plague of London and took inspiration from Samuel Pepys, Daniel Defoe and Susan Sontag's polemical AIDS and its Metaphor.
Composer Conor Mitchell was drafted in, turning Ravenhill's text into a song cycle set in 17th-century London, where a decimated population is struggling to maintain social order. "It's about loss, grief, survival – and shopping," says Almond, who plays a man journeying through the city, observing the devastation. "You could take Ten Plagues literally, as a historical piece, but you can also see parallels at a time when we seem to be obsessed with fear, pandemic and viruses. Turn on the television today and it's all about E coli. Last year it was bird flu. It seems apt that plagues are still in our mind."
One such "plague" is HIV. That Almond himself survived his sexually adventurous years (he calls himself an "inquisitive" person) without contracting the virus is to his great good fortune. "I came very close," he says. "It's not that I haven't come unscathed from those times – I suffer bouts of ill health now which are probably a consequence of earlier times of my life – but I was very lucky to avoid having HIV. It could have easily happened to me."
It was on his first trip to New York in 1981 to record Soft Cell's debut album that he heard about AIDS. "On the radio in the taxi on the way to Manhattan they were talking about how a handful of people had died from what they were calling a new gay plague," he says. "I spent a lot of time in New York in the 1980s with the downtown arts crowd and it became more and more visible. Places closed down and the whole landscape of New York seemed to change. It seemed to go very dark, desperate, fearful and unfriendly."
In the 30 years since, he has lost friends and colleagues including avant garde opera singer Klaus Nomi, Freddie Mercury and Derek Jarman. The experience has taken its emotional toll. "In Ten Plagues, the character becomes very hardened towards death," he says. "I can understand that. Whereas I used to get very affected by somebody dying, now I feel a grief but I take it in my stride. That's a thing of getting older anyway; we're all on this conveyor belt and dropping off the end of it. As you get older, the diseases start coming, often the consequences of the things we did in our hedonistic days, we become more frail, more fragile and you do take death more in your stride. Being someone who's had a number of near-death experiences myself, it doesn't frighten me."
Today he has been free of drugs for over a decade and never goes to pubs or clubs. He is awake by 6am and in bed at 10.30pm. It pleases him to be booked into an afternoon slot on the Edinburgh fringe because ill health (he suffers from anaemia, food allergies and aching joints) means he gets tired easily. There is, however, still something of the night about the man who has chronicled the lives of outcasts and outsiders in over 20 albums with Soft Cell, Marc and the Mambas and under his own name. He admits he doesn't care for the sun and he needs some gentle cajoling by the Guardian photographer before removing his shades. But, more than a decade after going through rehab, he seems more comfortable with himself. "The years from the Millennium to now have been the most satisfying, creative and happy time of my life," he says.
The move into the theatre is typical of a career that has rarely played to expectation. There was nothing obvious about marrying an old northern soul track to an electro backing with Tainted Love and if he was concerned about keeping the Soft Cell fan-base on side, he'd never have embraced Spanish rhythms with such enthusiasm on Torment and Toreros, his second album as Marc and The Mambas in 1983. Subsequent releases took on similarly wayward influences, from Gene Pitney to Jacques Brel, right up to this year's, Feasting with Panthers, a sumptuous piano-driven collaboration with Michael Cashmore, in which he makes songs from the poetry of Jean Cocteau, Gérard de Nerval and Jean Genet. "It's decadent poetry translated by Jeremy Reed, who's like a glam-rock poet," he says. "It's a beautiful, emotional record and it's more narrative, which puts me in a good setting for Ten Plagues and getting away from the verse-chorus-middle-eight of the classical pop song."
He says he is as creative as ever, but also, at last, reconciled to his past, in particular that one song. "I've had to learn to love Tainted Love. There was a period in my life when I never wanted to sing it or play it again. That's always a big mistake, because then it comes back even more. People say: 'Why don't you ever do it? Why do you want to disrespect our growing up? Why do you want to deny it.' And they're right. It's like a theme tune and you have to accept that people will want it until the day they die – and thank God they do because it's something that brings you down to earth. You can do all kinds of artistic, esoteric or theatrical projects and then you can come back to earth and sing a few pop songs. You go on stage and sing Tainted Love and everybody loves you and forgives you everything."
He lets out another big giggle. "You've made them all happy for three-and-a half minutes."
Ten Plagues, Traverse, Edinburgh, August 6–28; Feasting with Panthers is out now on Cherry Red Records.
© Mark Fisher 2011
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