Marc Almond on his early days in Soho and the return of Soft Cell

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 (Andrew Whitton)
(Andrew Whitton)

In the darkened bar of a Mayfair hotel, over nothing stronger than water (still), Marc Almond is recalling his arrival in London.

It was only a mile away and 40-odd years ago, and the Soft Cell frontman, freshly down from art college in Leeds, wasn’t yet the make-up-wearing, leather-clad, transgressive Eighties chart sensation he’d become. But it sounds entirely like another place and era.

“When I came to the city in the late ’70s, I worked in what was basically a clip joint in Soho,” begins the gold-toothed, tattooed, entirely-black-clad musician who, at the age of 64, looks like a pop star (still). “I took money while the punters were taken round the corner and sold Asti Spumante for £300, and ladies came in and serviced them. I was a ticket officer in a brothel – a criminal, basically!” he laughs.

For the boy from Southport, this was the opening up of a whole new after-dark world, one that would inspire Soft Cell’s landmark debut album, 1981’s Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret. Referring to the cover version that gave he and partner Dave Ball their deathless first hit, Almond says: “The first flat I ever got with the royalties from Tainted Love was in Brewer Street.

“Me and Matt Johnson from The The bought flats in the same building, overlooking the Raymond Revue Bar. I could actually see into the changing rooms in the strip bar, flashing neon through my window, like being in some film noir b-movie. It was a dangerous place at that time, but I was living these dreams I’d grown up with. Soho to me was London, and it was the setting for Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret.”

 (Andrew Whitton)
(Andrew Whitton)

Years later, he was talking to Neil Tennant, who confirmed to him that “Pet Shop Boys were inspired by that album. And it became clear to me that it was like a little narrative film, the whole album: the frustrated guy that’s fed up with life so he goes to another world in Soho.”

Neatly enough, Tennant and Almond are reunited this month. In a perfect moment of Peak Eighties Synth Duo circularity, Pet Shop Boys are guest stars on *Happiness Not Included, Soft Cell’s first album in 20 years. The pair of pairs’ collaboration on Purple Zone is brilliant, a Smash Hit reader’s fever dream. Likewise the whole album, written by Ball and Almond in their respective South London homes over lockdown. It’s up there with their best, Almond’s still-strong, torch-song-like vocals and earworm melodies lending wings to Ball’s icily-cool electronic production.

One of the standouts is Heart Like Chernobyl. It’s not about the Ukrainian power plant per se. Rather it’s a throbbing electronic lament for what Almond describes as the “desensitisation” we feel after the “bombardment” of news images of the pandemic, environmental degradation and “refugees drowning in boats”. But in an uneasy accident of timing, the album artwork also features an image from Chernobyl, of a Ferris wheel in an abandoned funfair.

“And of course, with the invasion of Ukraine, we hear about Chernobyl again because the Russians have taken it over.”

So, it’s definitely not a political commentary, but Almond has a close relationship with Russia. He first visited in 1992, taken as “a cheap date” by the British Council. “They’d seen me in London do a couple of acoustic shows with a pianist. And they knew I had a name over in Russia – people had been buying illegal records and bootlegs.

“So I went, I met the most amazing people, and the concerts were great: some shambolic little halls with no sound sometimes, an audience that was a mixture of generals and babushkas and young people – who knew all the songs! And I got this emotional attachment to Russia, which is why now it’s so difficult.”

By 2000 he was actually living in Moscow, a three-year sojourn occasioned by his working with various Russian musicians and orchestras. “And I fell in love with it. No one was ever horrible to me. I went on TV talking about gay issues and never got bad feedback from that, ever.”

The homophobic rhetoric and legislation of Putin era, he points out, were a few years in the distance.

“I was treated wonderfully. I played in Soviet-era theatres, to members of the military – although thankfully never in front of Putin!” Perish the thought of the propagandist photo-op he might have been ushered into. “Not me!” he shudders.

Almond’s time in Russia came to an end after his motorcycle accident in 2004. He suffered catastrophic head injuries when the bike on which he was riding pillion was hit by a car in the City of London. His recovery was slow, and it was a long time before he could properly work again. “I lost the flat I had in Moscow – I just couldn’t keep it on. I had no money coming in for two years, three years,” he explains.

Eighteen years on, “I do get memory loss and certain emotional confusions sometimes. I do get blanks – even [with] songs. I’ve memorised so many songs and do so many different types of shows, but sometimes, one day I can remember everything, the next day I’m just a blank on everything. But the accident is something I barely ever think about in my life anymore. The important thing is, you can’t be a victim forever. You have to put it in your past as some something that happened to you a long time ago.”

I interviewed Dave Ball in summer 2020, when he was promoting his memoir Electronic Boy: My Life in and Out of Soft Cell. It was the early days of the pandemic and he was taking shielding very seriously indeed. Almond’s collaborator suffers from Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), a condition not helped by a near-lifetime’s smoking habit (he’d quit eight years previously), not to mention a very boozy and druggy musical career.

I ask Almond, who these days splits his time between South London and Cascais on the Portuguese Riviera: does he count himself lucky to have survived a pop music career in the high-flying hedonism of Eighties and Nineties.

“Very lucky,” the singer replies. “I was sent into rehab in 1994 by my record label at the time. I’d always wanted to manage my professional side with my private life. I was a clubber and a party-goer. But I could still go on the Bruce Forsyth show and be completely coherent, and no one would ever guess a thing.

“Then it just started to all go wrong. My professional side started to slip, and I was confronted with an intervention. I was in the middle of recording a solo album in New York and I had a complete breakdown, so I was brought home. But the label were very good – they paid for me to go to PROMIS rehab, which is not one of the big celebrity rehabs. It’s a real scrubbing toilets, scrubbing the floor-kind of place, very strict rules. I was there for about six weeks.”

He had one relapse, on Millennium’s Eve, “because I thought I had to. And it was just a hideous and horrible way to start the century. Since then, I don’t drink, smoke or take drugs. I’ve been utterly clean for 22 years.”

These days, he’s an OBE, and his only vice is workaholism. “I’m involved in three or four projects,” he says, mentioning a musical theatrical production based on J.K. Huysman’s 1884 novel Against Nature, due to open in London next year. Having several things on the go is, in part, a reflection of his scattershot concentration – “because I’m a little bit on the spectrum, I can’t relate to things in the way most people do”.

That, he acknowledges, makes relationships “very difficult”. Consequently, he’s currently single – “I’m a flitter! I don’t like to commit too much!” – although his longest relationship lasted 38 years and he’s “very good friends” with that ex. “But I actually don’t have any real interest in relationships these days.”

Almond collecting his OBE in 2018 (Getty Images)
Almond collecting his OBE in 2018 (Getty Images)

What about sex?

“That doesn’t interest me either. I have a much lower libido. I used to be addicted to all kinds of things, everything around the board. But I have quite a low libido these days,” Almond cheerfully admits. “It just springs up, excuse the expression, once or twice in the summer period!”

Equally, though, Marc Almond has better things to be doing with his time.

“I’m 64 now, and I’m more interested in continually working. The clock’s ticking, and we’ve had two years taken out of our life. So I’ve got a lot to catch up with. And during lockdown, I said to myself: never say never for anything again. So I’d never say never for Soft Cell again. If an opportunity arises, and it all works out, let’s see what happens.”

That includes some live performances for the duo – just as long as both members are match fit.

“I’m doing all Dave’s promotion [for the album] at the moment, because he’s not very well – he’s in hospital because he’s hurt his back. And I need him healthy again, because I need him for an American tour!”

You can take the boy out of Soho…

Happiness Not Included (BMG) is out now

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