Since I have already weighed in on the monumentally brilliant new 10 CD Marc Almond box set Trials of Eyeliner: Anthology 1979-2016 (spoiler: I loved it) I will just direct you to that, but I do want to say that several weeks later I am still deeply into it. If you are looking for something new to give your full attention to—especially if you’re a fan of, say Nick Cave or Scott Walker—then Trials of Eyeliner is the high quality rock snob box set of this Xmas season, hands down. Anyone picking it up who is barely familiar with Almond’s non-“Tainted Love” career is surely in for something… profound. As a long, longtime major major Marc Almond fan, I would almost envy the discovery of his genius via this one fabulous package and not doled out over the decades.
Anyway, when I posted about Trials of Eyeliner last month, there was one thing on it that I wanted to hold back on, and present later on its own to call your attention to it especially. One of the “deep cuts”—indeed one of the very deepest cuts of all—is Almond’s emphatic performance of one of the only songs known to have been composed (in this case co-written) by the Great Beast hisself, Mister Aleister Crowley.
The sheet music for this song, referred to in a footnote, was thought to have remained unpublished and lost. None of the major Crowley collections throughout the world had a copy, but in 1991, a copy was discovered.
“The Tango Song” was written by Aleister Crowley and set to music by Bernard Page. It’s a musical adaptation of Crowley’s poem “The Tango,” first published in The Equinox Vol I, No 9 in March of 1913 as part of a short play co-written by Crowley and Mary D’Este (the mother of the great madcap Hollywood film director Preston Sturges):
What is money to the bliss
Of the honey of a kiss?
What are rank and fame and fashion
To the ecstasy of passion?
Give me dancing!
Give me wine!
Bright eyes glancing—-
Yours in mine!
Up my breath—-
Give me passion!
Give me death!
Were the town of Paris mine,
Its renown should drown in wine
I would pay the land of France
For a day and night of dance.
Dreams entrancing float above
Music, dancing, wine and love.
Sober sinks the sobbing breath;
Smiles the sphinx of sleep and death.
Let’s imagine, for the sake of argument, that there’s been a recent national (or even international) event so seismically disturbing that your entire worldview has crashed on the rocks of Reality Beach, a well-tended waterfront property under the maintenance of a bunch of mean-faced racist and xenophobic rich old white men in their 70s with much younger wives.
More than once, during particularly stressful times in my life, I’ve gone into a well-stocked record store to ask someone whose opinion I respected to recommend something by a non-mainstream artist who I might’ve missed, but whose work would blow my mind and draw me deep into its mystery, to move my head from the place it was in to someplace else. It almost doesn’t matter where. Makes sense, right? The power of music. A therapy of sorts. A diversion. A solace. A form of self-medication. Prayer, even.
Can’t be anything frivolous. It has to transport you. Change your mood. Change your mind. Transform you. It must be magical. Holy. It’s got to move you from here to there.
The “correct” response to my record store query might be something like “Well, have you gone through a Sun Ra phase yet?” “Do you have the Faust box set?” or recommending both of these Big Youthanthologies.
My prescription for what psychically ails you? Do take me up on this sage advice, I promise you my rock snob reader that it will work: Trials Of Eyeliner: Anthology 1979-2016, the newly released and truly magnificent 10-CD, 189 track anthology of the life’s work of Marc Almond.
Trials of Eyeliner, I reckon is one of the most essential box sets of the day, an all-killer, no-filler jam-packed to the bursting point celebration of one of our greatest living vocalists, a singular talent who will never be equaled or topped in the niche that he created for himself as the ultimate gay torch singer/diva. And this is the definitive study of Marc Almond’s work, chosen by the artist himself, with singles, deep cuts and unreleased numbers from his collaborations with David Ball in Soft Cell, the Marc and the Mambas/Willing Sinners/La Magia period with Anni Hogan, solo work and duets with the likes of Siouxsie Sioux, Saint Etienne’s Sarah Cracknell, Jimmy Sommerville, Gene Pitney and PJ Proby. Packaged in a slick, glossy box with a copiously annotated hardback book, it’s a luxurious item, but one with a very reasonable price (around $80-90). Want something to lose yourself in musically? This is it.
Photo by Pierre et Gilles
I’ve been a massive Marc Almond fan for pretty much the span of his entire career, from the first Soft Cell album onward and I have to say that there are few disappointments, in terms of tracks not included on Trials of Eyeliner, although I can still think of a few dozen off the top of my head. These 10 CDs make a very, very clear—and as far as I am concerned unequivocal and definitive—musical argument that Marc Almond is one of the greatest artists of our age, a one-of-a-kind vocal talent who will probably be ranked alongside of Frank Sinatra, Nick Cave, Scott Walker, Jacques Brel, Edith Piaf and even Judy Garland by future generations of musical historians for a unique ability to breathe life, but also unutterable grief into a sad song. His decidedly homoerotic artform also compares to French poet and revolutionary Jean Genet, but I believe Marc Almond will ultimately achieve a stature far greater than Sartre’s “Saint Genet” as a pioneering gay artist of the 20th century when all’s said and done.
And I gotta say, I can only imagine what Marc Almond himself thought when he got his own copy of Trials of Eyeliner. He must’ve been fucking pleased. All in one place like this? It’s a staggering accomplishment.
Here’s a sampling of some of my favorite things on Trials of Eyeliner. Truth be told, I love pretty much everything on it.
The quintessance of Marc Almond’s artistry is on display here in his heart-breaking performance of Charles Aznavour’s “What Makes a Man a Man?”
