Marc Almond: From bedsit to plague pit

Once the sultan of sleazy synth pop, Marc Almond's new Edinburgh show Ten Plagues examines the Black Death. Gloomy? 'We're all dropping off the end of a conveyor belt,' he says

Thirty years ago, Marc Almond was a slightly built man who wore black eyeliner and studded wrist bands and sang outre songs about seedy films and sex dwarves. He then spent the next 20 years in a rock'n'roll haze induced by cocaine, crack, ecstasy, ethyl chloride, Halcion, heroin, LSD, MDA, mescaline, opium, purple haze, ketamine, speed, sleeping pills and Valium – and those are just the drugs he admits to. He was not, in other words, the sort of person you would expect to see turning up in a sophisticated song cycle about life in the 17th century. "I look back on a lot of the 80s and 90s and I can't think of them with fondness," Almond says. "I look back with a shudder. I wasn't in a very good place for a lot of that time. It all ended in tears."

Yet reset the clock to 2011 and here he is, gearing up for a prime Edinburgh fringe slot in Ten Plagues, a piece of music theatre written by playwright Mark Ravenhill and composer Conor Mitchell, and directed and designed by Tony-award winner Stewart Laing. "It's been a challenge," says Almond, now 53 but looking puckishly younger. "I'll either sink or swim, but that's how I've always gone for things."

Where other pioneering synth-pop groups of the early 80s added detached vocals to the mechanised beat of new musical technology, Soft Cell broke the mould with Almond's vulnerable, impassioned and not always entirely in-tune vocals. The duo (Dave Ball was the other member) forged the missing link between Kraftwerk and northern soul, a strategy that got them to No 1 in 17 countries with their cover of Gloria Jones's Tainted Love. Acclaim continued with Bedsitter and Say Hello, Wave Goodbye, but Tainted Love remains the calling card. "Thank God for Rihanna sampling it in her song," says Almond, referring to the singer's 2006 single SOS. "I really like Rihanna. I download her singles from iTunes, so I loved it."

Almond has a long track record when it comes to theatre. With only two O-levels to his name, he talked his way into Leeds Polytechnic where, under the guidance of the late counter-culture activist Jeff Nuttall, he became a specialist in performance art. In one student show, he shaved half his body and performed naked but for his boots and a "strategically placed swastika". In another, he smeared his naked body with cat food.

"I always wanted to be a dancer rather than a singer," he says. "But because I have no coordination, it never worked. At art college I put on performances involving slides and films, with me at the centre. My problem was I can't memorise lines, because I'm dyslexic and I had minor learning difficulties when I was at school. Having a stammer as well – it was very bad when I was young – meant music was a great way for me to go. When you sing you don't stammer, and for some reason I could always memorise songs."

We meet in the bare-brick splendour of Wilton's Music Hall, a grade II-listed relic in London's East End of which Almond is patron. He talks in an excited babble, animated, intelligent and chatty, though the stammer returned after a motorcycle accident in 2004; it also left him with a collapsed lung and a punctured eardrum.

Ten Plagues came about after Almond saw Ravenhill's 2001 play Mother Clap's Molly House, set in the male brothels of the 18th century, and told the playwright that he would love to collaborate with him. Ravenhill has returned the compliment by writing a libretto about the great plague of London, taking inspiration from Samuel Pepys, Daniel Defoe and Susan Sontag's polemical work, Aids and Its Metaphors.

Mitchell turned Ravenhill's text into a song cycle set at the time of the Black Death, in which a decimated population is struggling to maintain social order. "It's about loss, grief, survival – and shopping," says Almond, who plays a man journeying through the city, observing the devastation. "You could take Ten Plagues literally, as a historical piece. But you can also see parallels at a time when we seem to be obsessed with fear, pandemic and viruses. Turn on the television today and it's all about E coli. Last year it was bird flu."

One such "plague" is HIV. Almond counts himself fortunate to have survived his sexually adventurous years (he describes himself as an "inquisitive" person) without contracting the virus. He first heard about Aids in 1981, when visiting New York to record Soft Cell's debut album. "On the radio in the taxi on the way to Manhattan they were talking about how a handful of people had died from what they were calling a new gay plague," he says. "I spent a lot of time in New York in the 1980s with the downtown arts crowd, and it became more and more visible. Places closed down and the whole landscape of New York seemed to change. It seemed to go very dark, desperate, fearful and unfriendly."

Almond has lost friends and colleagues to the disease including avant-garde opera singer Klaus Nomi, Freddie Mercury and Derek Jarman. "In Ten Plagues, the character becomes very hardened towards death," he says. "I can understand that. Whereas I used to get very affected by somebody dying, now I feel a grief but I take it in my stride. That's a thing of getting older anyway; we're all on this conveyor belt and dropping off the end of it. As you get older, the diseases start coming, often the consequences of the things we did in our hedonistic days; we become more frail, more fragile. Being someone who's had a number of near-death experiences myself, it doesn't frighten me."

