Tag: Soft Cell (Page 1 of 9)

SOFT CELL *Happiness Not Included

Coinciding with their live farewell at London’s O2 Arena in 2018, SOFT CELL surprised their fans with two new songs ‘Northern Lights’ and ‘Guilty (Cos I Say You Are)’ on an updated compilation ‘Keychains & Snowstorms – The Singles’.

What was planned to be the end became a brand new start as Marc Almond and Dave Ball embarked on a UK tour in 2021 to celebrate 40 years of their brilliant debut album ‘Non Stop Erotic Cabaret’. The show also included a preview of material from a new album for 2022 entitled ‘*Happiness Not Included’, their first since the 2002 reunion long player ‘Cruelty Without Beauty’.

Co-produced by Phillip Larsen whose credits include Andy Bell, Moby, Mylène Farmer, Claudia Brücken, Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Britney Spears and Kylie Minogue, ‘*Happiness Not Included’ is an introspective collection of 12 new songs that mourn the passage of time, missed opportunities and life not going as planned.

Recorded remotely under the spectre of the global pandemic, ‘*Happiness Not Included’ features “Science fiction stories for the 21st century” according to Dave Ball. The cinematic drama of the not-so ‘Happy Happy Happy’ opens and sees Almond as the humble narrator expressing his strained frustrations about “state assisted dying” while Ball realises his John Barry ambitions with a series of synth string sweeps in a stylistic ident that recurs throughout this album.

“Lost in the junkie jungle”, the machine disco of ‘Polaroid’ recounts SOFT CELL’s love of The Factory pop art scene and a bittersweet meeting with Andy Warhol in 1982. Featuring speech samples from the man himself and his enclave, it is also a metaphor for life that accepts that once the end comes, one of few things that remain are photographs.

A relative of ‘Guilty (Cos I Say You Are)’, ‘Bruises On My Illusions’ covers the familiar SOFT CELL topics of pain, self-loathing and misanthropy with a sharp energy complemented by Almond’s vocal theatrics that are more convincing than on ‘Heart Like Chernobyl’, although that song’s stark Cold War lyrical analogies on the morally toxic world of today have added poignancy given recent world events. Not included on the album, the excellent B-side ‘Vapourise’ with its references to “a nuclear explosion” and “a full-on attack” proves to be even more chilling…

The catchy ‘Purple Zone’ is a slice of soaring melancholic Europop with immediate reminiscences of PET SHOP BOYS in particular.

So it is not entirely surprising that Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe make a guest appearance and plant their aesthetic, although it must be pointed out that this is a SOFT CELL composition, characterised by Almond’s darkly doomed expressionism about midlife.

A union of The Blackpool Electro Mafia as well as featuring the voices of both Almond and Tennant, ‘Purple Zone’ goes full circle as after SOFT CELL first imploded in 1984, it was PET SHOP BOYS who ran with their baton after smoothing off some of the rough edges.

Taking proceedings down a notch, the wonderful ‘Light Sleepers’ presents a glorious orchestrated ballad arranged by Ball with soprano sax from Gary Barnacle that provides a backdrop for Almond’s nocturnal demeanour that acts as sedative relief. With a sense of foreboding on the album’s title song because “the future is in a lunatic’s hands”, Dave Ball plays on more of his John Barry spy drama fantasies with virtual harpsicord over a metronomic drum machine, aided by soulful male voices and flourishes of flute.

Meanwhile, the tense Italo Noir of the ironically titled ‘Nostalgia Machine’ gets some choppy rhythm guitar and pentatonic phrasing thrown in for an album highlight that revs up proceedings with a touch of exuberant swagger.

Originally a Dave Ball instrumental issued as part of a single and CD that came with the boxed set of his autobiography ‘Electronic Boy’ and now featuring a deranged expletive laden rap from American drag performance artist Christeene, the tense industrialised pulse of ‘Nighthawks’ recalls the sweaty alternative club overtures of one-time Some Bizzare stable mates CABARET VOLTAIRE. Cellmates are even treated to the deep growly voice of Mr Ball himself repeating the title and ‘Staying Alive’ refrains from backing vocalists Bryan Chambers, Louise Marshall and Simon King.

The eerie vibraphone-laden swing of ‘I’m Not A Friend Of God’ is a 21st Century ‘Blasphemous Rumours’; in the face of a future with a scary face, Almond decides that “the young can deal with it instead”. Reflecting Almond’s past solo work, ‘Tranquiliser’ could be Gene Pitney with a widescreen orchestral palette counterpointed by a solemn narrative on dependency.

Ending with the grand six minute plus ballad ‘New Eden’ where “being young is not an option”, Ball’s gentle piano structure echoes Eno and his ‘On Some Faraway Beach’, before building towards its close with subtle electronics, complimentary strings and a choir. “All those plans we made in the ‘60s seem naïve now we’ve grown older” laments an impassioned Almond; now closer to the end than the beginning, this is a declaration of hope, that things can still be fine.

“In this album I wanted to look at us as a society: a place where we have chosen to put profits before people, money before morality and decency, food before the rights of animals, fanaticism before fairness and our own trivial comforts before the unspeakable agonies of others” said Almond of ‘*Happiness Not Included’, “But in the album there is also a belief that there is a utopia if we can peel back the layers and understand what really matters”.

While the album has flaws with a few of the tracks sounding underdeveloped, there are a significant number of cracking songs that make this second reunion of SOFT CELL worthwhile.

You’ve been to the shows, got the T-shirt, bought the books and heard the singles but now it is time to listen to the album; in this modern compilation era of playlists, ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK has compiled its own highly enjoyable classic 10 track version of ‘*Happiness Not Included’ from the 13 songs in the pool, you might consider doing the same.


‘*Happiness Not Included’ is released on 6th May 2022 via BMG in various formats including yellow coloured vinyl LP, picture disc LP, CD, cassette and download, pre-order now avaiable from https://softcell.tmstor.es/

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Text by Chi Ming Lai
4th May 2022

Hit Music: The Legacy of PET SHOP BOYS

“Someone sneers at all you love… this is how I learnt to hate rock-and-roll!”

Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe first met in an electronics shop on London’s Kings Road in August 1981; a shared love of dance music led them to form PET SHOP BOYS, named after friends who worked in an Ealing pet retailer while also sounding like an English rap group.

