Soft Cell’s Marc Almond heads down the road to recovery with a lush covers album

By  J. Poet

Singer Marc Almond became a star in America in 1981 when Soft Cell, the electronic duo he started with synthesizer player and technology buff David Ball, took its version of “Tainted Love” to the top of the charts.

SoftCellBanSM.jpgFormer Four Preps singer Ed Cobb, who also wrote The Standells’ “Dirty Water,” penned the tune. It became a minor hit for Gloria Jones in England in the ‘60s and was known to Almond and Ball as a Northern Soul classic.

The song was an international smash, staying on the pop charts all around the globe for years, and its success earned Soft Cell kudos as the progenitors of modern club music, while the group’s stage presentation made them Goth godfathers.

After Soft Cell’s meteoric three-year-long career flamed out, Almond largely faded from view in America, but he remained a major pop star in England, noted for his restless creative intelligence. With the exception of 1988’s The Stars We Are, a surprisingly upbeat collection for a man noted for his downbeat take on life and love, most of Almond’s post-Soft Cell albums haven’t been released in the States.

Stardom Road, an album of 13 cover songs that Almond says tells his life story with ususual theatrical flair, recently returned him to the American mainstream. It’s an expansive, richly imagined collection, but the album almost didn’t get made.

On Oct. 17, 2004, Almond was returning home from a concert. He was riding with a friend on a motorcycle when a fast-moving car sideswiped them.

“It was a terrible accident; I’ve had a bad three years recovering,” Almond says, speaking via phone from his manager’s London office. “I still dream about it. I was on the back of the bike when a car swerved into us. I went 30 feet into the air but don’t remember landing.

His injuries were numerous.

“I had several hematomas and massive head injuries,” Almond says. “I have pins in my arm, and I punctured my eardrums and my lungs. It was a miracle I came around. I was less than a day away from a tracheotomy. You can have a breathing tube down your throat for about two weeks before it becomes dangerous. Then they have to cut into your neck, which would have been the end of my singing career. My mother was on hand to sign the permission slips. I came around just before they were due to do [the tracheotomy]. But I’m quite a strong person and always overcome my tribulations. It was a battle, but I couldn’t accept that I’d never be back on the stage or the studio again.”

Almond worked extensively with a vocal coach and physical therapists in the years following the accident.

“It feels like it happened yesterday,” Almond says. “I still have some recovering to do, but today, things are better physically. I got back into the studio as soon as I could, but it took two years to make an album I usually could have done in two or three months. I had to learn to sing all over, and my stamina hasn’t fully returned. Earlier this year, I got back on stage at the Queen Elizabeth Hall to sing one song with Antony and The Johnsons. Today, I’m finally doing full concerts again. I don’t think I’ll overcome all the physical difficulties, but you’ve got to learn to live and deal with what life gives you.”

Almond had been thinking about a covers album for some time, but the song selection on Stardom Road also had a practical aspect.

“After the head injuries, I wasn’t in a place I could write songs,” Almond says. “I couldn’t concentrate, or hold a pen, or use a computer. I have problems still. I was severely depressed, but I knew I had to get back in the studio, so it was an album of covers. I spent a long time with my producer, Tris Penna (Andrew Lloyd Webber), listening to hundreds of songs that affected me in my youth. He brought in (co-producer) Marius de Vries (Bjork, Annie Lennox) and arranger Mike Smith, as well as a 70-piece orchestra.

My last albums have been kinda lo-fi and techno. This is an eyeliner album. I always say you can tell how personal a record is by seeing how much eyeliner I’m wearing on the album cover. These songs are the soundtrack of my life journey.”

The symphonic arrangements on Stardom Road hark back to the lush pop records of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. Almond is in great voice throughout, turning in touching interpretations of songs both familiar and obscure.

He belts out Charles Aznavour’s “I Have Lived,” a spit in the eye of mortality and a celebration of life’s excesses. Three songs recall his early days living alone in London: David Bowie’s “London Boy;” Al Stewart’s desolate “Bedsitter Images;” and “Ballad of the Sad Young Men” by Tommy Wolf and Fran Landesman.

“Like many of the songs on the album, ‘Ballad’ has a gay subtext,” Almond explains. “It’s from a musical, and the scene is a gay bar. Bette Davis did it long ago, and I duet with Antony Hegarty. He told me ‘Tainted’ inspired him, so it was a pleasure to finally record with him.”

Hegarty’s high tenor and bluesy piano add more drama to an already deeply poignant song. There are also sinister reinventions of two American pop classics: Sinatra’s “Strangers in the Night” and “Dream Lover”.

“When I sing ‘Strangers in the Night,’ I give it another slant,” Almond says. “It seems obvious to me it’s about casual sex, about picking up someone in a bar. They tack on a happy ending — ‘it turned out alright’ — but I always felt it had a darker side. [Not to mention the queasy fact that the hit version was sung by a father (Frank Sinatra) and daughter (Nancy Sinatra) — jp] It’s become a karaoke classic, and it has a cheesy element I like. ‘Dream Lover’ I always thought was about masturbation and death. Kenneth Anger, the ‘60s underground filmmaker, has a movie called ‘Kustom Kar Kommandoes.’ There’s a scene where a ‘50s-looking guy with slicked back hair is polishing a beautiful, gleaming car while this song plays in the background. Anger says the ultimate dream lover is death.”

“Redeem Me” closes the record on a jaunty, jazzy note.

“It’s the first song I’ve written since the accident,” Almond explained. “I felt it was important to end with an original song, pointing the way to an optimistic future.”

The song is a chiller, a warts-and-all look at a life well-lived and, by implicitly referring back to the opening track, wraps the set up in a neat, sophisticated package.

Almond says there are a few outtakes from the album, worthy performances that just didn’t fit the program. Johnny Ray’s “Cry” and “River of Sorrow,” another duet with Hegarty, will probably be offered as downloads on his Web site.

No conversation with Almond would be complete without a few words about Soft Cell, a band he says was widely misunderstood.

“[Soft Cell] set out to be an underground art-college band,” Almond recalls. “We both had different musical interests and wanted to keep things open to experimentation. Then, we were suddenly catapulted into huge pop stardom, which we enjoyed, but it soon began to destroy us. I always wanted to work with an orchestra and collaborate with other artists. Dave wanted to do studio work. So a hit the size of ‘Tainted’ was a blessing and a curse back then. It wasn’t a big emotional split-up when we stopped working together in ‘83. It was just a case of too much too soon; we lost direction.

“Today, I look on ‘Tainted Love’ as a blessing. [The song] has been very good to me. When you have a huge hit like that, you almost resent it at times. Everywhere you go, it’s being played. You can’t escape it. It was maddening then, but I embrace and love it today. People still sample it, and when they cover it, they usually use Soft Cell samples. It’s taken me all over the world. It gave me a comfortable life and still does, and I still love singing it. It doesn’t fit into all the shows I do these days; I do acoustic shows, shows with just me and a piano, big-band shows, dates with symphony orchestras. I have a lot of genres in my back catalog. I don’t mind in the States that I’m still considered a one-hit wonder. If the hit’s that big, I don’t mind a bit.”

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