Art photographer Jamie McLeod was a collaborator with and muse for the megastar Marc Almond (Soft Cell, Marc and the Mambas, solo artist) for 20 years. In that time, McLeod helped visually shape Almond’s public image, fusing his pop star persona with his more experimental, avant-garde inclinations. The result is, I Created Me (Timeless), a book of startling photographic imagery as well as firsthand observations by Almond insiders like Jim Thirlwell, Lindsay Kemp, Othon, Anni Hogan, Jeremy Reed, Val Denham, and Siouxsie Sioux. PKM speaks with Jamie McLeod
Marc Almond is living proof of Walt Whitman’s phrase—lately borrowed by Bob Dylan for a new song—“I contain multitudes.” Like Dylan, and David Bowie, Almond has created and re-created himself so many times in his long career that you never know where he’s headed next. The mark of a true artist, of course.
His near-fatal motorcycle crash in 2004, which left him comatose for weeks, did not send Almond into hiding. If anything, it opened new musical and thematic pathways. In 2010, he released Variete, an album of all-original material; in 2011, he released Feasting with Panthers, a collaborative work of classic poetry set to music; in 2011 and 2013 he fronted month-long theater productions of Ten Plagues, based on the work of Daniel Defoe (and seems more than relevant in 2020); in 2014, he released three more albums, including a recording of Ten Plagues. In short, Almond never stops creating and re-creating himself.
Photographer Jamie McLeod has been a vital of these transformations. Over the past two decades, Almond has become known for the visual element of his performance and of his album packages and public image. That is the result, in large part, of his collaboration with McLeod. Almond has called McLeod, “an artist who brings out the punk in my soul. Whether it’s pop vaudeville, neo glam or simply making me look good, Jamie has the eye.”
Jamie McLeod has recently published I Created Me: Marc Almond Re-Created, a lavish, folio-sized volume filled with art prints reflecting their lengthy collaboration. Marc Almond is re-imagined by Jamie McLeod in so many different ways and guises that it’s hard to find words to describe. Perhaps “alchemy” or “mythic” come closest to conveying the power of McLeod’s work. However a viewer chooses to process the images, they are indispensable tools for understanding the constant metamorphosing of Marc Almond’s career.
Before Marc Almond embarked on his prolific solo career in the 1980s, of course, he was one-half of the synthpop duo Soft Cell. The other half was David Ball, a classmate at Leeds Polytechnic in 1977 when they formed Soft Cell. Like some sort of popstar pipedream, they became overnight international successes with a string of hits that included “Tainted Love” (a cover of an old Northern soul hit by Gloria Jones), “Bedsitter,” “Say Hello, Wave Goodbye,” and “Memorabilia,” a dance club staple.
Almond, though, was too talented and driven to remain anonymous or part of a group for too long. From an early age, he’d watched his idol Marc Bolan’s meteoric rise (the “Marc” spelling of his name is in homage to Bolan). His rage for pop fame was underscored by his immersion in the music of progressive bands like Van Der Graaf Generator and T. Rex (of course), as well as the Who, Jethro Tull and the Doors, as well as a predilection for show tunes and jazz.
The first step toward his solo career was a floating musical assemblage called Marc and the Mambas, which allowed him to collaborate with a number of different artists, including Matt Johnson, Jim Thirlwell and Anni Hogan. His solo career began in earnest in 1984, with the release of Vermin in Ermine. Many albums followed as Marc Almond fused his various passions for cabaret, rock, pop, dance, Russian torch songs, gypsy songs, French chanson (particularly Jacques Brel), orchestral music, and the poetry of Verlaine, Rimbaud, Genet and Cocteau. Over the years, he’s worked with a Who’s Who of song that has included John Cale, Siouxsie Sioux, Ian Anderson, Chris Spedding, Jarvis Cocker and Jools Holland, as well as scoring a massive 1989 hit, in a duet with Gene Pitney, with a remake of Pitney’s early hit “Something’s Gotten Hold of my Heart.”
PKM spoke with Jamie from his home in London about his relationship with Marc Almond, his new book and the scene in which he and Marc worked.
PKM: You met Marc Almond in the early 1990s. Where and how did you meet?
Jamie McLeod: Yes, I met Marc socially in the early 90’s when I used to man the door of certain late-night clubs and bars around Soho. In the days when one could still find illegal, subterranean after-hours drinking clubs.
