To celebrate 40 years since the release of their very first recording, SOFT CELL have re-released their debut EP ‘Mutant Moments’ as a 10 inch transparent vinyl edition.
Originally released as limited run of 2000 7” singles in October 1980 on the band’s own Big Frock imprint, the EP sold out immediately. Less than two years later, SOFT CELL would score five Top 5 UK hit singles in the space of just 13 months.
On the striking self-produced artwork, SOFT CELL were credited as David Ball (Synthesizer, Tapes, Electronics), Marc Almond (Vocals, Synthetic Scratch) and Steve Griffith (Visuals). Meeting as art students at Leeds Polytechnic, Almond needed music for his performance art so with his Korg 800DV synthesizer, Ball had the avant-garde credentials that the flamboyant vocalist was looking for.
“‘Mutant Moments’ was very homemade”Dave Ball told The Electricity Club in 2018, “very lo-fi and made on no money, done at art college”. On this reissue, he has personally supervised the remastering process to ensure a vast improvement on the original pressing, declaring it as “A vintage slice of lo-fi Polytechnic synthpop, lovingly remastered for you”.
Gloriously gritty, ‘Potential’ began the four song set with a metronomic buzzfest while the wonderful ‘L.O.V.E Feelings’ was a melodic sign of things to come with some basic but beautiful synth sounds and an air of John Barry’s ‘Midnight Cowboy’.
Although ‘Metro MRX’ was to sonically improved later when produced by Daniel Miller for a Flexipop giveaway, the ‘Mutant Moments’ version was scarier, especially when Almond eerily announced “he’s my favourite mutant!” over a heavily processed otherworldly rhythm box.
While ‘Frustration’ ended up on SOFT CELL’s subsequent 1981 debut long player ‘Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret’, it was barely recognisable in its earlier incarnation with its synth hooks yet to be part of the song.
Meanwhile Almond’s distorted cries of “I WANNA DIE” were deadly sinister while Ball creepily deadpanned that “I’m an ordinary bloke”!
The wider breakthrough on the ‘Some Bizarre Album’ with ‘The Girl With The Patent Leather Face’ was to come in early 1981 as SOFT CELL duelled with DEPECHE MODE over whose track was the stand out. Rated higher at the time than the Basildon boys, Ball and Almond were signed by Phonogram and the rest is history.
It’s amazing to think how much of an impact SOFT CELL were to have in popular culture and everyone from FRANKIE GOES TO HOLLYWOOD, BRONSKI BEAT, ERASURE and PET SHOP BOYS to NINE INCH NAILS, PSYCHE, FISCHERSPOONER, TIGA and HERCULES & LOVE AFFAIR owe them a debt of gratitude for paving the way.
The do-it-yourself art school aesthetic of ‘Mutant Moments’ importantly enabled it all to begin with its dysfunctional gutter pop and primitively wayward electronic backdrop.
SOFT CELL may have played their last show with a lavish adieu at London’s O2 Arena last September, but Marc Almond and David Ball continue to maintain their legacy with the publication of a luxury limited edition photo book.
Published as a 1300 limited edition high quality 21 x 28 cm hardback, ‘To Show You I’ve Been There…’ is the ultimate piece of memorabilia featuring over 150 images.
Spanning the whole of SOFT CELL’s’s glorious career, the photos range from when Almond and Ball were unknowns sitting in various locations at Leeds Polytechnic and their first shoot with Gucci photographer Paolo Di Paolo to the iconic portraits by Peter Ashworth where the pair’s hair gets increasingly longer in the run up to ‘Soul Inside’.
For synth geeks, there is even two pages devoted to Dave Ball’s gear, including a Minimoog, Yamaha CS-5, Roland SH101, Korg 800DV, SCI Prophet 5, Korg MS10, Roland CR78, Alesis HR16, Oberheim DMX, Roland TR707, Yamaha QS330 and the distinctive core of the classic SOFT CELL sound, the Roland Synthe-Bass.
Photos by Peter Ashworth
Featuring commentary from Ball and Almond courtesy of new interviews with Mark Paytress, the story begins in 1979 around the Winter Of Discontent. “Imagine how heavy it was back then. Leeds was full of National Front supporters and there was a lot of intolerance around.” reflects Ball on the state of the nation back then, sadly sounding like it is now, “SOFT CELL must have seemed revolutionary – a duo, one guy with a synth and a reel-to-reel tape recorder, and out front a gay bloke covered in eyeliner. F*cking hell, no one had seen anything like that!”
As SOFT CELL found fame, Almond recalls how naïve they were when they did their first major music press interview with Paul Morley for NME. As was par for the course, the scribe used his pseudo intellectualism to nastily and hypocritically look down on Ball and Almond for their Northerness; “Some time later, I bumped into him and pretended I didn’t hold a grudge but I kind of did!”
The SOFT CELL story is one against adversity, about how two working class boys shot to No1 and became a UK chart fixture, achieving five Top 5 UK hit singles in the space of 13 months during 1981-82 in a strike rate that neither THE HUMAN LEAGUE, DEPECHE MODE, OMD, JAPAN or ULTRAVOX ever managed and of their contemporaries, only GARY NUMAN even came close.
