Soft Cell

Soft Cell was an English electro-pop duo from Leeds, composed of singer–lyricist Marc Almond and keyboardist–programmer Dave Ball. They cut multiple singles in advance of their 1981 debut album Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret, which spawned the international hit “Tainted Love” and the club staples “Bedsitter” and “Sex Dwarf.” A visual accompaniment to the album, Non-Stop Exotic Video Show, exhibits Almond’s theatrical flare in a sequence of song clips.

Soft Cell had further hits with the 1982 singles “Torch” and “What?” Musically, they embraced cabaret and experimental sounds on their 1983 second album The Art of Falling Apart, a collection of dark narrative numbers. Almond moonlighted in Marc & the Mambas and resumed with Ball for the early 1984 release This Last Night In Sodom, a set of brisk, layered, lyrically edgy tracks. Almond then launched a successful solo career.

Soft Cell reunited in the new millennium for the 2002 disc Cruelty Without Beauty.

Members: Marc Almond (vocals), Dave Ball (keyboards, synthesizers, drum programming)


Background

Mark Almond and Dave Ball met at Leeds Polytechnic, where they formed Soft Cell in 1978. Almond was a Performance Art major who had already staged several theater pieces, including one (Zazou) that got reviewed in the Yorkshire Evening Post. Ball had assembled a makeshift studio in the Fine Arts department, where he kept a Korg DV800 duophonic synthesizer, a stylophone, and a drum machine.

One day, as Almond passed the studio, he heard the strange sounds Ball was creating and introduced himself to the young keyboardist. Ball accepted Almond’s invitation to contribute music to an upcoming theater piece. Within months, they were collaborating on art-pop songs with Almond penning lyrics and Ball composing music. Between 1978 and 1980, they recorded numerous demos that were later released on the compilations Science Fiction Stories and The Bedsit Tapes.


Mutant Moments

In 1980, Soft Cell self-issued the EP Mutant Moments on one-press A Big Frock Rekord. It features four originals: “Potential,” “L.O.V.E. Feelings,” “Metro Mrx,” and “Frustration.” Sound-wise, Mutant Moments echoes then-recent minimal-synth recordings by Tuxedomoon (No Tears), Chrisma (Chinese Restaurant), and Leer–Rental (The Bridge).

Potential” fades in with swooping and beaming effects amid engine sounds, set to an uptempo beat box rhythm with a two-note electro-bass pattern (E E… C C…). The lyrics imagine the potential of each random passersby on a daily commute.

L.O.V.E. Feelings” is a medium-slow number (in C#) with a synth-bass pattern set to a bossa nova beat-box rhythm. Almond, in torch ballad mode, sings from the point of view of a cyborg being introduced to human emotions. His voice is rendered ghostly amid the song’s light, frosty synth line.

Metro Mrx” is a medium-uptempo number with a three-note fuzzy synth pattern (E♭… A♭… C#…). The lyrics concern a mutant businessman who embodies metropolitan perfection.

Frustration” is a medium-slow number with a brittle synth pattern (in G minor with punctuated thirds) and a whip-cracking rhythmic effect. Almond, in a remote yet vituperative tone, sings from the point of view of an ordinary man’s dissatisfaction in life, despite having achieved the picture-perfect suburban ideal. The song breaks down at the end with piercing sounds amid the call-and-response between Almond’s cries of “I want to die!” and Ball’s deadpan words “An ordinary bloke.”

Mutant Moments was financed by Ball’s mother and pressed in a quantity of 2000 copies. An implied third member, Steven Griffin, is credited with “visuals” on the hand-made sleeve art. Almond is credited with “synthetic scratch” in addition to vocals. 


1981

In January 1981, the Soft Cell track “The Girl With the Patent Leather Face” appeared on Some Bizzare Album, a multi-artist comp containing tracks by twelve then-unsigned electronic bands, including B-Movie, BlancmangeDepeche Mode, and The The. The comp appeared on Phonogram’s post-punk subsidiary Some Bizzare, Soft Cell’s home for all subsequent UK releases.

