Marc Almond on Soft Cell, ‘Tainted Love,’ and Meeting Warhol

Marc Almond on Soft Cell, ‘Tainted Love,’ and Meeting Warhol

Photo: C Brandon/Redferns

Marc Almond of Soft Cell has an apt metaphor for life at his age. He likens it to the bars that measure the power left on a mobile phone. “I’ve got about one bar left,” he says. “And I don’t have a charger.”

“I’m 65!” he adds with a blunt laugh. “There’s not a lot to look forward to, as opposed to what there is to look back on. Everything I write at this point is a retrospective.”

But there’s an irony at play. The way Almond has processed the past in his latest music has both reenergized his career and unearthed a wealth of experience that speaks eloquently to the present. This week, he and his musical partner in Soft Cell, Dave Ball, will release the first album under their storied brand in two decades. Wryly titled Happiness Not Included, Soft Cell’s new set mirrors the mix of darkly sardonic lyrics and electro-minimalist music that made their 1981 debut album, Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret, a louche classic. A concept album, Cabaret captured the frustrations and dreams that fuel the excesses of nightlife, highlighted by the global smash “Tainted Love.” The single, released at the very start of the AIDS crisis, later became a sad anthem, expressing the complicated feelings gay men had about sex in that fraught era.

That was hardly the only prescient move by the group. Soft Cell was the first of the ’80s synth-pop duos, releasing music before Erasure, Pet Shop Boys, and Eurythmics. And, though Almond wasn’t open about his sexuality during that benighted time, he kicked off the conga line of gay stars who came to dominate British pop in the 1980s, cracking the charts before Boy George in Culture Club, Andy Bell in Erasure, George Michael in Wham!, as well as the guys in Bronski Beat, Pet Shop Boys, and Frankie Goes to Hollywood. In the years since, Almond has been furiously busy, releasing no fewer than 25 solo albums that have made him a significant star in the U.K. and a cult draw in the U.S.

The road to the Soft Cell reunion dates back to 2018, when the pair staged a sold-out show at London’s O2 Arena advertised as their final concert. Two years later, they wound up touring Britain again with a show that re-created Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret in its entirety. The same show will come to America in August.

In a far-ranging Zoom talk from London, Almond animatedly spoke about the new album’s themes of age and memory — elaborated in songs that sweetly reference Marc Bolan and Andy Warhol — the radical shift in society’s views of sexuality over the last 40 years, and his evolving attitude toward mortality.

Of course, it’s a pop star’s prerogative to “retire” and then “un-retire,” but why did you and Dave finally decide to record new Soft Cell music in the wake of that O2 show?
BMG, where I’m signed as a solo artist, asked, “Would you be interested in doing a Soft Cell album?” Because Soft Cell is a bigger name than Marc Almond. And I thought, It all depends on what music Dave is going to give me. If he gives me music that inspires ideas for a theme, I’ll go with it. And, of course, Dave had been writing songs for years. When I heard it, I could see myself writing lyrics for it. So, the album was on.

The theme you came up with centers on the sad and stirring realizations that come with age. The album begins and ends with songs that contrast what you thought the future would be like when you were a kid in the ’60s and what it turned out to be. Why was that subject on your mind?
The first Soft Cell song that Dave and I recorded together was in Dave’s bedroom in art college called “Science Fiction Stories.” It went, “Science-fiction stories told us our future.” When I was growing up as a child we had this view of a utopian future. We would all look great and have nice shiny clothes and ride on monorails and electricity would never fail. Looking at what the future turned out to be, it’s more like those [’70s sci-fi films] Soylent Green or Logan’s Run. It’s darker — dystopian, even.

The withering title of the album, Happiness Not Included, highlights that theme. It uses the language of consumer products in a morbidly funny way.
Soft Cell songs, in general, have a humorous touch, and we’ve always written about being part of a consumer society. We were very influenced by films like THX 1138, where they said, “Buy our product” in subliminal voices. We love that film!

