Most of the time when a band reforms, the results are lackluster. A creative partnership that’s run its course isn’t easily resurrected for love nor money and usually it’s for the latter and not the former that most reunion albums and tours occur.
That’s the way that I normally feel, but when Marc Almond and David Ball decided to reform Soft Cell in 2001 I was very excited to see what they’d come up with after 18 years. They had worked together on a few thing in the years since Soft Cell split in 1984, so it wouldn’t be an issue of them looking backwards to the 80s or anything like that. The idea of a mature Soft Cell seemed vastly appealing.
The first thing they released was “God Shaped Hole,” a track that was a part of a 2001 Some Bizarre compilation album titled, I’d Rather Shout at a Returning Echo than Kid That Someone’s Listening. They went on to record their unfairly neglected Cruelty Without Beauty album, which came out in 2002 and toured the globe in support of it. Sadly ticket sales were poor and most of the US dates were cancelled. I was lucky enough to catch them at the Wiltern Theater in Los Angeles (which was packed) and they put on one hell of an amazing show that balanced the hits with the new material.
The lead single from Cruelty Without Beauty was “Monoculture,” an infectiously catchy, but sharply-pointed diatribe about the bland horror show that popular culture was becoming (and this is years before the Kardashians or Cupcake Wars...) The evil Ronald McDonald-type character seen in the video is Some Bizzare label boss and former Soft Cell manager Stevo Pearce.
The track was “Memorabilia” and I heard it nearly every time I was out in some club in the early 1980s. Between dances, there was small disagreement over the band’s name, who they were and where they came from. It varied depending who you talked to. Then came “Tainted Love” and suddenly everyone knew who they were: Marc Almond and Dave Ball of Soft Cell.
When this duo first appeared on Top of the Pops with their number one hit “Tainted Love” in 1981, the florid Wing-Commanders and Colonel Mustards of Tunbridge Wells thundered, “Who the hell is this woman? That can’t be a man, surely? I fought a war for this?” It certainly was a man, and those damned lucky blighters were watching Marc Almond give one of TOTP’s most memorable and thrilling performances.
Marc is the Poet Laureate of sleaze, and Dave its Schubert. Together they wrote songs that perfectly captured an underclass world of the disenfranchised, the sexually ambiguous, and the impoverished.
When their debut album Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret came out on November 27th, 1981, I had to beg, steal and borrow a copy, and even wrote to Santa, bad Santa, for this delectable slice of vinyl. When it arrived, I played it endlessly. The NME may have hated it, but they were old, too old, and this was Year Zero for eighties music as far as I was concerned.
”...is one of the truly great interpreters of song of our age. His distinctive voice, like Frank Sinatra’s, is instantly recognizable from the very first note.”
After Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret and Non Stop Ecstatic Dancing (arguably the UK’s first House record by a British band) came the richer and darker blooms The Art of Falling Apart and Last Night in Sodom, which only the most great and reckless talents could have produced.
This documentary from the BBC series Young Guns traces the rise and fall of Soft Cell from student life in Leeds to the bright New York lights, and the seedy London back streets. Made in 2000, it has superb interviews form Marc Almond, Dave Ball, the band’s manager Stevo, and record execs.
Marc Almond is one of the truly great interpreters of song of our age. His distinctive voice, like Frank Sinatra’s, is instantly recognizable from the very first note. Almond’s subject matter often chooses to examine a seamier side of life than most people would be inclined to want to experience firsthand. In this way he is like Jean-Paul Sartre’s conception of “Saint” Jean Genet, a darkly sensual queer roué reporting back, musically in Almond’s case, from the sexual fringes, while alchemically transmuting squalor and sleaze into great and moving art.
I am a huge, huge fan. Marc occupies a special place in my (gutter) heart and in my record collection. His harrowing Torment & Toreros album would totally be in my top five of all time (I’ve written about it extensively here), while his Mother Fist and Her Five Daughters collection would hover just beyond the top ten, garning at least getting an “honorable mention” in this household.
And don’t even get me started about my love of Soft Cell…
Here’s a real Marc Almond gem, a powerful live rendition of Charles Aznavour’s deeply moving ballad about the life of a drag performer, “What Makes A Man A Man?” It’s one of Almond’s finest vocal performances, if you ask me. Taped at the Royal Festival Hall in 1992. Simply stunning:
A gathering by accident, design and hair-spray: The Immaculate Consumptive was an all too brief collaboration (3 days, 3 gigs) between Lydia Lunch (gtr. voc.), Nick Cave (pn. voc.), J. G. Thirlwell (aka Clint Ruin, Foetus) (drm., sax., voc.) and Marc Almond (voc.)
The 4 musicians met in London—Lunch had been filming Like Dawn To Dust, with Vivienne Dick; while Cave had been collaborating with Thirlwell (on the track “Wings Off Flies” for the debut Bad Seeds album From Her To Eternity), and both had worked with Almond, who was resting from Soft Cell, and working on Marc and The Mambas.