Bridging the gap between Synth Britannia and acid house via HI-NRG and Italo disco, PET SHOP BOYS first found international success with ‘West End Girls’, a UK and US No1 single in 1986.

At the time of their meeting, the trombone playing Lowe had been studying to become an architect at Liverpool University while Tennant was deputy editor of ‘Smash Hits’. Known for his witty if sometimes cutting reviews as well as coining entertaining phrases such as “imperial phase”, “down the dumper”, “like punk never happened”, “pur-LEASE!”, “pass the sickbag, Alice”, “uncle disgusting” and “back, back, BACK!!!!!”, Tennant’s observations on the music business were more often right than wrong.

Tired of writing about things he could probably do better, Tennant became music’s ultimate poacher-turned-gamekeeper. The North London Polytechnic history graduate utilised his experiences as a journalist to plot PET SHOP BOYS’ ethos, a dialectic of “east / west. Posh / rough. Irony / sincerity. Pop / anti-pop”. Taking inspiration from SPARKS and SOFT CELL, that dialectic also became the image.

With a voice that sounded like a cross between Al Stewart and Marc Almond, Tennant was the talkative one while the moody Lowe stood behind him, scowling like Ron Mael and seemingly doing nothing apart from occasionally staring at a TV screen. Interestingly, while it was often assumed that the North Shields-born Tennant was the posh one, it was actually Lowe who was educated at the selective Arnold School in Blackpool which had also been attended by Dave Ball; its direct-grant status meant was just shy of being a public school with fee payers and boarders while a small number of local children were selected via the 11+ grammar school system.

It was while at ‘Smash Hits’, when he was despatched to New York to interview THE POLICE, that Tennant knocked on the door of Bobby Orlando, producer of electronic disco records by DIVINE, THE FLIRTS and BOYTRONIC as well an artist in his own right. This led to the original recording of ‘West End Girls’ released in April 1984 by Epic Records in the UK and while it wasn’t a huge commercial success, it was an American club favourite while being a minor hit in Belgium and France.

‘West End Girls’ proved to be the perfect show reel and a deal was signed with EMI via Parlophone Records after their bullish manager Tom Watkins brought them to the attention of Dave Ambrose, a founder member of FLEETWOOD MAC who had become a renowned A&R man, notably signing SEX PISTOLS, DURAN DURAN and TALK TALK.

Tennant departed ‘Smash Hits’ and at his leaving party, his colleagues presented him with a mocked-up front cover which read: “HOW I LEFT BRITAIN’S BRIGHTEST MAGAZINE TO FORM MY TRAGIC POP GROUP, WENT DOWN THE DUMPER AND ASKED FOR MY JOB BACK” – little did they know that Tennant would grace their front cover within 9 months!

Tennant and Lowe presented themselves with an enigmatic Northern English contrariness that was the antithesis of WHAM! and more Gilbert & George. Tom Watkins was dismayed by his charges’ first ‘Top Of The Pops’ appearance with the re-recorded version of ‘West End Girls’ in late 1985, recalling “They don’t do anything. How are people going to go for this?” – but go for it they did and in large numbers! It started an imperial phase for PET SHOP BOYS when it reached No1.

But following the success of ‘West End Girls’ which later netted a BRIT award for ‘British Single of the Year’, Tennant’s own journalistic words came to haunt him as the dumper beckoned when the wonderful follow-up ‘Love Comes Quickly’ only reached No19 in the UK singles chart. But the B-side indicated PET SHOP BOYS were going to be around for a while and not just a flash in the pan; ‘That’s My Impression’ was menacing as opposed to melancholic, combining SOFT CELL with DIVINE, establishing their reputation for quality non-album bonuses.

The debut album ‘Please’ primarily produced by Stephen Hague was impressive although not perfect and hit the UK Top3. Songs such as ‘Tonight Is Forever’ and ‘Later Tonight’ highlighted the range and quality of the Tennant / Lowe songwriting partnership from elegiac if euphoric dance anthems to melancholic but hopeful ballads, often sung from a character rather than a personal viewpoint.

Meanwhile on ‘Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots Of Money)’, PET SHOP BOYS showcased irony and humour. Like with HEAVEN 17 before them, the joke passed over the heads of the yuppies who had adopted the song as a mission statement but failed to realise it was sending up their own greed, delusion and lack of ethics.

PET SHOP BOYS ended 1986 with another Top10 hit single in ‘Suburbia’, a good if slightly underwhelming album track from ‘Please’ that got transformed into a more fully realised epic in a re-recording produced by Sarm West graduate Julian Mendelson. It underlined Tennant’s clever social commentary as working class communities became marginalised under the Conservative government led by Margaret Thatcher.

Fully embracing the creative experimentation and development allowed for by more under-the-radar B-sides, ‘Suburbia’ featured not one but two non-album extras. ‘Jack The Lad’ exuded the influence of Erik Satie and Ennio Morricone, but ‘Paninaro’ was an absorbing dance number that displayed an affinity with Italy and one of its fashionable youth movements.

Additionally, ‘Paninaro’ summed up PET SHOP BOYS’ attitude with a middle eight breakdown that featured a nonchalant Chris Lowe on the US talk show ‘Entertainment Tonight’ declaring “I don’t like country & western, I don’t like rock music… I don’t like rockabilly! I don’t like much really do I? But what I do like, I love passionately!!” – PET SHOP BOYS’ B-sides and bonus tracks would later be collected on ‘Alternative’ and ‘Format’, two double compilation sets that were equally as valid as their best albums.

To open their 1987 account, PET SHOP BOYS issued their most striking single yet in the mighty gothic disco of ‘It’s A Sin’; reflecting on Tennant’s catholic school education, the backdrop threw in the kitchen sink with Fairlight orchestral hits, Apollo 10 launch messages and an extraordinary chord change from Cm to E♭ m7 into the middle eight. A happy accident with the bassline and drums restarting provided the cavalry charge towards the lightning climax for a second No1.

But PET SHOP BOYS weren’t done yet; the follow-up ‘What Have I Done To Deserve This?’ sounded like three songs morphed into one, because that was what it actually was. Lowe and Tennant did their respective pop art sections while Allie Willis who co-wrote ‘Boogie Wonderland’ came up with the rather blissful chorus. The song went into another sphere once Dusty Springfield was brought out of semi-retirement to add her voice and ad-libs. The smoothness of Stephen Hague’s production provided the perfect backing.

