My idea of living dangerously is staying up until 2.30am watching television and drinking whiskey when I know I have to drive to Wiltshire next morning for a wedding. Marc Almond’s idea is to jump on a plane to New York, consume a wheelbarrow-full of LSD, heroin, crystal meths, Quaaludes, opium, mescalin, Ecstasy and cocaine, and then spend a week crawling from one S&M club to another, before bursting into tears and making his mascara run.
Concerted self-abuse of this sort takes its toll. The 42-year-old pop star attributes his liver damage, blackouts, panic attacks and mood swings to his hedonistic lifestyle. And he found the chronic memory loss a distinct drawback when it came to writing his memoirs. There is a period which began in 1981 with Soft Cell’s number one single ‘Tainted Love’ and lasted for about five years that he can only recall through a haze of hallucination – it was, he explains, a nightmarish blur of events, places and faces.
‘My 12-year addiction to benzodiazepine [sleeping pills] didn’t help either,’ he adds in a confidingly camp but stentorian tone. ‘I can never remember anyone’s name. An hour after meeting someone, I’ve forgotten it. The memory loss is all part of my stammering and dyslexia, too. I get my mords wixed up.’ A peel of nervy loud laughter at this. ‘Luckily, I have an obsession with keeping lists, notebooks and diaries, so they helped with the chronology of the book – getting things in the right context.’
Today, sitting under a bust of Harold Macmillan in a publisher’s office in Chelsea, Marc Almond looks out of place. He is 5ft 6in, with a wiry physique – his own description is that he looks like a nose on a stick – and, as you would expect, he is wearing black clothes, black sideburns and black eyeliner. Tattoos run the length of both sinewy arms, and creep up his neck like tendrils from under his T-shirt collar. On one finger there is a heavy silver ring in the shape of a skull. There are chunks of metal in his nose and his ears, too – and there appears to be a little glittering something on his front tooth. He has had cosmetic surgery to remove the bags from under his eyes. It is midday. We were supposed to meet at 11am but a panicky Almond realised at the last minute that that meant having to do something in the morning – and he simply can’t do anything before lunchtime. He’s cheerful, and funny, hyperactive if anything. To keep his stutter in check he speaks in a torrent – words tumbling out breathlessly – and he repeats himself to maintain the rhythm of his sentences. As I listen to his cautionary tale of rock-and-roll excess I grip the sides of my chair and try not to look too startled.
He first got a taste for shocking people in 1979, when completing a degree course in performance art at Leeds Polytechnic. For one exam show he sat at a mirror, naked except for black boots and a swastika thong, and shaved half his body. He then smashed the mirror and, with a shard, cut himself, drawing blood. For the climax he lay face down on a large mirror and simulated sex. All he remembers about this now is that the mirror was very cold. Around this time, the beginning of the New Romantic movement, Almond met the synthesiser player Dave Ball and formed Soft Cell. Their first appearance on Top of the Pops caused, as the saying goes, the BBC switchboard to jam – ‘I look back on those early performances and I even embarrass and shock myself in a way, they are so kind of, “Please love me, please love me”, and I’m trying so hard. I can imagine why it would have got people’s backs up – too much eyeliner, too much leather, too fey, too mincy.’
Nevertheless, ‘Tainted Love’ sold more than a million copies in Britain. It was also a number one all over Europe, and in America it was in the charts longer than any other record in history – and so gained a place in the Guinness Book of Records, replacing Bill Haley’ s ‘Rock Around the Clock’. Ball and Almond received no publishing royalties for the single, however, because it was a cover version. ‘We were so naive,’ Almond says with a raucous laugh, ‘we put a cover on the B-side as well. If we had used one of our own songs on the B-side, we could have shared the royalties 50/50! Instead we lost around £1.7 million.’
Even so, the first half of the Eighties were extremely lucrative for Britain’ s first ‘synth duo’. They had a succession of hits and Almond developed an addiction to spending money: £500,000 on drugs alone. He bought a Mercedes convertible on a whim as he passed a car showroom – even though he can’t drive. On another occasion, while recording in Bavaria, he developed a craving for sushi and, unable to find a sushi restaurant nearby, flew back to London for the night – ‘When you have to have sushi you have to have it.’ Accountants were despatched to devise saving schemes that would prevent Almond getting his hands on his money. ‘Then one day came the terrifying realisation that the money was coming in faster than I could spend it. The addict with an endless supply of money can remain indefinitely in denial.’
Through the haze Almond recalls that around this time he was groped by George Melly at a party; Rowan Atkinson did a sketch about him on Not the Nine O’ clock News; on a night out with his friend Molly Parkin he drunkenly tried to seduce the boxer John Conteh; Madonna stayed at his bedsit in London; and, in New York, Andy Warhol invited him to his studio, the Factory. They filmed each other. ‘It was Polaroids and Super 8s at 50 paces, a strange stand-off.’ Almond’s recording history after Soft Cell split up in 1984 has been chequered. He would announce his retirement in a petulant fury – on one occasion storming into the offices of Record Mirror to bull-whip a journalist who had been critical of him – only to retract the announcement next day.
