3th October sees the release of ‘Soft Cell – Live’, a
double CD featuring tracks recorded in Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, London
and Brussels during the bands 2003 European tour.
From the hard-edged electro of "Memorabilia", to the sleazy "Sex Dwarf", the anthemic ballad "Say Hello, Wave Goodbye" and the overtly political, yet bleakly humourous “Mono Culture”, the highlights on this double album are many. CD 1 features tracks from 2002’s “Cruelty Without Beauty” album, as well as a number classic tracks, whilst CD2 is more of a retrospective, featuring some of Soft Cell’s best known material. Full track listing as follows :
Soft Cell has always been a group that stood firmly outside conventions, rewriting the rules of what could constitute a successful pop band. Their unique sound was born out of the group’s unlikely love and fusion of electronica and northern soul. They have sold in excess of 10 million records world-wide and established a style that has fundamentally influenced generations of musicians who followed - from Pulp to Blur, The Pet Shop Boys to The Divine Comedy along with contemporary electronic acts like Ladytron and Fisherspooner. “Without Soft Cell‚” says Neal Tennant “there wouldn't have been the Pet Shop Boys. Soft Cell made us realise we could form a group."
Formed in 1980 by art students Marc Almond and Dave Ball, Soft Cell was originally created to compose music for theatrical productions at Leeds Polytechnic where they both were studying Fine Art. Marc Almond was born in the seaside town of Southport, near Liverpool whilst Dave was born in Salford and grew up in Blackpool. Both towns were hotbeds of the northern soul scene and their shared enthusiasm gave birth to a sound that The Times recently described as “Suicide meets Judy Garland”.
Initially the band recorded a self-financed EP entitled Mutant Moments‚ which they literally sold to shops out of the back of a car. The recording caught the attention of the teenage Some Bizzare label head, Stevo, who engaged Daniel Miller to produce their underground hit single ‘Memorabilia’‚ the following year.
‘Memorabilia’‚ is widely credited as being the first techno record and set the pace for a whole new musical movement. “It was a massive crossover record”; says Dave. “It was getting played in black clubs and in white clubs when there was a division, which there is not so much now, I’m glad to say. It was that sort of electronic record that worked as a funk record too”.
The EP established the group’s critical credentials but the follow-up single catapulted them to completely unforeseen heights. In an almost flippant move, the duo covered one of their northern soul club favourites, ‘Tainted Love’‚ written by the Four Preps’ Ed Cobb. The lyric was the perfect vehicle for Almond’s theatrical delivery and the electronic arrangement that contained a whole new battery of hooks completely re-invented the song for the new era. It became the year's best-selling British single, as well as a major hit around the world. In the United States it was to remain in the Billboard Top 100 chart for over one year, and remains recognised critically as an example of one of the most perfectly crafted pop songs of the twentieth century
The band cut a decidedly uneasy image on Top Of The Pops, suggesting dark caverns of risqué sexuality which must have totally confused their younger audience whilst raising plaudits from the older crowd who appreciated the originality of their presentation. “It’s a northern attitude,” insists Dave. “Slightly sarcastic and vitriolic, bitter and twisted. Marc and I tried to get some of that darkness into our tracks but still made them so you could sing along.”
“We were very much the shoddy northern alternative to all the more glamorous London bands,” says Marc. “The Spandaus and the Durans, where everything was very produced, sparkling champagne and beautiful model girls. They had videos by the swimming pool while we were slightly shifty and dodgy and fumbling. We wanted to be a bit of an antidote to that. We came from punk and post-punk, and we still had that element of snottiness about us.”
The group enjoyed a string of Top Five hits, which enlarged their legion of fans: ‘Bedsitter’, ‘Say Hello Wave Goodbye’, ‘Torch’ and ‘What!’ Each song seemed to expand on their highly original template and their debut album Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret went on to become one of the years best selling LPs.
“Listening to my old music, I was probably a naïve person in many ways, but that’s what gave a lot of the tracks their charm,” says Marc. “There was a lot of anger and aggression in Soft Cell, a real cynicism. I’m glad I’m able to exorcise that side of myself because that is one side of me. It’s the old cliché, but a cynic is a disillusioned romantic. I think that’s very true.”