Almond has been free of drugs for more than a decade and never goes to pubs or clubs. He is awake by 6am and in bed at 10.30pm. He's glad he's been booked into an afternoon slot on the Edinburgh fringe because ill health (anaemia, food allergies and aching joints) means he gets tired easily. There is, however, still something of the night about the man who has chronicled the lives of outcasts and outsiders in more than 20 albums. He doesn't care for the sun, and needs some gentle cajoling from the Guardian photographer before removing his shades. But, more than a decade after going through rehab, he seems more comfortable with himself: "The years from the millennium to now have been the most satisfying, creative and happy time of my life."

At peace with Tainted Love

Almond's move into the theatre is typical of a career that has rarely played to expectation. He took an abrupt detour from synth pop into Spanish rhythms on the 1983 Marc and the Mambas album Torment and Toreros; subsequent solo releases have taken in influences from Gene Pitney to Jacques Brel. His latest album, Feasting with Panthers, is a sumptuous piano-driven collaboration with Michael Cashmore, featuring songs derived from the poetry of Jean Cocteau, Gérard de Nerval and Jean Genet. "It's decadent poetry translated by Jeremy Reed, who's like a glam-rock poet," he says. "It's more narrative, which puts me in a good setting for Ten Plagues, getting away from the verse-chorus-middle-eight of the classical pop song."

Almond says he is as creative as ever, but also, at last, reconciled to his past. "I've had to learn to love Tainted Love," he says. "There was a period in my life when I never wanted to sing it or play it again. That's always a big mistake. People say, 'Why do you want to disrespect our growing up? Why do you want to deny it?' And they're right. It's like a theme tune, and you have to accept that people will want it until the day they die – and thank God they do, because it's something that brings you down to earth. You can do all kinds of artistic, esoteric or theatrical projects, and then you can come back to earth and sing a few pop songs. You go on stage and sing Tainted Love and everybody loves you and forgives you everything."

• Ten Plagues is at the Traverse, Edinburgh, 6–28 August; Feasting with Panthers is out now on Cherry Red Records.

Correction 19/7/2011: An 's' was missed off the end of the title of Susan Sontag's book Aids and its Metaphors. This has been corrected.


Mark Fisher

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
The Beggar's Opera review – the original jukebox musical reimagined
An updated version of John Gay’s classic features gags about the royal wedding and Brexit, but the music has missed a trick

Rowena Smith

17, Aug, 2018 @4:00 PM

Article image
If You're Feeling Sinister review – Belle and Sebastian inspire eccentric drama
Eve Nichol’s play combines songs from the Glasgow band’s well-loved album with an ambiguous narrative

Mark Fisher

06, Aug, 2019 @5:00 AM

Mark Ravenhill on writing a play a day for Edinburgh

Mark Ravenhill had a severe epileptic seizure and had no memory of anything that had happened during February and March.

Mark Ravenhill

06, Aug, 2007 @10:43 PM

Article image
John Eliot Gardiner: Britten to Beirut in the back of a taxi - my night with Bernstein
As a student, the conductor met Bernstein and got to ask him about West Side Story. He’s waited 61 years to conduct it, a moment when its themes of bigotry and disempowered youth feel more relevant than ever

John Eliot Gardiner

04, Aug, 2019 @3:00 PM

Article image
Edinburgh festival 2011: where National Theatres meet

Christ got crucified in Port Talbot, and a Greek tragedy was performed on a firing range . . . as the national theatres of Wales and Scotland prepare to share a stage, Andrew Dickson looks at what devolved drama has achieved

Andrew Dickson

02, Aug, 2011 @8:30 PM

Article image
Lyn Gardner on Edinburgh star ratings

Lyn Gardner: Every man and his blog is at Edinburgh now – so it's too easy to get a rave review from somewhere

Lyn Gardner

21, Aug, 2011 @8:59 PM

Article image
Edinburgh festival 2011: The highs and lows
Comedians stripped off or fell silent, theatre got lost in gadgetry, and a bassoonist was arrested … Brian Logan and Lyn Gardner give out their Edinburgh festival round-up awards

Brian Logan and Lyn Gardner

28, Aug, 2011 @9:19 PM

Article image
Another view on The Golden Dragon
Illegal immigrants and teeth falling into soup? This enjoyable play doesn't exactly speak to Chinese restaurant owner Stephanie Lo's personal experience

Interview by Laura Barnett

21, Aug, 2011 @8:44 PM

Article image
Audience: witchhunt in the aisles

Avoid the front row at the latest show by Belgian provocateurs Ontroerend Goed, writes Lyn Gardner

Lyn Gardner

10, Aug, 2011 @9:45 PM

Article image
Potted Potter: Harry in a hurry

A show that condenses the seven Harry Potter books into 70 minutes casts a spell over Michael Hann

Michael Hann

01, Aug, 2011 @8:46 PM