Each book is accompanied by an exclusive bonus 7 inch vinyl EP called ‘Magick Mutants’ containing four completely re-recorded tracks from the band’s early song archive highlighting how SOFT CELL saw themselves as the pop version of SUICIDE.
Best of the bunch is ‘Bleak Is My Favourite Cliché’ which has only been heard previously in distorted demo form on ‘The Bedsit Tapes’ and has since reappeared on the ‘Keychains & Snowstorms’ boxed set. The haunting reverberant electronic bass and doomy synthetic choir sounds provide an appropriate balance of glitter and grit to bring the song up to date, while a declaration that “It’s so European, bleak, it’s very bleak today” is strangely poignant and down with the zeitgeist.
Photo by Paul Cox
Driven by a solid synthbass triplet, ‘Science Fiction Stories’ is gloriously danceable and minimal, characterised by its spacey synth theme. Another demo from ‘The Bedsit Tapes’ sessions, like with ‘Bleak Is My Favourite Cliché’, its potential gets more fully realised and is deservedly as Almond himself sings “not to be forgotten”.
Originally one of the highlights on the ‘Some Bizarre Album’ compilation, the revisit of ‘The Girl With The Patent Leather Face’ is interesting if only to compare the vocals of the wayward energetic student Almond of 1981 with the battle-hardened abstinent artiste of today. The synths are as menacing as ever if missing the hiss and noise of vintage recording but on this one, the recklessness of youth has gone.
In a recognition of their art school roots at Leeds Polytechnic, Marc Almond and Dave Ball play tribute to fellow student and inspiration Frank Tovey with an authentic cover version of FAD GADGET’s ‘Back To Nature’. While remaining as detached as the original with deep dual voices for a schizophrenic quality, albeit with one part in a more torchy manner, as the sombre mood piece comes to its conclusion, Almond adds it’s all “For Frank”.
With artwork created by Dave Ball as on SOFT CELL’s debut EP ‘Mutant Moments’, the tracks on this 7 inch vinyl (with corresponding traceable downloads via an exclusive individual code) will ONLY be available by purchasing this book.
Full of “Postcards, pretty pictures and little bits of plastic”, this artefact is a must for SOFT CELL fans, but for popular culture observers too because without Marc Almond and Dave Ball paving the way, life might have been that bit more difficult for BRONSKI BEAT, ERASURE and of course, their most obvious successors PET SHOP BOYS.
The Electricity Club gives its warmest thanks to Stuart Kirkham
2018 was a year of good songs rather than good albums, with many of long players not as consistent or as of high a standard as the bumper crop from the Class of ’17.
However, The Electricity Club had plenty of material to choose from for its 30 SONGS OF 2018 and while it can’t include everything, worthy mentions go to ANI GLASS, BLACK NAIL CABARET, BRÜCKEN FROESE, DANA JEAN PHOENIX, DISQO VOLANTE, DUBSTAR, EKKOES, FAKE TEAK, FRAGRANCE, THE FRIXION, GUNSHIP, HILTIPOP, IAMX, LIZETTE LIZETTE, TRAIN TO SPAIN and WITCH OF THE VALE who were in this year’s shortlist.
Interestingly, three graduates from the ‘Some Bizarre Album’ made it into the final list, thus highlighting the longevity of that particular vinyl showcase some 37 years on!
So with a restriction of one song per artist moniker, here are The Electricity Club’s 30 SONGS OF 2018 presented in alphabetical order…
AFTERHERE Breaking Rules
AFTERHERE is the brand new project of HEAVEN 17 singer Glenn Gregory and live keyboardist Berenice Scott, but with their roles reversed. Exploring their inner GOLDFRAPP but in a funkier vein, with groovy reminisces of ‘Twist’ and ‘Yes Sir’, the song seductively boasted a captivating sexually charged electronic energy. Berenice Scott said to The Electricity Club: “We always wanted to have a driving track on the album that you could hopefully move your feet to, party to… possibly get in a little trouble!”
Available on the AFTERHERE album ‘Addict’ via Manners McDade
While the Clarke was strong with this one, the first impression that came across with ‘Utopia’ was that things became a slight bit darker in the world of JOHAN BAECKSTRÖM. Despite that, there was a rousing chorus and percolating sequences to savour as he pointed out the futility of seeking that perfect future, when life has so much more on offer. “I wouldn´t describe the album as dark though” the DAILY PLANET synthesist helpfully told The Electricity Club, “it´s absolutely a pop album.”
Available on the JOHAN BAECKSTRÖM album ‘Utopia’ via Progress Productions
For BLANCMANGE, ‘Distant Storm’ was rather unusual with its dance beat, reverberant Moog bassline and dreamy processed vocoder aesthetic. With a rousing, almost spiritual quality and elements of JAMES’ ‘Come Home’ creeping in for good measure, it displayed Neil Arthur’s comfort in working with producer Benge on effectively their third album together. “I wanted to sing it as though it was really detached with my voice being synthesized” he told The Electricity Club.
