The Oral History Of Marc And The Mambas’ Torment And Toreros

Forty years ago this week Marc Almond released the album that almost finished his career. Derided at the time as an overblown, self-obsessed indulgence, Torment and Toreros is now considered a flawed masterpiece in the lineage of Lou Reed’s Berlin, Big Star’s Third, and Nick Cave’s Your Funeral…My Trial. Here the people who made the record tell its story in their own words.

The Mambas, portrait by Peter Ashworth

Right from the start, Marc Almond’s ambition reached further than the electropop of Soft Cell. Even before ‘Tainted Love’ topped the UK singles chart in September 1981, Almond was already talking up a side-project: “I’m doing a sort of off-beat lowlife sleazo disco thing with various friends,” he told Sounds’ Beverley Glick a month before Soft Cell first appeared on Top Of The Pops. “The A-side is called ‘Sleaze (Take It Shake It!)’ and it’s definitely non-BBC!” That limited 12” was credited to Marc and the Mambas, and the ‘friends’ included Almond’s flatmate and preternaturally talented pianist Annie Hogan. “It was a little bit Velvets, a little bit Suicide, a little bit The Doors,” she says. “I just did an improv basically, with a little of Duke Ellington’s Caravan at the end. Amazing track.”

Even while Soft Cell were enjoying top five singles in the UK and chalking up the record (at the time) for having the longest run on the US Billboard chart, Almond was searching for an identity far away from his Smash Hits audience.

“I was developing my own musical style outside of Soft Cell through some of the artists I’d been influenced by, such as Lou Reed, Syd Barrett, and, of course, Scott Walker,” he says. “That became the first Marc and the Mambas album, Untitled, which wasn’t really meant to be an album at all, but an extended EP of ideas, some of them quite rough. I was being very self-indulgent on Phonogram’s money in this famous studio where Bowie and Bolan had recorded.”

The offices of Some Bizzare, the chaotic yet influential record label and management company Almond was signed to, were above the legendary Trident studios in Soho. Label boss Stevo Pearce would regularly book his bands in the studio and allow them to run free, much to the chagrin of the facilities’ owners. Working with Hogan and THE THE’s Matt Johnson – another Some Bizzare artist – Almond recorded the aforementioned Untitled there in 1982, and despite it’s dark, experimental nature, the record reached No 42 on the UK charts.

Untitled was long nights and big hair,” says Hogan, “Existing on a combo of drugs, sandwiches, beer, and chips. We were all knackered because we recorded at night. Despite all that we made this amazing album, and when I think back to what Marc was juggling at the time, it only makes me admire him more.”

Despite the continued success of Soft Cell, Almond would soon be back at Trident for another Mambas album, this time bolstered by an actual band, including four-piece string section The Venomettes and a young then-unknown producer named Flood. Delving deep into Spanish flamenco and eastern exotica, the singer’s love of divas such as Lola Flores, Carmen Amaya and Rocio Jurado shone through, and scattered among the original songs are covers by Almond staples Jacque Brel, Scott Walker and Peter Hammill. The fractious, late-nights sessions resulted in a sprawling double album, the creation of which almost broke the singer, while its reception from the press made him question whether he wanted to be involved in music at all.

This extract from Wesley Doyle’s recent oral history of Some Bizzare, Conform To Deform (Jawbone Press), tells the story of the album’s fraught creation, the subsequent fall out on release, and how an invitation from super-fan Anohni to perform it at her 2012 Meltdown festival finally cemented the record’s status as a bone-fide late-night classic.

Marc Almond: After delivering one double album away from Soft Cell, I started on another double album straight away. I did all the sessions for Torment And Toreros at Trident, recording late at night, using dead-time hours as it was cheaper. We worked through the night until morning, and wore out producer Flood in the process – he used to sleep on a sofa in the studio, exhausted.

Flood [Producer]: I was training as an engineer, and every record I was involved in at that time was a great training ground, but Torment And Toreros in particular. My memory is that it took two weeks to make, which is no time for a double album. And it was really intense. It was a good job I was only about twenty-one or twenty-two.

Annie Hogan [Piano, Farfisa organ, Marc and the Mambas]: I had my upright grand piano in the basement of Marc’s house in Leeds, and the first tune I wrote there was what turned out to be ‘Black Heart’. Apparently I’m descended from a Spanish Armada galleon sunk off the coast of Ireland, and one of my favourite musical styles to improvise are Flamenco-influenced chords. Marc was equally Spanish-influenced, and when he heard me playing my Spanish flavours, a tune started to emerge. So I recorded it on a cassette player and gave it to Marc to write lyrics to. I wish I still had that tape.

