Anticipation builds as a giant glitterball hangs ominously in the rafters, in the Roundhouse, tonight about to be transformed into a nostalgic disco cabaret. Then suddenly a big screen boots up, trumpeting Marc Almond’s imminent arrival, and things go weirdly X-Factor. A quick-cut montage of his greatest video moments flashes past on a screen. It’s a succession of sequined shirts and tattoos, greased hair and lamé accompanied by some sub-Carmina Burana hysterical pomp. A bit tacky, perhaps, but if anyone deserves such a moment of triumphant populism, it’s Marc Almond at 60.
Not only is he celebrating having survived with health and career mostly intact (a surprise to many people including, perhaps, himself), he has also bagged his first Top 10 album after an astonishing 35 year gap with current compilation Hits and Pieces. If not quite a sniff at the zeitgeist, this success does at least acknowledge the longevity and brilliance of an underrated career, now characterised as much by its adventurous off-piste explorations as its considerable early hit-making.
Speaking of hits, this is firmly what tonight is about and any miseries who may have come hoping to indulge in some Mambas blood, guts and tears moments will have to resign themselves to, y’know, actually having fun. And, by gumbo, some of these songs have aged superbly well. In retrospect it feels as if great pop moments like A Lover Spurned and Tears Run Rings were much bigger hits than they actually were, but such has been the erratic nature of Almond’s career that he has often not got the success his records deserved. When the giant glitter ball in the heavens finally ignites mid-way through the set, it does so to envelop a beautifully timed Child Star. Again, the question begs: how in Hades did this slyly overwrought gem miss the Top 40, and what is wrong with people?
Having said that, might there be any duds lurking in the canon? Well, it’s a shame that exquisite near-misses like Ruby Red are jettisoned for this show in favour of clunkier ones like The Idol. The latter is performed here with the music video screened in the background, bringing us to the major niggle of the night. With a performer busting his black silk-clad gut on the stage to exude a (considerable) star wattage, are these garish visuals and re-runs of music videos strictly necessary? After all, as he gleefully points out, he’s ‘still got it’ after all these years, and such digital trickery is best left to performers with less natural showmanship.
Of course, it’s barely a stretch for him to get the crowd singing along, as happens enthusiastically for a solo rendition of Number 1 Gene Pitney duet, Something’s Gotten Hold Of My Heart. After the arm-waving, there’s still some room for some sublime atmospherics, with recent torch song Scar followed by perhaps Soft Cell’s best song, Torch. Then, in a jarring shift of gear, we get new single A Kind Of Love, which borrows some of its fruity ’60s throwback swing from It’s Not Unusual. Suddenly the stage is swamped by the support band, the guitar-wielding Barbarellas that are The Flicks. It’s an odd thing to do in the middle of the set, when stage invasions are best left until the encore.
Predictably, most of the Soft Cell hits are reserved for the last segment, where we roll home from a rocky Bedsitter to the final Tainted Love with its original medley of Where Did Our Love Go deliciously restored. For an encore of Say Hello, Wave Goodbye the arm-waving bleeds into a bittersweet farewell, as if the crowd knows that an occasion of this heartwarming grandeur may never happen again.