How Marc Almond Quit Drugs and Got High on Glam Rock

Words: Tony O’Neill

This interview was initially published by Substance.com – Louder Than War would like to thank Substance for permitting us to re-post.

Marc Almond takes us from his ecstasy, and acid-fuelled Soft Cell days through his diverse solo career spanning four decades; and tells us why he’s stayed sober this millennium.

Marc Almond has demons. But not just the regular old demons that tend to haunt those who dwell in the belly of the rock’n’roll beast (although he has plenty of those, too.). No, the demon he’s been wrestling lately is the one he calls his “glam rock demon.”

“His name was Henry Paget,” Marc tells me. “He was a late Victorian aristocrat, the 5th Marquess of Anglesey-total black sheep of the family. He squandered his fortune on vice and luxury and was in the habit of inviting his friends around to perform exotic ‘snake dances’ while dressed up in these ambi-sexual outfits. He was my inner-glam rock demon who was dying to get out.”

The spirit of Paget haunts Almond’s new album, The Dancing Marquis, a joyous, unashamed love note to the days when the glittery genius of Marc Bolan and David Bowie ruled the pop charts. It’s also a move away from his recent residency at the artier end of the spectrum, including dense, critically acclaimed works like Ten Plagues – a song cycle about the Great Plague of London; and his turn as Seneca in Pop’pea, an updated version of the 1642 opera Il Nerone which debuted at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris last year. Marc’s latest opus “was me revisiting my 15, 16-year-old self. I really wanted to get back to loving pop music again.”

Consider it mission accomplished: The Dancing Marquis is Marc’s poppiest and most accessible work in years. Not only does it feature production work from glam legend Tony Visconti, but guest turns from Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker (“Worship Me Now” is a sleazy electro-stomper reminiscent of Cocker’s work with Relaxed Muscle) and The Libertines’ Carl Barat (“Love is not On Trial”). “The whole experience reignited my love of simple songs with catchy choruses,” says Marc. “I’d felt I was losing that part of my soul.”

How Marc Almond Quit Drugs and Got High on Glam Rock

“The first Soft Cell albums ‘Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret’ and ‘Non-Stop Ecstatic Dancing’ were very druggy albums. They were mostly recorded either on ecstasy or acid.”

Thanks to Soft Cell’s run of smash singles in the ’80s, Almond will forever be associated with the New Romantics – but glam has always been in his musical DNA.

“My musical education started in the early ’70s,” he says. “First we’d had all these progressive and hard-rock bands like Led Zeppelin, Jethro Tull and Free. Suddenly, along came Marc Bolan and David Bowie and it changed everything. It was music that spoke an entirely different language, and progressive rock seemed old-fashioned overnight. Bowie and T. Rex, then Roxy Music and Cockney Rebel – they all spoke to me so much more than that more macho kind of music.”

It’s easy to say, “such-and-such changed my life.” Music is like that: I can still hear the tremulous echo of first love when Marc talks about hearing the likes of T. Rex for the first time. In my case, though, Marc Almond literally changed my life.

I’d just turned 18 and was about to head off to university to study music when I landed a life-altering gig playing keyboards for Marc in 1996. From a purely musical standpoint, a chance to play alongside someone like him was the kind of challenge that comes along once in a lifetime…if you’re lucky. Marc’s dizzyingly eclectic career has straddled so many different genres: the sleazy electro that defined his Soft Cell days, his modern chanson interpretations of Jacques Brel, the avant-garde darkness of his Marc and the Mambas albums. Working with him was both an exhilarating and terrifying proposition for a kid like myself.

My career with him began with playing piano on a few tracks of the Almond-produced comeback album ‘Legend’ [1996] for ’50s bad boy PJ Proby. It ended in Russia two years later in a flurry of drunken fistfights, death threats and lost passports. It was the most thrilling period of my life.

How Marc Almond Quit Drugs and Got High on Glam Rock

In the wilderness years of heroin-fueled desperation that followed for me, Marc and I drifted apart – but in recent years we managed to rekindle our friendship. When I played with Marc, drugs weren’t a part of the scene. But that wasn’t always so.

“Using drugs in the early part of my life and my career was very inspiring to me,” Marc says. “I was very shy and unconfident and drugs opened me up creatively. When we did the first Soft Cell albums ‘Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret’ [1981] and ‘Non-Stop Ecstatic Dancing’ [1982] – those were very druggy albums. They were mostly recorded either on ecstasy or acid. I was very into psychedelic drugs at the time. That made the albums what they were – the good and the bad.”

“I was ordered to rehab by my record company at the time. I did about three steps of the 12 Steps program and then checked out because the newspapers were camping outside the door. I had to escape in the back of a car.”

Any regrets? “No! It’s their flaws that make those albums so different from the rest of what was going on back then. We were very much out of step with what was prevalent in the industry in the early ’80s, when everything was so perfect and produced. We were the dirtier, druggier version of what was going on.”

But drugs did more than just fuel his creativity. Marc detailed his harrowing battle with a prescription pill addiction in his excellent memoir, Tainted Life. “It does tend to accumulate and accumulate,” he says, “and the next thing you find that what had once been an inspiration now becomes a hindrance. You find that instead of revolving around creativity, your whole life is revolving around drugs.”

“When we were recording ‘Torment and Toreros’ [1983] it was a complete drug-fest from beginning to end. It went from speed to heroin to dabbling in everything throughout that album. Of course it was a really creative album, a record I look back on as a seminal album in my career.”