The party traveled to New York, where they were followed and interviewed by the N.M.E. Lunch had a Halloween event organized for October 30th and 31st—though The Immaculate Consumptive’s first gig was actually in Washington, on October 27th, where Thirlwell broke the piano, and ended with 2 nights later with Cave seemingly bored by the chaos of proceedings.
This is some of the archival material of those 3 gloriously chaotic days together. The cable access interviewer is Merle Ginsberg, known to many of you from her role as a judge on RuPaul’s Drag Race.
The Immaculate Consumptive - “Love Amongst The Ruined”
The Immaculate Consumptive - “Misery Loves Company”
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 the Soft Cell days 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 in Soft Cell—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.
On a 12” record bundled as a free bonus with the initial release of the their Art of Falling Apart album in 1983, Soft Cell did a boffo extended Hendrix medley (trust me, it’s way, way better than you might think) and what producer Mike Thorne called “a monstrously over-the-top extravaganza” (one clocking in at 10:16) based on Martin, George Romero’s classic 1978 horror film about a teenage vampire on the loose in a Pittsburgh suburb.
In this incredible clip from The Tube, the synthpop duo perform an ass-kicking shorter take of the song. What I wouldn’t give to see a ten-minute version! (Actually I have, they did it during the encore of their show at the Wiltern Theater in 2002.)
When he moved back to Dundee, Billy Mackenzie didn’t have any recording equipment in his home, and would spend hours in the local ‘phone booth, singing his latest ideas down the line to his record producer. It was typical of the maverick singer and musician whose life ran like a series of connected film scenes, from his early marriage in Las Vegas, to the excesses and glamor of his career as one half (with the prodigiously talented Alan Rankine) of the perfect pop duo The Associates.
Starting out in the mid-1970s, The Associates went on to create a giddy, euphoric soundtrack, around Billy Mackenzie’s incredible voice, which thrilled throughout the 1980s and early 1990s. From the opening chords of “Party Fears Two”, a new world of sensation opened - a world of expectation, excitement, pleasure, hurt and despair - emotions that in time came to reflect Mackenzie’s life.
As their success grew, so did the money (reputedly millions) and drugs (there’s a story of Rankine and Mackenzie being kept on heart monitors for 4 days after ingesting excessive amounts of cocaine), and the fears about performing (a tour of America was canceled days before it was to take place). Rankine eventually quit the band. Mackenzie carried on. Until in the 1990s, the record label were no longer willing to pay for Billy’s unfettered genius. Told of their plans over lunch, Billy only asked for one thing, a taxi home. An account cab was booked, thinking Mackenzie was only returning to his London address, instead he took it all the way back to Dundee, in Scotland.
As Marc Almond points out in this documentary on Mackenzie, The Glamour Chase, Billy must have known genuine heartache to sing with such painful beauty. Tragically, it was such heartache, this time over his mother’s untimely death, that led Billy Mackenzie to commit suicide, at the age of 39, in 1997. Such a terrible loss that revealed the darkness at the heart of The Associates’ music.
With contributions from Alan Rankine, Paul Haig, Siouxsie Sioux, Marc Almond, Martin Fry, Glenn Gregory and Billy’s family, The Glamour Chase is a moving testament to the scale of Billy Mackenzie‘s talent.
Famed French photographers Pierre et Gilles directed this amazing—and seldom seen—promo video for Marc Almond’s “A Lover Spurned” in 1990. This is as much a work of art as it is a music video.
The clip co-stars the glamorous Marie France, the Parisian transsexual icon, as the spurned lover. Although Almond and France have recorded duets together, that is actually not her voice in the pissed off rap in the middle. Interestingly Almond enlisted actress Julie T. Wallace (who played the title character in the BBC revenge comedy The Life and Loves of a She-Devil) for that, adding a nice camp dog whistle for listeners who could hear it.
Pierre et Gille also shot the covers for the single and 12” releases of “A Lover Spurned” and the Enchanted album the song came from. “A Lover Spurned,” produced by Stephen Hague, was a top 30 single in the UK in 1990.
Directed by Tim Pope, Soft Cell’s Sex Dwarf video, released to promote their debut album, created quite a scandal in 1981. Claiming it was pornographic, British police actually confiscated copies of the video. It was banned from MTV at the time and has been banned from YouTube…though it pops up now and then.
The Sex Dwarf clip reminds me of the films of Jack Smith and The Kuchar Brothers, mashed up with Texas Chainsaw Massacre: a Bacchanalian group grope full of writhing bodies, hot flesh and a chainsaw. Enjoy it in all its sleazy glory.
Tim Pope and Marc Almond discuss the making of “Sex Dwarf.”
I’ve always been a sucker for the distinct musical genre of “torch songs” and a huge admirer of certain torch singers. A torch song tells sorrowful tales of longing for a love lost, romantic misfortune and of life’s harsher experiences. I’d say that a torch singer must have truly lived to sing in a manner worthy of the definition, and in this way, it is often world weary voices (think late-period Marianne Faithful) or somewhat idiosyncratic vocalists who dominate the field. The dominant image of the torch singer is a woman bathed in a nightclub spotlight telling bleak tales of love, passion, betrayal and hurt.