Available on the BLANCMANGE album ‘Wanderlust’ via Blanc Check Records
Veteran Mansfield quartet B-MOVIE made their most electronic pop single to date with the chilling aesthetics of ‘Stalingrad’. Complete with an infectious synth melody, an eerie mezzo-soprano and using the crucial Second World War battle as a metaphor for a doomed relationship, it was possibly Steve Hovington, Paul Statham, Rick Holliday and Graham Boffey’s best song since their 21st Century reformation; appropriately, its B-side was called ‘Something Cold’…
Available on the B-MOVIE EP ‘Repetition’ via Loki Records
‘Get Out’ may have acted as a superb launch single, but starting off their ‘Love Is Dead’ album was the wonderful ‘Graffiti’. This was a classic kaleidoscopic CHVRCHES tune that punched the sky with some rousing vocals. It was also a supreme singalong showcasing Lauren Mayberry, Iain Cook and Martin Docherty in full bouncy Taylor mode. Despite the downcast lyrical demeanour on lost youth and the passing of time, this was still a grand pop statement.
Australian duo CONFIDENCE MAN were a ray of sunshine in 2018 with their own brand of campy dork pop, being everything SCISSOR SISTERS should have been. ‘Don’t You Know I’m In A Band’ was an amusing satire on ego and sense of entitlement in the music industry. With an electro take on the groovy swoop of WAR’s ‘Low Rider’, a pitch shifted Sugar Bones came over like an inebriate Teddy Pendergrass while Janet Planet delightfully counterpointed in her alluring girly manner.
CREEP SHOW is the meeting of minds between eclectic singer / songwriter John Grant and the dark analogue electro of WRANGLER whose members comprise Stephen Mallinder, Benge and Phil Winter. On ‘Safe & Sound’, the quartet explored a spacious KRAFTWERK and GIORGIO MORODER hybrid to reveal gradually some wonderfully warm melodic synth textures to accompany Grant’s passionate lead croon. The project led to Benge also working on Grant’s ‘Love Is Magic’ album also released in 2018.
Driven by a meaty electronic bassline and metronomic backbone, the marvellous vocoder-laden ‘Comrades’ by RODNEY CROMWELL captured a really chilling Cold War atmosphere, bathed in an ensemble of sweeping synth oboes and cosmic string machines. “I ended up thumping at the MicroKorg and came up with the opening riff” he said. Rich with melody and a panoramic resonance, it surreally captured the sound of Moroder being played through a Soviet Foxtrot submarine intercom system.
With ‘Falling In Love With Sadness’, EMIKA produced one of the best electronic albums of 2018. The record was a concept album of sorts, a musical reflection on generations of sadness within the Anglo-Czech musician’s family in her most personal statement yet. The pacey ‘Promises’ made the most of her lower and higher vocal registers, providing an eerie cascading harmonic with some rumbling dubby tension and booming stabs driving Eastwards with solemn spine tingling qualities.
Taking in more synthetic ambitions, FARAO’s second album ‘Pure-O’ was a playful bleep forward. While ‘The Ghost Ship’ saw Kari Jahnsen focussed on her forlorn little girl lost lyrics, the wonderfully uptempo ‘Marry Me’ offered an accessible PET SHOP BOYS flavour and romantic layers of vocals masking a deep scepticism of the institution of marriage, while the lush backing and chugging electronic backbone carried the air of her compatriot SUSANNE SUNDFØR.
Available on the FARAO album ‘Pure-O’ via Western Vinyl
Releasing their first new material in over three decades, FIAT LUX returned with the most splendid ‘It’s You’. As well as the bassline and harmony from David P Crickmore, the sax style was a fitting tribute to the sadly departed Ian Nelson. Singer Steve Wright said: “Lyrically, I hope, it expresses feelings that possibly everyone can relate to…” – their long awaited debut album ‘Saved Symmetry’ is expected in 2019.
Available on the FIAT LUX single ‘It’s You’ via Splid Records
The ‘Everyone Afraid To Be Forgotten’ album was easily equal to Jonna Lee’s work with IAMAMIWHOAMI. Best of the set was possibly the marvellous closing number ‘Fold’. Featuring exotic cascading timbres and spacey pulsars, distorted string synths added tan appropriate chill as Lee’s passionate vocals completed the filmic vibe. Less mysterious, the IONNALEE transition was a triumph, especially with one of the best value-for-money live presentations of 2018.
Asking if “it is foolish to dream”, ‘Someday’ saw KATJA VON KASSEL questioning a moment of passionate haste. “The phrase ‘Someday’ just opened it all up and everything else just fell into place.” the chanteuse said. Capturing the beautiful melancholy of ASSOCIATES’ Billy Mackenzie, the doomed romantic tragedy of the sadly departed Scot was echoed by the chanteuse’s deep forlorn delivery, accompanied by CHRIS PAYNE’s hypnotic bassline and haunting vox humana treatment over a simple rhythmic loop.
Despite their age, LET’S EAT GRANDMA have a feisty but mature musical ambition, as successfully realised on ‘Donnie Darko’, an 11 minute tribute to the troubled teenager haunted by a monstrous rabbit-like figure. Utilising a sedate start before morphing into a wonderful movement of cascading electronics set to a metronomic beat, there were passionate reflections on the subject of human suffering. It all went a bit “batsh*t crazy” into a glorious synthony before calming to its conclusion!
