Marc Almond: interview
In October 2004, Marc Almond nearly died in a motorbike accident. Now, after nearly three years of painful recovery, he‘s back on stage. He talks to Time Out about the true spirit of Soho, turning 50, and why he feels happiest singing other people‘s songs
It’s fitting that Marc Almond should have chosen Wilton’s Music Hall as the setting for his first London concerts in more than three years. The faded grandeur, the crumbling walls and the paper roses set in the vaulted ceiling all lend themselves to Almond’s familiar lyrical concerns and flamboyant stage persona. Even more pertinent is the fact that one of the last great music halls in England is currently fighting for its survival.
Three years ago, Almond was in a similar position, after the motorcycle accident which nearly claimed his life. That he recovered at all is remarkable. That he appeared to recover so quickly, and so fully, seems little short of miraculous.
But don’t be fooled. For Almond, the road to recovery has been a long and painful one. His bones may have healed, and he may have escaped permanent brain damage, but there are still scars. The stammer he took years to overcome has returned. He finds it hard to remember the lyrics to songs these days, and suffers from panic attacks.
And, like many survivors of near-death experiences, he’s been in a reflective mood. His new album, ‘Stardom Road’, is a trip down memory lane, a musical journey from the 1950s to where he finds himself today – alive and rapidly approaching his fiftieth birthday. There is one original song on the album, the irrepressibly romantic ‘Redeem Me (Beauty Will Redeem The World)’. The remaining 12 songs are covers, from Charles Aznavour’s ‘I Have Lived’ to Gene Pitney’s ‘Backstage I’m Lonely’, Al Stewart’s ‘Bedsitter Images’ to Bowie’s ‘The London Boys’.
In fact, Bowie is a good reference point. You could say that this album is Almond’s ‘Pin Ups’, but without the embarrassment of hearing him try to imitate The Who. The songs here suit Almond perfectly. He even makes a few of them his own. ‘Kitsch’ could easily have been written for him. And in his version, ‘The London Boys’ becomes a song about rent boys rather than mods.
We meet in Soho, Almond’s old stamping ground, and take a walk along Brewer Street where he once lived above a brothel. Then it’s on to the gay new world of Old Compton Street before finally settling down for tea and cake at Maison Bertaux. He likes it here, he says. It’s a little bit of old Soho. And the waiter is cute.
Time Out: You seemed pretty nervous on stage at Wilton’s on opening night. You even confessed to the audience that you were feeling terrified at one point. Why was that?‘It’s the first time I’ve been back on the London stage since the Almeida shows in 2004. Since the accident I’ve found I have very bad stage fright. It’s not just nerves. I’ve always had nerves. I’ve always been a very erratic performer. I know I’m capable of being good, maybe even great on the odd occasion. But I’m also capable of being really terrible. Some nights I can be great and terrible at the same time! [Laughs] I’m never consistent! But nowadays just the thought of going on stage fills me with dread. I can’t memorise songs. I can’t balance myself as well as I used to. I get very fatigued. I know my audience is very supportive, but I don’t like people seeing the problems that I have. I have a lot of pride, and I want people to see me at my best. And then to top it all, on opening night at Wilton’s, I stepped on to the stage, opened my mouth and the microphone wasn’t working! In a way, it was the best thing that could have happened. I thought: Nothing could get worse than this. Do I storm off stage, or do I embrace the music hall spirit of the place, move down to the front and just sing without a microphone? So that’s what I did, and in a peculiar way it was the best thing that could have happened to me. It helped me get over my stage fright.’
The song you sang was ‘I Have Lived’ by Charles Aznavour, which is also the opening song on the album. You’ve covered his songs before, most notably ‘What Makes A Man A Man’.‘Charles Aznavour is probably my favourite songwriter of all time. He’s a genius. I love the aggression of Jacques Brel, the energy and the attitude of those songs. But Aznavour also wrote some incredible songs. The singers I admire tend to be the ones who bring something of their own baggage with them on to the stage. Otherwise you might as well just stay at home and listen to a recording.’
It’s also a very reflective song, as are many of the songs on the album.‘I think it has a lot to do with me facing up to the fact that I’m 50 this year. It’s a milestone for me. Also, since the accident I’ve been going for counselling, and I’ve been talking a lot with my counsellor about these terrible feelings of loss I have a lot of the time. I wake up some mornings and I feel overwhelmed with loss.’
Loss of what?‘Everything. People. My youth. The world we live in. We’re constantly losing things. The quality of our lives is being stripped away and replaced with a celebration of mediocrity. I hate it when I see old buildings being pulled down. The two words I hate most in the world are “luxury flats”! They pulled down the Gainsborough Studios where Alfred Hitchcock made so many fantastic films. There’s a Tesco there now. A Tesco and some luxury flats! Why couldn’t they have made that into a film museum dedicated to British films? It’s not about wanting to live in the past. There are lots of exciting things happening now, if you know where to look for them. But I do think we should value the past.’
So here we are in Soho, a place where you certainly have a past. At Wilton’s you sang a new song called ‘Soho So Long’. How much has it changed in the 25 years since you lived here?‘It’s become a very commercialised place. You can still find the spirit of Soho here and there, but on the whole it feels very much like an imitation, a show we put on for the tourists. Soho was always a very bohemian place, full of artists and outsiders. When I first came here in my late teens, listening to songs like “The London Boys”, Soho was quite a dark, edgy place. Like I wrote on “Little Rough Rhinestones” [from the final Soft Cell album “This Last Night In Sodom”]: “The deep dark-red doorways call to a limbo of loneliness”. And a lot of that old spirit has gone. The world that inspired me has kind-of moved on in a way. Which is probably why I find myself writing about the past, or things I’ve written about so many times before.’
We heard a rumour that your next album will be your last album of new material. Tell us it’s not true.‘It is true. My next album I do intend to be my last album of original songs. I’m not saying that I won’t ever write another song again. But I’d like it to be my last collection of original songs. I just don’t feel the need to have to do that any more. I enjoy singing other people’s songs so much more. I don’t have the same love for my own songs that I have for other people’s songs. Which is why I often demo a new song and then never take it any further. I may put it on MySpace, or release it through my website. But mostly the demos just sit in a box in my room. I’ve got the song out of my system and that’s it. Now I can go away and sing a Charles Aznavour song because he says it far better than I ever could.’
You mentioned MySpace. Do you count your friends every day [at last count Almond had 8,500 friends]?‘[Laughs] I resisted MySpace for so long. Everyone was telling me I had to get a MySpace account, and eventually someone put it together for me. Then I put a couple of new demos on there, and people started saying, “Oh he’s writing the same old songs again. We’ve heard it all a million times before.” And I had to admit they were kind-of right in a way. I think every songwriter does tend to write the same songs again and again throughout their career. As you get older you write the same song from different viewpoints, so I could see they had a point. But I felt really hurt by those comments; fans can be the cruellest people. It took me a while to rebuild my confidence. It was hard enough just getting back into the swing of writing songs. After the accident the only songs I could write were about car crashes and flowers tied to railings.’
So if you don’t write songs about rent boys and car crashes what will you write songs about?‘[Laughs] It’s like that Charles Aznavour song, “Yesterday When I Was Young” – “So many songs by me that won’t be sung”. I’m at that stage now where I feel freer singing songs by other people. I don’t feel as claustrophobic. Part of me loves being an artist. But part of me loves simply being an entertainer as well. I think it probably has something to do with being brought up in Southport, working in theatres when I was young, having a bit of that vaudevillian instinct. Sometimes I just want to leave the art behind.’‘Stardom Road’ is released on Sanctuary Records on June 4.
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