PKM: Tell us about the book? When did you start doing photo shoots with Marc and how did they come about? And what your intentions were?
Jamie McLeod: We started working together around 1998, so there’s nearly 20 yrs of work we made together in this book ‘Created Me’. I spent a year reworking both new and old unseen imagery to create cinematic like cameos for Almond to role-play and to meta-morph within the time lapsed frame. We conjured up the images in the arena where Almond can invent other personas and narratives outside of what’s expected of him, outside the laws of commerce and the need to sell a product. I defiled and corrupted my perfect pop imagery and what I call my B—sides, the less commercial and rejected images, that perhaps are the most intimate and revealing, showing off Marc’s persona in the realm of physical theatre and as the eternal exhibitionist.
PKM: How did the work evolve, and what was your working process with Marc to create this massive body of work?
Jamie McLeod: The images were all shot very quickly, capturing the metamorphosis of Marc transforming from man to myth. I wanted to somehow witness the magic at play in this process of him being a regular guy to the one people adore and idolize on stage. So, we started by taking portraits of him backstage before the show, in the mirror while applying making up and chatting, and before my eyes he would transform. We then proceeded to do street shoots in places he was synonymous with, like Soho and in other old London Dickensian type of places like under an abandoned wharf alongside the Thames in Bermondsey, he would pose for me semi naked or in these amazing oily leather and horse hair outfits. Later on we would trawl around other evocative and historic places like ‘Wilton’s Music Hall’ in the east end, to as far away as places like Istanbul inside a subterranean ‘Ottoman’ cistern, then to Barcelona to one of Jean Genet’s old haunts, the infamous absinthe bar called the ‘Marsella Bar’. I then got interested in bombing him with slide projections of cut ups, words from his own songs and reconfiguring narratives with random words to create a new lyric, Burroughs style.
We conjured up the images in the arena where Almond can invent other personas and narratives outside of what’s expected of him, outside the laws of commerce and the need to sell a product.
PKM: Prior to your collaboration, what were you doing with your photography? And how did you make ends meet? I read where you were a bouncer at Soho clubs?
Jamie McLeod: Before working with Marc I had been studying fine art in photography at the ‘University of the Arts London’. I had been working in the nefarious after hour’s world of Soho’s famed club land. It was a time of taking whatever job came my way to make ends meet, always gathering inspiration in the most unlikely of places.
PKM: What is the significance of I Created Me, the book’s title? In the lyrics included at the back of the book, Marc writes “I created me from dreams and fantasies because I hated me”. What do you think Marc meant by that?
Jamie McLeod: Let me quote directly some of these lyrics that the book is named after. Remembering this song has never been recorded in the studio properly and there’s only one poor quality live recording of it from the ‘Union Chapel’ gig in London, from 2000. It was only meant to be a one-off live song, to finish off a concert with an epic, bittersweet symphony. But for me it’s the pure essence of Marc Almond, it’s his whole ‘raison d’être’, it embodies everything he’s ever written in this one song. Obviously the meaning of any lyric is subjective and poetic ‘I created me because I hated me’ to me personally means one must destroy the person that one was born, to become the person one dreams that one can become. It’s also about the mortality or immortality of fame, revenge and redemption to all those who told Marc he’s a freak, a loser, a reject and a queer.
‘I created me,
from dreams and fantasies,
scared with a shady past,
& grudges built to last,
threw in a little fate,
left it to marinate,
with bitterness and bile,
it festered for a while,
I created me,
cuz I hated me’.
PKM: Did the work of Gilbert and George wield any kind of influence on you? I see it in the religious imagery, the combination of black and white and color images, the stained-glass coloration, the merging of the seedy with the transcendent, etc.
Jamie McLeod: No, not at all, although I do like some of their early work and I’m glad they exist as queer artists but they are so tiresome and lazy in what they make these days. I started photography in the school of the purist, the classical, the no frills, of the brutalist and the realist side of portraiture. That has changed and I have changed of course because these days I generally work in digits and on computers and I’m both brutal and glamorous and we have more tools at our disposal to make our ideas real. Also if someone pays me specifically to make them look good I become a surgeon so that they are intoxicated and in love with their own image.
‘I created me because I hated me’ to me personally means one must destroy the person that one was born, to become the person one dreams that one can become. It’s also about the mortality or immortality of fame, revenge and redemption to all those who told Marc he’s a freak, a loser, a reject and a queer.
