‘Hits & Pieces’ celebrates the career of MARC ALMOND, one of the most prolific and subversive artists of the last four decades.
Almond once said that for an artist to be “truly subversive”, they had to have “access to the mainstream”. Making his name in SOFT CELL with Dave Ball, the duo were undoubtedly ahead of their time and set the blueprint for acts such as PET SHOP BOYS and ERASURE.
With their stark synthesizer driven pop, Almond and Ball became Top 40 chart regulars between 1981-84 and the double CD contains no less than nine SOFT CELL singles including the hypnotic proto-house of ‘Memorabilia’ and the emotive brilliance of ‘Say Hello Wave Goodbye’.
Almond excelled at reinterpretation and covers of Northern Soul favourites like ‘Tainted Love’, ‘Where Did Our Love Go?’, ‘What’ and ‘Down In The Subway’ set the tone for some ambitious projects like French chanson and Russian folk in later years.
But despite having hits with their own compositions like ‘Bedsitter’ and ‘Torch’, all was not well in the SOFT CELL camp. As their art school ethos clashed with commercial success, the pair imploded and this state of mind was suitably documented by the frantic percussive paranoia of ‘Soul Inside’.
Even before this, Almond was tiring of the electronic pop sound that made him famous. He began to embrace a classic European cabaret style, and this move was highlighted by ‘Black Heart’, a tremendously passionate single by his side project MARC & THE MAMBAS.
It eventually led to Almond’s first solo record ‘Vermin in Ermine’ in 1984 but perhaps surprisingly, none of this album is represented on Hits & Pieces’, with ‘Tenderness Is A Weakness’ the most missed. This was a period when Almond was losing sales momentum, but with a move to Virgin Records in 1985, ‘Stories Of Johnny’ became an unexpected Top 30 hit.
And so began a mainstream renaissance for Almond with ‘Tears Run Rings’ getting him back onto ‘Top Of The Pops’ , followed by a No1 in ‘Something’s Gotten Hold Of My Heart’ with the late Gene Pitney. This paved the way for the brilliance of ‘A Lover Spurned’ and ‘The Desperate Hours’, both songs showing Almond was more than well-suited to the grand overtures of hi-tech production.
And so it was that with Trevor Horn at the helm, that another imperial phase began with more electro-orchestrated covers in ‘Jacky’ and ‘The Days Of Pearly Spencer’ plus a reunion with Dave Ball on the wonderfully over-the-top ‘My Hand Over My Heart’ on which Almond demonstrated his fabulously forlorn romanticism.
However, just as it looked like Almond was to consolidate his position as a commercially successful but credible artist, he stole defeat from the jaws of victory with the schizophrenic ‘Fantastic Star’ album in 1996. ‘Hits & Pieces’ features far too many singles from this period, although ‘Child Star’ is a classic Almond ballad, while ‘The Idol’ is a fun glam rock tribute to Bowie and Bolan.
But as the boy who came back, Almond got back on track with new management and one very welcome inclusion on ‘Hits & Misses’ is 2001’s ‘Glorious’. An appropriately titled electronic torch song, it combined his distinctive vocal histrionics with a big sounding production. Around this time, Almond reunited with Dave Ball as SOFT CELL for the ‘Cruelty Without Beauty’ album, but with Almond now declaring this reunion “a terrible mistake”, neither of the two singles ‘Monoculture’ or ‘The Night’ make the tracklisting which is a shame, but understandable.
However, one of the joys of ‘Hits & Pieces’ is that it provides a platform for Almond’s most recent material. Proving he still has that endearing quality, 2014’s ‘The Dancing Marquis’ in particular, produced by Tony Visconti, is like a more fully realised version of ‘The Idol’. Developing its thumping Schaffel motif on ‘Bad To Me’ co–written with Chris Braide, Almond is fully reinvigorated as the flamboyant tattooed pop diva.
Bringing things fully up to date, the new single ‘A Kind Of Love’ is a wonderful optimistic statement that romantic liaisons don’t have to be tainted after all and that we can all be nice to each other, whatever our desires.
There are no quibbles with the track selection, maybe preferences for Almond’s work with SYSTEM F, T-TOTAL and STARCLUSTER to substitute inclusions such as the big band live rendition of ‘Tainted Love’ with Jools Holland and the over representation of ‘Fantastic Star’.
But otherwise, this collection does what it says on the tin.
MARC ALMOND and his fabulous career of ups and downs and ups and downs and ups has become engrained into the fabric of popular culture.
Spanning a period of 36 years, ‘Hits & Misses’ is testament that he remains vital as ever and as important as Jacques Brel, Scott Walker or Lou Reed.
With thanks to Stuart Kirkham at Hall Or Nothing
‘Hits & Pieces’ is released by Universal Music as a single CD, double CD and download
MARC ALMOND’s ‘Hits & Pieces’ 2017 tour includes: London Roundhouse (22nd March), Perth Concert Hall (25th March), York Barbican Centre (26th March), Buxton Opera House (27th March), Warrington Pyramid & Parr Hall (28th March)
Text by Chi Ming Lai
17th March 2017