Show People: The boy who came back: 72. Marc Almond

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The Independent Culture
'WELCOME TO twelve years of tears,' Marc Almond proclaims to an ecstatic audience at the Royal Albert Hall, 'tears of sorrow, but also tears of joy.' This is a man who has never been afraid to go over the top - not only in emotional fervour but also in his constant willingness to run towards danger. A live greatest hits album and video is not usually a career move to get excited about, but Twelve Years of Tears, Almond's excellent contribution to this debased genre, is a suitably extravagant showcase for a brave and much undervalued talent. This is one British pop star who has really earned his place in the spotlight.

Almond's determination not to live off past glories has previously bordered on the pathological. 'I've always been the person who's gone out and not played my hit singles,' he admits, casually dressed in tracksuit and trainers in the plush offices of his latest and most beneficent record label, WEA, which has paid for the services of a 40-piece orchestra on the new album. 'I've tended to concentrate on obscure B-sides and track three off the forgotten album.'

There are a number of these in the Almond canon. He is a prolific writer - 'Left to my own devices I'd probably only make triple albums.' And although he baulks at the suggestion that he ever made records which are not easy to listen to ('Which might those have been, may I ask?' he demands laughingly of an interviewer whose ears still wax up protectively at the thought of his 1987 opus Mother Fist and Her Five Daughters), he readily admits to cultivating his muse more eagerly than his fan-base.

Luckily for Almond, a hard core of devoted admirers has loved him all the more for this. His willingness to be difficult - to drop out of the mainstream while he works on a new direction - might not have gone down well with some of his shorter- suffering record labels, but it has played a vital part in sustaining him as one of the more enduring of British pop icons. (How many other stars of the past decade could hold their own with Gene Pitney?) When Almond first turned to the songs of Jacques Brel, people laughed, but over the years his voice has matured into a surprisingly expressive instrument. Nowadays he can carry off the gleeful sado-disco symphony of 'Jacky' and the florid melodrama of 'If You Go Away' with equal aplomb.

Almond's own struggle to get himself taken seriously as a chanteur, and the nervous agonies he admits he suffers in live performance, add extra resonance to these songs of dignity in desperation. But the first time around he didn't have to go looking for stardom - it crept up behind him armed with a rolled-up tabloid. One minute he and his Soft Cell partner David Ball were scrabbling around on Fine Arts courses at Leeds Polytechnic, Almond supplementing his income via long hours as a cloakroom attendant at a disco; the next they were Number One with 'Tainted Love'.

Unlike rival Yorkshire post-punk pioneers ABC and the Human League, Soft Cell did not lose their confrontational edge in the first flush of fame. The pleasure they took in 'getting up everybody's noses' was evident from their first appearance on Top of the Pops, sandwiched between Aneka and Shakin' Stevens. The sight of Almond dressed in biker gear, chains and eyeliner sent shock waves through the nation's living rooms. 'My record company were saying 'Please don't go on TV dressed like that - it'll harm your career',' he remembers fondly. 'Well, it didn't'

Almost overnight, Almond replaced Marc Bolan and David Bowie, his own teenage heroes, as the inspirational embodiment of dippy deviant glamour. This turn of events had its downside. Anyone who remembers the persecution Almond suffered as the first of the Eighties 'gender benders' can't fail to realise the absurdity of recent criticism of him for 'not being political enough' about gay rights. 'People were actually very cruel about it at the time. I'd gone through home and school-life (in Southport, Lancashire) suffering a lot of hurt and abuse, and now I was going through the same thing with the press, so I decided to pull away from it.'

It is a mark of the extent to which he feels he has proved himself that Almond is now ready to face 'Tainted Love' again. He hadn't played the song for more than a decade; its opening bars had assumed a nightmarish quality for him. 'Every club I went to anywhere in the world I'd hear the introduction and think 'Oh my God, not again'.' On Twelve Years of Tears he actually prolongs the dreaded intro in an impressive show of bravado.

Almond's own writing achievements eclipse the feistiness of even his most celebrated cover version. From 'Say Hello Wave Goodbye' to 'My Hand Over My Heart', the best of his own songs have a sweep worthy of the pantheon he has plundered. And he can't even play an instrument - Almond sings vocal lines into a tape recorder and instructs others as to what musical flesh should clothe his melodic bones. Does he ever regret this? 'Sometimes, but mostly I'm happy to have no formal knowledge of music, because it means I'm not restrained. When I work with classically trained musicians they often look at me like I'm mad. But I know if it works in my head, it will work.'

'Twelve Years of Tears' (WEA) is available in all formats and on video.

(Photograph omitted)