Interview Marc Wardel
Photography Etienne Gilfillan
“Soho was this mythical place I’d seen in movies and read about in books, and I thought it was really the heart of London…”
A constellation of spotlights bounces and reflects off steel, mirror and glass, casting soft-focus infinity images of Dietrich and Bowie-beautiful across the room… It’s a suitably decadent backdrop for a conversation with a star, someone who can truly be called an icon of music and pop culture – the unique Marc Almond.
We are in the Light Lounge, Soho, and Marc is looking splendidly sepulchral in a beautifully tailored jet-black suit and matching Hugo Boss shirt, open at the neck to afford a glimpse of his trademark custom-made gold skull-and-crossbones nestling against the palest of pale skin. He’s balancing on a pair of black high-heeled ‘Beatle’ boots by YSL and drifting in the air of this Soho afternoon is his delicious fragrance (‘Une Amourette’ by Roland Mouret/Etat Libre d’Orange, if you’re curious). Once the photo-shoot is over he slips into an original Iggy Pop Paradise Garage ‘leopard’ T-shirt by John and Molly Dove and settles down onto a long leather banquette for a chat.
Mark Wardel: Marc, last time we spoke we discovered that we both came from similar Northern seaside towns where, as teenagers in the early Seventies, we had summer holiday jobs in the fairgrounds and arcades. I wondered whether, like me, you felt that the bright lights, transient population and seaside landladies – who always looked like hookers with the heavy make-up and beehive hair dos – had in some way primed you early on for life in Soho?
Marc Almond, Well, I came from Southport, where I had holiday jobs in the fairground on the ‘hook-a-duck’ stall (laughs) and the bingo… and that seaside ambience is very important to me in that they are strange, melancholic places where there’s always a seedy kind of ‘showbiz’ vibe and a sort of trashiness that I love… as there is in Soho. Really, all my inspirations come from that kind of feeling. Actually, I met my first love in the Southport theatre where I also worked as a stagehand – I was underage and he was a pantomime giant!
MW: Was he big all over? (laughs)
MA: (laughs) Yes, actually, he was fantastic! He was an actor and he used to come to the theatre in fur coats and would tell me about Jean Genet, Our Lady Of The Flowers, and all that kind of thing. And so I first came down to London to stay with him – he really introduced me to London, although I had been down once before on a school trip, where instead of the museums I wanted to see the legendary Biba store. It was like the temple of glam rock, because of Bowie and Bolan and the others who shopped and performed there. Unfortunately, on the day I went it was closed, so I just stood outside looking in. I was devastated, but in a strange way looking in from outside was enough.
MW: So, you discovered Soho a bit later?
MA: Yes, I really found out about Soho at art school in Leeds around 1978/79, when I had an affair with a boy called Paul who I met at an underground gay club called ‘Charlies’, which was full of Leeds rent boys, heavy lesbians and a rough gay crowd. And this Paul was the one who said, “You must come to London,” as he knew all about Soho and was friendly with the rent boys and so on. Soho was this mythical place I’d seen in movies and read about in books, and I thought it was really the heart of London… which in a way it is. So, Paul took me down there, and I met some of his ‘friends’- i.e. clients. One was called Ginger John and someone else was called Mother Ratbag… (laughs) and there were all these old queens who paraded up Piccadilly. We actually got arrested one night outside Cecconi’s while Paul was calling one of his clients from a phone box.
MW: Did you give a false name?
MA: Yes, I was terrified it would get back to my parents, but nothing ever came of it. And then in the art college holidays I got a job in a Soho clip-joint taking money on the door from punters who, once inside, would be fleeced by the heavies for £300 bottles of Asti Spumante! It was all a bit criminal really, but it was fantastic and thrilling and I just became addicted to the idea of Soho. I knew it was where I really wanted to be.
MW: That comes through very much in your music, going right back to Soft Cell. There’s a continuity, I feel, right through to the new album, which sounds like it could almost have been played or performed in the Raymond Revue Bar during the Profumo era.
MA: Yes, I always try to keep that kind of flavour, that kind of thread, going through… and I have great memories of those times and of the late 70s and early 80s wearing a long black priest’s cassock and a black turban, out on the town with Molly Parkin, getting drunk and ending up in strange beds. (laughs)
MW: And we both had places on Brewer Street back then too. My art studio was above MCA records and you were…
MA, 1-3 Brewer Street! That was the first flat
I ever bought in London. It was literally opposite the Raymond Revue Bar and a caff called the coffee pot where every night through the windows you’d see this big, tall transvestite with an Alsatian dog, and there’d always be a row of boys sitting along the window doing transactions under the counter. But every morning at about 2 or 3am, a Black Maria would turn up and haul them all off to Bow Street! With all the hardcore porno cinemas, strip clubs and drunken violence, Soho was a hairy, scary place to live in
MW: It’s very different now. What are your thoughts on the changing face of Soho?
MA: In the past couple of years I got really upset about the way it was all changing – it was really stressing me and bothering me… but I think in a way it’s because you feel you are losing part of yourself.
MW: We’re mourning our youth.
MA: Exactly, but I feel I’m of an age where it doesn’t really matter to me now. We’ve lived through the most amazing periods and pop culture movements, and I’m optimistic that young people coming up will rebel against the conformity that’s happening worldwide. There’s a sense, like with vinyl for instance, of people going back to when things were real and beautiful – trashy but real. I can see it happening – a revolution and the resurrection of the old spirit of Soho.
MW: Yeah, places are always changing and of course young kids love it now… it’s their time and I guess people in the 1800s, 1920s or 1940s would also have been saying exactly the same things we are about Soho changing.
MA: You can still find pockets of the old Soho mixed in with the new. It still has character and will always be great and really, everyone has their own Soho, their own period. Wherever we are, we all carry that Soho with us in our hearts.
Marc’s new album Shadows and Reflections is out now on BMG records.