Numbers. Numbers never tell you the whole story. But with Soft Cell, the numbers speak loudly. For example, 21 million records sold worldwide. Thirteen UK chart singles, five of them Top 10 hits. Two gold and one platinum-selling albums. (And, belatedly, one O.B.E.)
Many of the most astounding Soft Cell stats, of course, relate to one single: the duo’s inspired and irresistible 1981 reworking of Tainted Love, originally an obscure Northern Soul tune by Gloria Jones. That single alone has sold 1.35 million copies, and counting. In the UK, it was by a considerable distance the biggest-selling single of 1981, and won Single Of The Year at 1982’s BRIT Awards. In the US, it spent a then record-breaking 43 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 (and still features among the Top 20 longest runs in American chart history). It was also a No.1 hit in 17 countries, including Australia, Belgium, Canada, Germany and South Africa.
But the Soft Cell story doesn’t end at Tainted Love, and nor does it start there. Marc Almond and Dave Ball first met in 1977, during the aftershocks of punk, as students at Leeds Polytechnic. Almond was a Bowie and Bolan fan who arrived in Leeds from Southport, where he had studied Performance Art. Blackpool-born Ball, two years his junior, was a fan of Northern Soul and Kraftwerk, and an Art student. Given their academic specialities, it’s no surprise that the pair’s early collaborations tended towards the transgressive, the challenging and the avant-garde: Marc would strip naked, smear himself in cat food and simulate sex with himself in front of a full-length mirror while Dave added bleeps as a soundtrack.
As Soft Cell developed into a group rather than an art project, inspired by the dark synth minimalism of Suicide and Throbbing Gristle, the duo began writing their own songs, often satirising the shallow world of consumerism, as well as adding Black Sabbath’s Paranoid to their live repertoire. Their first public gig came at the forward-looking Futurama festival in Leeds in 1980, at the Warehouse (where Marc had been working in the cloakroom). A frenzied 45-minute set left an unsuspecting audience applauding wildly.
After a loan from Dave’s mother, a self-released debut EP, Mutant Moments, appeared in 1980 on their own Big Frock label containing the songs Frustration, Potential, Metro Mr X and L.O.V.E. Feelings. When this reached the ears of teenage entrepreneur Stevo Pearce, he included Soft Cell’s The Girl With The Patent Leather Face on a sampler album for his Some Bizzare label in 1981, and negotiated a deal with Phonogram to fund the duo’s first single proper.
A pulverising dance tune, Memorabilia was produced by Daniel Miller of Mute Records, who was also a synth pioneer under his alias The Normal, whose Warm Leatherette had been a significant early inspiration to Marc and Dave. Nowadays credited as one of the tracks which invented Acid House five years early, Memorabilia failed to sell in large quantities, and Phonogram, it was assumed, would give Soft Cell one further chance to score a hit then they would be dropped. However, that second single, Tainted Love changed the course of their career, changed musical history, and changed lives.
The pop kids who rushed out to buy that unstoppable juggernaut of a single in 1981, after a memorable Top Of The Pops debut, had little idea of Soft Cell’s murky performance art past. Marc was a born pop star, and rose to the role with gleeful panache. But there was always a dark, perverse intent discernible beneath the surface: this, indeed, was part of his appeal.
His vocal style was vulnerable, unschooled, soulful, and above all human, in stark contrast to the robotic, dispassionate style favoured by contemporary New Romantic bands. On Soft Cell’s debut album Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret – an enduring synth pop classic – the duo scraped away the surface glamour and glitz of the things we do for pleasure (foreign holidays, seedy films, live entertainment, nightclubbing) to expose the sleazy and often bleak underbelly. A sister album of remixes and rarities, titled Non-Stop Ecstatic Dancing, followed in 1982, affirmed Soft Cell’s umbilical link to nocturnal culture on both sides of the Atlantic.
As signalled by the vivid neon lights of its sleeve, Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret was in part a love letter to Soho. It was a record that only Northerners newly-arrived in London could have made: unlike the escapist Blitz Kids, Soft Cell found romance in the grit and dirt of the West End, rather than airbrushing it out of the picture. An accompanying film, Non-Stop Exotic Video Show, directed by Tim Pope and released in 1982, found the duo giddily rampaging around the district’s demi-monde of strip clubs and hookers. A News Of The World headline led to a police bust of Some Bizzare’s Soho offices. The chorus of Sex Dwarf, one of the album’s anthemic highlights, became something of a mission statement: ‘Isn’t it nice? Sugar and spice… Luring disco dollies to a life of vice…’
Soft Cell struck a chord with the isolated and alienated, and attracted a secret tribe of intensely devoted followers. Their prolific extended 12” mixes made them the toast of the burgeoning New York and London club scenes. As their fame grew, the famous, too, gravitated towards them. David Bowie asked the duo to tour with them, but they turned him down. (“We didn’t think we were good enough”, Dave Ball would later explain.) Michael Jackson went to see them play in Los Angeles in November 1983. Paul and Linda McCartney sent the band a book with an inscription telling them how much they liked their music. On a famously debauched visit to New York, Divine, Klaus Nomi and Andy Warhol also fell within their orbit.