The success of ‘What Have I Done To Deserve This?’ showed PET SHOP BOYS willingness to collaborate and there would be productions on new solo Dusty hits with ‘Nothing Has Been Proved’ and ‘In Private’. Tennant and Lowe’s later involvement in ELECTRONIC with Bernard Sumner and Johnny Marr illustrated that work outside of the nest was not out of bounds either.

The second album ‘Actually’ opened with a new more percussive version of ‘One More Chance’, a song dating back to the Bobby Orlando sessions while ‘Shopping’ dealt with Thatcherism’s obsession with privatising publically owned utilities, hence the line “We’re buying and selling your history!”. Continuing Tennant’s social commentary on the undermining of the working class, ‘Kings Cross’ presented the railway station as a metaphor for morally questionable capitalism, although the line “Dead and wounded on either side, you know it’s only a matter of time” chillingly resonated later in the year when an underground fire claimed the lives of 31 people.

A solemn song written about a friend who had been diagnosed with AIDS, the mournfully brilliant ‘It Couldn’t Happen Here’ adapted the Ennio Morricone composition ‘Forecast’ from the 1983 Jean-Paul Belmondo movie ‘Le Marginal’. ‘Blue Velvet’ composer Angelo Badalamenti provided an orchestral arrangement but due to scheduling issues in completing the recording before the album’s deadline, the instrumentation was eventually created on a Fairlight CMI out of necessity.

With its provocative title, ‘Rent’ presented a narrative on the kept woman and reached the UK Top10. But two successive No1s were added to PET SHOP BOYS portfolio in the frenetic cowbell dominated cover of ‘Always On My Mind’ which upset music purists when it denied a Christmas chart topper for THE POGUES and a remixed syndrum heavy version of ‘Heart’ which Tennant and Lowe had written with Madonna in mind. On a roll, PET SHOP BOYS deservedly won the 1988 BRIT Award for ‘Best British Group’.

Despite their seemingly unstoppable success and forward momentum, PET SHOP BOYS took a slight misstep with the release of their art film ‘It Couldn’t Happen Here’ directed by Jack Bond; an exercise in seaside surrealism and featuring Joss Ackland, Barbara Windsor, Neil Dickson and Gareth Hunt, the bizarre scenes set to the music of Tennant and Lowe baffled audiences. It would be decades before it would be reissued in DVD formats.

Cracks were also beginning to show in their relationship with Tom Watkins whose view was that the next single ‘Domino Dancing’ with its AIDS narrative and sexually ambiguous promo video would stall momentum in the US. While the brass laden Latin tinged song did not hit the commercial heights of previous singles, it remained a favourite among fans. PET SHOP BOYS parted ways with Watkins when Tennant and Lowe opted not to renew his contract.

The third album ‘Introspective’ in 1988 featured a different approach with six extended length songs in the same manner as their 1986 remix collection ‘Disco’. At the time of its release, four of the six tracks had already been available including ‘I’m Not Scared’ which had been written and produced for Patsy Kensit’s EIGHTH WONDER. But of the two previously unheard numbers, the most striking was ‘Left To My Own Devices’.

Taking in acid house influences, ‘Left To My Own Devices’ was co-produced by Trevor Horn who coined the phrase “Che Guevara and Debussy to a disco beat” as a way of conceptualising what PET SHOP BOYS were all about. Incorporating a dramatic string arrangement by Richard Niles and the opera stylings of soprano Sally Bradshaw, it had been intended to programme the synthesizers and record the orchestra in one day… six months later the track was finished!

Despite their initial refusal to play gigs, PET SHOP BOYS embarked on their first tour in the summer of 1989, opening in Hong Kong. Although the show featured striking visuals directed by Derek Jarman, choreography by Geron ‘Casper’ Canidate and tightly sequenced electronic backing rather using a conventional live band, Tennant and Lowe felt they could take theatrical anti-rock live presentations further.

Decamping to Munich to work with Harold Faltermeyer, a former Giorgio Moroder apprentice who had his own soundtrack hits with ‘Axel F’ and ‘Top Gun Anthem’, their fourth album ‘Behaviour’ in 1990 presented a more reflective demeanour, despite the throbbing lead single ‘So Hard’ about an unfaithful couple catching each other out.

With the fall of The Iron Curtain in Eastern Europe, the beautiful soulful groove of ‘My October Symphony’ looked at the viewpoint of a Soviet composer questioning whether to opt for revolution or revelation in their upcoming work. Meanwhile, inspired musically by Bobby Brown but inspired lyrically by BROS, ‘How Can You Expect to Be Taken Seriously’ took a dig at the pomposity and arrogance of pop stars in their mission for validitation.

Inspired by a quotation on a Zelda Fitzgerald party invitation, ‘Being Boring’ remains one of PET SHOP BOYS most complete songs ever, reflecting on the aspirations of youth, the inevitable passage of time and the mourning of dear departed friends. Although it wasn’t a huge hit as a single, Chris Lowe later remarked “It just shows that chart positions aren’t the be all and end all”.

Rumoured to have been written as a James Bond theme, ‘This Must Be The Place I’ve Waited Years To Leave’ expressed Tennant’s dislike of school while written in 1982, the impassioned orchestrated closer ‘Jealousy’ recalled a friend of Tennant who had been unhappy about his developing friendship with Chris Lowe.

With 1991’s ‘Performance’ world tour, PET SHOP BOYS took theatrical to the next level and changed the whole concept of concert presentation by effectively removing from the stage, that one consistent element in the history of rock ‘n’ roll… the live musician! Chris Lowe kept his keyboard playing to a minimum, preferring to be part of the dance troupe and even busted his own disco moves while in a pair of boxers shorts during ‘We All Feel Better In The Dark’.

In support of the tour and continuing their penchant for eyebrow raising cover versions, PET SHOP BOYS’ HI-NRG reinvention of ‘Where The Streets Have No Name’ was a cheeky send-up of U2 in an attack on rock pomposity. The cause was aided by an amusing segway into ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You’, a Frankie Valli song made famous by Andy Williams but also covered by acts as diverse as BOYS TOWN GANG and MUSE.