Available on the LET’S EAT GRANDMA album ‘I’m All Ears’ via Transgressive Records
CHRIS LIEBING featuring POLLY SCATTERGOOD And All Went Dark
Noted techno exponent CHRIS LIEBING teamed up with Mute label mate POLLY SCATTERGOOD on a stark polyrhythmic number appropriately titled ‘And All Went Dark’. The brooding minimalist electronic piece with its eerily poetic spoken contribution from Miss Scattergood saw the Essex songstress haunted by a “dark shadow on my shoulder” and telling how “a sickness took hold early on”.
Available on the CHRIS LIEBING album ‘Burn Slow’ via Mute Artists
With the name transcending Toronto based Hayley Stewart’s fascination with Japanese culture, cyber space and a love of vintage synthesis, ‘Mad But Soft’ was her first album as MECHA MAIKO. The magically crystalline ‘False Memories’ could have been part of the ‘Stranger Things’ soundtrack. Uncomplicated on the surface yet multi-layered and airy, this day-glow pink neo-instrumental concoction was well-thought through and deliciously produced.
One-time RÖYSKSOPP collaborator Ryan A James continues to hone and develop his hybrid mix of luxuriant synthetics and subtle guitar textures as MAN WITHOUT COUNTRY. He said about the gorgeous electronic bubblebath of ‘Lafayette’: “It’s really a song about the end of a relationship, disguised as a song about Scientology, and how defectors of Scientology are disowned by their loved ones. The name comes from the religion’s founder Lafayette Ron Hubbard.”
Available on the MAN WITHOUT COUNTRY album ‘Infinity Mirror’ via Killing Moon Records
“Beware! It’s a scary world” and with their BRITNEY SPEARS fronting NINE INCH NAILS template, NIGHT CLUB took their sweet but sinister synth rock sound to its zenith with the title track of their second album. And when the children’s choir joined in the chorus to sing of demons everywhere, this was a musical trick or treat that no parent would want their offspring to be part of, the message being “they only love you if you swallow”!
A fabulously optimistic closer to NINA’s debut album, ‘80s Girl’ came beaming over like some missing song from the film ‘Mannequin’. With big Simmons drums, sampled orchestra stabs and driving synthbass triplets, it was however delivered with subtlety and restraint so that it wasn’t a HEART or STARSHIP pastiche. Dedicated to her mother, it had a telling message of “don’t let the past hold you back”.
Perhaps best known as the alluring if slightly blunt chanteuse of BLACK BOX RECORDER, SARAH NIXEY released her best solo album to date in ‘Night Walks’, a quality record with air and presence, collecting everything she has ever been musically, all rolled into one. One of its key tracks was the delightful ‘Journey’, a glorious number of the type that Marc Almond has often been so good at, laced with crystalline synths and gorgeously breathy vocal tones à la Jane Birkin.
Available on the SARAH NIXEY album ‘Night Walks’ via Black Lead Records
The ‘Savage’ album turned out to be both an artistic and commercial vindication for GARY NUMAN. ‘It Will End Here’ from ‘The Fallen’ EP was a natural progression from that, exploring a heavy but melodic electronic sound without relying on the predictable backing of rock guitars. With and anthemic chorus and the apocalypse is looming over the aural desert, there was even a soaring vocal pitch shift up at the song’s conclusion which added an extra eerie vampiric quality.
NYXX is very much her own woman, like the Greek goddess of night she is named after, a figure of power and beauty with a Britney-like vocal presence that sweetly offsets some of her darker overtones. A collaboration with Daniel Graves of AESTHETIC PERFECTION who contributed a glorious evangelical middle eight, she said “It would not be what it is without him. I came in with a sketch of a song, a melody and lyric of another song… Daniel heard nuances in it and we built what is now ‘Voodoo’.”
Available on the NYXX single ‘Voodoo’ via Close To Human Music
Eddie Bengtsson and Marina Schiptjenko initially came together in PAGE releasing their first single ‘Dansande Man’ in 1983. Since then, the pair have parted and reunited on a number of occasions but the mission for the ‘Start’ EP was to party like it’s 1979 when GARY NUMAN was No1. ‘Nere För Räkning’ was an urgent slice of pulsing synthrock with a piercing vibratoed lead line akin to the keyboard interventions heard on ‘The Pleasure Principle’.
Available on the PAGE EP ‘Start’ via Energy Rekords
From Mission Viejo in California, PLASMIC describes herself as an “Orange County one-woman dervish” and in a vivid haze that’s pretty in pink, “your abused Barbie doll from childhood”. Combining J-Pop with CRYSTAL CASTLES and DEVO, the undoubted standout from her ‘Validation Nation’ EP was ‘Baby Machine’, an immensely catchy feminist electropop anthem utilising a mixture of vintage Casio and Yamaha sounds that challenged the expectations of women to bear children.
Championed by none other than Vince Clarke, REED & CAROLINE successfully combine tunes with electronic experimentation. The haunting ‘Entropy’ was a tribute to a departed friend and a fabulously touching GARY NUMAN homage to his ‘Dance’ period, in particular ‘Cry The Clock Said’. The hypnotic soundtrack of gentle preset rhythms and eerie electric piano, courtesy of a Buchla modular synth, was complimented by Schutz even adopting the phrasing of the man born Gary Anthony James Webb.