Meanwhile, Soft Cell became something of a hit machine. Bedsitter had followed Tainted Love into the Top 10, itself followed by the impassioned break-up ballad Say Hello, Wave Goodbye (voted the fans’ favourite Soft Cell track in a recent poll). They nearly scored a further No.1 with Torch (Marc and Dave’s favourite Soft Cell single), and reached the Top 5 again with a cover of Judy Street’s What! another Wigan Casino classic.
In January 1983, second studio album The Art Of Falling Apart further explored Almond’s fascination with the outsider, with Ball’s grandiose synth arrangements inflating Marc’s kitchen sink dramas to epic scale. But success, and the temptations that go with it, took their toll on the Almond/Ball partnership, and in 1984 Soft Cell announced they were to split. One final album, This Last Night In Sodom, quickly followed, adding organic instruments such as sax and drums to the mix. Its themes of murder, rape, drugs and drag artists ensured that airplay was minimal, but the band’s devoted following ensured that it nevertheless reached No.12 in the charts.
For almost two decades, Almond and Ball pursued separate paths. Marc had already been exploring the European traditions of flamenco, chanson and Brechtian cabaret with his offshoot ensemble Marc And The Mambas, before becoming the fully-fledged torch singer he always was at heart when he went fully solo, notably topping the charts again with Gene Pitney on a cover of Pitney’s Something’s Gotten Hold Of My Heart. Ball, meanwhile, had already released his own solo album In Strict Tempo in 1983, and became a much sought-after electronic producer, working with the likes of Billie Ray Martin and Kylie Minogue, as well as a remixer for acts including David Bowie, Erasure, Pet Shop Boys, Yello, Boy George and The B-52’s. He would also score further hits of his own in the Nineties as half of techno duo The Grid, whose 1994 Swamp Thing single passed a million sales.
In their absence, Soft Cell’s legacy lived on. As well as providing the template for every Eighties synth duo who followed, from Pet Shop Boys and Bronski Beat to Erasure, they were an influence on successive generations of dark electronic acts, notably Nine Inch Nails (who covered both Memorabilia and Sex Dwarf). Say Hello, Wave Goodbye became a much-covered standard, recorded by David Gray, A-Ha, The Hoosiers and Nouvelle Vague. Tainted Love was sampled to great effect by Rihanna on SOS, and Soft Cell’s version of the song was covered by Marilyn Manson in 2002, giving the American antichrist superstar his biggest British success.
In 2001, twenty years after first bursting into the public consciousness, Soft Cell proved to be an itch that Almond and Ball simply had to scratch. They marked the anniversary with a short rapturously-received tour, proving that an enormous audience for the band was still out there.
Followed a brand-new album, 2002’s Cruelty Without Beauty, which revisited the first principles of the duo’s origins. Monoculture was a satire of passive consumerism which could comfortably have sat alongside their Leeds Poly material, while their Top 40 cover of Frankie Valli’s The Night was actually considered as an alternative to Tainted Love in 1981.
Since then… radio silence, until a bolt from the blue in February 2018. The announcement that Marc and Dave would be reuniting for one last night, not in the Sodom of yore, but on stage at London’s O2 Arena, was followed by a scramble for tickets and the date rapidly sold out. Sixteen years is a long time in showbiz, but hearing Marc and Dave together on Graham Norton’s radio show in April 2018, it became apparent that the unique Soft Cell chemistry and charisma was still very much apparent.
The O2 news was followed by another announcement heralding a 10-disc Soft Cell story box set, appropriately named, ‘Keychains & Snowstorms’. Following a ransacking of personal and record company archives, the set promises over 50% previously unreleased material and includes a DVD comprising rare TV appearances, an early live show and, for the first time, all of the band’s promo videos.
With a sold-out stadium show and a career retrospective worthy of their influence, it’s very clear that the neon signs are shining brightly once again.