The Lowdown – Soft Cell/Marc Almond
Two men, one keyboard and a whole lot of attitude: Soft Cell were the perfect pop equation. But while their erotic cabaret did eventually stop, Marc Almond and Dave Ball have continued to startle and shine in a variety of subsequent guises…
Considering everything he’s been through – near-fatal motorcycle accidents, sexual slurs, numerous musical eras – Marc Almond’s output is nothing short of remarkable. With more than 20 albums to his name (including solo outings and his work with Soft Cell and Marc & The Mambas), the Southport-born soldier’s son is up there with the world’s most prolific posters.
It was in the first of those guises that the singer first announced himself to a nation still reeling from (or perhaps rejoicing in) the demise of punk and seeking its next thrill. With Almond on vocals and his Leeds Polytechnic chum David Ball on keyboards, Soft Cell picked up the baton of punk sleaze and sprayed it in the bright neon of Blitz Kid attitude.
Not that the formula worked immediately, and their first EP, Mutant Moments – funded by a £2000 loan from Ball’s mother – failed to muster much interest. Luckily for them it did draw the attention of a 17-year-old London entrepreneur called Stevo, who at that time was setting up his own record label, Some Bizzare.
While their first single for the label, Memorabilia, created a minor furore in Britain’s nightclubs, chart success didn’t follow and the duo were on the brink of being dropped. Their response was a cover of an old Gloria Jones B-side, Tainted Love.
The gamble paid off: within weeks, the song could be heard reverberating from every club, Walkman and Waltzer ride, and consequently it stormed to No. 1 in the UK, the first of five consecutive Top Five singles for the band.
The pressures of fame and increasing drug use put a strain on the pair and, in 1984, after just three studio albums, they went their separate ways. Almond – who had already enjoyed critical success with his Marc & The Mambas project – embarked on a successful solo career, while Ball formed The Grid and scored a massive UK hit in 1993 with Swamp Thing.
Soft Cell reunited for a new album, Cruelty Without Beauty, and a short tour in 2002, but the return was short-lived, with Ball later saying, “I think history has kind of shown that we did make the right choice [to split up in 1981].” Whether it will happen again in the future remains to be seen but, until then, here’s the best (and worst) of their releases so far…
The must-have albums
Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret 1981
Soft Cell’s marvellously sleazy, sassy opening statement.
With a title that carved out their manifesto from the offset, Soft Cell’s debut album was a low-budget affair, rumoured to have been recorded entirely on a Revox tape recorder, a borrowed Roland drum machine, a preset Roland bass synth and an NED Synclavier.
Not that it mattered; the two band members had attitude in swathes. Opener Frustration saw Almond sneering “I’m a man, I want to break a rule” over a refrain that borrowed shamelessly from the Captain Scarlet theme tune. But the knockout punch came next: a trinity of pouting, leather-clad electro classics that oozed sweat and smut.
Tainted Love took a Sixties Gloria Jones tune and gave it its first vodka and cigarette; Seedy Films went to second base, spewing up all kinds of sexual innuendo (“Down in your alleys, seems that everything goes”); while Sex Dwarf took all its clothes off and dived in, with Almond fantasising about walking the listener on a leash. Throw in two more UK Top Five singles (Bedsitter; the wondrous Say Hello, Wave Goodbye) and you had a debut that was both cocksure and commercially successful.
The Art Of Falling Apart 1983
Ball and Almond’s second offering showed no signs of letting up.
Prior to the release of their second album proper, there was a worry that Soft Cell had peaked too early. The title, The Art Of Falling Apart, didn’t exactly quash those fears – was it prophetic? In a way, yes: while it matched Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret’s peak UK chart position of No. 5, neither of its singles (Where The Heart Is; Numbers) troubled the Top 20.
A curious anomaly, as both rank among synthpop’s finest moments – especially the latter, with its haunting keyboard riff and out-of-time drums. Indeed, creatively, the album was a worthy successor: okay, so the ‘trademark’ sleaze was limited to a few spurts (Kitchen Sink Drama saw Almond playing voyeur on a housewife’s sexual fantasies, while it was hard to believe he wasn’t having an orgasm himself on Baby Doll), but the tunes and drama were very much in attendance (check out those chord changes on Loving You Hating Me).
A 1998 reissue saw the inclusion of an ill-advised, 10-minute Jimi Hendrix medley, but that’s just flab and in its original guise, the band’s sophomore album was a work of Art.
Torment And Toreros 1983
Almond’s nervous breakdown, committed to vinyl.
‘Attempted suicide put on vinyl’ is how Marc Almond described the second and final album with Marc & The Mambas. True, it’s a harrowing record, with song titles like (Your Love Is A) Lesion, Gloomy Sunday and Torment (a co-write with Robert Smith). But within the maudlin there was majesty.