Originally to be named after the ‘Actually’ track ‘Hit Music’ until artwork concepts showed that the typography could be misread as “PET SHOP BOYS Shit Music”, the duo’s career to date was documented on 1991’s ‘Discography’. Gathering all of their singles in their correct versions, the faultless collection earned the right to be called one of the best greatest hits records ever.

Preferring to “dance to disco” because they “don’t like rock”, 1993’s ‘Very’ was the antithesis of the downbeat demeanour of ‘Behaviour’ as their most up pop statement to date, something that had been signalled on the defiantly optimistic ‘Was It Worth It?’, the closing track from ‘Discography’.

With ‘Very’ came a range of looks projecting a post-modern artifice detached from the real world. Tired of their classic naturalistic personas, the geometric digitised imagery was also a reaction to the unkempt authenticity of baggy and grunge that was rife at the time. A cyberspatial computer-generated video accompanying ‘Liberation’ shown in IMAX theatres took things to another out-of-this-world dimension.

In this freer mood, Tennant also sang of being naked in ‘I Wouldn’t Normally Do This Kind Of Thing’ and ‘Dreaming Of The Queen’, but weightier social commentary loomed on ‘The Theatre’ which discussed the plight of the homeless as a legacy of massed council house sales under Thatcherism.

Then there was the speedy techno madness of ‘Yesterday When I Was Mad’ with its collection of tour anecdotes and back-handed aftershow comments such as “You have a certain quality, which really is unique – expressionless, such irony, although your voice is weak – it doesn’t really matter ‘cos the music is so loud – of course it’s all on tape, but no one will find out!”

Included as its closer, the utopian ‘Go West’ had been due to be released in Christmas 1992 as a single, but PET SHOP BOYS bottled it when it was pointed out a VILLAGE PEOPLE cover would look like the duo were aping ERASURE’s ‘Abba-esque’.

‘Go West’ was based on Pachebel’s ‘Canon’ and its elegiac quality was particularly poignant with AIDS still very much in the news at the time. The ‘South Pacific’ male choir styled key change and a middle eight added by Tennant gave the song a resonance that was never apparent in the original. Only Will Smith as ‘The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air’ prevented them from netting a fifth No1.

It would be fair to say that ‘Very’ is often seen as the end of PET SHOP BOYS’ imperial phase. While 1996’s ‘Bilingual’ presented an interesting diversion on ‘Se A Vida É (That’s The Way Life Is)’ and ‘Single’ with the women’s drumming ensemble SHEBOOM providing the propulsion, ‘A Red Letter Day’ was a not entirely successful attempt to recreate ‘Go West’ while two tracks with the Brooklyn-born club DJ Danny Tenaglia fell short of expectations.

Already getting signs that ‘Bilingual’ was not selling as well as previous albums, Tennant and Lowe wrote the B-side ‘The Calm Before The Storm’ in anticipation of their first week chart position as “round the bend” was “a rocky lane”; ‘Bilingual’ entered at No4 which was a comparative disappointment after ‘Very’ had gone straight into the top spot.

1999’s ‘Nightlife’ featured collaborations with Rollo from FAITHLESS, noted orchestrator Craig Armstrong and Kylie Minogue on the duet ‘In Denial’ but it included their least convincing single to date in the David Morales produced ‘New York City Boy’ which continued the VILLAGE PEOPLE obsession and was by now was wearing thin.

With pun totally intended, 2001’s ‘Release’ was marred by the input of THE SMITHS’ famed guitarist Johnny Marr as PET SHOP BOYS attempted a collection of strummed understated songs such as the camp OASIS of ‘I Get Along’. Although ‘The Night I Fell In Love’ with an amusing story about EMINEM having a gay fling with a fan and the uptempo ‘The Samurai In Autumn’ were listenable highlights, the album’s mostly plodding six-string led numbers were devoid of the mastery that made PET SHOP BOYS great; Tennant and Lowe were wearing someone else’s clothes and they didn’t fit.

On paper, the 2006 Trevor Horn helmed ‘Fundamental’ should have ensured that PET SHOP BOYS were “back-back-BACK!” with a vengeance but other than the political satire ‘I’m With Stupid’ and the opening electro brilliance of ‘Psychological’, overall the album was below par with the Diane Warren-composed ‘Numb’ being a particular low point.

A renaissance did not come to fruition until 2009 with the XENOMANIA produced long player ‘Yes’ being a return to form of sorts as a spiritual follow-up to ‘Very’. ‘All Over The World’ lifted from Tchaikovsky’s ‘Nutcracker Suite’ for some stately pomp and circumstance while ‘Pandemonium’ was a rousing interpretation of the ‘Dr Who Theme’. ‘More Than A Dream’ presented a big pop chorus that was very now and Xen, but the highlights were again the more melancholy moments.

‘The Way It Used To Be’ offered continental wistfulness à la ‘Voyage Voyage’ with its simple rhythmic pulse, but the best moment came with the ‘Yes Etc’ bonus track ‘This Used To Be The Future’, a dream trioet featuring Tennant, Lowe and Phil Oakey of THE HUMAN LEAGUE grunting in his distinctive disappointed tone that things didn’t quite turn out how Raymond Baxter predicted on ‘Tomorrow’s World’!

The rejuvenated profile netted PET SHOP BOYS an ‘Outstanding Contribution to Music Award’ at the BRIT Awards, although they snatched defeat from the jaws of victory with their least satisfying album to date in ‘Elysium’. While the amusing irony of ‘Your Early Stuff’ and ‘Ego Music’ provoked a laugh, there was laughter for perhaps the wrong reasons on ‘Hold On’ which sounded like it was written for Disney! However, with LOVE UNLIMITED ORCHESTRA styled backing and bouncy Latin percussion, ‘Requiem in Denim & Leopardskin’ was the album’s standout and showed PET SHOP BOYS still had the ability to knock out a good tune.

With an appearance at the 2012 London Olympics Closing Ceremony alongside Ray Davies to affirm that PET SHOP BOYS were now a quintessentially English part of popular culture as much as THE KINKS, the elder statesmen of danceable synthpop had a rethink and presented their Stuart Price trilogy. After an album about being old, it was time again for PET SHOP BOYS electronically. With echoes of ‘Introspective’ and the ‘Very’ bonus album ‘Relentless’, ‘Electric’ was in Tennant’s words “pretty banging” with some lengthier song constituents. ‘Axis’ took a risk by being virtually instrumental while ‘Bolshy’ exhibited the dog’s Balearics.

