Soft Cell - Biography
Although their first incarnation in the early 1980’s was brief, Soft Cell has left a lasting mark on music, mostly due to their massively popular cover of “Tainted Love.” The group’s mix of torchy vocals, electronic beats, and lush synthesizers became an inspiration for many artists in the ‘80s and in the world of electronica to this day. Because of his work in Soft Cell and his subsequent solo career, openly gay singer Marc Almond has become an icon in the gay community.
Soft Cell came together in 1979 at Leeds Polytechnic University in Yorkshire, England where both Dave Ball and Marc Almond were students. Almond was an art student who was looking for someone to compose music to accompany his performance art pieces. Ball was a music student who had gotten interested in composing music with synthesizers and could often be found in the school’s recording studio experimenting with new sounds. On suggestion from a friend, Almond approached Ball about composing music for his art pieces and the two hit it off well enough that they decided to start writing together. Both were big music fans, Almond having been an ardent fan of Marc Bolan, T.Rex, and David Bowie, while Ball favored early electronic bands like Kraftwerk and the Yellow Magic Orchestra. From the beginning, the two members’ roles in the band were well defined; Ball would compose the music, play synthesizer, and program the sequencers and drum machines, and Almond would serve as the frontman, singing and composing the lyrics to all of their songs. The group called themselves Soft Cell after the padded cells given to violently insane mental patients.
Soft Cell started performing at clubs and art spaces, and quickly developed a cult following due to their use of “deviant” sexual themes and bizarre sexual imagery. Almond was often known to appear on stage in various costumes made of leather or latex, and enjoyed shocking the audience by appearing in drag, faking sexual intercourse with himself in a mirror, or smearing cat food all over his body. Through a loan from Ball’s mother, the group recorded four songs and released their own EP called Mutant Moments on their own Big Frock Records label in 1980. Only 2,000 copies of the EP were pressed and it has since become quite a collector’s item. The EP made the rounds of Futurist/New Romantic dance clubs and came to the attention of manager/promoter Stevo Pearce in London. Pearce was just starting a new label called Some Bizzare specializing in electronic bands and contacted Ball and Almond about recording a track for a compilation album he was putting together. Soft Cell recorded the track “The Girl With the Patent Leather Face,” which was included on Pearce’s 1981 label-launching compilation Some Bizzare Album (Some Bizzare). The compilation also included early tracks from bands such as Depeche Mode, Blancmange, B-Movie, and The The. Pearce was passionate about Soft Cell’s music and convinced the band to be one of his earliest signings. Early on, Some Bizzare established a manufacturing and distribution deal with Phonogram Records, and Soft Cell was set to benefit from the added promotional push a major label could offer. Soft Cell was also courted by Daniel Miller of Mute Records, but the duo liked Pearce’s manic energy and sense of chaos. The group quickly got to work and released the 7” single “A Man Could Get Lost,” followed by the 12” single “Memorabilia.” Both singles were produced by Daniel Miller and got noticed in the music press. “Memorabilia” became a minor dance club hit, but Soft Cell was basically still just a blip on the musical radar.
All of that changed with Soft Cell’s next single. Phonogram was already growing impatient with the of success of their early singles, so Ball and Almond decided to cover a minor Northern Soul hit from 1964 by singer Gloria Jones called “Tainted Love.” With its pulsing, insistent beat and torch song lyrics, “Tainted Love” became a world-wide smash, reaching the number one position on the pop charts in 17 countries. Released in 1981, it took a while to reach the Top 40 in the US, but the song eventually climbed as high as number eight the following year and stayed in the Top 100 singles for an astounding 43 weeks. The 12” version of the single, “Tainted Love / Where Did Our Love Go?” (1981 Sire), featured a medley of “Tainted Love” morphing into a cover of The Supremes’ “Where Did Our Love Go?” and proved to be a huge hit in dance clubs around the world. Later in 1981, Soft Cell released their debut album, Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret (Phonogram/Sire), which became a huge hit as well. As was plain from the album cover and title, Soft Cell’s primary fascination was with the sordid underbelly of nightlife and the deviant sexual practices it harbored. All of these things would have been a very hard sell to mainstream music listeners if it weren’t for the catchy and danceable music that surrounded the tales of such songs as “Sex Dwarf” and “Seedy Films.” Though the group became known in the US as something of a one-hit wonder, Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret was quite popular in the UK and Europe, and spawned two more British hit singles with “Bedsitter” and “Say Hello, Wave Goodbye.” In addition to releasing Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret, the group collaborated with director Tim Pope to produce the full length video companion to the album called Non-Stop Exotic Video Show, which featured the duo cavorting in different music videos and vignettes of the duo introducing each song from inside adult video stores.
