In the past decade Marc Almond has released 11 solo albums – and that doesn’t include Hits & Pieces, a greatest hits compilation from earlier this year that hit the top 10, and last year’s whopping 10-disc retrospective, Trials of Eyeliner: Anthology 1979-2016.
At this point in his career, he could be entirely forgiven for trading on past glories, and there are plenty – from the early chart success with synth-pioneers Soft Cell like Tainted Love or Say Hello, Wave Goodbye, through to a number one duet with Gene Pitney on Something’s Gotten Hold of My Heart, to solo hits including Jacky and The Days of Pearly Spencer, selling 30m records along the way.
Back on a major label for the first time in 20 years, last month he released Shadows and Reflections, an orchestral collection of ’60s torch songs by artists such as Billy Fury, Edith Piaf, Jacques Brel, David Bowie, and Burt Bacharach. Greatest hits albums aside, it has been his highest placing solo album, reaching number 14 in the album charts last month. This autumn, he’s touring the album with a full orchestra.
But the singer had a landmark birthday this summer, and that seems to have weighed on his mind.
‘It’s been really busy,’ he tells The Guide, ‘but this is my 60th year and I wanted to do something to make it special and mark it in a special way.
‘I started it off with the hits album and I’ve got the new one out and a tour with an orchestra and everything, so it’s being a great, memorable year for me.
‘I’ve done one-off concerts with an orchestra before – I did some work last year with the Leeds College of Music school. I did a project with 50 of their graduating students – we did big shows in London and Leeds called 20th Century Torch Songs, and it was from those shows that the idea for Shadows and Reflections actually grew.
‘I did some songs on those shows with the orchestra that are on this album, but I didn’t want to make it an album of standards – the songs that everybody sings, I wanted to do soemthing a bit different. I wanted to make it an album of torch songs, of lost love, of being alone, yearning for the love you’ve lost, and I wanted to do it through the genre of song which I really love, which is ’60s songs.
‘The ’60s was great for music generally – you had that mix of pop music and rock music, mixed with orchestral arrangements, people like George Martin mixing classical with pop, and people like Pink Floyd experimenting in pop and using classical instrumentation as well. I love the songs that came out of that period with the crooners of the ’50s and then rock’n’roll came out and those things blended together.
‘And it’s the first decade of my childhood, when I became really conscious of music. I got into music really young – I had young parents, so I had the radio on all the time, I watched all of the TV programmes, and I had a transistor radio so i could listen to the pirate stations. There’s this wide kind of panoply of music that I like to listen to but the ’60s is what I like the best.’
When you get older and you think death is only 10 or 20 years away, you’ve got to dance as fast as you canMarc Almond
When Soft Cell first broke through into the mainstream, they were seen as genuinely dangerous and thrilling. But Marc can’t see anyone taking up that mantle in modern pop.
‘I don’t really. I listen to a lot of new music, but I’ve had my decades of music that are going to imprint on me and move me, so what I hear now, I can hear its sources and where it’s come from, and that’s great that people can take from sources and mix and match them.
‘When we started using synthesisers in the early days of Soft Cell we were still getting ridiculed by certain sections of the music press because it wasn’t guitars – it wasn’t “real music”. But people were using synths in the ’70s, people were experimenting with electronic sounds in the ’60s but it was when the synthesisers got smaller, we had the microchip, and things became more accessible.
‘Music has become this very different thing now, with downloading and Spotify and streaming channels and YouTube – people are discovering a wider range of music from different eras.
‘I think music has widened now – nothing is out of bounds now, even prog rock is seen as ok,’ he laughs.
‘But it’s very hard to be subversive now, you get so much on YouTube, on TV, even rap’s not subversive anymore. Being subversive is about getting subliminal messages through in pop music. That’s why I never thought someone like Marilyn Manson is subversive – it’s so obvious and out there, much as I like him. But I always thought the way to be subversive was to sing a sweet pop song and having a sting in the tail – being a little bit transgressive. I always thought Lou Reed’s Walk On The Wildside was the most transgressive song of all. The weirdest thing of all is that Walk on The Wild Side is now banned at Oxford University because transgender people said they found it offensive. Lou Reed brought transgender to the fore and out in the open, but now it’s kind of banned. I find that modern youth, modern life, is becoming so conservative, and that’s reflecting a lot through modern music. A lot of new music is quite conservative.
‘I like pop music – I like all kinds of music, but sometimes I wish people would put a bit more of a sting in the tail of pop because that’s a great way to be subversive and that’s what Soft Cell tried to do.
‘So now I’m back on a major label again and I still try to... well, I don’t even try to be subversive any more, I just do what I do, and i’m not going to shock people, I’m too establishment, but i still like to slip in something that’s a little bit anti-establishment whenever I can.
‘I was a hippy, I was a heavy metal fan at one time, I was a punk – I’ve been through all of those genres, I’ve done experimental theatre, I’ve tried to shock and do all those things, but it’s hard for me to be shocking now – people are too used to me now, we need the younger people to come through with something shocking.
‘I think the really shocking thing now is to be non-PC, to go against political correctness, people need to start offending each other a bit more.’
Marc has been able to reflect more on his overall creative output recently, as he went back to some corners of his catalogue he hadn’t visited in years for the 10-disc retrospective that covers all of his singles, as well as personal favourites, rarities and collaborations.
‘It was very difficult to put that together, but I could see my musical journey. I listened to stuff I hadn’t listened to in ages and ages, and I thought, some of this isn’t bad actually!
‘I don’t listen to my old records unless I’m learning a song for my show. I surprised myself, there’s a lot of diverse stuff, and a big body of work in different genres from different times.’
And amazingly, 10 discs wasn’t enough in the end.
‘There are songs I wasn’t able to include – I was restricted by CD length and the number of CDs I had. It took me months and months of going backwards and forwards through computer playlists trying to find the right things, but it was an interesting education about msyelf.’
And as to why he’s been so prolific in the past decade?
‘Because death approaches!’ He laughs. ‘When you get older and you think death is only 10 or 20 years away, so you’ve got to dance as fast as you can. I have beomce more prolific, and that’s also since I had my motorbike accident,’ he was nearly killed in a bike crash in 2004, ‘which brings you back and reminds you of your mortality and it reminds you you’re lucky enough to be back on stage and recording again.’
And of course, he’s not resting on his laurels with this album.
‘For me once a record is done, it’s done. Of course I have to go out and promote it and do the tours, but I’ve already moved on to thinking about what I’m doing for the next one.
‘I’ve always had a very low concentration threshold, which was very bad for me. I had that ADH-whatever-you-call-it at school, so I could never do any lessons properly, and that’s followed on through into my muic – I need to move on to something new and I can only follow it for a few moments.’
As if to prove his point about his attention span, he suddenly says: ‘I have mentioned the tour haven’t I?’ He had, but who’s going to quibble? ‘I’m on tour with the orchestra and a large ensemble of musicians. We’ll be doing songs from the album and also picking some other songs from my repertoire and probably a few audience favourites thrown in too, and giving them a bit of a differnt style, it’s going to be a great tour, I’m looking forward to it.’
* Marc Almond is at Portsmouth Guildhall on Thursday, October 12. Doors 7pm. Tickets £28.44-£68.20. Go to portsmouthguildhall.org.uk