Anne Stephenson [Violin, the Venomettes]: Marc told us he was going to be making a double album and asked Gini [Ball, née Hewes] and me to do the strings on it. We needed a really good cellist and I remembered my friend Martin McCarrick from Guildhall. So, I got in touch with him and told him we were playing with Marc and asked him if he would like to join us. He came along and brought a friend with him, Billy McGee, who played double bass.

Steve Sherlock [Saxophone, flute, Marc and the Mambas]: I was in the band but I never really felt part of the gang. The others seemed to socialise together to all hours, whereas I had a wife at home and was working during the days. So, whenever they said, ‘Right, we’re recording tonight, 8pm at Trident,’ I’d do a day’s work, get changed, and then drive up to Shaftsbury Avenue, park up, and get there for 8pm. Sometimes I’d sit there with Flood – who was a lovely guy – until gone midnight before the others turned up.

Marc Almond: Most of the songs were written on the spot, with me scribbling lyrics as I went along, everyone else contributing their own creativity. I would sing the string parts as I heard them in my head, and also many of the other parts; this was the first time I was creating music as well as lyrics. The drum parts were simple machine rhythms. I was worried that using a real drummer might seem too rock, though the reality was that would have held everything together.

Gini Ball [Violin, the Venomettes]: Normally, we’d just play what we were told to, as we were quite new to composition. That was an interesting thing to do, especially in that Spanish style, which I loved. And it was nice that we got to do our own track as well, ‘Once Was’. We never expected that to happen. Anne and I wrote that in the lounge of her flat in Peckham. It was a very creative time and I do feel really proud to have played on that album.

Anne Stephenson: No one cared about what time it was and sometimes we’d go on all night. It was great because they’d set up a backing track and tell us just to go in and put some strings on. We were kind of fearless in those days and would go straight in and improvise the whole thing, and it always used to work out really well. It was just an amazing experience, the whole thing was great. I remember listening to Martin improvise on ‘The Animal In You’ and thinking, “Oh my god, we’re really doing something quite special here, this is going to be a classic”. I think people realise that now.

Flood: Marc wanted each side to have a flavour, so I was trying to keep that in mind, while so many people were coming in and out of the studio. It was also where the Mambas first really came to fruition, and we had such a great relationship. I’d always wanted to record strings, and here were people who looked like me and were my age, and I could say to them, ‘Can we try it like this?’ and they’d say, ‘We’ve been waiting ages for someone to ask us that!’ The attitude was, ‘Oh, brilliant, let’s just do it!’ And Marc was so inspiring. He was always there, every day, scribbling things down and suggesting ideas, his momentum drove everything.

Steve Sherlock: I got a co-write for ‘Narcissus’ – Marc did his vocals first and then I did the sax backing after. I took the mood and atmosphere from his lyrics and voice to create the sounds for it. Marc also wanted to do ‘Beat Out That Rhythm On A Drum’ from Carmen, so Martin, Bill, Gini, and Anne found a quiet room with a record player and the Rodgers & Hammerstein album and the original Bizet. And they sat there with blank music paper, listened to the albums twice and wrote all their parts out by ear. I had never seen anything like it – such skill!

Annie Hogan: I felt intimidated because it seemed everybody had been to Guildhall and could play anything. Things like ‘Catch A Fallen Star’, which I’d just worked out the piano for, I had to go in and play it there and then in front of everyone. Thank God for Flood, you know, just as somebody feel OK with. Flood was amazing guy to work with – he was so kind to me, and he really, really got me through Torment And Toreros, and without him I’d have gone mad. Just a super-duper guy.

Flood: Annie is brilliant, she’s one of the few people I’ve worked with whose persona so comes out in what she plays. It’s so beautifully fragile in such a way that you cannot fail to notice it. And there were so many things she did that were just like, “Wow”, and that sensitivity and the real struggle that she had ,was a perfect marriage with Marc’s music, and as another musical voice, she was just as strong. I love that woman.

Annie Hogan: When we were recording ‘Black Heart’ we’d got everything down and we needed Steve to play this motif and he just couldn’t get it. It went on for hours, but he was just frazzled and fucked, as everybody was. It was kind of a metaphor for the whole album. Everyone was speeding, it was chaotic and exhausting, but finally rewarding.

Val Denham [Artist, painter]: Marc asked me to paint the sleeve for the ‘Black Heart’ single. He already had an image in his head – a mad female Flamenco dancer for the front and a male Flamenco dancer on the reverse. I still hadn’t realised that works created to be reproduced needed to be made larger than the finished product as the printer’s photographer shrinks them down to give it greater clarity, so I actually did the finished paintings exactly seven inches square. I had to trawl through Thomas Cook holiday brochures to find images of flamenco dancers. I used the same brochures for the Torment And Toreros cover.