Against a startling backdrop of vaudeville, French chanson and Spanish opera, Almond played the tortured torch singer, crooning lines like,“You killed all of my dreams with your black, black heart,” like an Ian Curtis on the West End stage. Once Was was unbearably bleak, My Former Self was windswept woe over an epic grand piano, while A Million Manias saw Marc in a murderous mood (“I need a gun to blow my brains, or blow the brains of any sucker standing in my way today”).
Featuring The The’s Matt Johnson on guitar and future Banshee Martin McCarrick on cello, Torment And Toreros is Marc Almond’s finest, and gloomiest, moment. Antony Hegarty of Antony And The Johnsons cites it as one of his biggest influences, and that tells you all you need to know.
Mother Fist And Her Five Daughters 1987
Almond bounces back with an heroic homage-fest.
For his third solo album (backed by The Willing Sinners, with old Mambas pals Anni Hogan and Martin McCarrick), Almond roped in, virtually, some of the biggest names in music: David Bowie, Shirley Bassey, Kate Bush and Madness.
Four years after the musical suicidal note that was Torment And Toreros, Almond was back, brimming with confidence and brazenly impersonating his heroes like Jane Horrocks in Little Voice. The aforementioned artists resonated throughout Melancholy Rose, Mr Sad, The Hustler and Angel In Her Kiss respectively, while The Sea Says and Ruby Red could’ve appeared on any of the Soft Cell albums.
The title track was a sea shanty with a hearty shot of Argentine tango, Saint Judy doffed its cap to late-night jazz, while The Room Below was the best song Suede never wrote: quirky, brooding and gorgeous. Released in the midst of SAW chart dominance, Mother Fist (the title was taken from a Truman Capote novel) was a commercial disaster, stalling at No. 41. If you didn’t buy it the first time around, now’s your chance to rectify your mistake.
The must-watch videos
Tainted Love was not a song about cricket. Neither did it happen to mention men in togas on Mount Olympus waggling their fingers accusingly at innocent children. Or, for that matter, bare-chested black men wielding large fans and pulling strange faces. But somehow, all three of the above made it into Tim Pope’s video for the song.
That was the Eighties, though – the more surreal the video, the better (see also: Ashes To Ashes by David Bowie). When Soft Cell re-released their biggest hit in 1991, a new video was made for it – and it was almost as barmy.
This time, a young lad in a vest was seen trying to sleep while two strange alien beings attempted to stir him with weird, spacey seduction techniques. It didn’t seem to do any harm, though – the song scored almost as highly as it had done the first time around, climbing to No. 5 in the UK.
Sex Dwarf 1982
As videos go, Tim Pope’s banned promo for Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret’s most sleazy, queasy moment – one of a whole album of videos he made to advertise the band’s debut LP – made those Frankie Goes To Hollywood clips look like the Teletubbies (co-incidentally, there’s a video of the Teletubbies dancing to Sex Dwarf on YouTube).
A disturbing, demented orgy of real-life naked prostitutes, chainsaws, dildos and vertically-challenged men in leather, it was the very epitome of Eighties excess.
According to legend, Pope threw a handful of live maggots onto the set, causing a riot when the prostitutes fled the studio, and prompting Scotland Yard’s Pornography Squad to seize the tapes. And the video still provokes a proverbial riot to this day – it’s even banned from TV programmes about banned videos.
Young Guns Go For It: The Story Of Soft Cell 2010
Confusing title aside (it was actually part of a BBC Four series examining Eighties pop icons), this 38-minute documentary is a thoroughly enjoyable affair. Soft Cell obsessives will have heard the story of when the duo met Freddie Mercury in New York and the singer asked if they were an item.
And they will no doubt have seen the clip of a (very) young Richard Madeley trying to seem cool (doesn’t he always?) as he introduces the fledgling New Romantic scene to the viewers of a news bulletin – even though, as Almond explains, the band never considered themselves a part of that movement.
But with music clips and magazine covers galore, as well as interviews with both members, backing singers and even their old Some Bizzare boss Stevo, this is a nostalgic pop-doc.
Melancholy Rose 1987
Almond’s 1987 single Melancholy Rose – taken from the excellent Mother Fist album – was a career highlight, and yet somehow it crashed and burned at No. 71 in the UK charts. Could this be because people just didn’t connect with the video? Er, possibly.
Directed by Peter Christopherson, a member of the ‘edgy’ music/visual arts ensemble Throbbing Gristle, it started out like a Monty Python film, with a motley band of misfits pushing a giant chest along a promenade. Who should jump out of the box but Marc Almond, who tried on several hats in front of a cackling pensioner before delivering a theatrical speech.
This meant we were two minutes in before the music started and the accompanying footage finally put its serious face on. To be fair, we’d come to expect a certain level of weirdness from the former Soft Cell man, but even by his standards this was pushing it a bit.