Over the years his distinctively off-key voice mellowed and improved. He signed to half a dozen record labels, reinventing himself variously as a Latin, jazz or R&B artist, a torch singer and even a Vegas crooner. There have been hits, notably a couple of duets (with Jimmy Somerville for ‘I Feel Love’ in 1985 and Gene Pitney for ‘Something’s Gotten Hold of my Heart’ in 1989) and ‘The Days of Pearly Spencer’ in 1992. But his sexual promiscuity and drug-taking got worse and he took to hanging out with underworld figures: criminals, prostitutes and gun-carrying drug dealers.
Then in 1993, he confides, something happened which forced him to change his way of life. Two acquaintances tried to throw him from a sixth-floor balcony window. A neighbour intervened and the police arrived to find Almond mutilated and unconscious on the floor. Instead of pressing charges for attempted murder he decided it was time to check himself into a drug rehabilitation clinic, the Promis Recovery Centre, just outside Canterbury. The therapy included a regime of rising at 6.45am to scrub floors, followed by hours of intensive group therapy.
‘My life started collapsing in the mid-Nineties,’ Almond recalls. ‘I didn’t know why I had been taking the drugs. Someone had to point it out to me. I had been in this selfish, self-absorbed world and all I knew was that I had to keep taking them and spending money and having love affairs and moving house and changing record company. Each time I realised there was something horribly wrong with each new situation – me.’ He stutters as he says this, and he pronounces Rs as Ws. In conversation he peppers his vocabulary with psycho-babble in that way people who have been through therapy do: lots of self-analysis about being damaged, having low self-esteem, needing affirmation, craving attention, confusing sex for love. ‘I did see a psychiatrist,’ he explains helpfully. ‘ But I was bored by it, quite frankly, because I have an attention span of about two seconds.’ More likely, the psychiatrist, faced with the bewildering array of traumas associated with Almond’s childhood, didn’t know where to start and had a nervous breakdown.
Peter Marc Sinclair Almond was born in 1957 in Southport. He moved constantly from house to house and school to school around the north-west of England and, wherever he ended up, he was bullied – often chased by gangs of boys chanting the word ‘queer’ at him, before catching him and beating him up. He was a sickly child afflicted by asthma, bronchitis and pleurisy. To avoid being attacked in the playground he learned to hyperventilate and black out. His nickname was Pwune. His father, an unemployed former Army officer and salesman, was an alcoholic who would sometimes slap his son. The laziness down the right side of Almond’s face is, he claims, caused by his father hitting him with a telephone. ‘I hated him,’ the singer now says, matter of factly. ‘Haven’t seen him for years and there is no chance of a reconciliation. He saw me as the source of his shortcomings and failures. There was always an edginess. A dark anger behind his eyes as secretive as those bottles he hid away.’
The 12-year-old Almond was a bed-wetter by night and a shoplifter by day. When his parents divorced in 1972, Marc and his younger sister Julia were overjoyed – not least because, says Almond, their father had, allegedly, just found their savings and spent the money on alcohol. One day his father stormed into his school and demanded to know from the teacher if his 13-year-old son was a homosexual. He was, as it happened, but the teacher didn’t know that. Although Marc Almond says he wanted to like girls – and he actually lost his virginity that year to a ‘big-boned, galumphing, sweaty girl called Hilary’ – he was always drawn to boys.
Almond left school with two O-levels, talked his way on to an art college course and promptly had a nervous breakdown. He tried to commit suicide by throwing himself off a balcony – someone grabbed him – and he was sectioned for a month at Ormskirk Mental Hospital. ‘Oh, I cried and cried and realised I had been bottling up tears for years,’ he says. ‘I’m still like that to an extent. I become introverted, keep all the feelings back and end up exploding.’
Given his emotional scars, it is amazing that Almond coped as well as he did with the sudden fame and fortune that was heaped on him as a 24-year-old. And though he barely coped at all, at least he didn’t kill himself through a drug overdose, a sexually transmitted disease or, in one of those fits of romantic anguish that pop stars are prone to, a suicide attempt. He came close, of course, and he says now that he feels a shiver when he realises quite how close. I tell him that he makes me feel as though I’ve lead a very dull life indeed.
‘Pop is very disposable by nature and so are pop stars,’ he says with an uneven grin. ‘We are put on pedestals so people can watch us being damaged on everyone else’s behalf. And the record companies encourage us to be excessive. You are told to go to the parties and take the drugs because you have to get into the gossip columns. Then you become a liability. You don’t turn up for your TV performances. You’re brought before the chairman of the record company to have your wrists slapped.’
