I know I’m getting older, I don’t really need reminding. But can it really be 33 years this coming summer since I first heard Soft Cell tackling Northern Soul classic Tainted Love?
It was a while before I properly took in Gloria Jones’ 1964 original, I have to admit, but Marc Almond and Dave Ball had certainly pulled off what not so few have managed – crafting a truly individual cover version and making it more or less your own song.
Soft Cell pulled off a similar trick with the accompanying Where Did Our Love Go? Again, I love the Supremes original (also 1964), but covet the cover version too. And then there was his brave attempt at Judy Street’s Northern Soul classic What in ’82, another song I only ‘properly’ discovered in retrospect.
The Almond/Ball pairing certainly supplied some great material of their own over the following years, with Say Hello, Wave Goodbye plus Torch and the rollercoaster that is Soul Inside standing out for me, all standing the test of time.
Furthermore, sat proudly (and not so unlikely as that combination might at first suggest) between the Manic Street Preachers and Marc Bolan and T-Rex in my collection (again, with a Gloria Jones link) is Marc’s 1988 solo album, The Stars We Are.
That arrived four years after Soft Cell, and for me was perhaps affirmation that this Southport-born and bred performer could do it on his own, although there’s clearly a major inspiration from La Magia, namely his co-writers Annie Hogan and Billy McGee.
From the artist who gave us Soul Inside, we had something of a follow-up in Tears Run Ring, on an album about so much more than camp classic cover Something’s Gotten Hold of my Heart, which led to that hit duet with the man who first took it to the top of the charts, Gene Pitney.
There’s a Scott Walker quality to some of the tracks, alongside all those other influences that made Marc the artist he is, as continued with his next album, Jacques, featuring the songs of huge influence Jacques Brel.
That was 25 years ago now and for sake of space if nothing else, rather than dwell on the intervening years, I’ll bring us right up to speed with his latest offering, in the company of acclaimed saxophonist, composer, conductor and producer John Harle.
It’s clearly an Almond quality to bounce ideas off others as well as keep it all fresh, and his current project certainly involves that. And again, it seems tailor-made for Marc.
From the infamous Tyburn Tree gallows to legends of London ghosts such as Spring Heeled Jack and The Vampire of Highgate, the chronicled horror of Jack the Ripper and the Ratcliffe Highway murders, the pair have created a haunted history of the capital’s streets of fear – from two ‘outsiders’.
Almond is the tour guide, that incomparable voice combining with Harle’s score to offer a powerful musical experience. Marc’s lyrics form the backbone of the album, drawing on his fascination with London’s anti-history, alongside texts from visionary Londoner William Blake (Fortress and Jerusalem), poet Tom Pickard (reworking London Bridge is Falling Down) and Elizabethan magus John Dee (Dark Angel).
And while the lyrics stalk the darkest passageways of London’s history, Harle looks to offer a contemporary backing, drawing on his own song-writing, electronic and ambient music, from an artist whose successes include O Mistress Mine, written for Elvis Costello, and the theme to BBC1’s Silent Witness.
Soprano Sarah Leonard and London poet and author Iain Sinclair also feature, but it’s Marc and John that drive the project, with the duo currently showcasing The Tyburn Tree at five live shows too, starting at London’s Barbican Hall (March 2), then heading on to Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall (March 3), Cambridge Corn Exchange (March 4), Brighton Dome (March 5) and Bristol Colston Hall (March 6).
To explain the project, here’s a few responses from Marc (MA) and John (JH). I did ask my own questions, but time was exceptionally tight by the time I got the chance to deliver mine, and I think both artists dozed off before they were handed them.
So, what inspired the project?
MA: “Both John and I share an interest in British and particularly London history. John had already had an idea in doing a project called Dark London and after hearing some of my music on an album called Feasting With Panthers and of my work in Mark Ravenhill’s and Conor Mitchell’s song cycle Ten Plagues, thought I would be perfect voice to collaborate with on this project.”