The group again anticipated future trends with the release of a remix album entitled Non-Stop Ecstatic Dancing. This kind of recording had been only previously been employed in reggae where dub albums by Burning Spear and others had enjoyed considerable acclaim. Ecstatic Dancing fostered in its wake a club audience for the group, a counterculture they had discovered in their first trips to New York along with some other consumables.
The group followed this release with the aptly titled The Art of Falling Apart in 1983. It proved as popular as its predecessors but pointed markedly at the tensions and over indulgence that were threatening to fracture the group. Since the unique appeal of the act was its marked separation from the pop machine, it also served to isolate Dave and Marc from their peers and allowed the attendant pressures to take their toll.
“It was all a bit out of control and we were very naïve,” recalls Dave. “But I suppose that’s what made it exciting, that sense of danger, that sense that no one’s really in control. But we were definitely bending under the strain. There were also the substances, which we tended to get more reliant on. By the end of it we were very screwed up, and if we hadn’t split up one of us would probably have died. Seriously.”
According to Marc, “we were just beaten into the ground. Dave and I should have just gone away on holiday, because we were drug-addicted alcoholics. I was going through a major nervous breakdown. But there was no one willing to tell us.”
The group released one final album in 1984, This Last Night in Sodom‚ which can only be described as the electronic twin to Neil Young’s Tonight’s The Night‚ and is widely regarded as one of the band’s finest recordings. Like Young’s release, rarely has an artist carried a sizeable audience into such a vortex of dark and paranoid nihilism. It stands as an exceptionally bracing listen and understandably been named as a firm favourite of artists like Trent Reznor and Marilyn Manson.
After Soft Cell imploded, Marc and Dave pursued successful solo careers for 17 years, but remained in touch. Dave tapped directly into the rave culture that he had helped create with the hugely successful techno duo The Grid. Marc garnered enormous critical plaudits for an very colourful solo career in which he fronted two bands, Marc and the Mambas and Marc Almond and the Willing Sinners before going solo. He hit Number One again in 1989 with Gene Pitney on ‘Something’s Got A Hold Of My Heart’, then scored a hat-trick of hits with his lush 1991 album ‘Tenement Symphony’, which featured his first writing collaborations with Dave since Soft Cell.
Throughout the 1990s, a Soft Cell reunion became ever more likely. “The whole way it fell apart was with so much chaos and bad feeling,” Marc says. “Though strangely enough, not between Dave and I, we’ve always had a good friendship. That was always the unsaid thing between us, that sooner or later we’d be tempted to do another album together.”
The duo finally began writing songs together again in the late Nineties and the new songs were tried out at their reformation gigs last year to a rapturous audience response and unanimous critical acclaim. Fortunately for the band, their music had never been youth orientated in its lyrics, which now address their audience with a realism and honesty that few established artists have ever managed.
‘Whatever It Takes’ explores a mid-life crisis in hilarious detail whilst ‘Desperate’ casts a withering eye over today’s pop tarts. ‘Monoculture’, which is almost political, surveys the industrial state from a similar vantage point to the acclaimed book Fast Food Nation and ‘Le Grand Guignol’ and ‘Caligula Syndrome’ dive unreservedly into the grotesque but with sharper detail than they have ever employed before. Finally the band make a long overdue return to their northern soul roots with an exceptional cover of the classic stormer ‘The Night’.
The album employs their broadest musical palette with horns timpani and back-up singers alongside their trademark claustrophobic production. If anything, their experience adds gravitas to their songwriting, which never flirted with fashion in the first place. This album offers another most welcome voyage into a highly original and peculiar universe that has captivated an audience for over twenty years. Even the album title Cruelty Without Beauty‚ invokes an ironic tone. It is an album of paradoxes, light and dark music and lyrics weave together creating a uniquely crafted, passionate and cynical but ultimately up lifting view of life.
“I always felt it was an unfinished story, and I’m glad we’re able to write another chapter,” says Marc. “People have been very positive towards us, and quite excited. Dave and I love working together and we’re having fun, so we’ll just see what happens.”
“As soon as
we work together we become Soft Cell” Dave says. “I don’t
know what the magic element is but it just seems to be there.”
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