Marc Almond: To Russia with untainted love

What made Soft Cell's Marc Almond turn his back on a drug-fuelled lifestyle for Russian folk music? Fiona Sturges finds out

It was one of those unforgettable Top of the Pops moments. Soft Cell's Marc Almond singing "Tainted Love", a deviant imp who appeared to have had a nasty run-in with an eyeliner pencil. With his bondage chic and faux-punk war paint he offered a tantalising, if faintly ludicrous glimpse into pop's seamier side. Now, 22 years on, the make-up is gone, the black hair has faded to brown and his clothes - a tight-fitting sweatshirt and battered grey trousers - could almost be described as casual. But look hard and you'll find visible traces of the old Almond - the tattoos peeping out up from under his shirt, the great hunks of metal on his fingers, the two gold teeth.

"Tainted Love" shifted over a million copies in Britain and went to number one across Europe. In America it stayed in the charts so long that it went into The Guinness Book Of Records, replacing Bill Haley's "Rock Around The Clock". While Soft Cell enjoyed a string of hits, Almond gradually lost the plot. His spending was so out of control that accountants were hired to prevent him from getting at his own money. As a result of his copious drug-taking, he now has little recollection of the early years: "My mind is like a Swiss cheese," he giggles. The details he can remember are recounted in Tainted Life, his thoroughly entertaining autobiography, which chronicles a succession of drug-fuelled near-death experiences with mischievous relish.

Since Soft Cell's split in 1984 Almond has pursued a solo career, which he blithely describes as "patchy". Over the course of 20 years he's signed up with and departed from at least half-a-dozen record labels, and has recast himself variously as a Latin, jazz, R&B and, most successfully, a torch singer. In 1996, after another brush with death (he was thrown out of a sixth-floor window by two junkie associates), he finally went into rehab and vowed never to make a record again. "Obviously I changed my mind about that," he remarks. "I think it took me a while to find my creativity. Now of course I realise you can be creative without the help of drugs. I do look back on some of my earlier records and think 'I wish I'd done that better'."

For a man who claims to dislike interviews, Almond sure can talk, and he does, swiftly and breathlessly, without pause or punctuation. His stutter is barely discernible amid the torrent of anecdotes that spill from his mouth. Now in his mid-forties, he's charmingly candid about the years of self-abuse and has little time for regret.

"Of course, I could mooch around thinking 'I wish I'd done this, I wish I'd done that,' and feeling bitter about it all. Now I accept that this is my life and that's the way it's gone. I don't know what's going to happen next year or the year after. For all I know I might be back in the gutter with a crack pipe in my hand. He he!"

He's here to talk about his new solo album Heart On Snow, a paean to his ever-growing love affair with Russia. Two-and-a-half years in the making, it's an achingly tender collection of Russian romance songs, a genre that dates back centuries and has a similar misty-eyed mood to French chanson, another of Almond's passions. The album finds him collaborating with a series of musical and in some cases historical legends, among them Alla Bayanova, a traditional romance singer who was banished from Russia in 1917 after the October Revolution and who spent time in a Romanian concentration camp before being granted citizenship by Mikhail Gorbachev in the Eighties, and Lyudmilla Zykina, singer to Russian leaders, including Nikita Kruschev and Leonid Brezhnev and now President Putin.

Almond first toured the former Soviet Union in the early Nineties, travelling from Siberia to the Baltic states to play a series of British Council- sponsored acoustic shows. "It was a real culture-shock at first," he recalls. "For the first four days I couldn't eat or sleep. I came out in boils and was poisoned by carbon monoxide fumes. I was staying in hotels crawling with cockroaches and with prostitutes banging on the door all night. Even worse, I was having to get on stage with no sound and no lighting in front of drunken audiences. It was horrible but fascinating. When I got back to England I kissed the ground, and then I thought: 'I can't wait to go back'."

Intrigued by the culture and captivated by the warm reception to his music - he was touched to find people singing along to his songs - Almond made further trips to Russia throughout the Nineties, each time making more friends and contacts. Then three years ago, he was approached by the producer Misha Kucherenki to make the album.

Almond is overflowing with stories of his adventures, from his first meeting with the septuagenarian Zykina who force-fed him soup from the moment they met to the choir of Russian sailors in St Petersburg who provided background vocals for "Gone But Not Forgotten".

"I realised when I agreed to do the album that it would be an adventure," Almond enthuses. "It was also an opportunity to see behind the scenes of Russia, to get to grips with this unfathomable country. There was a lot of suspicion of this western singer coming over singing songs that are very close to Russians' hearts and I had to work to get some of the singers' approval. When I met Bayanova it was terrifying. She's had this incredible life and is still appearing on stage with her replacement hip at 98. I went to her house and she had her whole family there to assess my worth as a singer. The first thing she said was 'Why have you spoilt yourself by putting those gold teeth in your mouth?'"

Even now, Almond's enthusiasm for the Russian way of life shows little signs of abating. He now keeps an apartment in Moscow where he spends at least a week out of every month. "I've even applied for residency," he says. "It would certainly make the process of making records there a lot simpler. Would I move there permanently? I wouldn't rule it out, though perhaps if I spent a longer period of time there the magic would start to dim. We'll have to see about that."

In the meantime, there are plenty of other projects to keep him occupied. Earlier this year, he released a Soft Cell album, their first in 17 years, with his old bandmate Dave Ball, Cruelty Without Beauty. "That persona is still part of me," reflects Almond. "I'm still immensely proud of Soft Cell and sometimes it's fun just to make a proper pop album." He's also writing his second book in which he revisits all the places that have inspired him in his life. Almond says it's the schoolboy in him that keeps him embarking on fresh projects and seeking new adventures.

"I was bullied at school and, at the risk of coming across like a therapist, I think that's what gave me my drive," he reflects. "I still feel like I'm in the school playground and that I've got to prove to other people around me that I can do it, that I can keep the creative spirit alive and be a success. And besides, I've always thought that success is the best form of revenge."

'Heart on Snow' is out on Monday on Blue Star

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