What came first, the music or the lyrics?
MA: “The words came first, some of the words are written by me and a co collaborator, some by William Blake, others by Iain Sinclair.”
What should audiences expect when they see The Tyburn Tree live?
JH: “An exciting show full of rhythm, energy and Marc singing at his best! We have an incredible band including Ian Thomas on drums (Seal/George Michael/Eric Clapton/Mark Knopfler) and Sarah Leonard, who I have worked with for years and is the voice of my theme for Silent Witness.”
MA: “The concert will be a live performance of the album with a little added theatricality. John may extend a couple of the pieces for live. Even I’m not too sure what to expect at this point, the piece is quite powerful.”
Have you collaborated before?
JH: “Marc sang on my Album Art Music last year, but we’ve been planning The Tyburn Tree for longer than that. It seemed that we’d both been planning this album independently of each other, because when we met around two years ago, we described the same album to each other!”
MA: “I sang on a couple of tracks on Art Music, inspired by the paintings of David Hockney. We both share a love of British history, particularly London’s dark history.
What was it that particularly drew you to the subject matter of London’s dark history? Why did it resonate so much for you?
JH: “We are both from the North of England, but spent most of our working lives in London. Northerners see and think about London differently to Londoners. They see the roots of power in the streets and the romance of the history in a different way. This is a love affair with a mythological and the dark history of London.”
MA: “London’s colourful and dark history has always held a deep fascination for me and I’ve collected and read many books on it. My favourite is Peter Ackroyd’s London: A Biography. London is a place of myth and legend, none more so than those surrounding Jack The Ripper and the area of London where the murders happened and the speculation of who did it.
“My favourite periods of London history are Georgian and Victorian and even though London is currently under going a lot of new building work, sometimes sadly losing some of its history, you can still see many places of historical note and link them with the stories of things that happened there.
“I also think that Jack the Ripper is the utmost mythical figure of London, but we’ve referred to some of the many myths surrounding him like it was thought in a report at the time that the murderer was more likely some kind of creature than a man, maybe a kind of minotaur because of the labyrinth of streets around Whitechapel and Limehouse at the time.
“Spring Heeled Jack is my favourite London urban myth. There were also press reports of a vampire who’d been seen in Highgate Cemetery, unsurprising as the cemetery is like a scene from a Hammer Horror film, with Gothic crypts that were frequently broken into.”
Can you describe the music, both on the album and the live show?
JH: “Progressive music, heavily influenced by rock, electronica and classical together. Fun and quirky – but with a solid beat!
MA: “The music actually covers quite a few genres from folk to techno ambient and classical. There’s some very tribal drums in a couple of songs, brass and voices. Quite apocalyptic. I joke with John that it’s very progressive rock.”
What has been the most technically or artistically-challenging aspect of this project?
JH: “Having the ideas for the songs is the easy bit! Bringing all the disparate elements together and creating a sound world that holds all the musical elements without being schizophrenic has been the biggest challenge.”
MA: “Vocally its been a challenge to sing a couple of the pieces, some of the words are delivered quite fast, especially the William Blake words, and it stretches my vocal range. But I love a challenge.”
What’s been the most rewarding or exciting aspect?
JH: “Watching the songs come together gradually through Marc’s lyrics and beginning to hear how all that fits together into an album and show is really exciting – but I think that we’ll eventually find that the live shows are the most rewarding aspect.”
MA: “The whole experience of developing and recording the album has been exciting. When John played me the finished mixes I was knocked out. The hard bit is learning the songs, but I think live they’ll breath a bit more.”
Who are your musical influences/gurus and why?
