Soft Cell are an English synthpop duo who came to prominence in the early 1980s, consisting of vocalist Marc Almond and instrumentalist David Ball. The duo are principally known for their 1981 hit version of "Tainted Love" (#8 US) and 1981 debut album titled Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret.
In the United Kingdom, they had ten Top 40 hits including "Tainted Love" (#1 UK), "Torch" (#2 UK), "Say Hello, Wave Goodbye" (#3 UK), "What!" (#3 UK), and "Bedsitter" (#4 UK), and also had four Top 20 albums between 1981 and 1984. In 1984, the duo split but reformed in 2001 to tour and record new material, releasing their fifth studio album, Cruelty Without Beauty in 2002.
Soft Cell's songs have been covered by various artists including Coil, Nine Inch Nails, David Gray, Nouvelle Vague, and A-ha. Their track, "Memorabilia", earned recognition for the band as pioneers of the synth-oriented techno genre. The duo have sold 10 million records worldwide.
Mutant Moments and "Memorabilia"
Soft Cell was initiated during 1977 after Almond and Ball met at Leeds Polytechnic. Their initial efforts at recording resulted that year in an EP titled Mutant Moments which was funded by a loan of £2000 from Dave Ball's mother and made with a simple 2-track recorder. 2,000 vinyl copies of the release were issued independently and the small number of copies have since become a highly valued collectors item. The group's live shows and EP caught the interest of certain record labels such as Mute Records and Some Bizzare Records.
Soft Cell's next recording, "The Girl with the Patent Leather Face", appeared as a contribution to the Some Bizzare Album, which featured then-unknown bands such as Depeche Mode, The The, and Blancmange. The duo ultimately signed to the Some Bizzare label, backed by Phonogram Records. Their first singles, "A Man Could Get Lost", "7" and "Memorabilia" 12", were produced by Daniel Miller who founded Mute Records. While "Memorabilia" was a success in nightclubs, Soft Cell would remain essentially unknown until their next release.
After the chart failure of "Memorabilia", Phonogram Records allowed Soft Cell to record a second and final single in an attempt to score a chart success. The band opted to record a cover version of "Tainted Love", an obscure 1965 northern soul track originally released by Gloria Jones, the girlfriend of Marc Bolan at the time of his death, and written by Ed Cobb of The Four Preps.
Released in 1981, Soft Cell's "Tainted Love" was a No. 1 hit in 17 countries, including the United Kingdom, as well as a No. 8 single in the United States during 1982, and went on to set a Guinness World Record at the time for the longest consecutive stay (43 weeks) on the US Billboard Hot 100 chart. The song's popularity developed slowly, needing 19 weeks to enter the US Top 40. The A-side of the 12-inch single of "Tainted Love" actually featured a two-song medley, with "Tainted Love" blending into the Motown classic "Where Did Our Love Go" (originally recorded by The Supremes, in 1964).
According to Marc Almond's book Tainted Life, Soft Cell had exited the "Tainted Love" recording sessions with only modest expectations that the track might break into the UK Top 50. Furthermore, Almond wrote that his only significant contribution to the song's instrumentation (besides the vocals) was the suggestion that the song begin with a characteristic "bink bink" sound which would repeat periodically throughout. Almond also wrote that he dedicated this song to his sometime partner Christian Andrews.
Usually, an artist releasing a cover version as a single would opt to write the song that appears on the B-side as this would still entitle the artist to some songwriting royalties stemming from sales of that single. However, as Soft Cell wrote neither "Tainted Love" nor "Where Did Our Love Go" (the 7" B-side track), they lost the opportunity to make a greater sum of money from songwriting royalties stemming from one of the most popular songs of the 1980s. Almond expressed regret for this in his book, and attributed the error to naïveté.
Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret
The duo's first album, Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret, hit UK No. 5 and further explored the now-trademark Soft Cell themes of squalour and sleaze. "Seedy Films" talks of long nights in porno cinemas, while "Frustration" and "Secret Life" deal with the boredom and hypocrisy associated with suburban life. A companion video titled Non-Stop Exotic Video Show was released alongside the album and featured videos directed by Tim Pope. The video generated some controversy in Britain, mainly due to a scandal involved with the "Sex Dwarf" clip. The original version of the music video was confiscated by police and censored before it was even released.
A re-filmed "Sex Dwarf" appeared in Non-Stop Exotic Video Show featuring Almond dressed in a tuxedo, directing a symphony orchestra of transvestites.
Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret garnered two additional hits: "Bedsitter" dealt with the loneliness and lifestyle of a young man having recently left home to live in a bedsit while partying hard. "Bedsitter" reached No. 4 in the UK Singles Chart in November 1981. The song was highly acclaimed in a retrospective review by AllMusic journalist Ned Raggett who wrote that it "ranks as one of the best, most realistic portrayals of urban life recorded." The final single on the album, the ballad "Say Hello, Wave Goodbye", peaked at No. 3 in February 1982 and was subsequently covered by David Gray nearly 20 years later when his version reached No. 26 in the UK.