The greatest torch singers are probably Édith Piaf, Judy Garland, and Billie Holiday. Much of what Dusty Springfield sang and a lot of Cher’s solo material from the 60s and 70s would fall into the torch song category (such as her sublime tearjerker, “A Woman’s Story. which I have blogged about here before). Sade is certainly a torch singer. The pathos of Susan Boyle’s rather lonely backstory—coupled with Simon Cowell’s expert choice in material—would certainly put her firmly in the torch singer category. Amy Winehouse’s tabloid travails with drugs and alcohol make her an honorary member of this sisterhood, too.
“Torch-singing is not limited by the genre of the music. It’s more about a sensibility evoked by a combination of the singer, her voice, the melody, the story, her performance and the lyric, that touches the listener in a special way. It’s a mood. A particular sound.”
In an interview with Cabaret Confessional, Ford offered this more nuanced definition of what makes a vocalist into a torch singer:
“[T]he ability to tell a story in song, with emotional conviction. Singers like these can hold a room in the palm of their hands, make the audience identify in a single note or word with the experience that they are singing about. It’s a very rare gift and not something that comes simply with being a professional singer. Acting comes into it, to an extent, but it’s also about using experience to render the lyrics authentic in that particular moment. I really don’t think you need to have experienced the clichéd excesses of a Judy Garland-style life to be an effective torch singer or cabaret performer, or even to have gone through the actual dramas that you might be singing about. But what the singers you mention – and many others I’ve encountered - all share is an ability to draw on their own life experiences to render a song “real”. Of course as the listener, you may or may not know something of their private lives. Sometimes that knowledge will make a performance more poignant, and obviously that’s what a lot of people are tuning into when they listen to the great torch singers – Garland, Holiday, Piaf. Perhaps it’s also partly why people turn out in droves for a Whitney Houston arena show, or why a low-key Amy Winehouse gig in north London excites such interest. But mostly, in the more intimate setting of cabaret where the torch singer really comes into her own, you’re responding to the honesty and clarity of an interpretation in the moment rather than the singer’s back-story and I think that’s where torch singing and cabaret coincide.
Elsewhere, Ford describes how torch singers, typically performing in cabaret settings, where food and drink was being served, had to pull out all the stops to get chattering audiences to pay attention. Cabaret would be the way to cut your teeth as a performer of this kind of music and I think this observation is a good one. Cabaret performers tend to flex different muscles when they’re before an audience than other types of singers, and so this, too, would be a big factor in how the form evolved. A torch song isn’t merely a love song, it’s something bigger, grander, deeper.
There are also several male artists who could be called torch singers: Gene Pitney, Scott Walker, Nick Cave, Antony Hegarty and perhaps the greatest male torch singer of all time, Marc Almond (who I have written about several times on Dangerous Minds) have all performed material that fits squarely in the genre, although we tend to think of females when the term is used.
It’s not a style of music that’s for everyone, I’ll grant you. Not everybody wants to listen to something weepy and depressing that will make them cry. But if you are someone who appreciates bleak songs of devastating emotional loss, may I point you in the direction of this incredible video for “Because You’re Gone,” from the new album, Genderful by Little Annie Bandez & Paul Wallfisch (Southern Records).
Little Annie—who has also recently been a collaborator with Antony and the Johnsons, Marc Almond and Baby Dee—does something so minimalist, yet so magnificent and powerfully moving here. I must have played this video twenty times yesterday listening to this song. Play this a couple of times before you move on (it’s short!), this performance is absolutely worthy of your attention, I promise you. This woman is an American cultural treasure, it’s a crime this has only had 10,000 views as of this writing. Video directed by David Merten.
Following on from the below post, another sad song and a real Marc Almond gem. Here, a powerful live performance of Charles Azanavour’s deeply moving ballad about the life of a drag performer, What Makes A Man A Man? One of his finest performances, if you ask me and a unicorn chaser of sorts for that Louis Farrakhan post from earlier today. (Hear Azanavour sing his own song—in English—during a Carnegie Hall performance here. Liza Minnelli sings it here.)
For whatever reasons—my 45 RPM picture sleeve has a woman on it—I have long assumed that Irish singer David McWilliam’s sad song about a homeless person about to die, 1967’s The Days of Pearly Spencer, was about a woman or a drag queen. The lines “Pearly where’s your milk white skin? What’s that stubble on your chin?” I always took to mean a drag queen not being able to groom herself properly and I thought this image—the 5 o’clock shadow—added an extra poignancy to the song. Not true. Apparently the song is about a elderly homeless man McWilliams befriended in the 60s.
I think you’ll agree that the song is memorable. The arrangements and orchestration were done by the famous arranger Mike Leander, who had earlier worked with Phil Spector and the Rolling Stones. The chorus is either sung through a megaphone or a telephone, and the effect is striking.