1981. Marc Almond’s first appearance on Top of the Pops was a watershed moment that opened up a musical journey and love affair for many queer souls that continues nearly 4 decades later: some of us would go on to become Willing Sinners and Gutter Hearts, Marc’s songs always the soundtrack to the highs and the dives in our lives. This 16 year old, confused about his sexuality and identity, ran out to buy Soft Cell’s first album, Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret, hooked on Dave Ball’s haunting electronic sound, and had his mind opened to an underworld of sexuality, sleaze, clubbing and kink.
And not only that – from the very first track of Erotic Cabaret, Marc sent a message right into the core of my consciousness – he told my generation, on the verge of leaving the education system, to beware the traps of ‘normal’ life.
The video for opening track Frustration begins with a gravedigger patting down the turf on top of a fresh burial. The message is simple – there’s got to be more to life: “I was born/ One day I’ll die/ There was something in between/ I, I don’t know what/ Or why/ I’m a man/ I want to break a rule/ I am a no, no, no, no, no, no, nobody/ Everybody’s fool….”
In Chips On My Shoulder Marc screams about first world decadence: “Chips on my shoulder/ More as I grow older/ Feel I owe a debt/ For the things I don’t get/ I only miss out/ Well I was there before/ I sit in a corner/ Sit on the floor…/ Misery, Complaints, Self Pity, Injustice/ Chips on my shoulder/ There’s no time for fun time/ It’s sit and complain time/ I’ll talk about famine/ While cooking the dinner/ Don’t you feel guilty/ Don’t you feel pity [No]/ While my head gets fatter/ And the starving get thinner…”
Soft Cell’s second album, The Art of Falling Apart, starts with the same warning as Frustration offered, in the track Forever The Same: “He cries, he lies/ He’s cool, he’s kind/ He heads out on a Friday night/ He gets drunk and he starts a fight/ And he loses his mind/ And he loses his sight/ Because times are hard/ And money is tight/ Because he has the pressure/ He has the blame/ Life never changes/ Forever the same….”
The album B-side delivers the same message from a bored housewife’s perspective in Kitchen Sink Drama: “She’s in a fantasy/ It’s not so hard to see/ That she is living a lie/ She’ll never be the same/ She shuts her eyes again/ Waves all her worries goodbye…”
Soft Cell’s three albums in the early 1980s charted the path to self-destruction that the sudden arrival of fame, money and drugs brought our two heroes. The band’s insistent, iconoclastic non-commercialism had them upsetting the record company and the media, their songs were angry and they smashed their gold discs on live TV. The epic number Soul Inside revealed the torment of the artist thrust onto the world stage, challenged about his looks/voice/sexuality at every turn. “The wind in my hair/ And the black in my eyes/ I was holding back tears/ As I reeled with surprise/ There was no one to phone/ I just chewed at the time/ I was waving goodbye/ To control of my mind/ And the beat of my heart/ Marks the passing of time/ And I just wanna scream to the sky/ There are times when my mind is an explosion of feelings/ I’m trying to hold on to the soul inside…”
Marc and Dave called the third Soft Cell album This Last Night In Sodom and the opening song, Mr Self Destruct, delivered the familiar message:
That existing makes you a mess
That every decision or feeling or reason
Causes some sort of mental distress
Never gave them the chance to question why
If they hit on you then you hit right back
Never keeping their cool it was up and attack
Building your life up and smashing it down
Yeah, building your life up and smashing it down”
When Soft Cell reunited in 2002 to create the album Cruelty without Beauty, the opening track resounded with another critique of the mainstream: “No change/ The world’s gone insane/ Monoculture…same/ ordinary/ boring/ Monoculture”
This homage to Marc’s rebel status, that shook the nation’s sensibilities about sexuality (and through tracks like Secret Life and Seedy Films highlighted the sleazy hypocrisies of the age at a time everybody else was looking the other way), but which also planted important warnings in the minds of some of us that the ‘system’ will stifle your life if you let it, wouldn’t be complete without a mention of a few incredible B-sides from the early Soft Cell days.
Those of us that rushed out to buy the mesmerising 12″ vinyl of Tainted Love/Where Did Our Love Go, were quite surprised to find Persuasion a withering electronic punk critique of supermarket culture on the flip side.
B-side to Where the Heart Is, a track called It’s A Mug’s Game, a teenager’s angst is perfectly penned into a rocking song:
And you just got rid of the last
You were beginning to feel OK
And the friends you gave it to
Were speaking to you again.
In the back of a car
And the girl underneath
Doesn’t care who you are
And you’re nearly there
And she still doesn’t care
And her chewing gum
Is getting stuck in your hair
And there’s something wrong
Something that you forgot
Oh Shit, you’ve forgotten the rubber
And you don’t want a kid
Well, deny it was you
If your dad finds out
Then he’ll make you stay in
And do your homework
And cut your hair
And wear your school uniform
Out in the street
Oh what a fate worse than death…”
Then there’s Fun City. A little known song that shares the theme of Bronski Beat’s Smalltown Boy, but cuts much closer to the bone… “I left my home/ With a pain in my heart/ Not a word of goodbye/ To the ones that I loved/ I’m taking a train/ Away from the rain/ To the lights and the smoke/ I’ve got to find my own way now… … … I’m all alone/ And I’m lost in this city/ Being paraded/ Feeling degraded/ I wanted love/ And I thought this was the way/ But I’m only young/ And I’m often this wrong/ Have no feelings/ Have no sex/ Wonder who to pick up next/ I have no morals/ Have no innocence/ I’m quite straight/ Just playing for rent…”
Marc Almond’s career has been a symphony dedicated to emotional traumas (he is after all a Cancerian) more than political statements, but the messages in these songs struck home for me and many at the time. They seem as relevant today as they were then.
Marc has also given us many excellent albums of classic covers, of Russian and French songs as well as so many emanating from his own imagination. While heartbreak and tragedy often feature strongly, every now and again Marc also lets us know he’s had glimpses of a brighter future for humanity. To get there we still got a lot of work to do, in particular overcoming taboos around sexuality, and escaping the pressure to conform and serve the capitalist system, which we now know is strangling life on earth to death with its never ending need for new resources. I conclude this homage to Marc with this prophetic duet with Beth Ditto, When the Comet Comes, from his 2015 album, The Velvet Trail:
“When the comet comes it will show us why
That all we’ve ever known has been a lie
On a song bird circle information in the sky
When the comet comes psychedelic technicolor
It’ll be intense, bacchanalia will commence
When the comet comes it’ll all make sense…”
2018: The rebel has been awarded an OBE. When he receives it no doubt the press coverage will look at the ‘scandalous’ sexual imagery of his early career. But just as Marc shook the nation’s sensibilities, and up-tightness, around sex, he also sent a crucial message that many of us were longing to hear – Beware of Being Normal, It’s Dull as Fuck.