Best of all was ‘Fluorescent’, a powerful dancefloor makeover of VISAGE’s ‘Fade To Grey’ attacked by synth sirens like a Martian invasion. There were songs too as ‘Thursday’ captured the vibrant excitement of the new Friday aided by Fulham rapper Example while the exhilarating club friendly ‘Vocal’ noted “I like the singer, he’s lonely and strange – every track has a vocal… and that makes a change”.

A natural progression of ‘Electric’, 2016’s ‘Super’ album was more song-based and despite their age, PET SHOP BOYS still wanted to be ‘The Pop Kids’ and ‘Twenty-something’ ones at that. However, ‘The Dictator Decides’ returned to the subject of world politics with an amusing surreal narrative of a tyrannical politician bored of his outright power and seeking a normal life.

2020 saw PET SHOP BOYS enter Hansa Studios in Berlin to record their fourteenth album ‘Hotspot’ for the final volume of the Stuart Price trilogy. The immediately appealing ‘Dreamland’ featuring YEARS & YEARS crossed generations and still plugged into the classic PSB sound while ‘Monkey Business’ got the glitterball funk while encompassing the sparkle of TOM TOM CLUB. Best of all, the astute intelligence of Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe saw Medieval folk mythology referenced for ‘Will-O-The-Wisp’, a fabulous electro-disco tune with catchy hooks and a dry monologue.

Having carried on the mantle of SOFT CELL to prove that there indeed was mileage in the concept that Marc Almond and Dave Ball had pioneered, 2022 saw it all came full circle for Neil Tenant and Chris Lowe in the ‘Purple Zone’; Tennant had said to ‘Smash Hits’ in 1986: “I see the PET SHOP BOYS as one of the last surviving synth duos like SOFT CELL”.

PET SHOP BOYS’ collaborations and remixes are another story entirely but they have been very much part of the duo’s remit, including artists as diverse as Liza Minelli, Boy George, David Bowie, Tina Turner, Yoko Ono, Pete Burns, Robbie Williams, Lady Gaga and Jean-Michel Jarre over the years. Their versatility has also seen projects such as running their own Spaghetti Records which boasted a hit single ‘Love is Everywhere’ for their protégé David Cicero to composing scores for the silent film ‘Battleship Potemkin’, ‘The Most Incredible Thing’ ballet and most notably, a West End musical entitled ‘Closer To Heaven’.

PET SHOP BOYS set themselves apart and never bothered themselves with fitting in or belonging. They persisted with synthesizers when everyone else thought they were passé, they embraced the divas of the past when the industry told them they were mad to do so and said they were “pop” while the establishment considered it a dirty word.

But PET SHOP BOYS have jumped on bandwagons too; “When we started off we really did think we were going to create our own world that might reference other things” said Neil Tennant to The Guardian’s Alexis Petridis in 2020 while also joking that “the acoustic guitar should be banned, actually”. As a result, their back catalogue has featured diversions into rock, indie, folk, theatre, drum ‘n’ bass, jazz and breakbeat with varying degrees of success although thankfully, PET SHOP BOYS have avoided the dreaded dubstep!

As the most successful British synthpop duo of all time, from ‘Please’ to ‘Hotspot’, Messrs Tennant and Lowe have maintained their position as exemplary English songsmiths; as MY ROBOT FRIEND once articulated by way of a musical tribute, “I feel you touch me and it’s 1984, I know what you will say before you start in my heart, we’re the PET SHOP BOYS…”


PET SHOP BOYS 2022 ‘Dreamworld – The Greatest Hits Live’ UK tour includes:

Manchester Arena (20th May), London O2 Arena (22nd May), Cardiff Motorpoint Arena (24th May), Bournemouth BIC Arena (25th May), Newcastle Utilita Arena (27th May), Birmingham Resorts World Arena (28th May), Glasgow SSE Hydro (29th May), Hull Bonus Arena (31st May)

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Text by Chi Ming Lai
Photo by Eric Watson
16th April 2022

SOFT CELL & PET SHOP BOYS Purple Zone

‘Purple Zone’ is the first-ever collaboration between iconic Northern English duos SOFT CELL and PET SHOP BOYS.

While Dave Ball had remixed PET SHOP BOYS ‘DJ Culture’ as part of dance duo THE GRID, this is the first time Marc Almond has worked with Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe.

The two pairings met backstage after the second Hammersmith Apollo show during SOFT CELL’s recent tour celebrating the 40th Anniversary of their debut album ‘Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret’.

As well as performing what has often been hailed as one of the best albums of 1981, Almond and Ball premiered songs from their forthcoming new album ‘*Happiness Not Included’. One of the songs in the encore was the rousing ‘Purple Zone’, an uplifting Europop number with very anthemic reminiscences of PET SHOP BOYS. But the very SOFT CELL twist comes from Almond’s darkly doomed lyrical expressionism in keeping with the introspective themes of ‘*Happiness Not Included’ such as mourning the passage of time, missed opportunities and life not quite going as planned.

Although the colour purple is actually rare in nature and thus seen as sacred, its primary constituents comprise the stability of blue and the energy of red, an apt midlife metaphor. Coincidently SOFT CELL covered ‘Purple Haze’ as part of a medley of Jimi Hendrix songs in 1983 for the bonus 12” single in initial copies of their second album ‘The Art Of Falling Apart’.

The video directed by Yassa Khan sees Messrs Almond, Ball, Tennant and Lowe together in a pub, participating in some domino dancing while there is the rather incongruous spectacle of the PET SHOP BOYS frontman pulling pints and the SOFT CELL singer as an ice cream man!

Produced by Dave Ball and PET SHOP BOYS for single release in a union of The Blackpool Electro Mafia as well as featuring the voices of both Almond and Tennant, ‘Purple Zone’ goes full circle; SOFT CELL had an amazing run of Top 40 hit singles between 1981-1984 including a UK No1 in a cover of ‘Tainted Love’ and four consecutive Top5 entries.