That ironic embrace of consumerism dovetails with the work of Andy Warhol, whom you wrote about meeting back in 1982 in the new song “Polaroid.” What was that meeting like?
In my years at art college, I idolized Warhol. I made little Super 8 films that were influenced by him. But when we met him, it was in the third version of the Factory. It was very corporate. We met him with a view to being on the TV show he was doing at the time. I remember babbling on because I was just so excited. He said, “What have you been doing?” and I said, “I went to see Sylvester, a disco act I really like.” And he just said “yeah” and “great” and “oh, gee.” It went on like that for half an hour. I came away from it and said to Dave, “What was that strange meeting? It was not how I imagined it would be at all.” I wanted silver paper on the walls and the Velvet Underground playing in the corner and Joe Dallesandro and Candy Darling walking around. But those days had long gone.

Have you seen The Warhol Diaries? It presents an entirely different, and far more vulnerable, view of him from the oblique persona he chose to show the world. 
It’s one of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen. There was a lot of sadness in it, which made me think about him in a new way. It also goes beneath all the commerce — the way he would hustle celebrities to buy his portraits — to show he was a really great artist who spanned three decades of Americana and New York and whose work said so much about everything in that time. And I crop up in episode three. I was watching it and then this voice starts talking about how people can be so unkind and I thought, That sounds like me, and, boom, there I am on Andy’s TV show!

Soft Cell in November 1981, the same month the duo released their breakthrough debut Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret.
Photo: Fin Costello/Redferns

In the new songs, you make further references to your past with multiple allusions to Marc Bolan. You loved his music so much that you changed the spelling of your first name to honor him. And, of course, “Tainted Love” was first recorded by Gloria Jones, who later became Bolan’s girlfriend. Why was he seminal for you?
When Marc Bolan first appeared on TV in 1971 it was on Top of the Pops, which I watched on my black-and-white TV. This person appeared with glitter on his face who was very effeminate and was playing guitar in this very sexual way. For people like me, it was opening a door into something else. People credit Bowie with that, but it was really Marc who opened the door for him. Bowie was a multifaceted artist, but Marc Bolan was a star! He was like Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard. He would say in interviews how fantastic and brilliant and amazing he was. There was a sense that this was all a strange delusion. But he was fantastic! And he made a string of the most beautiful pop records of all time.

All of the allusions on the new album to pop culture’s past pegs you to a certain time. That, combined with your honesty about aging in the lyrics, makes the album a kind of generational snapshot. Was that your intention?
That’s what I’d like to think this is: a snapshot of a time.

The generational resonance of the new songs echoes the special resonance “Tainted Love” had for gay men in in the ’80s. But you recorded the song before AIDS was generally known. How did you feel once the song came to have that connection?
It was very odd because the first time I came to New York was at the end of 1981. “Tainted Love” had been a hit in Britain, and immediately we were catapulted to New York to record an album very quickly. We’d never been to New York, and one of the first things I heard on the radio coming in was a news report that six or seven people have died of a mysterious disease. It’s a kind of “gay cancer.” That was my introduction to New York. That same night I went into Times Square and I was what we call “steamed” — a group of young guys would come around you and put their hands in your pockets and take things. That same night, I went to what was left of Studio 54 and I was dancing and somebody gave me a pill and I was out of my mind. I sat on the pavement at the end of the night and cried because it was all so overwhelming and emotional. “Tainted Love” later took on different meanings. I don’t want to say it’s a record about AIDS, but it was very apt, and so it became a soundtrack for that time.

In terms of gay pop stars, you hold a pivotal place. You were the first of the gay men who came to rule British pop music in that decade. But none of you were out at that time. How did that feel?
I felt afraid, to be honest. All I was told was “you can’t let anybody know because if you do, it will ruin your whole career.” I would do very coy things when they would ask, “What are you?”, I would say, “Well, I could be and I could not be.” The whole smoke-and-mirrors thing. And we had this blurry thing in Soft Cell because Dave is not gay. The only person who was really honest from the word go was Jimmy Somerville [in Bronski Beat]. He had the hit “Small Town Boy,” which was quite influenced, I think, by “Fun City,” a very early Soft Cell song.