Famed French photographers Pierre et Gilles (Pierre Commoy and Gilles Blanchard) 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 iconic 80s Parisian transsexual pop singer, as the spurned lover. Although Almond and France have recorded duets together, that is actually not her voice in the perfectly poisonous pissed-off rap in the middle. Interestingly Almond enlisted actress Julie T. Wallace (who played the title character in the BBC cult 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 Gilles 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.
The music video for “A Lover Spurned” after the jump…
“There are many who have laid with me, then got up and walked away from me.”
Thus begins one of the rarest, and some (like me) would say very best, songs that Cher ever recorded.
I’ve heard Cher’s 70s output referred to as “whore operas” and that’s an especially pointed way to describe her extremely rare 1975 Phil Spector-produced single, “A Woman’s Story.” Written by Nino Tempo, April Stevens and Spector himself, it’s the plaintive lament of “a woman who was passed around” but who has now found true love in her life, and who desperately wants and needs this love. It’s a really tense, haunting, moving, gorgeous, slow-burning number, fairly unique in both Spector’s, as well as Cher’s, oeuvre. Backed by the The Phil Spector Wall Of Sound Orchestra, as you can hear, it’s an absolute show stopper.
First Third Books, the London and Paris-based publisher of deluxe coffee table books devoted to counterculture (like Sheila Rock’s Punk +) and extremely in-depth celebrations of particular groups and performers (Felt, Saint Etienne, Genesis Breyer P-Orridge) are coming out with another of their beautiful monographs in June—this volume concentrating on the life and career of the great Marc Almond.
Marc Almond will be limited to 1300 copies worldwide, hand numbered and bound in purple fabric. There will be 300 copies of the standard edition priced at £40 and 1000 copies of a limited special edition for £60 that includes unreleased songs on a 7” single. The first 500 copies sold of the limited edition will also be signed by Marc.
Back in March, when the book was first announced, Almond remarked:
“Putting a book like this together is very difficult because it brings up all kind of emotions. But it’s important to me to paint an honest picture, which means that as well as the many wonderful memories, working on the book has also forced me to resurrect certain things I’d rather hoped had been consigned to history. But that’s great. It would be too easy to fall into the comfort zone of nostalgia. The book goes much further than that. The whole process has been bittersweet and yet cathartic. I’ve really enjoyed working on it and it looks fantastic.”
As longtime readers of this blog know, I am a massive Marc Almond fan—I have been since I saw my father fuming mad after Soft Cell ruined his Saturday night by performing “Tainted Love” on the Solid Gold TV show—so I’m thrilled to be able to offer a selection of photos from this amazing book, along with Marc’s own captions, and some related videos.
Youth: In 1964, I was seven. The world was still in black-and-white, still very much post-war, still austere, with poor street lighting and simple foods. But much of my world revolved around television pop shows like Ready, Steady, Go!, Thank Your Lucky Stars and Juke Box Jury. One of my first pop memories was seeing Sandie Shaw barefoot on RSG! singing ‘(There’s) Always Something There To Remind Me’. I was always singing that song. I loved pop from a very early age.
Photo: Peter Ashworth
Non-Stop Subversion: This was our preferred cover for Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret but the record company thought it too menacing and subversive. Dave looks quite convincing in the role of switchblade-carrying psychotic!
After hinting that his 2010 Varieté album would be the last to feature original material from him, Marc Almond was convinced to change his mind by LA-based British music producer/songwriter Chris Braide—whose list of A-list clients include Lana Del Rey, Beyoncé, Britney Spears and David Guetta—who he’d never even met.
“I simply had to get in touch to try and tempt him to do the exact opposite. It was such an absurd idea to think there would be no more new Marc Almond original songs. This is the man who wrote ‘Say Hello Wave Goodbye’ and we need more of those passionate, unique and original songs. Just like Bowie and Bolan before him, he’s a true original.”
Hear, hear! I like this Chris Braide, fellow!
Braide sent Almond three songs written especially for him, over the Internet. Although the two men communicated daily over email, they never even spoke on the telephone or met up in person until after the album was completed, so as not to disturb the chemistry of what they were cooking up together.
“I felt the songwriting muse had left me, possibly forever. Then an email arrived with three instrumental tracks. I got goose bumps. I was blown away. Chris had an understanding of the chord changes I adored, of the sounds I loved; songs in minor keys with big dark dramatic pianos and strings. I sat down to write, both excited and inspired. Three songs were written in a matter of days: ‘Minotaur’ a dramatic song about rage and animal passions, ‘Scar’ a torch song about deception and ‘Winter Sun,’ a melancholic reflective song about fading love.”
The idea was to create the “ultimate” Marc Almond record, and I must say, as a long (long) time Marc Almond fanatic, The Velvet Trail comes pretty close. Is it the equal of his 80s solo material? Perhaps not, but it’s closer to that level of rarified quality than he’s produced for years (which is really saying something). The idea of Marc Almond paired up with someone who produces Lana Del Rey, Beyoncé and Britney seemed quite intriguing to me. I played The Velvet Trail the first time and thought “Okay, that’s pretty good, but whatever…” and then the next day I woke up with several of the songs (especially the duet with Beth Ditto posted below) on repeat in my skull, craving to hear it again. And again. And again…
Almond with be touring the UK in support of The Velvet Trail throughout April. The album is available in a regular CD digipack, as a limited edition CD/DVD combo and as a limited edition double LP with poster and two bonus tracks
Here’s my favorite track from the album, a catchy-as-hell duet with Beth Ditto of The Gossip, “When The Comet Comes.” It’s pure pop perfection. Play this song twice—I dare you—and just try getting it out of your head. It can’t be done.
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.