He’s not alone in this assessment. Although it divided critics at the time; one memorably described it as a “florid musical mess” – this pitch-dark album, with its themes of alienation, loneliness and poisonous love, has grown in stature over the years. Torment and Toreros was so influential on Anthony of Anthony and the Johnsons, for example, that he asked Marc to perform the album in its entirety when he curated the 2013 Meltdown festival.

“Listening to the vocals on ‘The Untouchable One,’ I can hear that I was doing heroin in my voice,” Marc says with a shudder. “It’s still too difficult to listen to.”

How Marc Almond Quit Drugs and Got High on Glam Rock

Would you consider that album a high point, I ask, or a low point? “A high-low point,” Marc says with a sly grin. “But the real beginning of the end for me was when I was ordered to rehab by my record company at the time. This was in the mid-’90s. It was a complete shock. I did about three steps of the 12 Steps program and then checked out because the newspapers were camping outside the door. I had to escape in the back of a car. I thought I’d finished with drugs then, but I hadn’t. But the thing was…after rehab it was never quite the same.”

I know what you mean, I say. There’s something about rehab that really takes the fun out of drugs, isn’t there? “Yes, it plants a seed… I staggered on for a bit, but it was more little binges than full-on use. The last time I used anything was Millennium’s Eve.”

As Marc talks about partying like it was 1999, I can’t help but flash back to how I spent that particular holiday: holed up in a Hollywood apartment, compulsively injecting cocaine, half-insane and convinced that the world would end at the stroke of midnight.

“I’d convinced myself that Millennium’s Eve had to be this huge, euphoric experience,” Marc recalls. “I thought, ‘I have to take loads of coke, loads of E, loads of everything.’ So I started off the new millennium just feeling like death. I didn’t enjoy it at all. I felt cold, sick and terrible – that’s how I started the new century. That was it for me. I haven’t taken a drug since. Now my addictions manifest themselves in other ways. I obsess about things. I obsess about work.”

I can relate. My wife looks on in horror whenever I start obsessively collecting something new. “Yes!” Marc laughs, “I collect things. You become obsessed with particular people, or music – you focus your obsessions on different things. I’ve got to have that, or this; I’ve got to make myself feel better by owning that. The thing was, [12-step] meetings never really worked for me. I started off going to meetings but I never got into them because I never got a chance to talk about myself. There was always somebody else hogging the meeting, talking about themselves, and I always wanted to be talking about myself. So for me, in the beginning, it was just a white-knuckle ride. But now it’s second nature. I mean, I can’t take a drink even if I wanted to because my liver is so fucked up.”

Fourteen years on, Marc’s sobriety sits well with him. His current obsession is “with clarity,” and he seems eager to explore ever more esoteric avenues of musical inspiration. Case in point: his 2012 gig with Jethro Tull. How did that come about?

“I know, it was a bonkers thing to do!” Marc laughs. “It happened because I was out at a café and this guy came up to me, and brought up an interview where I’d said one of the first singles I’d bought back in 1970, before glam rock came along, was ‘Sweet Dream’ by Jethro Tull.

How Marc Almond Quit Drugs and Got High on Glam Rock

“I had a school friend called Frank. We were the class freaks. We both had longer hair than anyone else; down to our shoulders, and we were both into rock music. Frank was really into progressive bands and ‘Thick As A Brick’ was his favourite album. We’d get together at his house and just dance around to it.

“So the guy in the café was asking and I told him that yeah, I used to really like Jethro Tull. It turned out this guy worked with [Tull frontman] Ian Anderson. I get a call a few weeks later from Ian, asking if I’ll come out to his house in the country. One thing led to another and I found myself on stage with Jethro Tull, singing Thick As A Brick. It was just one of those wonderful, odd things.”

“I’d lost touch with my friend Frank for many years, then bumped into him at a class reunion and we’d got back in touch. But he’d recently died; he had an alcohol problem, you know? The whole time I was up on stage, I just kept thinking, Man, I wish Frank could be here to see this! It was so fucking weird.”

Marc smiles, “But sometimes these things happen. When you’re young you’re listening to records produced by Tony Visconti, then 40 years later you’re in a studio with him.”

How did Visconti come to work on The Dancing Marquis, I ask? “I did a T. Rex tribute show in London with T. Rexstacy and Tony Visconti, and we’d talked about doing something then, but it never happened,” Marc explains. “I did another show with them two years ago to mark the 35th anniversary of Marc Bolan’s death, and said, ‘lets make it happen this time.’ I wrote a bunch of songs with Neal [Neal X, who played guitars with with Sigue Sigue Sputnik and is now Marc’s most long-standing collaborator as well as the man with the most audacious quiff in rock’n’roll] and Tony came over and produced two songs for me, plus he mixed and did string arrangements for a couple of others. These weird circles complete themselves when you get older. You think, Am I dreaming or what?”

I ask Marc if he remembers being in the studio with PJ Proby and a certain green, 18-year-old keyboard player who was having a very similar out-of-body experience upon finding himself working with these two industry titans.

“Of course!” Marc laughs. “Look, when I was about six or seven years old I remember seeing PJ on TV with his ponytail singing these big ballads…or Gene Pitney [who Marc sang with in his hit 1988 cover of “Something’s Gotten Hold of My Heart”] on my little black and white TV. I just love it when you can make these things happen.”

“To me, it’s never about having success or failure: It’s about the ride. It’s all about the ride – that’s what my life is. It’s all about having the adventure.”

To accompany this interview, Marc Almond put together a list of his favourite glam albums for Substance.com: Check them out here.

Tony O’Neill is the author of books including Digging the Vein, Down and Out on Murder Mile and Sick City. He also co-authored the New York Times bestseller Hero of the Underground (with Jason Peter) and the Los Angeles Times bestseller Neon Angel (with Cherie Currie).

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