While on tour in the US in 1982, Soft Cell spent time in New York City recording tracks for their next EP, Non Stop Ecstatic Dancing (1982 Sire/Phonogram/Sire), and taking in the night life and an assortment of recreational drugs. Once back in England, the band made plans to start working on new material, but the pressures of their new-found stardom and their escalating drug use were starting to eat away at their partnership. At around the same time, Almond started a side band, Marc and the Mambas, which was associated with the goth movement and the Batcave scene in London. The group released two studio albums between 1982 and 1983. Soft Cell got back together and released their next proper album, appropriately titled The Art of Falling Apart (Phonogram/Sire), in 1983. Though the album was not nearly as popular as their first record, they did score UK hits with the singles “Numbers” and “Where the Heart is,” and scored a surprisingly durable underground dance hit in the US with the song “It’s a Mug’s Game.” In 1984, the duo had decided to amicably split up the band after recording their last album This Last Night in Sodom (1984 Phonogram), which included the British hits “Down in the Subway” and “Soul Inside.” The album makes it obvious that Almond and Ball were changing and absorbing more influences; noisy synths and guitars accompany live drums for the first time on a Soft Cell record. The duo’s appearance also changed and the two now had long, black hair and became fond of black leather jackets. After some live dates, the group called it a day.
Marc Almond went on to form the group Marc Almond and the Willing Sinners, and from there embarked on a successful and eclectic solo career that has run the gamut from electronica and dance-oriented music to traditional piano ballads, Russian romantic songs, and French chanson. He has also collaborated with a wide range of other artists, including Siouxsie Sioux, Gene Pitney, Bronski Beat, Nico, Antony and The Johnsons, John Cale, Nick Cave, and Jools Holland. He has cultivated a devoted cult following over the years, and has written an autobiography titled Tainted Life and a celebrated travel guide as well. Dave Ball went on to release a solo album, In Strict Tempo (Some Bizzare), in 1983 that features guest vocals from Gavin Friday of the Virgin Prunes and Genesis P. Orridge from Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV. Ball then became a producer of electronic dance music and eventually formed the techno group The Grid with fellow producer Richard Norris.
Almond and Ball reunited when The Grid remixed three songs from Almond’s 1991 album Tenement Symphony (Some Bizzare), but a true reunion didn’t happen until 2001 when Soft Cell played the opening of the Ocean nightclub in London and then embarked on a small tour of the UK. Soft Cell recorded the new track “God Shaped Hole” for inclusion on the 2001 Some Bizzare compilation album I’d Rather Shout at a Returning Echo Than Kid That Someone’s Listening and then went on to record the new album Cruelty Without Beauty (Cooking Vinyl), released in 2002. The album was a success, especially in the UK where the band also scored a modest hit with their single “The Night.” Soft Cell followed up the release of Cruelty Without Beauty with short European and American tours, and released the live album Live (Cooking Vinyl) in 2003. In 2006, the group released a collection of its early demos, Demo Non Stop (Some Bizzare), followed by an album of remixes titled Heat: The Remixes (Mercury) released in the UK in 2008.