Given that repressive environment, it’s ironic to note that so many pop stars at the time were, in fact, gay. 
A lot of us came up in the ’70s. We grew up with glam rock and disco and punk, which was very intersexual. Those three elements fed into early-’80s music. But when AIDS came along, it wiped out all the mentors. All of those people who had so much to pass on to other people — like choreographers, filmmakers, designers, and musicians — died. Afterwards, the whole landscape changed, in Britain anyway. It became Brit-pop, which was very lad-y and masculine. The ’90s swept away the gay culture that came from the ’70s.

Of course, now just the opposite is true. Today, pop stars can express whatever sexuality and identity they want. Coming from a time when that was far from true, did you ever think things would change so radically?
It wasn’t a total surprise to me. We grew up with what was called “unisex” in the ’70s and then the glam-rock thing, so it was evolving.

Memories of this time bond you with groups like the Pet Shop Boys. For the new album, you’ve finally recorded a song that features them, “Purple Zone.” It’s a synth-pop harmonic convergence!
It’s the U.K.’s most influential electronic duo meets the U.K.’s most successful electronic duo!

Did you know Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe well before?
Neil did some interviews with me in the very early days when he was a journalist. And they’ve always said that Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret was one of the albums that made them want to start an electro duo. But we were ships in the night. I was actually nervous to meet Neil because he’s so clever and intellectual. I thought, Oh, he’s going to think I’m really stupid. But they came to see our shows just before Christmas and they loved it. That’s the last I thought of it until I was on holiday and my manager played something for me on the computer. I said, “This sounds like our song ‘Purple Zone’ but someone remixed it and now it sounds like the Pet Shop Boys.” Then Neil’s voice came in singing the second verse. It was a fantastic gift because I didn’t know they were going to do [that remix]. It was a total surprise.

There’s another interesting connection between you and the Pet Shop Boys: You’re both huge in Russia. You lived in Moscow for a few years and you even recorded a solo album of Soviet-era love songs. Interestingly, the cover of your new album is a picture of an abandoned amusement park in Ukraine, an image that now seems especially haunting. Given your knowledge of the region, did you see the current war coming?
When I lived there, it seemed like a totally different place. It seemed like the blossoming of a country. It was emerging out of chaos. Everybody knew that Putin was not a very nice person, to put it mildly. But there were so many factions of warlords and gangsters that people thought, He’s the one monster who will keep all the other monsters in check. He was this kind of benevolent dictator. The thing about Putin is that he’ll be a friend to whoever is useful to him. The church poured loads of money into the Kremlin, so we got the cutting down of LGBTQ rights. It’s funny because I never experienced homophobia in Moscow or St. Petersburg. Even going on television when I did my first concert there and saying, “This is for all the people of Russia. This is for gay people and people of all sexualities,” never once did I get any homophobia. In England, I do a lot of the time. In America, too. There was a lot of hopefulness in Russia back at that time. I speak to my friends now and they have to be very careful what they say so that it doesn’t get them into trouble. People now are just in despair. It’s scary and heartbreaking. There’s no happy ending for anybody in this.

Your album ends in a way that could also seem unhappy, but in an individual, rather than a societal, way. “New Eden” is about entering the last act in life.
It’s about thinking, Where is my place in the world? All of the things I loved, and all of the things that I know, are disappearing. All the friends you had slowly go one by one, your family goes, your favorite restaurants close and all those things that meant so much to you as a child are all gone. So suddenly, you find yourself in a place where you don’t belong. The world belongs to other people. But I try to think of it in a more hopeful way. This is what nature does to you. It prepares you for saying good-bye to the world. We are always preparing ourselves to say good-bye.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.