When Marc Almond stormily shattered Soft Cell in 1984, you’d be forgiven for having thought he’d chosen never to court the charts again. Marc & The Mambas, the side project he had cultivated across two albums, had released brooding, intense affairs designed to preach to his converted. That ever-loyal audience would lap it up, but neither Mambas album would really cross over commercially.
1985’s Stories Of Johnny was the sound of Almond emerging from his shell, ushering a wider audience back towards him. In his Tainted Life biography, he calls it his “Behaving Myself” album, but he refused to take the easiest option. Pulling together members of The Mambas as The Willing Sinners, Almond continued to create something rather subversive, even if it was dressed up in a more accessible style.
This time, the lush orchestration that characterized many of the artists that inspired him would bathe Almond’s richly theatrical melodies in a warmer sheen. August’s “Stories Of Johnny” was the set’s first single and returned him to the UK charts as a soloist for the first time since Soft Cell’s finale, its No.23 success launching the album to No.22 when it was released in October. He’d had a Top 3 hit that summer with the throwaway smash “I Feel Love (Medley),” a duet with Bronski Beat, but this felt like the fully-fledged return.
Darker, more brooding
Set opener “Traumas Traumas Traumas” continued the seduction, its hypnotic rhythm daring the listener back to the dancefloor and, with its obvious nod to Scott Walker, ultimately drawing a wider audience back to his work. Second single and third track “The House Is Haunted (By The Echo Of Your Last Goodbye)” was a darker, more brooding piece, with its UK No.55 peak probably serving as the palette-cleanser Marc was searching for after the lighter distraction of the first single.
“Love Letter” is probably the most commercial the set gets. As a No.68 single released alongside the album, its nagging melody is the closest Almond comes to sounding like he was back with his former band, its shuffling synths edging him closer to a euphoric pitch that he rarely shared at this stage of his career. Its relatively poor showing on the UK charts reflects its timing alongside the album and, likely, the tectonic shift Live Aid had created that summer – subtlety and nuance largely abandoned in favor of broader, baser brushstrokes.
“The Flesh Is Willing” jitters away dark lyrical content to a lighter plain; it’s also brighter and more accessible than any of his songs could be expected to be. “Always” is warmer still: a possibly slighter but certainly underappreciated pop track that echoes many of Marc’s finest lighter moments. Later successes such as 1988’s “The Stars We Are” have their origins here, and you can imagine it in the hands of artists securing radio play at this time and see it, effortlessly, at home on an edition of Top Of The Pops.
Same to come in
If earlier tracks had teased – the offer of a twirl round the dancefloor never quite being followed through – then “Contempt” finally puts out. Containing echoes of the songs his parents enjoyed, it was served with that knowing edge so uniquely Almond’s own. And if “Contempt” owed its pedigree to the sort of British pop prevalent before The Beatles tore up the rulebook, “I Who Never” was yet another nod to the past. This is the sort of record Cilla, Dusty, Sandie or Lulu would have scrapped over in their prime – dense harmonies anchoring another song that really should have been a single.
“My Candle Burns” is a more brooding affair designed to bring the mood down a little, preparing the listener for “Love And Little White Lies,” the showstopper. Soaring in its ambition and refusing to be tethered by a more traditional song construction, it’s a curtain closer that represents the album’s one truly theatrical moment.
With its echoes of 60s pop, the obvious nods towards Almond’s heroes and a golden glow reflective, perhaps, of a better mood, the momentum behind Marc’s lengthy solo career was built here. The albatross of Soft Cell’s enormous success – and that song in particular – were to sometimes plunge the singer back into sudden shade, but there’s a lightness of touch here that fans hadn’t heard for some time.
Nothing comes close to matching the high camp of that summer’s duet with Bronski Beat but, for the first time in years, Almond appeared to be having fun again. There was still that interest in those troubled spaces that few other musicians dared to explore, but the invitation was genuine, if delivered with a knowing smile. It was safe to come in – and warmer than expected.