When I’m working with Marc on an image the inspiration comes quickly and that maybe inspiration comes from cinema, a lyric, or retro pop picture but usually from dreams. When one hits the vein of an idea, it’s exactly like hitting the vein with a hypodermic needle and a drug. You just ride with that rush while the drug hits your heart, that which flows along the tracks of ones imagination and only then when you lose yourself is when one creates something unique. It’s always invention and a form of alchemy, turning base metal into gold.
PKM: Where have you exhibited your Marc Almond photos? In London galleries? Art magazines? Or were they part of album packages or stand-alone art prints? Or all of the above? And how does your work get funded?
Jamie McLeod: All of the above. All work has different reasons to exist depending on what they were designed and paid for. For example, some images exist purely as art, to be shown in an art space. Some images are made to help sell or promote a product and some are to depict a story for an interview? There’s a huge difference in the reasons why anything we do actually exists.
l’ve always worked somehow in the margins outside of the established art industry so I’ve had to be creative as to where I can actually make a show because it’s become harder and harder for all artists to exhibit, and I will never ‘Pay to Display’ i.e. pay to exhibit. I don’t spend months or years making work to then pay ‘rent’ to a gallery to show my work to a public who then comes to consume it for free. That’s way too insulting and abusive. I think I’d rather kill myself actually. I don’t go around doing what I call art whoring or pan handling either, nor do I fill out forms to get noticed and funded by art establishments or my pet hate is this new repulsive parasite called ‘crowd funding beggars’. What kind of despicable lowlife freaks think their public should fund them before they make their shitty product?
If I’m not commissioned to do work or paid to come up with an idea, I pay for my work myself, it really is that simple. I don’t wait for people to tell me ‘you can go ahead with your project.’ I’ve mainly exhibited in London at the ‘Horse Hospital’ in Bloomsbury being my favorite last standing independent arts venue.
My pet hate is this new repulsive parasite called ‘crowd funding beggars’. What kind of despicable lowlife freaks think their public should fund them before they make their shitty product?
PKM: Did you shoot the images analogue style with film and process and print them yourself? Can you tell us something about that and how this process has changed with digital cameras and computers?
Jamie McLeod: I would say 50% of the images for the book were originally taken on film and processed by hand in my small darkroom in my flat. I have this great old medium format photo enlarger called a DeVere. But they have all been ‘bastardized’ i.e. retouched, cleaned up, contrast and colors changed and sometimes morphed with other images in post production and drawn on.
PKM: As I understand it, after his international ‘pop star’ fame of the 1980s, Marc was in a sort of hiatus or at least searching for a new direction. Can you speak a bit about that? What difference or changes do you think you brought to Marcs image that other photographers couldn’t or hadn’t?
Jamie McLeod: I guess there was a slight hiatus between the album ‘Fantastic Star’ and ‘Open All Night’ which had a cinematic ‘Blue Velvet’ late night cabaret vibe, scratchy noir with trip hop and quite different to the previous album which was more kitschy glam-pop. Marc’s body of work has always had elements of surprise with various stylistic and musical shifts but he has that inimitable and luscious voice, that’s his signature of decadence brimming with emotion. I don’t know exactly what I brought to his body of work other than maybe trouble. A rough and ready and back to basics, no bullshit approach to image making. All created one to one and eliminating out all the fluff of the music industry parasites.
“Tragedy” – Marc Almond, from Open All Night:
PKM: Who is the French publishing house called ‘Timeless’ and what type of artists have they published and represent?
Jamie McLeod: ‘Timeless’ are a unique independent French publishing house that specialize in the esoteric, the bizarre, the erotic, the perverse and the occult. They produce the books and sell the artwork by the likes of Aleksandra Waliszewska, Peter Christopherson and John Balance from Coil, Genesis P-Orridge, Little Annie Bandez, Pascal Doury, Lou Lou Picasso and many more.
Please visit Jamie McLeod’s website, where you can find a plethora of photographic work that includes PKM icons like Danny Fields, Iggy & the Stooges, Leee Black Childers, Jayne County, Souxsie Soux, Boy George, Ron Athey, John Waters, Constance Cooper, Franko B, Jim Thirlwell, Selfish Cunt, Joey Arias, Little Annie, Jeremy Reed, Christeen, as well as Mexican wrestlers, Turkish Oil Wrestlers, Turkish transsexuals.