Clearly his relationship with his father was not an easy one but does Marc Almond now consider that he might owe some of his success to this same relationship – in that he was desperate to prove his father wrong? ‘Definitely, that’s the double-edged thing. He gave me my weaknesses but also my strengths. Success is revenge. Sometimes you have to use your bitterness – as long as it doesn’t consume you it can give you a feeling of being alive, it gives you an edge. I always felt he hated me. He blamed his own problems on his sensitive, effeminate son. But if success meant having to go through my childhood again, I wouldn’t want to have it.’
Since he spent most of his schooldays hiding from his father and running away from bullies, why does he think he had a need to draw attention to himself by performing on stage? Was it masochism? ‘I’m a shy extrovert, but I think that’s quite common, isn’t it? On stage I say, “I’m here to give you songs and you’re here to give me waves of love over the footlights and the sooner we can give each other these things the sooner we can all go home.” It’s that reaffirmation thing. Every time I go on stage I have to overcome a fear. It hangs over me like a black cloud beforehand. I’m sick and nervous – until I put on the make-up, you know, the mask, and I become this monster called Marc Almond.’
Even so, he recognises that some of his psychological problems stem from his inability to differentiate between his public and private personas. ‘It does get confused and you do start to become this other person. Out of guilt. Because you don’t want to disappoint people. It’s a silly camp old idea but I don’t want to let the public down. I’m aware that I’ve become a gay institution and so when I go out I have to put on this Marc Almond drag. But the flamboyant glittery image is sometimes hard for me to reconcile with the person I am at home – unshaven, in my slippers, watching Coronation Street, with a microwaved dinner on my lap.’
As a child he had always craved approval but when he got it as an adult, he could never accept it. ‘I think it was guilt. I felt an impostor, a fake, a phoney. I felt it was all so false. I couldn’t understand why everyone was making a fuss over me. I’m not worthy. I felt out of control of my own life, you know, completely. That I wasn’t in control. Self-loathing clung to me like rust. The worse thing was that I had to lie about my sexuality. My record company was saying you must invent a girlfriend. In the early Eighties if you said you were gay, it was a career destroyer. Pop stars were never really openly gay. It was always that bisexuality thing. A cop out.’
His homosexuality has been a mixed blessing. He has happy memories: nights at the London night-club Heaven, for instance, when Freddie Mercury would pick him up and carry him over his shoulder on to the dance floor. But he has also had to endure being spat at and punched in the face by strangers. Until his twenties he was very confused about his sexuality. ‘I was attracted to anyone who would pay any attention to me, or anyone who would show me love. Love had to be sex. But I never felt comfortable with my homosexuality. I couldn’t be open about it. Even now I’m only 95 per cent sure. I think homosexuality is genetic but there are still doubts.’
In the late Eighties, Almond took to visiting female prostitutes. ‘It was all part of that adventure thing,’ he says. ‘It had to be done. I also felt because I was singing about this life – all the cigarettes and neon and satin sheets and regret – I ought to immerse myself in it. I did like it and it became another addiction for a while.’ There are people who want to be spokesmen for gay issues, he adds, but he has never wanted to be one of them. ‘I would like to think there is much more to me than a sexuality. People don’t say “the heterosexual artiste Rod Stewart”, do they?’
Almond doesn’t get attacked in the street as much as he used to. ‘It’s changed now because everyone becomes mainstream in the end, even me. It doesn’t matter how rebellious you were, whether you were John Lydon [Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols] or whatever, you know, you become cuddly. Occasionally I’ll hear, “Marc Almond you queer bastard,” and someone will spit at me, and I will shout, “Well, actually, it’s Mark Almond millionaire queer bastard, if you don’ t mind.”‘ That said, does he feel guilty that he might have lead people astray, that, as a public figure, he set a bad example? ‘The one thing I felt uncomfortable with was having a young teenybopper audience. I thought of Soft Cell as a dark, arty band. I never set out to write for kids. I did try to keep things secret but, ultimately, if you are an adult, you have to take responsibility for your own actions.’
Analysis of Marc Almond’s character is problematic, in that, once you have digested the things he says about himself you struggle for anything more insightful to add. By his own estimation he is an emotionally immature, chippy, bitchy, self-pitying neurotic who is addicted to everything, frustrated, self-flagellating, self-destructive and narcissistic. Oh, and he says he always sounds pompous and gets out of his depth whenever he tries to be intellectual.
The therapy-speak and self-loathing may well all be part of the tortured drama-queen act, but few of us can claim to be as self-aware – and honest – as Marc Almond is. And he is at his most endearing when he is sending himself up. He describes, for instance, phoning Smash Hits one day and screaming at them for putting his photograph in between Clare Grogan’s and Adam Ant’s, adding, ‘Well, wouldn’t you?’ And his observation about group sex deserves including in a book of quotations: ‘I’ve never been one for threesomes. Inevitably someone ends up making the tea, and knowing my luck it would be me.’ It seems a fitting epitaph.