The Girl With the Patent Leather Face” opens with fuzzy synth sustain (in G minor) and echoing imitation-rotor sounds. An uptempo beat-box triggers the verses: a two-note pattern (Cm… A♭…) where Almond deadpans about the titular subject — an insular character who’s “a psychopathic mental case” and a “target for the freaks and creeps”; who takes to “mutant bars” and “tampers with machinery.” In a melodramatic tone, Almond describes her as a “two faced baby… shiny, shiny.” One line (“other beauties crash their cars”) invokes crash fetishism: the topic of the 1978 electro-punk single “Warm Leatherette” by The Normal (aka Daniel Miller, who took inspiration from the 1973 J. G. Ballard novel Crash).


“A Man Could Get Lost”

Soft Cell issued their first proper single, “A Man Could Get Lost” (b/w “Memorabilia”), in March 1981. Simultaneously, the flip was extended for the 12″ release “Memorabilia” (7:45) b/w “Persuasion” (7:46). As their songs found favor among DJs on London’s Blitz scene, Soft Cell entered London’s Advision Studios to record their first album.

“A Man Could Get Lost” is a mid-tempo number with a ‘Motown’ beat-box pattern (simulated tambourine and kickdrum) and a three-key synth progression (Dm… C… G…) with staccato overlays. Almond (double-tracked) sings of city life and its distractions, from eye candy (“I like the decor.. glass.. dummies.. neon”) to costly temptations (“I like the products”) and idle interactions (“Hi dear, bye dear”).

Memorabilia” is a medium-uptempo vamp (in B♭) with a synth-bass ostinato injected with bleeping sounds, set to a clicking dance beat. Almond deadpans rapidfire call-outs to a lost love that he remembers through photographs, snow storms, and key chains.

Persuasion” is a minimal medium-uptempo number with half-sung revelations (“I have learned my limitations”) and commands (“Buy… buy more now!”), carried by a sprinting synth-bass figure (in A minor). Almond is flanked throughout the piece by haunted distant screams. After a swell of clatter and noise, the track fades out on a lengthy synth drone.


“Tainted Love”

On July 17, 1981, Soft Cell released “Tainted Love,” a cover of the soul-pop chestnut written by Ed Cobb (ex-Four Preps) and first recorded by American singer Gloria Jones as the b-side to her 1964 single “My Bad Boy’s Coming Home.” Its popularity on the UK Northern Soul scene prompted Jones to rerecord the song in 1976.

While the original version is an uptempo Stax-style number (in C), Soft Cell’s cover has a mid-paced arrangement composed of an arching synth-bass line between a piping three-note pattern (in G minor). Almond gives sassy delivery of the opening salvo (“Sometimes I feel I’ve got to… RUN AWAY”) and brims with pained emotion on the airy bridge (“Once I ran to you (I ran), Now I’ll run from you”). In the video, Almond plays Apollo in a hybrid Victorian–Ancient Greek setting, where Ball arrives as a golfer.

Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love” is backed with a cover of the Motown classic “Where Did Our Love Go,” the 1964 Holland–Dozier–Holland composition popularized by The Supremes, who scored their first Billboard No. 1 with the song. The single also appeared on 12″ with the two songs paired as a medley on Side A, backed with “Tainted Dub” (9:25), a rhythmic extension of the medley; instrumental apart from echoing keywords.

“Tainted Love” reached No. 1 on the UK Singles Chart and also topped the charts in Australia, Belgium, Canada, South Africa, and West Germany. It also reached the Top 5 in Austria, France, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland. Soft Cell mimed the song on the August 13, 1981, broadcast of the BBC music program Top of the Pops, which re-aired their segment a fortnight later (8/27) and on the two subsequent broadcasts.

Almond’s signature look (bouffanted hair, eyeliner, bracelets, capped sleeveless tops) proved influential on the year’s fashions.


Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret

Soft Cell released their debut album, Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret, on November 27, 1981, on Some Bizzare. It features “Tainted Love” and nine Almond–Ball originals that range from buoyant dance numbers (“Frustration,” “Bedsitter”) to emotional ballads (“Youth,” “Say Hello, Wave Goodbye”) with forays into burlesque (“Entertain Me,” “Secret Life”) and dark, lurid territory (“Seedy Films”). Songs like “Sex Dwarf” and “Chips on My Shoulder” offer high-tech solutions for the post-disco club scene.

Each track (barring “Chips”) appears in the subsequent VHS and Betamax release Soft Cell’s Non-Stop Exotic Video Show, directed by emerging filmmaker Tim Pope.

Frustration” (4:12) rearranges the Mutant Moments track as a clean, polished, uptempo dance track (in D minor) with prominent electronic percussion and bell-tone key accents. In the video, Ball plays the suburban middle-aged dullard characterized in the lyrics. Almond, the trickster, flashes in and out of the scene as an oblivious, ill-stricken Ball pushes a lawnmower until he falls to the ground. Presumed dead, he’s whisked away by pallbearers as Almond narrates the madness. Once buried, Ball awakes inside his coffin.

Seedy Films” (5:05) is a mid-tempo nighttime number with a throbbing four-note bassline (rooted in D minor), set to a sliding disco hi-hat beat. The lyrics flash details of a pickup scenario in London’s red light district. Almond trades the cooing lines “Getting to know you… getting to like you” with Cindy Ecstasy, a Brooklyn scenestress who became Soft Cell’s third wheel. The dark vibe of the song is colored with hissing vibraslap and fluttering street-corner clarinet.

In the “Seedy Films” video, Ball drives a convertible cab through Soho while Almond, the camera-wielding passenger, spots street-walking Cindy. He invites her in and they cozy up to his flat, where silhouetted frolic ensues while Ball looks on from behind his wheel. Cindy reappears, hands Ball the tape, the walks on as he drives off.

Youth” (3:15) is a slow, emotional ballad with frosty synth strings (primarily in D minor) on a sparse snare beat. Almond — in a pained, confessional tone — sings of lost youth and haunting memories of estranged loved ones, slowing on the ambiguous chorus line “You… sleep in a deep deep sleep… beauty is skin deep.” The video is a saturated, monochrome zoom-in of Almond, who lip-syncs amid facial green-screen footage of childhood events.

Sex Dwarf” (5:15) is a fast number with a snapping rhythm track and a spiraling synth line that shifts between five keys (D… B♭… C… G..F..). The narrator, portrayed by Almond in a sinister tone, is a pimp who lures club girls into bondage films:

Isn’t it nice? Sugar and spice
Luring disco dollies to a life of vice
I can make a film and make you my star
You’ll be a natural the way you are
I would like you on a long black leash
I will parade you down the high streets

“Sex Dwarf” has two videos. The first is a softcore romp inside a sex chamber, where Almond writhes over a naked table-tied female while Ball powers a chainsaw. A romp ensues where leather-clad participants roll around in cleaved meat from Ball’s hanging carcasses. Some Bizzare pulled this video in favor of a montage clip (included in Exotic Video Show).

Entertain Me” (3:35) presents Almond as a soured Master of Ceremonies who turns the table on his audience, pouting “Entertain me, I’m as blank as can be” to an uptempo vamp (in C minor). The video starts with a close zoom-in on Almonds face as he sings the unaccompanied opening lines, then pans out to a circus soundstage performance with jugglers, fire dancers, ballerinas, and usherettes. Multiple times, the camera pans in on Ball, who leans sideways above his keyboard as the credits role (this being the opening number on the Exotic Video Show). Cindy Ecstasy appears as one of the two fishnetted backing singers.

Chips on My Shoulder” (4:05) is a fast song with a throbbing bassline (in D) with whistles and rattling sundries that part for a vibrating synth-tone over a sliding hi-hat beat. Almond, flanked by rowdy young voices, sings of resentment and guilt from a privileged vantage point.

