Soft Cell: The Sunday Times article...
Here is the article in today's The Sunday Times in the Culture section. If you can get a copy I urge you to buy it. But if not and you don't want to stump up the £39.99 for the overseas annual subscription to the web site here is the article below.
Pop: Taint what they did...
It’s the way that they did it. And 17 years on, Soft Cell are back, with an album to influence a whole new generation. By Mark Edwards
In March last year, Marc Almond and Dave Ball stood nervously behind some sliding doors backstage at Ocean, the then new east London venue. In front of the doors was a lot of dry ice and a large crowd waiting to see the first Soft Cell gig for 17 years.
“We walked out through this dry ice and all we needed was Matthew Kelly introducing us,” says Almond. “People didn’t believe it, they probably thought it was two lookalikes. I don’t think anyone ever thought they’d see Soft Cell together on a stage again, playing some of the songs that we were playing. People were kind of gobsmacked by the situation.”
“It just felt weird going down onto that stage after all this time,” adds Ball. “We got a standing ovation for still being alive.”
Almond and Ball have always been one of pop’s unlikeliest couples: Almond, camp as a row of tents, Ball looking as if he would be just as happy fixing your boiler as putting together some of the catchiest hooks in the history of electronic music. And yes, we are glad to see them still alive, given that their brief four-year career epitomised the live-fast-die-young school of pop stardom, their last two album titles — The Art of Falling Apart and This Last Night in Sodom — accurately flagging the drug-fuelled lifestyle that led to the band’s break-up and Almond’s breakdown.
Another clue to Almond’s past excesses comes as we sit and discuss their comeback album, Cruelty Without Beauty (out on Cooking Vinyl on September 30) in a posh central London hotel. Almond spurns even a cup of coffee in favour of herbal tea.
He says that when the two of them first got back in touch, re-forming Soft Cell was the last thing on their minds. “There was no sitting round a table at a meeting with any kind of agenda. I think I got in touch with him one day and thought, ‘I wonder what Dave’s up to. It’s been years since we’ve talked. Wonder if he’s got any good tunes on tape to write lyrics to.’”
To begin with, Almond and Ball worked on songs with the idea that they would find other performers to sing them. They would remain in the background as a writing/ production team. Then they wondered if they might perform the new songs themselves, but release them under a different name.
“Eventually, we kind of realised that if we were to do something together again, we couldn’t call it some pseudonym or a little project name,” says Almond. “In everybody’s eyes, Marc Almond and David Ball would be Soft Cell. If we didn’t call it Soft Cell, people would say: ‘What’s that about? Why is that?’” Almond and Ball then had a series of dispiriting meetings with major labels, who — the pair claim — wanted to make them sound more like the Chemical Brothers or Prodigy. If this is true, then somebody hasn’t been paying attention. While the Chemical Brothers’ most recent album and Prodigy’s comeback single have received what we politely term “mixed reviews”, the sound of Soft Cell couldn’t possibly be more hip than it is right now.
The casual music fan may chiefly remember them for one song (all together now: “ner-ner-tainted love”), but Soft Cell’s innovative mix of electronica, northern soul and stripped-down sound has proved an influence on several generations of bands, from the Pet Shop Boys to Pulp. Recently, Marilyn Manson covered Tainted Love (while it is not an original Soft Cell song, it was clear from his version that Manson was covering their interpretation of it) and David Gray’s multiplatinum White Ladder included a version of Soft Cell’s Say Hello, Wave Goodbye. The current music scene is increasingly dominated by bands who borrow heavily from Soft Cell’s heyday (see box*), including the fashionable Electroclash scene, which is clearly indebted to the band’s minimal electro sound.
Which makes it exactly the right time for Soft Cell to re-form. Or possibly, exactly the wrong time. Almond and Ball are understandably nervous about being labelled a 1980s nostalgia act. “It’s very important to us that we distance ourselves from that 1980s revival thing,” says Ball. “We’ve been offered a lot of those packaged nostalgia tours that a lot of 1980s people are doing, but we’ve steered away from them because we don’t want to be perceived as a retro thing. Obviously, there’s a history — we don’t deny our history and our past — but what we’re trying to do is very much part of now, not the 1980s.”
There have been times when the band have tried to deny the past. They remember a tour of America when they refused to play Tainted Love, feeling it had become an albatross around their neck (the song is in the Guinness Book of Records, having spent longer continuously in the Billboard Hot 100 than any other single).
“We thought we were making an artistic statement,” laughs Almond. “We were just sick of it. Sometimes you just play it and you feel like an old whore doing it. It’s great to see people’s reaction when you do it, but I’m getting a bit tired of TV shows saying: ‘You can only play your new song if you play Tainted Love.’ That is wearing thin on me.
“At some point, the present has to overtake the past if Soft Cell is to continue into the future,” Almond goes on. “You can’t go out and play all the favourites all the time. The new, lesser known material has to take over, to an extent. I think there are times when you have to go out and disappoint certain sections of your audience by not playing all the hits all the time. Mind you, I’ve got very used to disappointing audiences.”
This strategy will only work, of course, if the new material is strong. Fortunately, Soft Cell’s new album, Cruelty Without Beauty, is rather good. Ball admits he went back and listened to the old Soft Cell albums to remind himself of the essential elements of the band’s sound. “I made notes,” he says. “It was like a design project. I had to remind myself of my own clichés from that period, because, as time goes by, you become more sophisticated as a musician and more influenced by different things, like my work with the Grid, and with mixing and production work.”
The essence of Soft Cell is simplicity. Ball’s uncomplicated electro sound is applied to Whatever It Takes — a witty dissection of a midlife crisis; the poignant ballad All Out of Love; the addictive pop of the first single, Monoculture (out on September 16); and a razor-sharp cover of the Four Seasons’ hit The Night.
“When we decided to cover Tainted Love, the other contender was The Night,” Ball reveals, “so now we have finally got round to it. I think it fits perfectly in the context of this album. There is that dark, cynical feeling to it, but it’s also quite a romantic song.”
“It shows that we’re still influenced by northern soul,” adds Almond. “I think that The Night is really nodding back to our roots again. It’s also just a fantastic song. I’m amazed that nobody has covered it over the years — that nobody has even done a cheesy disco version. Still, I’m sure our remixes will do that.”
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*Electronica’s new wave
Soft Cell waved goodbye 17 years ago. They are saying hello again at a time when their heyday — the early 1980s — is hugely fashionable in music. DJs and electronica bands such as Felix Da Housecat and Ladytron favour the synth sounds of the late 1970s and early 1980s, while the Electroclash scene — Fischerspooner, ARE Weapons, Centuries and Crossover — leans not only on the sounds of the time, but also, in its visual imagery and arty pretensions, mirrors the close links that music, art and design established in the early 1980s. Mash-ups that combine elements of two old records often favour music from the early days of electronica — as shown on the Sugababes hit Freak Like Me, built on Gary Numan’s Are Friends Electric?. But the renewed interest in this era goes way beyond electronica. The wave of guitar bands that have dominated headlines recently — the Strokes, the Hives, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs — all lean heavily on the post-punk and new-wave music of 1978-1982, drawing on bands such as Television, Joy Division and Wire. Other echoes of the time can be heard from garage star the Streets. His tales of urban English life bring to mind both Ian Dury and the Specials.
[Copyright: The Sunday Times]