Weird and wonderful, ‘Red Moon Voyage’ was a ghostly 10 minute epic comprising of glitchy voices and varying rhythm constructions recorded especially for Halloween. Free of album concepts and the pop song format, this was FIFI RONG at her most adventurous yet, delightfully adding her native Mandarin language towards the third part. She told The Electricity Club: “having a long journey means you can get very deep and lots of moods and transitions”.
Marc Almond and Dave Ball were the boys who came back-back-BACK as SOFT CELL in 2018. ‘Northern Lights’ reminisced about their days at the Wigan Casino and recaptured the pop essence that led to the duo having five consecutive Top 10 hits! Despite the grittiness and energetics, the duo always had melody and that came back in abundance on their welcome recorded return. The darker B-Side ‘Guilty (‘Cos I Say You Are)’ affirmed that as a creative force, SOFT CELL still had it.
Chinese six-piece STOLEN are reckoned by Berlin-based producer Mark Reeder to be possibly the most exciting band he has seen since NEW ORDER. Certainly their debut album ‘Fragment’ was impressive and one of the best of 2018, with ‘Turn Black’ being one of the standout tracks. “I like the idea of mixing of rock with techno…” said growly lead vocalist Liang Yi, “we are very proud that we don’t sound like any of the other Chinese bands.”
Ingo Hauss and Hayo Lewerentz handed back the BOYTRONIC brand to Holger Wobker and returned to being U96, teaming up with former KRAFTWERK percussionist Wolfgang Flür for the best track by either party in recent years. Stark and Teutonic with stark robotic vocoder aesthetics, the union of two German musical heavyweights from different generations was equal to Flür’s ‘Activity Of Sound’ collaboration with Ireland’s iEUROPEAN.
Combining piano, synths, field recordings, drones, occasional beats, old string instruments and HILARY WOODS’ wonderfully forlorn voice in the vein of Julee Cruise, ‘Jesus Said’ questioned the existence of God. Described by the Irish songstress herself as “a song that seeks catharsis”, her child-like expression over the drifting synthesized tones and hypnotic drum machine to augment her beautiful piano playing gave ‘Jesus Said’ a gentle meditative quality.
Available on the HILARY WOODS album ‘Colt’ via Sacred Bones
SOFT CELL’s final concert really was a wild celebration and an explosion of feelings!
London’s O2 Arena was where everyone wanted to be as luminaries such as Claudia Brücken, Rusty Egan, Jarvis Cocker, Mark Moore, Mark White, David Walliams and Andy Fletcher made the special trip, along with nearly 20,000 people from all parts of the globe.
It has been an unbelievable journey of ups and downs and ups for Marc Almond and Dave Ball, two former art students from Leeds Polytechnic who formed one of the most subversive pop acts of all time in SOFT CELL.
Despite projecting a sleazy life of vice, the pair notched up five Top 5 UK hit singles in the space of 13 months during 1981-82, a strike rate that THE HUMAN LEAGUE, DEPECHE MODE, OMD, JAPAN or ULTRAVOX never managed and of their contemporaries, only GARY NUMAN came close.
“You couldn’t make a decent dance record if you tried” grumbled a disgruntled ‘Some Bizzare Album’ rival to Almond, despite making possibly only the third best track on the seminal collection, even after the big five of BLANCMANGE, B-MOVIE, THE THE, DEPECHE MODE and of course SOFT CELL were taken out of the equation. That one-time rival was conspicuously absent tonight…
Three huge screens and a pink padded lighting rig formed the basis of a show celebrating 40 years of SOFT CELL. Beginning with the hypnotic proto-house of ‘Memorabilia’, this cult favourite immediately got the crowd up on their feet. Ball was buzzing away on a Korg MS20 in his engine room full of vintage synths. As he added some analogue grit and glitter over the sparking and dynamic backing tracks, Almond led an en masse chant of “OLÉ”.
Keeping up the tempo, ‘Monoculture’ followed, its 2002 statement on the blandness of popular culture still relevant today with a new series of ‘X Factor’ currently in progress. And as Almond greeted the O2, he talked of how “Everyone’s offended by everything these days” before introducing SOFT CELL’s state of the world address ‘Darker Times’, complete with montages of US President Donald Trump.
‘Together Alone’ completed a trilogy of songs from the ‘Cruelty Without Beauty’ long player, but then came one of the big hitters. Assisted by brass from John Birchwood, the fabulously forlorn ‘Torch’ benefited from an impressive sound system while Almond was supreme, singing as if his life depended on it.
Continuing to put in as much effort in as possible, he showed why ‘Forever The Same’ should have been a single, a brilliant tune similarly assisted with a punchy brass hook. Throughout all this, Ball stared intently at his synths; he may not have smiled that much, but when he did, he beamed like a Cheshire Cat.
While live projections dominated the visuals, SOFT CELL did not forget their art school roots and there were a number of bespoke films to accompany some of the songs. The sinister romp of ‘Baby Doll’ was naturally accompanied by moving images of adult entertainers while in its monochromatic presentation, the “depressing” ode to promiscuity ‘Numbers’ saw a hedonistic young man making out with mannequins.
