Soft Cell are one of the most influential British bands of the past 40 years. Marc Almond and Dave Ball burst into our lives and the charts with Tainted Love in 1981 and followed with a set of classic pop singles including Bedsitter, Torch, Say Hello, Wave Goodbye and many more. In September they are releasing a career-spanning box set and playing one last full concert at the O2. Here, Dave Cross spoke to Dave Ball about the band’s story, while Marc Almond reveals his favourite tracks from the box set.
Hi Dave, how did you and Marc get together?
We formed Soft Cell in 1978 at Leeds Polytechnic; we were both doing Fine Art. Marc was mostly a performance artist, I was doing multimedia, painting, drawing, then I started making films and knocking around with a synthesiser and incorporating the films, the visuals.
Is it true your first EP was funded by your mum?
It was. My mum agreed to lend me £400 because for some reason she believed in me. And she was one of the few people that did at that time. She lent me £400 and I paid her back with a £40,000 house in Blackpool, so it was great investment!
The end of the 70s and start of the 80s, was an incredibly exciting and fertile time for electronic music…
I think ’77 was the turning point, particularly in New York. In Midtown you had Studio 54 with Donna Summer records and then you had CBGBs with The Ramones and Blondie being played further downtown. So the whole thing was two burgeoning scenes of disco and punk, and that was a massive influence on us because we came from a sort of punk background, but I was also massively into soul and Marc was into disco, so there was a period of convergence.
Where did the idea come from to record Tainted Love?
I was really into Northern soul and Marc heard it and just fell in love with the lyrics and the title. Everyone was doing this sort of industrial, miserable, Gary Numan, bleak stuff, so we thought we’d so something with real soul and synthesisers.
And was there a point when you suddenly realised ‘This is gonna be a hit’?
I remember when we were still living in a housing estate in a rough part of Leeds, with a pay phone in the corridor, and Marc picked it up and I remember him freaking out, going: ‘What? What? Fucking hell, we’re in the charts, we’re going to be on Top Of The Pops!’
You had an amazing run of brilliant singles Say Hello, Torch, What! and more – what do you think now looking back at that time?
It’s interesting when you realise that you’re part of the culture, part of the establishment, in a way. We’re in the history books and our images are everywhere, so there’s this feeling of achievement that we’re part of pop history.
I think there was a lot of young gay people who would see you on Top Of The Pops and it spoke to them – the lyrics and the music and Marc’s flamboyance…
There was never anything overtly sexual about any of Marc’s lyrics, we were just saying it’s OK to be different and to be who you are. We’re all different, so what’s the difference?
Why did you decide to split up in 1984?
We were just burnt out really, we’d been in America, we’d been doing too much of everything. Things weren’t going well with the record company and the management was pretty much non-existent, and it was literally falling apart. We didn’t actually split up, we just said let’s give it a rest for a while, and I went off and got married and had a family, and Marc went and formed Marc and the Mambas and The Willing Sinners.
But you and Marc kept coming back to each other…
Yes, we’ve done loads of different things together, and now here we are again.
Tell us about the new box set, Keychains and Snowstorms, which you’ve been very involved with.
It’s been mostly me and our manager, Chris; we’ve spent hours going through my archive and finding old tapes. I’ve found stuff that’s never been released or heard before.
Did you come across things that you’d forgotten?
Oh yeah, there’s recordings that I can’t even remember, weird tapes that have materialised. There’s stuff from the Universal Music archive, it’s very comprehensive; it’s got bits from our very first gig at Leeds Polytechnic back in 1979, right up to the last performance we ever did, as well as outtakes, remix versions, demo versions, all sorts of stuff. One of the tracks we got Hifi Sean to remix, he’s great and did an excellent job. It’s nine audio discs and one DVD, which has got every British TV performance we ever did on it. Plus there’s an amazing book with it too.
And you’re doing a big show at the O2 as well – what can we expect?
Obviously you can’t please everybody, but we’ll be playing all the hits over about two and a half hours. We’ve been working with a brilliant director who has pulled together some fantastic clips and videos, there’ll be plenty of visual interest and a whole group of us on stage, not just Marc and I.
And finally, after the show, is this the end for Soft Cell?
What we’re saying is it’s the last time we’re doing our own gig. If someone asks us to do a guest appearance or a festival we’re not going to say no, you have to pay the bills, but we won’t be doing anymore stand-alone gigs or touring. We are filming the O2 show for a DVD and it will be shown in some cinemas in the UK and US.
Marc Almond chooses his top 5 favourite Soft Cell tracks
‘My personal favourite Soft Cell single. Set late one night in a timeless cabaret club. A broken heart finding comfort in a song sung by a glamorous torch singer.’
‘My life in true time living in Leeds in a single bedsit room. I lived for the nights and went to work in a nightclub, dressing up and becoming someone else. Forever longing for something better to take me away.’
Say Hello , Wave Goodbye
‘The quintessential Soft Cell song. Nightclubs, neon reflecting on wet streets and elicit love. Could be a politician’s secret affair with a prostitute. Melancholy disguised as joyful pop. Typical Soft Cell!’
‘Inspired by Tennessee Williams with a touch of Ava Gardner in Blood and Sand. Hot, humid nights, steamy loveless sex and passion to the point of murder.’
‘Could be the sequel to Say Hello, Wave Goodbye? Two over-the-hill lovers struggling with modern life decide to give it another go. Inspired by 80s British films. Maybe the lovers could have been played by 80s film icons Carol White and Terence Stamp?’
Boyz exclusive Soft Cell competition
Keychains and Snowstorms is the brand new career-spanning box set of nine CDs and a DVD with over 12 hours of music, due for release on Friday 7 September, and those lovely people at Universal will be giving us one box set as a competition prize. PLUS, as if that wasn’t enough, we will have a pair of tickets for the last live show by Marc and Dave at the O2 on 30 September. Just send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with Soft Cell as the subject and your contact details by Wednesday 1 August and we will pick a winner.