JH: “That’s a big question for someone like me. Here’s a list – make of it what you will! Pink Floyd, Pentangle, Harrison Birtwistle, Brain Eno, Peter Maxwell Davies, Duke Ellington, Soft Machine, King Crimson, Daphne Oram, Delia Derbyshire, Steve Reich, Pat Metheny, old-fashioned test-card music, Quincy Jones, Raymond Scott, Joe Meek, Herbie Hancock, John Zorn, Viv Stanshall, Manfred Mann, Laurie Johnson, Michael Nyman, Gavin Bryars and Rudy Wiedoeft.”
MA: “I love Jacques Brel, the way he delivered a song with such emotion and energy, David Bowie with his re-inventions and covering musical genres but not afraid to take risks, Peter Hammill (Van Der Graaf Generator) for his powerful vocal delivery and how he’s so inventive and prolific, and Marc Bolan for his pop glamour – to name just a diverse few.”
The music from The Tyburn Tree is dfifuclt probably impossible to categorise, but can you explain to readers what sort of mood or ambience it creates and how it will make them feel?
JH “It should feel like a dream – surreal – subconscious elements vying for dominance – surprising and ultimately both fun and uplifting.
MA “I hope it will excite them and give them goosebumps.”
Who do you think will particularly enjoy seeing the live tour and listening to the album?
JH: “The music is for everybody – despite being dark, there’s no ‘explicit content’ warning on the show! Anybody who’s heard of at least two of the musicians on my list in the influences question should love it! And of course people who love the emotional and theatrical voice of Marc Almond!”
What musical/artistic plans do you have for the future?
JH: “I’m going straight from The Tyburn Tree tour onto writing the score for a feature film about David Hockney, and then some performances at the Royal Festival Hall and in Italy. Marc and I have a long-term plan that I don’t think I’m allowed to talk about … yet.
“This year is also the bicentenary of the birth of Adolphe Sax, inventor of the saxophone. I’m curating a series of concerts and events at St John’s Smith Square called SAX-200, including a big birthday concert on 6th November this year with Branford Marsalis and I together with an orchestra.”
MA: “I have part two of a pop-style mini-album The Dancing Marquis out, with songs produced by Tony Visconti and written by Jarvis Cocker and Carl Barat of The Libertines and Dirty Pretty Things fame. I’m also touring with Jools Holland all year.”
What’s the most important lesson life has taught you?
JH: “Try to work at what you love. It doesn’t always work out, but be tenacious!”
MA: “That life is not about the past or the future its only about the ride.”
Marc did answer a few more questions on his own. Again, there was a lot more I wanted to ask about, but maybe I’ll get a chance when he’s doing the rounds with Jools Holland this year. In the meantime, here’s a few replies to others:
How do you feel about fame, and how have your thoughts on the subject changed over the years?
MA: “Fame was something I found hard to adjust to at first but its become part of my life so I live with and most of the time don’t even think about it. I get recognised everywhere but my friends who I’m with notice it more than me. I try to avoid the whole celebrity thing as much as possible and not get too caught in its trap.”
Something you mention in interviews is the idea that suffering can be a spur to creativity. Is that something you’ve felt in your own life?
MA: “They say happiness is the enemy of work and creativity. Certainly some of my best songs and performances have come from bad times. When I’m writing songs and feeling happy I just think back to bad times and tell myself the happiness won’t last. It rarely does.”
The Soft Cell song Frustration dealt with the perils of being ordinary. Is it any consolation that, despite everything you’ve been through, you’ve at least managed to evade ordinariness?
MA: “I’ve had a very interesting life so far and it keeps being interesting, projects like The Tyburn Tree for example which I find challenging. Those are the things I like to find now, challenges. My saying is ‘its not about the future or about the past, its all about the ride’ and so far the ride has been quite exciting.”
What’s John like to work with?
MA: “Fantastic, and fun. He pushes me but that’s great because I can take my vocal to other places. He knows what he want’s and has a clear vision of what his music should sound like and how he wants my vocal to sound. I go from quite low range to high on Tyburn.”
You got you into music by listening to John Peel as a schoolboy – can you share some of your memories of how that made you feel?
