❉ Almond’s second album produced some of the finest songs of his career, writes Ange Chan.
Stories of Johnny, Marc Almond’s second solo studio album hits its 35th anniversary this month. It was released in 1985 on 1st September, following the success of his first album Vermin in Ermine and the singles that were released from it. Stories of Johnny reached number 22 in the UK album chart and spawned three singles: The title track, along with The House is Haunted (By The Echo of Your Last Goodbye) and Loveletter.
It was recorded in three London locations and in Germany at the Hartmann Digital Studios in Obertrubach, Bavaria. The studio was started in the 1980s by Henry Sincigno and others, and worked with artists like Yello, Visage, Soft Cell, Nena, Trio and many more. Vermin in Ermine was also recorded in part at Hartmann Studios. The album was produced by Mike Hedges, who Marc has worked with since on many occasions.
The album opens with Traumas Traumas Traumas, in a sweeping flourish following a marimba beat and spoken word introduction, “You, unbelievably small, bang your hands on the wall, say ‘to hell with them all, say to heaven with you’...” It’s a confident observational song which marks Marc’s new found solo artist status, and increasing credence in the music industry whose demise had contributed towards his disillusionment and the ultimate break-up of Soft Cell just a couple of years earlier. On Stories of Johnny, Marc gathered his trusted musicians around him under the banner of The Willing Sinners and included ex-Mambas Anni Hogan on Piano, Synthesizer, and Marimba with Martin McCarrick on Cello and Synths, Richard Riley on Guitar, Billy McGee on Bass Guitar and Steven Humphreys on Drums. Ex-Mamba Gini Ball also played on this album, among others. As The Willing Sinners, they worked with Marc on three studio albums between 1982 (as the Mambas) up until 1987 on fan-favourite Mother Fist (and Her Five Daughters).
By 1988’s The Stars We Are the backing musicians had changed, when Martin McCarrick had ‘defected’ (tongue firmly in cheek!) to Siouxsie and the Banshees and Annie, Billy and Steve remained to form La Magia. Martin was to work with Marc again in 2012, for the first time in almost thirty years, for Marc and the Mambas performance of Almond’s seminal album from 1983 for the Meltdown festival, curated that year by Anthony Heggerty (now known as Anohni). McCarrick was the musical director for the string and choir sections of that concert, as well as performing with the musicians he’d worked with on Stories of Johnny. These days, he continues to work with Marc and in 2013 teamed up with him and Tony Visconti to record new material.
The second track on the album is the title track which urges the listener to put a positive spin on life despite all the trials and tribulations we all go through. It reached a reasonable number 23 in the charts and was one of Almond’s most remembered songs, despite in my opinion not being the best song on this album (more on that later!)
The House is Haunted is a Weimar-esque track which as single had Broken Bracelets as the B-side. In my humble opinion Broken Bracelets is the much better track and would have been very well placed on the overall feel of the album. The track was released in January 1986 thus sadly missing the great marketing opportunity of releasing it around Hallowe’en for maximum impact. That said, it’s a great track and my favourite of the three single releases.
Loveletter was another single released from the album, and its single version was a fast-paced declaration of love “I will always love you, always love you, always you and no one else but you!” filled with metaphors a-plenty. The album version however was a more serene (dare I say it, more respectable?) version of the song with backing vocals from Westminster Boys Choir. This was also given the same treatment to the album version of Stories of Johnny and both of the Westminster versions were B-sides of the original singles. On the CD release some years later, the Westminster versions were included as bonus tracks. Marc referred to it in his Tainted Life biography as his ‘behaving myself’ album, despite still having that Almond-tinted edginess in parts.
The ‘side 1’ of the album (when albums had a side one and side two) ends with The Flesh is Willing which is another fast-paced song and again is lyrically clever, as he trips out the cadences effortlessly. Although Almond has produced a plethora of excellently written songs over the decades, I feel that in the late 1980s/early 1990’s he was at his most creative, honest and prolific.