‘Insecure Me’, the B-side of ‘Torch’ was a wonderful surprise and saw the return of Gary Barnacle on sax, but the euphoria of performing a number not played live since 1983 made Almond forget the words to ‘Where the Heart Is’.
The brave inclusion of the ‘Numbers’ B-side ‘Barriers’ however was the first misstep of the evening, losing the attention of much of the audience; ‘Facility Girls’ might have been a better application of this ethos. But an emotive ‘Loving You, Hating Me’, a highlight from ‘The Art Of Falling Apart’ album, snatched everything back on track.
Almond then announced a special guest and it was Mari Wilson, the Neasden Queen of Soul, best known for her Tony Mansfield produced hit ‘Just What I Always Wanted’. Duetting on the electro cabaret of ‘Last Chance’, effectively the lyrical follow-up to ‘Say Hello Wave Goodbye’, she gave it her best Dusty with the pair’s affection for each other positively glowing for all to witness.
‘Frustration’ and ‘Youth’, two classics from ‘Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret’, got their well-deserved airing and were a reminder of the fabulously edgy pop that SOFT CELL were so good at.
The electro-punk of ‘The Best Way To Kill’ took three attempts to get right with Almond missing his cue twice but with so many songs to learn, this was always going to be a challenge for anyone. This endeared Almond to all in sundry but bizarrely, he then announced that he was missing a setlist too, although it wouldn’t have been a SOFT CELL concert without some element of chaos.
However, that chaos led to ‘Meet Murder My Angel’ and ‘Surrender To A Stranger’ which was far too many songs together from the ‘This Last Night…In Sodom’ album, an uncompromising listen at the best of times. ‘Entertain Me’ and Chips On My Shoulder’ might have been more fitting as proceedings hit a mid-show lull.
Ball was not free of mishap either, accidentally striking the odd key while moving from synth to synth, although this plus the occasional slippage in volume and tuning proved that his two Korg MS20s, Roland Juno 60, Sequential Circuits Prophet 5 and product placed Korg ARP Odyssey were actually plugged-in and working! That must have all come as a total shock to DEPECHE MODE’s Andy Fletcher watching from the wings.
Things livened up again with ‘Somebody, Somewhere, Sometime’ complete with rave friendly lasers and the backing vocal quartet of Billie Godfrey, Louise Marshall, Bryan Chambers and Simon King moving to the front of the stage while Almond was raised on a ramp, coming over like a frenzied evangelist addressing his captivated congregation.
With 19 songs done and at the point when THE HUMAN LEAGUE usually end their show, Almond and Ball took a comfort break as the seminal nu-disco instrumental ‘….So’ played along to a terrific and amusing photo montage of magazine covers, press cuttings and tabloid headlines.
Waiting for Almond to rejoin him on stage, Ball couldn’t help but enjoy the adulation and waved affectionately to the audience. When Almond returned, a brilliant ‘Martin’ blasted forth, sounding mighty in the vast confines of the O2; its claustrophobic atmosphere was enhanced further by the accompanying ‘Profondo Rosso’ visuals.
‘Heat’ saw SOFT CELL turn into RAMMSTEIN with huge blasts of flame throwers across the stage, while a stupendously powerful rendition ‘The Art Of Falling Apart’ couldn’t have soundtracked a mental breakdown any better. This song is probably SOFT CELL in a nutshell and the album that it was named after got the most representation tonight.
As the long evening progressed, it was very clear that the brotherly bond between Ball and Almond had been rejuvenated personally and creatively, so it was fitting that the new single ‘Northern Lights’ had its place in the show. A big surprise to everyone when it leaked on Napster during the summer, this catchy slice of soulful electronic pop was proof that SOFT CELL’s musical chemistry is still functioning well after four decades.
Out with the new and in with the old, what remained was the final straight of hits for the ultimate in co-participative singalongs. A frenetic ‘Soul Inside’ assisted by live percussionist Pablo Cook saw Almond raise the energetics, while the cute Northern Soul staple ‘What!’ brought smiles and shimmies. ‘Bedsitter’, ‘Tainted Love’ and ‘Where Did Our Love Go’ brought the house down and were reminders as to why people fell in love with SOFT CELL in the first place; yes, they were delightfully odd and your father didn’t like them but they had synths and they had tunes!
‘Sex Dwarf’ offered a memorable mutant moment with Almond cueing screams that erupted throughout the one-time Millennium Dome aided by some abstract brass and sax, but now this playtime was in a very big playroom! An emotional and tearful ‘Say Hello, Wave Goodbye’ concluded a marvellous night and brought the house close to tears as a neon pink flamingo held court and glitter fell from the ceiling.
The two and an half hour show mostly passed by in a flash. Musically, the song arrangements and sounds remained true to how people remembered them, while any live percussion was both restrained and complimentary… DEPECHE MODE should take note, maybe Fletch will report back to Gahan and Gore to tell them how it should be done!