MA: “I think John Peel was many young persons’ education in music. I used to love his live sessions and record them and years later did sessions of my own for him. I first heard Marc Bolan on John Peel and became a lifelong fan.”
Which were your favourite bands back then?
MA: “When I first listened to John Peel I loved progressive rock and blues rock, but listened to him throughout the years. I loved punk rock and he played the cream of British and American punk. There’s never been anyone like him.”
What was that the moment you knew you wanted to be a singer?
MA: “I stood up in the class and sang She’s Leaving Home by The Beatles for a subject we were doing in English class. I must have been mad. I was in the choir, the usual things but when I was singer in a local band at 17 I got the bug. I never dreamed of being successful.”
Now with more than 30 years to look back with a fresh perspective, How do you feel about Tainted Love?
MA: “I have a great fondness for Tainted Love and I’ll always be happy to sing it, it gets such a great reaction for people. When I tour with Jools Holland and his band, which I’m doing all this year, we do a big band version with brass, which works so well. I couldn’t exactly pinpoint its continuous success, it’s very infectious and its timeless simple mix of synthesizer and vocal still gives it a modern sound. It’s been sampled by so many artists and it’s in people’s DNA now. It’s also a big part of people’s treasured memories.
“Both Dave Ball and I were both fans of ’60s and ’70s Northern Soul records, but it was Dave who bought the record to my attention, and Gloria was Marc Bolan’s wife. That made me notice it above other tracks, that and the great title.”
Finally, here’s John Harle’s verdict on Marc Almond and The Tyburn Tree project: “For the last few years Marc has been thrilling audiences with renditions of familiar songs sung in an unfamiliar way, but his singing always seems edgier, more dangerous and riskier than other singers.
“This is what I heard in his masterful, shattering performance of Mark Ravenhill and Conor Mitchell’s Ten Plagues at Wilton’s Music Hall this year, where he channeled the emotional kaleidoscope of love and death into a performance that surpassed the greatest opera singers I have heard.
“Marc and I are both from the North of England, but both grew up musically and artistically in London in the ’70s and ’80s – in different worlds, but with London as the focus for our dreams and ambitions.
“As ‘outsiders’, our perception of London was probably different to London natives – and the eyes of the outsider see both the light and the dark sides easily and quickly.
“I personally wanted to find the roots of Englishness, to investigate my fear of the unknown and the unpredictable but above all, to experience it with intensity.
“After teenage years spent listening obsessively in Newcastle-upon-Tyne to Pink Floyd, King Crimson, Soft Machine and Pentangle, I was ready for London.
“And for me, London became all about its secrets – the mysteries, the masonic, the anti-history and the Gothic. Always looking below the surface for things not being what they seem.
“Marc’s lyrics for the album have been taking shape over the last year or so, and these lyrics form the backbone of the songs.
“From these lyrics we see his own breadth of experience and inner, personal knowledge of Dark London.
“In working with Marc over the last year or so, I’ve heard how he transforms the ordinary to the meaningful by the vocal colours his rich emotional palate creates.
“His voice has a quality that makes much of what he sings seem heroic – without being bombastic.
“In The Tyburn Tree, that heroism has been turned to darker subjects and darker purposes, and the tension of his heroic voice applied to shadowy subject-matter is what makes his performances authentic, thrilling and eerie.
“That natural heroism is all about the frame it’s put in. It supports both the dark and light sides.
“In Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’ – a hint of optimism at the end of an otherwise dark album, the words are supported by what we perceive as a natural optimism in the heroic voice, as the converse works equally well where that optimism is turned on it’s head and the voice heroically supports Marc’s transformation into Jack the Ripper in The Labyrinth of Limehouse.
“Jack the Ripper as hero or anti-hero? It’s up to the listener to decide.
“Marc is a true artist and true performer – showing total openness and vulnerability alongside an experimental, non-judgemental view of art.
“And in The Tyburn Tree, London has found its anti-hero.”