Sometimes it’s the quiet ones who make the biggest noise.
Born in Chester in 1959 and raised in Blackpool, David James Ball always lived and breathed music. As well as his Glam heroes Bolan and Bowie, the young Ball fell in love with the film scores of John Barry, and the Radio 3 classical sounds his mum would listen to on the giant wireless in the corner.
He had no formal musical education, but enjoyed nothing better than messing around with the guitar he owned and his parents’ piano. “I used to plonk around,” he recalls, “and record myself on a reel-to-reel tape recorder.” It was at the age of 15 that he first encountered a synthesizer, when a neighbour of his grandmother let him play on theirs. “I was fascinated by that: bloody hell, I want one of those…” A couple of years later, working as an ice cream seller on Blackpool beach, a colleague played him Kraftwerk’s “Autobahn”, and his ears were opened to a new way of thinking.
Meanwhile, Dave was dancing every weekend to Northern Soul at the Blackpool Casino and the Highland Room. It would have been at one such night that he first heard, and loved, ‘Tainted Love’ by Gloria Jones. Quietly, pieces of Dave’s future were falling into place.
In 1977, a chance meeting on his first day at Leeds Polytechnic between the long-haired, bumfluff-moustached, denim-clad Dave and a punky-haired second-year Art student in gold lame jeans, and leopard print top called Marc Almond changed both men’s lives forever. One of pop’s classic Odd Couples had just met.
What happened next is engraved into pop history. Soft Cell, a duo defined by the dynamic between the dramatically expressive Almond and the quiet but menacing Ball, became one of the defining bands of the 1980s, whose influence is still felt to this day. In their short five-year career, they delivered the immediate synthpop classic Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret, its dancefloor-oriented sister album Non-Stop Ecstatic Dancing, the darker The Art Of Falling Apart, and the experimental and uncompromising farewell, This Last Night In Sodom, accidentally invented Acid House half a decade early with their debut single “Memorabilia”, and racked up a string of hits including “Say Hello, Wave Goodbye”, “Torch”, “Bedsitter” and, most famously, an instantly addictive minimalist reworking of “Tainted Love” which was the UK’s biggest-selling single of 1981, broke the record for longevity on the Billboard charts, and sold well over a million copies. All that ‘plonking around’ had paid off.
But the end of Soft Cell would not be the end for Dave Ball, a man hailed by Marc Almond, even during one of their periods of estrangement, as a genius. Because there had always been more to Dave Ball than Soft Cell. In 1982, he had launched Vicious Pink, the gothic electro-pop duo comprising Soft Cell backing singers Josie Warden and Brian Moss, and produced their first two singles. The following year, Dave released a solo album, In Strict Tempo, featuring guest appearances from Genesis P Orridge of Psychic TV, Virginia Astley, and Gavin Friday of The Virgin Prunes (whose second album, The Moon Looked Down And Laughed, Dave would later produce). One track, “Rednecks”, even featured a rare Dave Ball lead vocal.
Dave nowadays regards In Strict Tempo as “sketchbook rather than an album”, and “the indulgence of working with some of my heroes”, but believes it helped him bring fresh ideas back into Soft Cell (even if Marc was, at the time, “a bit miffed”). Almond, meanwhile, was breaking out with Marc & The Mambas, but Ball was even involved in that, producing “Sleaze (Take It, Shake It)” for their debut single.
Post-Soft Cell, Dave explored his arty side, creating a soundtrack for a Hampstead production of Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly Last Summer with his then wife Gini, herself an accomplished violinist. He also became a part-time touring member of Psychic TV, “just to keep my hand in”, a collaboration which would directly lead to Dave’s next big success.
In the second half of the Eighties, the first bleeps and whooshes of Acid House were starting to be heard, and Dave, who had always kept a keen eye on dance culture from Northern Soul and Disco onwards, wanted in. “But I didn’t know how to do it. I got myself a Casio sampler, an FZ-1, and a sequencer and drum machine. And it was the first time I’d really got into Midi, and sequencing stuff.”
One night, a mutual friend brought Adam Tinley – soon to be better known as Adamski – round to Dave’s St John’s Wood home for a jam session, with a keyboard, a sequencer, and a 909 drum machine. “I said ‘How do you make these fucking beats?’” Adamski showed him, and a new phase in Dave’s musical development was unleashed.
Meanwhile, Dave’s old pal Genesis P Orridge had been working on a pseudo-compilation of Acid House tracks by various fictional sock-puppet acts called Jack The Tab, along with NME writer Richard Norris, and Ball was brought in to play on three tracks.
When Norris was offered a record deal by east/west Records on the back of Jack The Tab, he was asked to choose a producer. “He wasn’t a tech head,” says Dave, “so he asked me.” It wasn’t a traditional producer-artist relationship, however. “It quickly became clear that we were both the producer, and both the artist. So we became a duo.” And nearly a trio: “Genesis P Orridge was originally going to be in The Grid. I love the thought of him dealing with Warner Bros. He’d have been great on Top Of The Pops.”
Formed in 1988, Norris and Ball’s techno duo The Grid became mainstays of the rave scene, albeit from a distance. “I never went to any raves – I was too old, really – but I thought it was fantastic.” With singles like “Flotation”, “Crystal Clear”, “Texas Cowboys”, and “Swamp Thing” (immortalised in John Waters’ Pecker), The Grid became Nineties chart regulars, and released five acclaimed albums, making the Top 20 with 1994’s Evolver.
In 1994, under the guise of The Grid, Ball scored a huge international hit as producer of Billie Ray Martin’s “Your Loving Arms”. In 1997, with new collaborator Ingo Vauk, he wrote and produced three songs on Kylie Minogue’s Impossible Princess album, including the Top 20 single “Breathe”. Ball’s skills as a remixer have also been sought by a string of top-level artists, including The B-52’s, Erasure, Pet Shop Boys and David Bowie, whose “Hallo Spaceboy” was given the Ball & Vauk treatment. “We did two mixes: the proper one, which took ages, and a second one with fucked up mangled sounds, which only took an hour. We sent it to Mainman in Switzerland, and they said ‘Thanks guys, David really loves Mix No.2.’ The one that only took an hour…”
Even during periods of inactivity for his two most celebrated acts, Ball has kept busy, whether as a member of electro-rock quartet Nitewreckage, DJing at Northern Soul nights, reconnecting with Gavin Friday on a Suicide covers project, collaborating with synth musician Jon Savage on the album Photosynthesis, or remixing brand new glam/alternative upstarts HMLTD.
Soft Cell reunited twice: first in 2003, for the album Cruelty Without Beauty and a successful tour, and again in 2018 for the Keychains And Snowstorms box set and a huge farewell show at the O2 in London.
But even when Soft Cell have waved their final goodbye, one thing is certain: Dave Ball won’t stay quiet for long.