This might have been the final concert for SOFT CELL, but with ‘Guilty (‘Cos I Say You Are)’ emerging as a B-side to ‘Northern Lights’, two new songs ‘One Last Time’ and ‘Night & The City’ appearing on the snowstorm keychain USB on sale at the merch stand and a four track EP on clear vinyl included with the upcoming coffee table book ‘To Show You I’ve Been There…’, could an album be on the way? Who knows?
But whatever happens next, Marc Almond and Dave Ball gave the fans what they wanted with a glorious reunion and looked like they were really enjoying it too. To see the pair smiling at each other was a touching memory to leave the O2 with. SOFT CELL totally deserve their time in the sun again. After all, PET SHOP BOYS, ERASURE, NINE INCH NAILS and FISCHERSPOONER wouldn’t have had a career without their trailblazing subversion.
The Electricity Club gives its sincerest thanks to Stuart Bennett at Deacon Communications, Debbie Ball at Create Spark and Chris Smith at Renegade Music
Celebrating their career with a lavish 10 disc boxed set, ‘Keychains & Snowstorms: The SOFT CELL Story’ features material from both periods of the duo including their imperial phase when they had a continuous run of hit singles between 1981-1984 and the 2001-2003 reunion.
Marc Almond and Dave Ball met at Leeds Polytechnic and at the time of their wider breakthrough on the ‘Some Bizarre Album’ and their subsequent debut long player ‘Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret’ in 1981, SOFT CELL were perhaps rated higher than DEPECHE MODE.
Their cover of ‘Tainted Love’ was one of the biggest UK singles of 1981, selling over one million copies and was on the US Billboard Hot 100 for a then-record of 43 weeks. But despite all the success, the pair ultimately imploded but their template was taken to the worldwide audience it deserved via PET SHOP BOYS.
While Almond continues a fruitful solo career and Ball found success with THE GRID, they are both best remembered for SOFT CELL. On their singular history alone, SOFT CELL are up there with THE HUMAN LEAGUE and DURAN DURAN, and like their contemporaries, they exploited the then-new format of the 12 inch single.
All the singles from ‘Tainted Love’ to ‘Down In The Subway’ via ‘Say Hello, Wave Goodbye’ and ‘Where The Heart Is’ are included in their extended versions, but the longer variations of ‘Bedsitter’ and ‘Torch’ are masterpieces in their own right, seamless productions where you literally cannot hear the join, mainly because they were recorded as developing stories outside of the expected three minute radio edit.
And then there were the B-sides which SOFT CELL also excelled at, again all presented in their extended versions. From the reflective solitude of living away from home in ‘Facility Girls’ to the hilarious tail of teenage rebellion in ‘It’s A Mug’s Game’ where Almond confessed that he actually hated ‘Deep Purple In Rock’ along with ‘Led Zeppelin II’ and couldn’t “wait until I’m 21 and I can tell them all to sod off!”, the music connected with young outsiders. And Almond wasn’t afraid to express how anxiety was playing with his mind, as reflected in the superb chemical fuelled ‘Insecure Me’ which featured a rap from the appropriately named Cindy Ecstasy.
‘Keychains & Snowstorms – The SOFT CELL Story’ features a disc of new extended and reworked mixes supervised by Ball which he said was “just tightening a few things up as a lot of the original stuff was all played manually”. These naturally achieve mixed results; on the Lateral Mix of ‘Say Hello, Wave Goodbye’ for example, some of Dave Tofani’s clarinet sections from the original 12 inch have been dropped in and although it is an improvement on the bland 1991 re-recording, nothing can touch the emotive tearful resonance of the definitive 1981 version.
Another case in point is the new ERASURE remix of ‘Bedsitter’ which offers a chunky bass and fat beat, but the melody is replaced by a heavy guitar swirl; despite including the 12 inch rap, it’s a little disappointing. However, the ‘Hallowe’en Mix’ of Martin is leaner and works well while the ‘Wasted On The Young Mix’ of ‘Youth’ stretches out the drama and will please Cellmates who have always longed for an extended mix.
Indeed, from the rarities and curios collection, the previously unreleased extended version of ‘Forever The Same’ (which was intended as a single before the intervention of the duo themselves) will be welcomed. Pleasingly, ‘The Girl With The Patent Leather Face’ which secured SOFT CELL their earlier acclaim still freaks and creeps as the undoubted standout from the ‘Some Bizzare Album’ along with DEPECHE MODE’s ‘Photographic’.
The Daniel Miller produced ‘A Man Can Get Lost’ remains a great lost single, overshadowed by the proto-house of ‘Memorabilia’ which appears in both its original Daniel Miller mix and the remixed ‘Non-Stop Ecstatic Dancing’ version with Cindy Ecstasy and the horns of John Gatchell. The anti-consumerist electronic art piece ‘Persuasion’ from the same recording session at Stage One is still (if not more) relevant today, while the sub-two minute Daniel Miller take of ‘Metro MRX’ for ‘Flexipop’ borrows the same synthetic rhythm track as DEPECHE MODE’s ‘New Life’ to accompany Almond’s snarls of “he’s a mutant!”
Of course, the original ‘Metro MRX’ came from SOFT CELL’s debut ‘Mutant Moments’ EP released in October 1980 and it’s featured here in full.