But after SOFT CELL imploded, it was PET SHOP BOYS who took over the baton while smoothing over the image and sound, to become the most successful British synth duo of all time with an imperial phase that included four UK No1 singles between 1986-1988.

As Neil Tennant probably would have put in when he was deputy editor of ‘Smash Hits’ while SOFT CELL were having their own imperial phase, this is “an amazing pop moment” on ‘*Happiness Not Included’ .

So who is putting money on a joint performance of ‘Purple Zone’ when PET SHOP BOYS take their ‘Dreamworld’ greatest hits show to London’s O2 Arena on Sunday 22nd May 2022?


‘Purple Zone’ is available on the usual digital platforms via https://softcell.lnk.to/PurpleZoneFA

‘Purple Zone’ will be available as a 12″ + CD single, pre-order from https://softcell.tmstor.es/

The album ‘*Happiness Not Included’ is released on 6th May 2022 via BMG in various formats including yellow coloured vinyl LP, picture disc LP, CD, cassette and download

http://www.softcell.co.uk

https://www.facebook.com/softcellband/

https://twitter.com/softcellhq

https://www.instagram.com/softcellhq/

http://www.petshopboys.co.uk/

https://www.facebook.com/petshopboys/

https://twitter.com/petshopboys

https://www.instagram.com/petshopboys/


Text by Chi Ming Lai
22nd March 2022

2021 End Of Year Review

As the world steadily emerged from a painful pandemic that put many lives on hold, nostalgia appeared to be the commodity most in demand as the music industry took steps to recover.

No matter which era, anything musically from the past was more desirable that anything that reminded the public of the past 20 or so months. The first escape destination in the summer for many restricted to staying on their own shores were the established retro festivals.

Meanwhile television provided an array of documentaries ranging from chart rundowns of past decades and informative classic song analysis on Channel 5 to Dylan Jones’ look at ‘Music’s Greatest Decade’ on BBC2 and Sky Arts’ ‘Blitzed’ with all the usual suspects such as Boy George, Philip Sallon, Marilyn, Gary Kemp and Rusty Egan.

SPARKS had their own comprehensive if slightly overlong film ‘The SPARKS Brothers’ directed by Edgar Wright, but the Maels’ musical ‘Annette’ starring Adam Driver was a step too far. Meanwhile the acclaimed ‘Sisters With Transistors’ presented the largely untold story of electronic music’s female pioneers.

It was big business for 40th anniversary live celebrations from the likes of HEAVEN 17, THE HUMAN LEAGUE, OMD and SOFT CELL, while other veterans such as NEW ORDER and ERASURE returned to the live circuit with the biggest indoor headlining shows of their career.

Meanwhile for 2022, Midge Ure announced an extensive ‘Voices & Visions’ tour to present material from the 1981-82 phase of ULTRAVOX.

Also next year and all being well, GOLDFRAPP will finally get their belated 20th Anniversary tour for their marvellous debut ‘Felt Mountain’ underway while there are rescheduled ‘Greatest Hits’ live presentations for PET SHOP BOYS and SIMPLE MINDS.

Always money for old rope, but also giving audiences who missed them at their pioneering height an opportunity to catch up, ‘best of’ collections were issued by YELLO and TELEX while JAPAN had their 1979 breakthrough album ‘Quiet Life’ given the lavish boxed set treatment. Meanwhile, while many labels were still doing their best to kill off CD, there was the puzzling wide scale return of the compact cassette, a poor quality carrier even at the zenith of its popularity.

“Reissue! Repackage! Repackage! Re-evaluate the songs! Double-pack with a photograph, extra track and a tacky badge!” a disgraced Northern English philosopher once bemoaned.

The boosted market for deluxe boxed sets and the repackaging of classic albums in coloured vinyl meant that the major corporations such as Universal, Sony and Warners hogged the pressing plants, leaving independent artists with lead times of nearly a year for delivery if they were lucky.

But there was new music in 2021. Having achieved the milestone of four decades as a recording act, DURAN DURAN worked with Giorgio Moroder on the appropriately titled ‘Future Past’ while not far behind, BLANCMANGE took a ‘Commercial Break’ and FIAT LUX explored ‘Twisted Culture’. David Cicero made his belated return to music with a mature second album that was about ‘Today’ as Steven Jones & Logan Sky focussed on the monochromatic mood of ‘European Lovers’. Continuing the European theme but towards the former Eastern Bloc, Mark Reeder gave a reminder that he was once declared ‘Subversiv-Dekadent’ and fellow Mancunians UNE became inspired by the ‘Spomenik’ monoliths commissioned by Marshal Tito in the former Yugoslavia.

For those who preferred to immerse themselves in the darker present, Gary Numan presented ‘Intruder’, a poignant concept album produced by Ade Fenton about Mother Earth creating a virus to teach mankind a lesson! Meanwhile ITALOCONNECTION, the project of Italo veterans Fred Ventura and Paolo Gozzetti teamed up with French superstar Etienne Daho to tell the story of ‘Virus X’! The video of the year came from UNIFY SEPARATE whose motivation message to ‘Embrace The Fear’ despite the uncertainty reflected the thoughts of many.

Despite the general appetite for nostalgia, there was some excellent new music released from less established artists with the album of the year coming from Jorja Chalmers and her ‘Midnight Train’ released on Italians Do It Better. The critical acclaim for the UK based Aussie’s second long playing solo offering made up for the disbandment of the label’s biggest act CHROMATICS, as it went into its most prolific release schedule in its history with albums by GLÜME, JOON, DLINA VOLNY and LOVE OBJECT as well as its own self-titled compilation of in-house Madonna covers.

As Kat Von D teamed up with Dan Haigh of GUNSHIP for her debut solo record ‘Love Made Me Do It’, acts like DANZ CM, CLASS ACTRESS, GLITBITER, PRIMO THE ALIEN, PARALLELS, KANGA, R.MISSING, I AM SNOW ANGEL, XENO & OAKLANDER, HELIX and DAWN TO DAWN showed that North America was still the creative hub as far as electronically derived pop songs went.