J.G. Thirlwell [Foetus]: When Marc was recording the Mambas stuff, he asked me to write a track for him which became the song ‘A Million Manias’. That was a really magical time for Marc – the confluence of influences that were on Torment And Toreros, the mood of the songs, both his own and the covers, was really dark but really heartfelt. It’s almost perfectly curated, a great distillation of what he was into at that time. Marc was very eager to expand his musical horizons beyond the shackles of pop music. I don’t know how it did commercially, but I think it was a really successful crystallisation of his vision.

Marc Almond: I adored working with Jim, whether as part of the Mambas, The Immaculate Consumptive, or Flesh Volcano. The ‘genius’ label is used all too freely, but I will put myself out there and say Jim is definitely a genius. The way he worked on ‘A Million Manias’ was incredible to witness, the way he built up layers of percussion and sound, one instrument at a time. When I got to perform the whole of Torment And Toreros in 2012 as part of Anohni’s Meltdown festival, I was thrilled to have Jim onstage as part of the huge ensemble.

Annie Hogan: I understand that Torment And Toreros is a phenomenal record, but it really was traumas, traumas, traumas. Musically, again, fantastic, but it was very much ‘do everything in one take’, which I found a terrible pressure. It wasn’t the same as Untitled, where it had been freer – Marc had some more definite ideas this time, and there were a lot more people involved. Everyone was sucking up to Marc unbelievably – which he was enjoying, of course – and there was a lot of playing this person against that person. It was just a lot of late nights, a lot of drink, a lot of drugs. Genius and jealousy.

Gini Ball: Most people were taking something – I think I was the only one who wasn’t. There were darker things creeping in, too, but I can’t really remember too much about that. I just remember the late nights.

Flood: I mean, there were definitely things that were helping us get through, although I didn’t know at the time the extremities of which that was going because it never impinged on the sessions. I was the person who was sitting there every day; assistants came and went, but none of the interpersonal stuff ever came to the fore in the studio. A lot of that only came to me after the fact.

“Never one for understatement, Marc Almond now delivers his most intense, extreme and radical attack on the accepted parameters of pop music to date – it’ll repel and exhilarate its customers in roughly equal proportions and will surely come to be recognised as some kind of gaudy milestone in rock. More over-the-top than 2 Para, Marc is way beyond preposterousness, sending us all up with manic overkill as he erratically pursues his self-styled mission to destroy all rock’s established guidelines, without pausing to put up any new ones. Not content with simply ignoring the No Entry sign, he tramples it to the ground in that feverish, seemingly un-calculating enthusiasm of his.” – Colin Irwin, Melody Maker, August 1983

Steve Sherlock: I was originally an engineer by trade, and I used to really enjoy being in the studio watching Flood and, when appropriate, ask a few questions about equipment and things like that. I liked him. The write-ups for that album were pretty bad, and I thought, “No, Flood did a bloody brilliant job”.

Flood: The music press was totally different in those days. I mean, the NME was the bible for this type of music. Everybody got hammered in the press, or eulogised and then immediately cut to shreds – I could go on about what happened to Nick [Cave]. And it was the same for Marc. I was getting a lot of bad press, too, in trade journals like Studio Sound. It became a running war with me and one of the journalists, and he’d just badmouth anything that I was involved with. It hurt, but because everybody was in a similar position, there was a sort of collective response of, “Well, fuck you.”

“I don’t know whether Marc regards his work with the Mambas as a bit of light relief away from the serious business of making money, but it sounds like that. Torment And Toreros is haaaard going, four sides of ill-disciplined doodling. It deals with familiar Almond obsessions: i.e., the generally scabrous side of life. I’m afraid I find Marc’s murky travelogues neither outrageous nor daring but simply tedious.” – Jim Reid, Record Mirror, August 1983

Jane Rolink [Some Bizzare]: I tried to stop Marc from going over to Record Mirror with the bullwhip. He was so volatile, though, it was kind of brilliant. And, you know, the feeling at Some Bizzare was, “Slag us off and you’ll get what’s coming to you.” The journalist Jim Reid was really horrible about Marc, so it was fair enough. But every day was like that at Some Bizarre – it was really on the edge, and you never knew what was coming.