From it, the wonderful ‘L.O.V.E Feelings’ is a touching gem, a sign of things to come with basic but beautiful synth sounds and an air of John Barry’s ‘Midnight Cowboy’ while ‘Potential’ is something of a metronomic buzzfest.
A number of interesting demos find their way onto the box; ‘Tainted Love’ is more rigid but has appeal and potential, coming over a bit like FAD GADGET while ‘Bedsitter’ is still lively, the klanky Korg Rhythm KR55 adding some home recording charm. There’s also the bonus of the previously unreleased ‘Red Tape, Sticky Tape’ and Cellmate favourite ‘Martin’ in its 1980 demo incarnation.
Previously from ‘The Bedsit Tapes’ and not in a dissimilar tone to ‘The Girl With The Patent Leather Face’, the synth bass heavy cover of BLACK SABBATH’s ‘Paranoid’ presents out of tune electronics and Almond screaming like he’s trapped in the gutter, while the solid triple bassline of Ball’s Korg SB100 Synthe-Bass emerges in ‘Science Fiction Stories’. The raw ‘Bleak Is My Favourite Cliché’ does what it says on the tin, embroiled in winter of discontent dystopia but with hidden melody and an edgy gothique. The 6/8 rhythmic template of ‘Mix’ sees a development into pop like THE HUMAN LEAGUE’s ‘Empire State Human’ although Almond is suitably wayward.
As usual with these boxed sets, a number of live recordings are included and from the Leeds Polytechnic Fine Art Christmas party in December 1979, ‘Walking Make Up Counter’ captures the electro-punk aspect that showed they had more in common with SUICIDE, rather than the clean KRAFTWERK inspired lines of OMD.
And speaking of Messrs Vega and Rev, fast forward to a Los Angeles show in 1983 and there’s a frenzied cover of ‘Ghost Rider’ with Gary Barnacle on sax which provides an interesting curio. Probably the best known SUICIDE song, Almond smirks that “I love a bit of Nihilism”; what’s also noticeable is that his live vocals lave improved considerably from earlier live tapes without losing his energetics and passion.
In terms of capturing the rawer aspects of first phase SOFT CELL, the 1981 BBC Radio 1 session for Richard Skinner does that best. While unpolished, ‘Entertain Me’ was good fun complete with fluffed cues while the brilliant ‘Seedy Films’ was much faster than the final album version and possibly better for it.
When SOFT CELL unexpectedly got back together for the start of the 21st Century, it was like unfinished business and two brand new songs for 2002’s ‘Very Best of’ collection along with the ‘Cruelty Without Beauty’ album were duly delivered.
The romp of ‘Divided Soul’ still comes over like a dirty version of ‘Sailing On The Seven Seas’ by OMD and a reinterpretation of ‘The Night’ generates thoughts of how things might have panned out had that Northern Soul staple made famous by FRANKIE VALLI & THE FOUR SEASONS been chosen to be recorded as a single in 1981 instead of ‘Tainted Love’.
But the brilliant brass assisted swipe at the X-Factor generation of ‘Desperate’ was perhaps the reunion’s best fruit of labours, although the enjoyable comeback single ‘Monoculture’ aimed at the same target while ‘Last Chance’ provided a fitting epilogue to ‘Say Hello Wave Goodbye’.
The new special ‘Non-Stop Euphoric Dubbing’ continuous mix begins with a variation on the haunting ‘Barriers’ which works well as a lead into ‘Numbers’. Working like an imaginary horror film soundtrack as opposed to a dance megamix, it is heavy and cinematic in sound. ‘Youth’ and ‘Where The Heart Is’ are particularly effective with the dub elements of Almond’s voice echoing in and out, seguing into the Richard X Dub of ‘Seedy Films’ which maintains its sleazy edge without sounding too contemporary.
The inclusion of ‘L’Esqualita’ provides some fabulous gothic menace while ‘Loving You, Hating Me’ and ‘Baby Doll’ prolong the claustrophobic tension. A rework of ‘Facility Girls’ offers respite into ‘Little Rough Rhinestone’ before concluding with Dave Ball’s Lateral Dub treatment of ‘Say Hello, Wave Goodbye’.
As well as 9 discs of music, ‘Keychains & Snowstorms – The SOFT CELL Story’ includes a DVD collecting together TV appearances, promo videos, archive 1981 concert footage and the notorious ‘Non-Stop Exotic Video Show’ which ironically saw the unmissed ‘News Of The World’ tabloid accuse SOFT CELL of attempting to corrupt their teenage audience.
Everyone from FRANKIE GOES TO HOLLYWOOD, BRONSKI BEAT, ERASURE and PET SHOP BOYS to NINE INCH NAILS, PSYCHE, FISCHERSPOONER, TIGA and HERCULES & LOVE AFFAIR have much to thank Marc Almond and Dave Ball for.
It’s amazing to think how much of an impact SOFT CELL had in popular culture. Rather fittingly, Dave Ball said to The Electricity Club of ‘Keychains & Snowstorms: The SOFT CELL Story’: “It’s got a lot of stuff, there’s a great book that comes with it which has got quotes from people like Neil Tennant and Trent Reznor, so it’s interesting … if anybody is a serious fan, I think it’s a must!“