Attracting a lot of attention in 2021 were NATION OF LANGUAGE, who with their catchy blend of angst, melody and motorik beats welcomed synths as family in their evolving sound while also providing the song of the year in ‘This Fractured Mind’, reflecting the anxieties of these strange times. At the other end of the spectrum, DIAMOND FIELD went full pop with an optimistic multi-vocalist collection that captured the spirit of early MTV while BUNNY X looked back on their high school days with ‘Young & In Love’.

ACTORS delivered their most synthy album yet while as LEATHERS, they keyboardist Shannon Hamment went the full hog for her debut solo effort ‘Reckless’. FRONT LINE ASSEMBLY released a new album and some of that ‘Mechanical Soul’ was brought by their Rhys Fulber into his productions this year for AESTHETIC PERFECTION.

In Europe, long playing debuts came from PISTON DAMP and WE ARE REPLICA while NORTHERN LITE released their first album completely in German and FRAGRANCE. presented their second album ‘Salt Air’. There was also the welcome return of SIN COS TAN, KID KASIO, GUSGUS, MARVA VON THEO, TINY MAGNETIC PETS and MAN WITHOUT COUNTRY.

Featuring second generation members of NEW ORDER and SECTION 25, SEA FEVER released their eclectic debut ‘Folding Lines’ as fellow Mancunian LONELADY added sequencers and drum machines to her post-punk funk template. But Glasgow’s CHVRCHES disappointed with their fourth long player ‘Screen Violence’ by opting to sound like every other tired hipster band infesting the land.

The most promising artist to breakthrough in 2021 was Hattie Cooke whose application of traditional songwriting nous to self-production and arrangement techniques using comparatively basic tools such as GarageBand found a wider audience via her third album ‘Bliss Land’. In all, it was a strong year for female synth-friendly artists with impressive albums from Karin My, Laura Dre, Alina Valentina, Robin Hatch and Catherine Moan while comparative veterans like Fifi Rong, Alice Hubble, Brigitte Handley and Alison Lewis as ZANIAS maintained their cult popularity.

In 2021, sometimes words were very unnecessary and there were fine instrumental synth albums from BETAMAXX, WAVESHAPER, КЛЕТ and Richard Barbieri, with a Mercury nomination received by Hannah Peel for ‘Fir Wave’. But for those who preferred Italo Noir, popwave, post-punk techno and progressive pop, Tobias Bernstrup, Michael Oakley, Eric Random and Steven Wilson delivered the goods respectively.

With ‘The Never Ending’ being billed as the final FM ATTACK album and PERTURBATOR incorrectly paraphrased by Metal Hammer in a controversial “synthwave is dead” declaration, the community got itself in a pickle by simultaneously attacking THE WEEKND for “stealing from synthwave”, yet wanting to ride on the coat tails of Abel Tesfaye, misguidedly sensing an opportunity to snare new fans for their own music projects.

With THE WEEKND’s most recent single ‘Take My Breath’, there was the outcry over the use of a four note arpeggio allegedly sampled from MAKEUP & VANITY SET’s ‘The Last City’. But as one online observer put it, “Wow, an arpeggiated minor chord. Hate to break it to you but you might want to check out what Giorgio Moroder was doing 50 years ago. We’re ALL just rippin’ him off if that’s how you think creativity works”. Another added “If a four note minor key arpeggiated chord can go to court on the basis of copyright law, we are in for a hell of a few years my synthy friends”. It outlined once again that there are some who are still under the impression that music using synths was invented by Ryan Gosling in 2011 for ‘Drive’ soundtrack ??

There were also belated complaints that 2019’s A-HA inspired ‘Blinding Lights’ had a simple melody and needed five writers to realise it… but then, so did UTRAVOX’s ‘Slow Motion’ and DURAN DURAN’s ‘Rio’! Collaboration, whether in bands, with producers or even outsiders has always been a key aspect of the compositional process. If it is THAT simple, do it yourself! As Andy McCluskey of OMD said on ‘Synth Britannia’ in 2009 about the pioneering era when Ryan Gosling was still in nappies: “The number of people who thought that the equipment wrote the song for you: ‘well anybody can do it with the equipment you’ve got!’ “F*** OFF!!”

Over the last two years, THE WEEKND has become the biggest mainstream pop act on the planet, thanks to spectacles such as the impressive gothic theatre of the Super Bowl LV half time showcase while in a special performance on the BRITS, there was a charming presentation of the ERASURE-ish ‘Save Your Tears’ where he played air synth in a moment relatable to many. But everything is ultimately down to catchy songs, regardless of synth usage.

So ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK would like to present a hypothetical case to consider… if someone uses the arpeggio function with a sparkling patch from a Juno 6 synth in a recording, does Cyndi Lauper sue for infringing the copyright of ‘All Through The Night’ or the original songwriter Jules Shear or even the Roland Corporation themselves as they created it? More than one producer has suggested that THE WEEKND’s soundbite came from a hardware preset or more than likely, a software sample pack, of which there are now many.

However, sample culture had hit another new low when Tracklib marketed a package as “A real game-changer for sample based music. Now everyone can afford to clear samples” with rapper and producer Erick Sermon declaring “Yo, this is incredible. They’re trying to put creativity back into music again. By having samples you can actually pay for and afford”.

Err creativity? How about writing your own songs and playing or even programming YOUR OWN instrumentation??!?

One sampling enthusiast even declared “I might go as far as to say you don’t really like dance music if you’ve got a problem with adding a beat to a huge (even instantly recognizable) sample”… well guess what? ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK LOATHES IT!!! ?

In 2021, music promotion became a bit strange with publicists at all levels keen more than ever to have their clients’ press releases just cut ‘n’ pasted onto online platforms, but very reluctant to allow albums to be reviewed in advance in the event of a potential negative prognosis.

While cut ‘n’ paste journalism has been a disease that has always afflicted online media, in a sad sign of the times, one long established international website moved to a “pay to get your press release featured” business model.

The emergence of reaction vloggers was another bizarre development while the “Mention your favourite artist and see if they respond to you” posts on social media only added more wood to the dumbing down bonfire already existing within audience engagement.

It was as if the wider public was no longer interested in more in-depth analysis while many artists turned their publicity into a reliance on others doing “big ups” via Twitter and Facebook. But then, if artists are being successfully crowdfunded with subscriptions via Patreon, Kickstarter, Bandcamp and the like, do they need a media intermediary any longer as they are dealing direct with their fanbases?