During 1982, the duo spent most of their time recording and relaxing in New York City, where they met a woman named Cindy Ecstasy whom Almond would later confirm was his drug supplier (it was Cindy Ecstasy who introduced them to the new nightclub drug of the same name). Soon after "Say Hello Wave Goodbye" dropped out of the chart, Soft Cell released a brand new song, another love song called "Torch" which was to prove the closest the band ever got to having a No. 1 hit with one of their own songs as it entered straight into the Top 20 and peaked at No. 2. The 12" version of "Torch" featured Cindy Ecstasy singing and exchanging banter in a spoken dialogue section with Marc Almond where they reminisce about their first meeting. Despite their next album being almost ready for release at this point, a decision was made not to include "Torch" on the album.
The duo released their second album entitled Non-stop Ecstatic Dancing, a 6-track mini album containing remixes of older material along with their new hit single, "What!". This was a cover of the 1965 song by Melinda Marx. It was later covered in 1968 by Judy Street, whose version became extremely popular on the Northern Soul scene. Almond later admitted that the album was recorded and mixed under the influence of ecstasy. "What!" placed at No. 101 in US Charts. but was a major hit in the UK and reached No. 3 on the UK Singles Chart in August of that year
Decline and dissolution
By 1983, fame and nearly constant drug use were having a bad effect on the duo. Marc Almond also formed the group Marc and the Mambas, featuring collaborations with The The's Matt Johnson and future Almond collaborator Annie Hogan, as an offshoot to experiment out of the glare of the Soft Cell spotlight. Soft Cell's third album release, appropriately titled The Art of Falling Apart, was a Top 5 hit in the UK but the singles were only modest successes. The first single "Where The Heart Is" only reached 21, while the double A-side "Numbers"/"Barriers" peaked at 25. "Numbers" also generated controversy due to references in the song to the drug speed. The album is highly esteemed by the leader of Nine Inch Nails, Trent Reznor.
In September 1983, the duo released a new single "Soul Inside", which returned them to the UK Top 20, but by early 1984 the duo had amicably decided to end Soft Cell. They played farewell concerts at Hammersmith Palais in January, and released one final album called This Last Night in Sodom (UK No. 12) in March. Headed by the duo's final single "Down in the Subway" (UK No. 24), the album departed from its predecessors by featuring more live drums and guitars than previous albums. However, the controversial subject matter still remained true to the Soft Cell ethos, with songs such as "L'Esqualita" that glamourised transvestite culture in Manhattan.
During Almond's solo years, he and Ball continued to communicate with each other. Dave Ball's ex-wife played violin in Marc Almond's solo band, though Almond and Ball did not work again together until 1990 when Ball remixed one of Almond's singles ("Waifs And Strays") and co-wrote and arranged some music for Almond's Tenement Symphony album in 1991. David Ball formed The Grid during 1990 with Richard Norris. The Grid ended in 1996, but reformed during 2005 and released an album during 2008 with the Some Bizzare company, named Doppelgänger.
Almond and Ball reunited as Soft Cell in 2001, with a series of live dates. They performed at the opening of the Ocean nightclub in London during March 2001, and a mini tour followed later in the year. The track "God Shaped Hole" featured on the Some Bizzare compilation titled I'd Rather Shout at a Returning Echo than Kid Someone's Listening, released during 2001. A new Soft Cell album, Cruelty Without Beauty, was released during late 2002, followed by a European tour and a small US tour during early 2003. The new album featured their first new songs together in almost twenty years. The second single from the album, a cover of The Four Seasons' "The Night", reached No. 39 in the UK. Soft Cell had considered recording "The Night" in place of "Tainted Love" during 1981, though as keyboardist David Ball stated in a 2003 interview with BBC's Top of the Pops, "I think history has kind of shown that we did make the right choice [in 1981]."
During August 2007, the band announced plans to release a remix album entitled Heat. The remix album was released in November 2008 and included Soft Cell tracks remixed by such acts as Paul Dakeyne, The Grid, Manhattan Clique, Cicada, Richard X, Ladytron, MHC, Atomizer, Mark Moore, Kinky Roland, Spektrum, George Demure, Yer Man, The Dark Poets and many more.
In February 2018, Soft Cell announced that they would reunite for one last time. The show entitled Say Hello, Wave Goodbye will be at the O2 in London on 30 September.
The group cited David Bowie and Marc Bolan as primary influences. Almond also named Siouxsie Sioux as a major influence: "You can even hear that I’m trying to sing like her on some of those early Soft Cell songs: I didn’t want to sing properly, I wanted to sing in a punk way".
- Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret (1981)
- Non Stop Ecstatic Dancing (EP) (1982)
- The Art of Falling Apart (1983)
- This Last Night in Sodom (1984)
- Cruelty Without Beauty (2002)
- The Bedsit Tapes (2005)
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