The Mambas live at the Batcave by Mick Mercer

“A bullwhip brandishing Marc Almond certainly lived up to his sadomasochistic image when he came storming into the Record Mirror offices last week and thrashed boy hack Jim Reid for his scathing review of the new Marc and the Mambas album Torment And Toreros. ‘You’re not fit to review my album,’ Almond screamed, while lashing at the mild-mannered reporter with his favourite specially imported Zambian rhino whip. ‘You got a grudge against me? I’ll give you something to have a grudge about. I’ve lost friends and money making this album. I’ve made myself ill. You write anything else about me and you’re a dead man!’ And by the end of the week things had got so bad that Marc announced the Mambas had definitely split and the future of Soft Cell was hanging in the balance.” – Simon Tebbutt, Record Mirror, August 1983

Beverley Glick [Record Mirror]: I wasn’t in the office that day, and I honestly don’t think it would have happened if I’d been there. I think I probably could have defused the situation. But God knows Jim told me the story enough times afterward. I felt a bit bad for him, and I think he was quite scared by it actually, but then made a joke about it afterward, as if it was a big laugh. I can imagine it must have been quite shocking. That was the problem with Marc – he took things so personally. Because I knew what he was like, I vowed to never write bad review about Marc’s music; If I didn’t like something, I just avoided writing about it.

“A ‘confused and unhappy’ Marc Almond suddenly quit the music business this week. In an emotional open letter to the press, Marc announced both the end of the Mambas and Soft Cell, claiming he was filled with ‘self-doubt’ and that ‘I no longer wish to sing on records, in fact I no longer wish to sing’. His shock announcements follows two bizarre incidents. In one he threatened a Record Mirror journalist with a whip, and in the other he was assaulted outside his home by a passer-by.” – author unknown, NME, August 1983

Dave Ball [Soft Cell]: I read about us splitting up in the music press like everyone else. I was in the office and someone showed me NME or something, and it said, ‘Soft Cell split!’ and I thought, “Have we?” Marc never mentioned it to me, although he is renowned for having theatrical moments. He just gets carried away and makes sweeping, dramatic statements, that’s just the way he is. He did like to shock people, to say something outrageous and make people sit up and say, “What?” He loves the drama.

Marc Almond: After a couple of days of retirement, unrestrained and feeling carefree, I began to regret my premature resignation and began to back-pedal furiously. Of course I never intended to actually retire, not really, surely everyone must have known that. My letter had been a public cry for help, a metaphysical suicide attempt. I’d wanted to hurt and punish everyone – my friends, my fans, especially my critics – but instead, as usual, I’d only hurt myself.

Annie Hogan: Marc was authentic. I love his singing on Torment And Toreros, it was so honest and real. He’s not just a great singer, he’s a great performer, too, it was like he was delivering his lyrics as if it was the end of the world. I can see now that it’s a brilliant album, but it’s not something I would put on and listen to, ever. I don’t know if I was relieved or not when he announced the Mambas split. I knew at that point I was going to be involved in what came next, so I was probably excited to move on and put that album behind us.

Anohni: [introducing Almond at her Meltdown festival on 9 August 2012] I’ve loved a lot of records and I’ve been inspired by a lot of artists. But there was one record that changed my life forever and more than any other piece of art, determined the artist that I would become and the values that I would pursue. It not only educated me aesthetically, but in its power of example, it extolled the value of tremendous courage, the meaning of artistic sacrifice, and it affirmed that our feelings mattered even in an environment that might not give two shits. In a hostile environment it laid out the blueprint for me of how to emerge as a queen, at once heavily armoured and yet utterly, transcendentally vulnerable. It was a record that belonged to no era. Aesthetically it’s classical, Spanish, French, folk, torch, with the most brilliant and tortured excesses of guitar, drums, and voice. But this was record of acoustic instruments in a time of electronic music–this was not ‘Tainted Love’, this was another kind of a masterpiece entirely. On the record sleeve it says, ‘Don’t forget little snakes, if you’re going to wallow, wallow deep.’ As one of those little snakes I took that seriously to heart. And by adopting his voice and his disguise I began to sing and sing and sing. When I performed at Patti Smith’s Meltdown [in 2005], I ran up to the director of the festival and I said, “If you’re in the mood to stage underappreciated masterpieces, what about Torment And Toreros by Marc and the Mambas?” It was the first concert in my mind when I was asked to curate my own Meltdown.

Marc Almond: I was introduced to Anohni quite a few years ago in New York and she told me the reason she got into music was Torment And Toreros. When she did Meltdown she asked me to recreate the album onstage. It was very, very difficult to do as it was something we created organically in the studio, loads of drugs, a strange time of my life, a dark time. I got lots of musicians involved and a string section. I said at the time I didn’t want it recorded, didn’t want any memory, not one camera. I wanted it to be just for people who were there. It was one of best concerts I’ve ever done.

Conform to Deform: the Weird and Wonderful World of Some Bizzare by Wesley Doyle is published by Jawbone Press – find out more here. Torment And Toreros will be reissued by Universal this autumn.

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