Soft Cell legend Marc Almond is sitting with Yahoo Entertainment in the lobby of a posh West Hollywood hotel, getting ready to fly back to the U.K. after a whirlwind weekend trip to play the second anniversary of Sex Cells — a Los Angeles nightclub, hosted by art gallery Lethal Amounts, celebrating all things sexy, sleazy and subversive. Sex Cells couldn’t have appointed a finer den-master of ceremonies than this post-punk provocateur, whose worldly, world-weary vocals have for the past four decades told torchy tales of breathless, breathy thrill rides — in a gold Rolls driven by a dumb chauffeur, of course — through a seedy Soho landscape of sex shops and red-lit bedsits.
Soft Cell will likely forever be known for their synth-pop remake of Gloria Jones’s Northern Soul obscurity “Tainted Love.” It was the best-selling U.K. single of 1981, spent a then record-breaking 43 weeks on the U.S. Hot 100, and even inspired Britney Spears’s vocals on her debut single “Baby One More Time” — a fun factoid that Almond never knew until that song turned 20 this year. (“That’s amazing. I’ve never heard that. That is so cool!” he reacts.) But Almond and his Soft Cell partner Dave Ball came from a “very confrontational” background of experimental theater and performance art, and really “never wanted to be part of that corporate pop thing. We were just these two art students who weren’t playing the game the way people wanted us to play. … A lot of the time, I got quite frightened by my success in those early days.”
And things became especially frightening when Soft Cell followed up the huge success of “Tainted Love” by releasing one of the most controversial music videos of all time, “Sex Dwarf.” Thirty-eight years later, the Tim Pope-directed clip is still the stuff of urban legend — and is still banned from British television.
“Sex Dwarf” featured Almond in a barely-there leather codpiece; chainsaw-wielding brothel workers from London’s red-light district; an actual dwarf in fetishwear; piles of raw organ meat (the studio floor was reportedly ruined from all the blood); and live maggots that Pope threw at the performers to get an unrehearsed horrified reaction on camera. The edited result caused such a commotion that, according to a 2012 British TV interview with Pope, it was officially shown only once. (“I think [Almond] had a little bit to drink or something. It was in a club and the video got shown and he had to leg it out through the toilet window, because it caused a riot.”) The British police even raided Soft Cell’s headquarters and confiscated copies of the video, and for years it seemed that the footage was lost forever (though it was rumored to be available for sale behind the counter in Soho sex shops). And in the pre-internet, pre-YouTube age, Almond and Ball used to deny the video’s existence, claiming that the whole scandal was all just a ruse for publicity.
Almond, 61, now looks back at “Sex Dwarf’s” legacy fondly, saying, “It was ahead of its time, in the way we were using transgender people, or we would use people who were prostitutes that we found around Soho, people that were working in clubs. And then here was the dwarf himself, which really went against what you were supposed to do!” Today, Almond appreciates the mythology surrounding the little-seen clip, preferring to keep it underground: “I’ve never wanted to release it publicly, officially, because it became such legendary thing. We like the fact that some people have seen it and created this urban myth about it. We like that it’s bootlegged and slightly seedy.” Still, he admits that the video “caused a lot of problems at the time.” (See the PG-13 alternate version, which pokes fun at the tabloid outrage, below.)
“We used to see how far we could push it, how far we could push the boundaries in a commercial pop world — see what we can get away with and be subversive,” Almond says. “So, we pushed the boundaries a long way with that video, and it caused a lot of grief at the time, because it was really scary in conservative Britain then. We got raided by the police. I got door-stopped by the tabloid press. The dwarf — I know it sounds awful! — tried to sell stories to papers saying he had been tied up and drugged and forced to do the video. [Headlines said] ‘Pop Stars Drug Dwarf and Make Him Perform Sex Acts!’ We had actually taken that song title from a newspaper headline that had said, ‘Sex Dwarf Lures Disco-Dollies to a Life of Vice’ — to make a comment on the bizarreness of tabloid exploitation — and then, ironically, we became a part of all that.
“It went completely out of control. It was a very, very scary thing for us, because we didn’t expect to get that. We were just two art students; what we were doing was just an extension of what did in art college. But you put that in a mainstream pop arena, and it becomes something else.”
Growing up in the seaside town of Southport in Northern England, Almond was introduced to seedy subculture before he ever hit Soho — “cabaret shows, amusement arcades, old guesthouses, drag queens, things like that. I worked at the Southport Theater as an afterschool job, and I would meet all these transient cabaret people. They’d be very seedy, inviting you into their caravan and things like that. Or you’d get pressed up against the wall by some seaside theater promoter who would stick their hands down your trousers and their tongue in your mouth, and then you’d run out and tell everybody about this thing that happened to you. Now, you’re thinking, ‘My God, if you did that now?’ But that’s what happened then. We were just assaulted all the time, by different people, but we kind of thought it was hilarious. Now, it’s like … wow. But back then, it was just part of our experience. I didn’t feel it lingered with me over the years or anything like that.”
So by the time he made it to the “mainstream pop arena,” shock came easily to Almond. For instance, the first time Soft Cell performed on the massive U.K. television show Top of the Pops, he says flabbergasted viewers “either wanted to murder me, marry me, or f*** me” — a similar effect that TOTP performances by Almond’s glam idols, David Bowie and Marc Bolan, had had on his generation. (Side note: Soft Cell actually once turned down an offer to tour with Bowie. Why? “We just didn’t think we were good enough,” Almond shrugs.)