‘Side 2’ is devoid of any of the single releases and in my opinion all the better for it. I vividly remember playing side 2 on constant repeat as a black-clad, angst-fuelled teenager at 17. Confused with where life would take me and struggling with my identity on the cusp of adulthood, I wasn’t the confident person that I was to eventually become. Marc took me to that place through his songs, lyrics and later on when I had met and spoken to him many times, through the frequent scantest of meetings. I was thrilled when he addressed me by name, and asked how I was getting along, despite being well into my adulthood at that time, I was that same 17 year old, now walking tall.
Side 2 starts with Always and the album’s more theatrical leanings start here. It’s a big blousy cabaret style number that would have them singing enthusiastically in the aisles of any vaudeville side show, whilst quietly sobbing at its beauty. ‘Always feel the loner on the outside looking in’ was indicative of my feelings at the time and this song gave me hope in the future and the unknown quantity that was to follow.
Contempt is a song that decries an individual for their constant over-confidence and arrogance… ‘you keep crawling out of the woodwork like some ghost from my past, with stories that I’ve long since forgot, telling me tales of how big you are now…’. You can’t help but feel that this has been written about a particular individual rather than a type of person. It’s scathing lyrics cut the person down to size and the music reflects this as it builds to a joyful cacophony of lyrics and music.
I Who Never is a bullish track which tackles the subject of jealousy, a trait which held a mirror up to unrecognisable behaviours, and contains the self-depreciating telling line ‘Sat sad by silent phone, changed my number, forgot to tell the world!’ It tackles feelings of insecurity and minor wrong turns in life which go towards forming a person’s persona, either rightly or wrongly. It goes on to exclaim “I guilty of all crimes, saw myself in another light today”... Essentially, its saying that people shouldn’t be judged on genuine mistakes.
My Candle Burns is a broody as it gets on this album, with the opening line ‘You cried last night in your sleep’. Its sanguine treatment of lyrics and music together is introspective yet has an element of positivity ‘my candle burns at both ends…. But seeking the positive in that, acknowledging that ‘It gives a lovely light’.
Love and Little White Lies is not only my favourite track on this album, but one of my favourite tracks ever, across any artist. Its brooding and intensely chanting lyrics spawning my personal favourite lyric of ‘For you inspire me, fuel and fire me, never leave me or deceive me’ with the vocal backing of “all night, can’t you feel my heart’ with a pulsating guitar beat replicating a heartbeat gets me right there every time I listen, and believe me, I’ve listened to it MANY times!
Marc is evidently inspired by his musical hero Scott Walker, but he takes that admiration and turns it into his own, whilst remaining true to his influences. In places Love and Little White Lies is almost reverent in its delivery, and solemnly hymn-like and brings a tear to my eye and a lump in my throat every time and became a blueprint for what my life was to become in its various guises. It’s very personal to me. As the song progresses, there’s an element of bump’n’grind delivery in the mid-section, with Almond belting out the lyrics with utter abandonment until the pace is slowed down it its constant heartbeat.
Stories of Johnny is an album of two halves in my opinion. After Mother Fist, this is my next favourite album, not for the singles but for the less commercial, juicier fruit which lies within the confines of the album, where Almond has produced some of the finest songs of his career. If you think you know Marc Almond, listen to this album and think again. Your mind will be opened to new possibilities, it will make you think introspectively of your own emotions and feelings, and you’ll emerge at the end both enriched and pleasantly surprised!
❉ Marc Almond and the Willing Sinners – ‘Stories Of Johnny’ was originally released 1 September 1985 by Some Bizarre on LP, CD and cassette, distributed by Virgin Records (FAITH1). It received a digipack CD reissue in 2008 via Some Bizarre (SBZ030CD).
❉ Ange Chan is a freelance writer, having produced two novels and six volumes of poetry. She was also prolific contributor in the anthology collection Me and the Starman (now available by Cult Ink on Amazon) and is a lifelong lover of music, having first been published in the 1980s music press. As well as being a frequent contributor to the pop culture website We Are Cult, she is working on her long-standing third novel Champagne Flutes and Pixie Boots.