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Soft Cell


Fronted by camp crooner Marc Almond and his trusty sidekick keyboardist, Dave Ball, SOFT CELL had juxtaposed post-punk and new wave with a twist of Northern soul – no better appreciated than on the duo’s Euro-pop chart-topper, `Tainted Love’, spawned from the risque “Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret”. In the midst of a new romantic explosion in the early 80s that embraced the likes of Some Bizzare label refugees, DEPECHE MODE, BLANCMANGE, THE THE and B-MOVIE, Madame Marc minced and manoeuvred his moody mannerisms like some modern-day Edith Piaf or JACQUES BREL.
Having met Ball at Leeds Polytechnic, the pair formed SOFT CELL and, with the help of visual technician, Steven Griffith, they embarked on live work around the advent of the 80s, their pivotal turning point coming through a fabulous Futurama 2 Festival spot. After a low-key indie EP release entitled `Mutant Moments’, and a place featuring on the fanciful “Some Bizzare Album” LP (with cute cut, `The Girl With The Patent Leather Face’), the synth-pop pair secured a bona fide deal with the capital’s affiliated label, run by Stevo (aka Stephen Pearce).
After SOFT CELL’s debut single, `Memorabilia’ (produced by Mute’s Daniel Miller), failed to make an impression, a darkly compelling, electro-fuelled cover of the aforementioned `Tainted Love’ (once the dancefloor domain of Stateside soul singer and former BOLAN beau, Gloria Jones), the single subsequently slipped and slid its way to the top of the charts; its double-A flip was a SUICIDE-like version of The SUPREMES’ `Where Did Our Love Go?’.
Buoyed by a second Top 5 smash, `Bedsitter’, and the shock American Top 10 gate-crash of `Tainted Love’, moody Marc and his SOFT CELL were the toast of the townies on parent set, NON-STOP EROTIC CABARET (1981) {*9}. A classic of its S&M/gay-bar genre and the a multitude of non-homophobic musos, the day-glo disc trawled the depths of Almond’s black-leather, neon-lit fantasies to a sleazy musical backdrop of low-rent alternative disco. Apart from the aforementioned single dirges, tracks such as `Youth’, `Sex Dwarf’, `Seedy Films’, `Chips On My Shoulder’ and third hit, `Say Hello, Wave Goodbye’ (later covered by folkie DAVID GRAY), even found a rampant audience in the red-light community of the Big Apple.
The extroverted Almond was a figurehead for yuppie homosexuals, although the media were scathing in their criticism of what they saw as the singer’s effeminate posturing. Nevertheless, SOFT CELL continued to chalk up the hits; `Torch’ – an exquisite duet featuring Cindy Ecstasy – narrowly missing the top slot, while a re-vamped dance model of the debut set, NON STOP ECSTATIC DANCING (1982) {*6} – featuring a Top 3 re-tread of H.B. Barnum’s `What?’, marked time as Almond and Ball worked on a follow-up proper.
Delivered early in ‘83, the highfaluting and fatalistic, THE ART OF FALLING APART {*6}, gave critics their chance to air their grievances, although with mid-chart breakers `Where The Heart Is’ and `Numbers’ (paired with the exclusive `Barriers’), the record peaked at No.5 in Britain. Initial copies came with a bonus 12-inch extension that saw the ‘Cell bravely exorcise a medley of HENDRIX cuts, `Hey Joe’, `Purple Haze’ and `Voodoo Chile’; equally exhaustive (running over 10 minutes), but well worth the extra readies, was the creepy, Bates Motel-esque, `Martin’.
As the pair increasingly concentrated on separate projects; Almond via MARC AND THE MAMBAS on sets “Untitled” (1982) and “Torment And Toreros” (1983), and DAVE BALL on a solo “In Strict Tempo” (1983), a split seemed imminent. By the release of their third LP, THIS LAST NIGHT… IN SODOM (1984) {*5}, SOFT CELL were no more. An incendiary and spiky swansong set that surrendered only a couple of mediocre mirror-ball 45s in `Soul Inside’ and `Down In The Subway’, the Top 20 exploration into Marc’s idolatry (SCOTT WALKER, BREL and Piaf) only really got into gear on `Surrender To A Stranger’, `Little Rough Rhinestone’ and `Meet Murder My Angel’; extra CD B-sides included versions of The HEARTBREAKERS’ `Born To Lose’ and JOHN BARRY’s `You Only Live Twice’ and `007 Theme’.
For nearly two decades it looked more than unlikely that SOFT CELL would ever get back together, but with a raft of post-break-up albums behind them, ALMOND solo, Ball with The GRID (`Swamp Thing’ hit Top 3 in ’94), the pair took the plunge for comeback set, CRUELTY WITHOUT BEAUTY (2002) {*6}. Opening with `Darker Times’, and featuring minor hit, `Monoculture’, and a Top 40 version of Bob Gaudio’s `The Night’, the record (plus 2003’s concert double-set, LIVE {*7}) showed what might’ve been had a solo Marc not ventured to croon land. Having said that, ALMOND continues in his quest to lead a cabaret “queendom”, while Ball (c.2009…) was working under the Nitewreckage banner.
A solo Marc was still beating down a musical path in the charts when the SOFT CELL duo decided to take one last final fling, albeit in a one-night-only 40-year celebration at the O2 Arena in London on 30th September 2018. To mark the concert, the Mute-funded Live Here Now – via Universal Records – documented the occasion with a double-CD/DVD under the apt title of SAY HELLO, WAVE GOODBYE (2019) {*8}. Needless to say, the all-encompassing package left no stone unturned in their quest to entertain the hugely receptive audience.
© MC Strong 1994-2006/GRD / rev-up MCS Nov2013-Aug2019

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