When asked to name my top favorite albums of all time, Torment And Toreros by Marc and the Mambas, Marc Almond’s early 80s Soft Cell side project floats effortlessly into the top five, although to be honest, it’s not something I play often. Come to think of it, I may not have even played it at all in the past five years.
There’s a reason for that: Torment And Toreros is one of the most harrowing—yet exquisitely gorgeous and lush-sounding—listening experiences you could ever hope(?) to have. It’s the sound of a nervous breakdown captured in music, as Almond himself has remarked about the record.
You wanna talk about BLEAK? Torment And Toreros is the bleakest, darkest, most depressing album, probably of all time. It makes Lou Reed’s Berlin or Joy Division sound like Alvin and the Chipmunks. If ever there was a soundtrack to slitting your wrists to, this is it, especially “Black Heart,” now regarded as one of Almond’s signature tunes. It’s probably the best song ever to listen to on repeat when you’ve really been fucked over badly.
Quite an anguished cry from the heart, ain’t it?
Marc Almond has always been a little bit of a “love him or hate him” proposition and even gay male friends of mine who like what he stands for, still seem quite divided on the matter of his voice. Me, I think he’s one of our greatest living vocalists, bar none. It’s how he sells the song. It’s about the emotional wallop he’s capable of delivering. The personality that comes through every note he sings. He’s the ultimate male diva, the torch singer of torch singers. Who else could even come close? His voice is as unruly as it is under his firm control. He can sound anguished like no one has since Jacques Brel. If you’re into Judy Garland, Maria Callas, Edith Piaf, Cher, not to mention Scott Walker, how can you possibly resist Marc Almond? And Torment And Toreros is his masterpiece.
Instrumentally, Torment featured a lot of instrumentation not typically heard in such outre post-punk outings, including Annie Hogan’s stunning grand piano work and the string section of The Venomettes (Annie Stevenson and Gini Ball). Future Banshee Martin McCarrick and The The’s Matt Johnson are also present. There’s a really sophisticated musical vision going on, incorporating elements of camp cabaret, flamenco, classical music and showtunes (Torment ends with an unhinged version of “Beat Out That Rhythm on a Drum” from Broadway’s Carmen Jones).
I’ve been a lifelong fan since Soft Cell and have paid fucking ridiculous amounts of money for Soft Cell and Marc bootlegs ‘back in the day’ (In fact, the most I ever spent on a record was a fan club only 12” of Marc and the Mambas’ “Sleaze”). The material of his that I find the strongest is not actually what he did collaborating with David Ball—as brilliant as it is—but the range of albums he made with Annie Hogan (seen in clips with bleach-blonde teased up hair on piano) as his musical director. They must have had a major falling out because how otherwise to explain that a musical partnership this profound could dissolve, irreparably?
The brilliant Antony Hegarty from Antony and the Johnsons has said Torment And Toreros was an important influence on his own work and it definitely shows. When Antony curated the Meltdown festival last year, he was able to convince Almond to do the album in its entirety—which I am sure was just an astonishing performance—at the Royal Festival Hall, but sadly (and I do mean, sadly!) it wasn’t professionally videotaped, at Almond’s request.
That’s what makes Three Black Nights of Little Black Bites, a limited edition CD/DVD combo release of Almond’s three-night stand at the Duke of York’s Theatre in 1983 all the more essential. Shot with a VHS camera by the later Peter Christoperson (Throbbing Gristle, Coil) the document is somewhat ragged, but still quite watchable. Musically, the band seem under-rehearsed, but nevertheless, were such talented, passionate musicians that it holds together in a very interesting way, almost like like Neil Young’s Crazy Horse, on another end of the musical spectrum. (My only real complaint is the one guy loudly singing his background vocals so out of tune, but he only ruins a few numbers. The sound man must have given him his due, I guess…)
In his liner notes, Almond takes great pains to point out that the quality is what it is, basically, and I can surely understand why he feels that way, but for a fan of Torment and Toreros for some thirty years—god, I’m getting old—this release is nothing short of a reason to jump for joy. Admittedly, I’m firmly in the target audience, but if you trust my taste in music—and especially if you’re presently nursing a badly broken heart—take a chance on Torment and Toreros, I think you’ll be extremely glad you did. I suspect that of the (brave) readers who do opt to try that album on for size, a subset of them will go on to become total fanatics for Torment and will also want a copy of Three Black Nights of Little Black Bites (be warned, I read that they only pressed up a thousand copies).
Although in the CD booklet Almond says that Peter Christopherson’s videotape was the sole visual representation of the band, maybe of an entire concert, but there are some pretty tasty clips of Marc and the Mambas on YouTube, provenance unknown.
A bravura take on Jacques Brel’s “In My Room”:
Here’s another, more polished, version of “Black Heart”:
“Torment,” with Annie Hogan’s intricate, almost Ray Manzarek-like organ playing:
Below, Almond sings Lou Reed’s “Caroline Says” while holding Caresse, the then-infant daughter of Genesis P-Orridge. (This is on the DVD, but the quality is way better than what you see here):
Thank you, Matthew Ingham at Cherry Red Records!