However, it wasn’t all bad in the media with ‘Electronically Yours With Martyn Ware’ providing insightful artist interviews and the largely entertaining ‘Beyond Synth’ podcast celebrating its 300th show. Due to their own music commitments, Steven Wilson and Tim Bowness were less prolific with their discussion show ‘The Album Years’ but it was still refreshing for commentators to be able to say that a record was sh*t when it actually was, rather than conform to the modern day adage that all music is good but not always to the listener’s taste!  And while various programmes came and went, other such as ‘Operating//Generating’, ‘KZL Live’ and ‘Absynth’ came to prominence.

Post-pandemic, interesting if uncertain times are ahead within the music industry. But as live performance returns, while the mainstream is likely to hit the crowd walking, will there be enough cost effective venues to host independent artists? Things have been tough but for some, but things might be about to get even tougher.

However, music was what got many through the last 18 months and as times are still uncertain, music in its live variant will help to get everyone through the next year and a half and beyond.


ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK’s year in music is gathered in its 2021 Playlist – Missing U at
https://open.spotify.com/playlist/4rlJgJhiGkOw8q2JcunJfw


Text by Chi Ming Lai
17th December 2021

SOFT CELL Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret Live In London

1981 was a sensational year for electronic pop music and along with albums from THE HUMAN LEAGUE, JAPAN, KRAFTWERK and OMD, SOFT CELL’s ‘Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret’ was among the best.

Despite a farewell show at London’s O2 Arena in 2018, Marc Almond and Dave Ball decided a 40th Anniversary tour of that classic album was in order, along with a brand new long player ‘*Happiness Not Included’ to be released in Spring 2022.

As one of the most subversive acts in popular culture, SOFT CELL found themselves part of a celebrity world after the unexpected success of their breakthrough single ‘Tainted Love’; escaping to New York to record and mix their debut album, they found themselves the toast of The Big Apple, mingling with the likes of Divine, Madonna and Andy Warhol in the city’s hedonistic club scene.

‘Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret’ is a document of that period which also contained narratives on dirty old men, prostitution, grooming, sexual deviance, personal grievance, tabloid sensationalism, political scandal, middle class entitlement and living in squalor.

But this tour was not just about 40 years of ‘Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret’ but also SOFT CELL in the present day. After opening with the 1982 No2 hit ‘Torch’, Almond and Ball showcased several songs from ‘*Happiness Not Included’.

Although ‘Bruises on All My Illusions’ and ‘Heart Like Chernobyl’ had already been premiered on streaming platforms, the new record’s promise was outlined with the cinematic drama of ‘Happy Happy Happy’ and the tense Italo Noir of the ironically titled ‘Nostalgia Machine’.

‘Monoculture’ reflected on the first SOFT CELL reunion of the early 21st Century, but the evening was also an opportunity to perform a few songs that were not part of The O2 extravaganza. Most welcome was the glorious ‘Kitchen Sink Drama’ with its tale of a bored lonely housewife and her growing dependency, while the Latin-flavoured goth of ‘L’esqualita’ and the exhilarating electro-schaffel of ‘Divided Soul’ also got deserved airings.

However, ‘Where the Heart Is’, ‘The Art of Falling Apart’ and ‘Martin’ provided points of familiarity for Cellmates to end Act 1, with Ball providing a particularly blistering Eno-esque solo to the sophomore album title song.

Throughout this first half of the show, the audience appeared confused as to whether to get up and dance, resulting in perhaps a more muted response than Almond would have liked. But that was all remedied for Act 2 when the curtain went up for a live run through of ‘Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret’ in its entirety and in order.

With original autobiographical lyrics by Dave Ball about his own father, ‘Frustration’ was the magnificent opener to ‘Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret’ and its embodiment of suburban middle aged angst still resonates today. The positioning of ‘Tainted Love’ though so early in the set only highlighted the brilliance of the other nine songs on the album.

The smooth sleaze of ‘Seedy Films’ was enhanced by Gary Barnacle on sax who toured with SOFT CELL back in the day and projections of Soho’s sex industry neon signs.

Billie Godfrey alluringly deputised for Josie Warden of VICIOUS PINK PHENOMENA’s role before Almond cheekily asked the remaining backing singers Louise Marshall, Bryan Chambers and Simon King “Isn’t that YOU on the screen?”

After a poignant ‘Youth’ visualised by vintage home movie footage, a mighty ‘Sex Dwarf’ blasted forth accompanied by cued crowd screams. Things were going well but it got even better with ‘Entertain Me’ and ‘Chips On My Shoulder’, both chant-friendly highlights from ‘Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret’ that got the now warmed-up crowd hoarse and allowed Almond to indulge in his performance art energetics. Then there was an ecstatic treat in the extended Early Morning Dance Side version of ‘Bedsitter’, complete with rap to start the nightlife over again.

Whether it has been John Profumo, Jeremy Thorpe, Cecil Parkinson, Jeffrey Archer, David Mellor, Paddy Ashdown or Matt Hancock, the superb Northern Soul tinged ‘Secret Life’ captured the continuing spectre of the British political sex scandal while on the same subject, the evergreen melodramatics of ‘Say Hello Wave Goodbye’ provided a magnificent Act 2 conclusion with the final chorus sung entirely by all present.

The encore allowed for another newbie in the catchy ERASURE sounding ‘Purple Zone’, by far the most convincing song from ‘*Happiness Not Included’, before ‘Memorabilia’ provided the end of night dance off with Almond joining Ball in his synth complex to wave goodbye.

Saying hello, waving goodbye and saying hello again, SOFT CELL have more than demonstrated their four decade longevity

Despite a slow start from the mature crowd, it was eventually a fine night of dancing, laughing, drinking and loving. There was no standing alone at The Pink Flamingo tonight or crying in the rain.


Special thanks to Debbie Ball at Create Spark

‘Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret’ is still available via Universal Music in various formats from the usual retailers

The new SOFT CELL album ‘*Happiness Not Included’ is released on 6th May 2022 via BMG, pre-order from https://softcell.tmstor.es/

http://www.softcell.co.uk

https://www.facebook.com/softcellband/

https://twitter.com/softcellhq

https://www.instagram.com/softcellhq/


Text and Photos by Chi Ming Lai
16th November 2021

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