“I was very naïve about it all,” says Almond of the outraged reaction his TOTP appearance elicited. “I was just plopped there in front of the camera in all these bracelets, spiky studded wristbands, black eye makeup, with my hair in some ’60s look. I remember somebody saying, ‘You mustn’t go on dressed like that, because people will think you’re gay! All the public will be alienated from you!’ And I fought against that. … I liked to play with gender-blurring. Sometimes I would put on lots of eye makeup and false eyelashes, seeing how I could tease people with that, and then other times I’d be really masculine, with tattoos, really rock ‘n’ roll. I still like to blur those lines, even now.”
In the ’80s, Almond says, Soft Cell surprisingly didn’t get much attention or support from the (non-tabloid) press, which he believes had a lot to do with the rampant homophobia in Margaret Thatcher-era Britain. “It’s easy to cry ‘homophobia’ all the time, which it’s not always,” he concedes, “but the music industry and music papers at that time were very lad-orientated. You hardly met anybody gay in the music industry at all. Or, if they were, they weren’t talking about it. You just couldn’t talk about it. One of my press people said to me, ‘We’ve got to get you [pretend] girlfriends.’ It was terrifying: You want a career, but you can’t say you’re gay. A few years later, people started to be a bit more open, but in 1981 it was very hard to do.” Thankfully, the tides eventually turned critically as well. “Now a lot of the press look back go, ‘Well, maybe they were good after all,’” Almond chuckles.
However, despite any mainstream backlash, Soft Cell and Almond amassed an “incredibly loyal” fanbase of misfits from the start — “people on the peripheries of society, people who were called ‘outsiders,’ people who were kind of bullied in school or the felt problems with their sexuality or didn’t fit into a particular gender, or just didn’t fit in to a normal social thing. They were odd dogs with us,” Almond recalls proudly. “With us, you didn’t have to fit in. You could celebrate being different. You didn’t have to kind of hide away, embarrassed about being different. And it had nothing to do with the sexuality necessarily. It’s not always to do with sexuality.”
For that reason, Almond resists being labeled an LBGTQ icon or role model. “They have this thing in [British media] where they want to call you a ‘gay artist,’ and that’s their way of saying, ‘We’ll put you in a box and you’re only going to be of relevance to gay people. Only the gay magazines can write about you, because that’s all that’s interested in you,’” he says. “So, I’ve always tried to sit out of that box whenever I can. I like the fact that I have a very mixed lot of fans: gay, young, old, straight, female, male, all kinds of nationalities.”
Those fans still adore Almond, as evidenced not only by the turnout for his Lethal Amounts-produced Sex Cells show in L.A., but also by the fact that he and Ball quickly sold out London’s 20,000-capacity O2 Arena last September for Soft Cell’s 40thanniversary concert. Almond reveals that he and Ball are “tentatively talking about” recording another Soft Cell album — their last one was 2001’s Cruelty Without Beauty — but right now, he is focused on his incredibly prolific solo career, working on a new album (possibly a double album) with Sia/Lana Del Rey collaborator Chris Braide that will include a to-be-announced Lana cover. (“I’m like the male Lana Del Rey,” Almond laughs. “Like the decaying misery — but I have a more British decay, and she’s more Americana decay.”) A near-fatal 2004 motorcycle accident temporarily derailed Almond’s career, but after a long and hard-fought recovery, his creativity sprang anew.
“I have memory problems, and I lost my confidence a lot. I had to go back to singing lessons as well, to get my breathing back, because one of my lungs was collapsed and one of my ears was punctured,” Almond says. “I really had to do a lot of therapy work to get back onstage.” Almond credits Jools Holland and Antony Hegarty (now known as transgender singer Anohni) for inviting him back onstage, which helped him get his groove back. “I feel like I’ve reached a place now where I’m better than I thought I was before,” he marvels. “I’ve reached a place in my life now where I feel more creative than I’ve ever been, because I’ve gathered more knowledge from different places. I know what I’m good at. I know what I’m not good at. And when I’m not good at it, I still like to try to do it anyway. I don’t worry that much about falling spectacularly. I think to move on you have to take risks, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.”
Almond has obviously built a career on risk-taking, so no one is more amused than him that, nearly four decades after Scotland Yard went after him for the supposedly pornographic “Sex Dwarf” video, he was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the 2018 New Year Honours for services to arts and culture. “Oh no! I’m part of the establishment now, aren’t I?” he laughs. “It was a huge shock to me, actually, but it was really just an interesting experience to have it. I mean, really it makes my mum really happy. She can put on a nice dress and go to the parties; they’re so glamorous. I just find the whole thing very surreal and very strange, but I’m quite grateful for any award that anybody will give me. … I’ve been making music for 40 years now. Forty years, it scares me to even say that! And you know, eventually you become part of the establishment, whether you like it or not.”
But fear not: As the U.K. swings back towards conservatism, Almond promises to keep stirring things up. “In England, everything you do can be offensive to somebody. You can’t say this, you can’t do that. You can’t do this, you can’t do that. I find that makes me want to [offend] more,” he laughs. “I’ve just got this devil on my shoulder all the time, saying, ‘Yes, yes. Say that, say that. Do it, do it, do it!’”
This article originally ran on Yahoo Entertainment.