Marc Almond in Cambridge 7th May 2019

“I have lived each single moment, as a man of flesh and blood
with my soul and all my senses open wide
I have lived and tasted everything
that called out to be tried
I’m afraid of neither heaven nor of hell
Never caring if I had a soul to sell.”

Marc’s passionate rendition of Charles Aznavour’s song “I Have Lived” opened a two hour celebration of life, largely focussed, as Marc pointed out, on songs written by dead artists. He shared that with no new album to promote he was undertaking this mini-tour for the pure pleasure of making music. Many of us life-long Willing Sinner Gutter Heart Cell Mates are very grateful.

I was 16 years old when Marc first appeared on Top of the Pops in 1981, black clothes, bangles and eye liner, with Dave Ball equally mysterious and strange on the keyboards. I was soon swooning to The Girl with the Patent Leather Face, Memorabilia and the sublime Tainted Love 12” with my teenage girlfriends – the other boys around were not so keen. Non Stop Erotic Cabaret arrived, and via the sublime electro from Dave’s keyboards and Marc’s sensuous lyrics we teenagers had our eyes opened to a fascinating, hidden, underworld of sex, secrets and sleaze. Marc’s prolific output in the early 1980s – two Marc and the Mamba albums (that quickly became, and remained, my favourite records of all time) and Soft Cell’s Art of Falling Apart and This Last Night in Sodom – played a role in helping me find an identity and warned me against the horrors of conformity, of being ‘normal’ in a messed up, hypocritical, world.

Last Autumn I was at the 40 year party, One Last Night, Soft Cell’s concert at the 20,000 capacity O2 Arena in Greenwich – a magnificent occasion and performance that affirmed Soft Cell’s role as musical pioneers, punk romantics, and critics of society’s shallowness. But while the show was amazing, my inner emotional journey at the O2 was limited by sitting high up in the balconies, not being able to dance and express myself. When I got home my friends in spirit complained that I had not invited them to join me in the O2, cutting myself from internal companions who wanted to enjoy the show with me and so not giving myself internal emotional space to expand into.

I decided not to make the same mistake this time. I smoked before I went in, and chatted to the homeless people begging outside the Corn Exchange. I found the empty upstairs bar, chatted to the lovely staff and said a prayer to the divine mother. I went to my seat on row H which – thrill of thrills – turned out to be the front row! Then I started inviting in my dead friends, who in turn were opening the gates to more spirits – I was soon feeling very warm inside, faces of long lost friends were appearing in my inner vision, I found I was giggling and excited.

Then Marc came on and delivered for us through song the spirit of Aznavour, the Yardbirds, Dusty Springfield, T-Rex, David Bowie, Jacques Brel, Edith Piaf, Lou Reed and plenty of Scott Walker. Marc’s rendition of Walker’s Big Louise, which he recorded on the first Mambas album, lifted me into the arms of paradise. Marc sang Aznavour’s What Makes a Man a Man, taking me back to the epic finale of the Twelve Years of Tears concert at the Royal Albert Hall in 1993. We also had a few living legends pop in – Cher (A Woman’s Story, one of Marc’s solo singles from the ’80s) , Mary Hopkins (Those Were the Days) and Lana del Rey’s Dark Paradise.

We were treated to a selection of some of Marc’s own fine cuts – that’s got to be the first time I’ve heard him sing Stories of Johnny since the ’80s – we got A Lover Spurned, Pearly Spencer, Say Hello…. plus a stripped down, acoustic version of Bedsitter that brought out the emotional reality of the song, nice to hear Marc acknowledge that it’s a really sad song! Yet there we all were in the 80s, gleefully singing it at the top of our voices, celebrating the misery of the lonely comedown! I’m sure on some level this did us a lot of good! I loved that Marc included the concluding Bedsitter line, ‘I’m waiting for something, I’m just passing time,’ for that is how I now can look back on my own bedsitter years in the late 1980s, when I was a gay caterpillar out in the big dangerous city hungrily feasting on the pleasures to be found. I was waiting for something though at the time I didn’t realise it was a wake up call.

My wake up call came through HIV – in the mid 90s I lived with full blown AIDS for 3 years. That was my cocoon period, when my internal understanding of who I am went through a complete transformation. I responded to the onset of AIDS by diving into a study of the world’s mystical traditions – and while my body was seemingly dying, my spirit came alive. I celebrated the darkness I was undergoing – just as indeed we have been able to celebrate the shadow side of life through Marc Almond’s music over four decades – for through that darkness I was finding golden seams of life’s true treasures. I found myself to be a channel, witch or ‘gatekeeper’ to the spirit worlds – then I discovered that queer shamans had played this role in nature-based pre-monotheistic religions the world over, that this was the case also in ancient Europe until our roles were taken over by the Christian Church, backed up by the armies of the state, from the 4th century Roman Empire onwards. I learnt that the Christians spent 1000+ years destroying the holy trees and sacred groves where the European peoples had worshipped for millennia, and eliminating any memory of the link between homoeroticism and gender non-comformity with nature and the spirit world.

This gay butterfly emerged from the AIDS cocoon and ever since my life has been dedicated to reclaiming this lost part of the queer soul, of our roles as channels and connectors of the worlds, and reclaiming the understanding that through intimacy with nature all humans can feel, intuit and know our place in the whole, rediscover our intrinsic oneness with all life – and with the dead too. The spirit world is not far from us, from a vibrational perspective, but unless we open our minds and hearts to it we will never be aware of it, will not experience it. One of the best ways to open our hearts to the dead, I’ve learnt over the years, is to celebrate them in song. Thanks Marc, you made a lot of living and a lot of dead people very happy that night.

For me, the heavens fully opened and the angelic love poured through the venue as Marc concluded the show with My Hand Over My Heart. I know a Marc show pretty much has to end with Tainted Love and Say Hell -, I have got used to that – so thanks Marc for slipping in your epic love song between the two, to help us Gutter Hearts not only look at but also truly touch the stars.

Marc Almond: Rebel with an OBE

 

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:

“You couldn’t escape from this fact of life
That existing makes you a mess
That every decision or feeling or reason
Causes some sort of mental distress
You could look in their eyes, you perfected a lie
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
Building your life up and smashing it down
Yeah, building your life up and smashing it down”
.
The album track The Best Way to Kill, hits the message home with a relentless rocking synth soundtrack: “Life is one long play for today/ The one that uses all the four-letter words/ The one that everybody pretends/ They’ve never never heard/ Oh yeah/ And it gets in my skin/ And I find myself fitting a form/ That is worn like a badge on a blazer at school/ Tear it off rip it up/ Stick your two fingers up at the world/ And the lying little worms/ That would take you for a fool/ For your life has to be this way/ And you can’t say this/ And you can’t watch that/ It’ll darken your mind little child/ A moral straight-jacket to stop you running completely wild…”

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:

“Oh god it’s another disease
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.
And you find yourself having sex
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.

 

 

 

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