Bedsitter” (3:36) is an uptempo number with a two-chord introduction (Am… G….) over a mixed rhythmic figure (clicking beat box and organic snare beat). The song’s synth-bass pattern is overlaid with mixed motifs (metallic; trebly) and sampled hand claps. The lyrics concern Sunday morning blues with reflections on the night before. Almond gets jubilant on the chorus amid a winding key pattern (D… E… C… D…) but comes back down in sorrow “And now I’m all alone in bedsit land, my only home.”

The “Bedsitter” video starts with Almond bedded under butterfly quilting with matching pajamas and wallpaper, intercut with nighttime street footage of Ball. The two mime in a spiraled green-screen setting (first chorus) as the scenes unfold. On the second chorus, Almond (now in his kitchen, fully clothed) gives spin-rounds to the lens for each separate word in the first line: “Dancing… laughing… drinking… loving.”

Secret Life” (3:37) is a jaunty mid-tempo number with a 2/4 tambourine beat and a music-hall piano motif that wiggles downward (from B to F#). The lyrics concern a high-profile two-timer who’s being blackmailed by someone with a client list. He confronts this individual on the bridge:

I’ll give you anything
Anything to shut you up
Why do you hate me so much
What have I ever done to you
But leave you

He then indicates the extremes he might take (“Change my sex… my hair”) to avoid exposure. In the “Secret Life” video, Soft Cell mime in a pink- and teal-lit, padded cell studio setup, where a Vulcan-browed Almond gesticulates as Ball plays on.

Say Hello, Wave Goodbye” (5:24) is a torch ballad set to a tambourine beat with a mid-tempo synth-bass line, overlaid with neon-toned synths (in C with piping thirds). The lyrics concern a straitlaced businessman who struggles to be stoic as he breaks things off with a cocktail waitress at the Pink Flamingo. In the video, Ball plays the protagonist while Almond lip-syncs the lyrical self-reflections from the club stage; swelling into diva mode with a glowing glance as he croons “Take a look at my face for the last time.”

Sessions took place between late 1980 and mid-1981 at Advision and the duo’s own Camden Cell facility. Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret was produced by Mike Thorne, a soundman on late-seventies albums by Gryphon (Treason), The Shirts (self-titled, Street Light Shine), Soft Machine, and Wire (Chairs Missing). More recently, he worked with Berlin Blondes and onetime Marshall Hain songstress Kit Hain. The engineer on this and subsequent Soft Cell recordings, American soundman Don Wershba, also worked on recent titles by Balance, Carolyne Mas, Donna Washington, Kazumi Watanabe, and New England.

Thorne loaned Soft Cell his NED Synclavier, an advanced digital sampling synthesizer beyond the means of the group’s contemporaries. Hain loaned them her Roland drum machine. Almond and Ball did the Camden Cell recordings on a ReVox tape recorder. Select numbers feature backing vocals by the Vicious Pink Phenomena, a Leeds duo (Brian Moss, Josie Warden) that cut three mid-eighties Parlophone singles as Vicious Pink.

Reedist Dave Tofani guests on saxophone (“Frustration”) and clarinet (“Seedy Films”). Tofani’s contemporary credits include 1980–82 titles by Aretha Franklin, The BB&Q Band, Candi Staton, Change, Chaka Khan, Donald Fagen, Linda Clifford, and T-Connection.

Photographer Peter Ashworth took the Non-Stop Erotic cover image, which shows the blue-lit duo in leather jackets under neon signs (name and title) against a vinyl backdrop. Almond (shaded) stuffs an undetermined paper belonging into his coat while Ball appears with a newly cultivated mustache. The back cover shows credits beside a photo of a Soho peep-show alley. Ashworth also photographed 1980–81 sleeves for Adam & the Ants (Kings of the Wild Frontier), Central Line, Eurythmics (In the Garden), Godley & Creme, Original Mirrors, Peter Godwin, Ronny, and Visage (self-titled).

“Bedsitter” accompanied the album as a second single, backed with “Facility Girls,” a slow number with faint Numan-esque synth sustain and a Joy Division-like rhythmic lurch, overlaid with vibe-tones and lyrics about a daytime secretary who holds out hope for her ghosting suitor.

Soft Cell mimed “Bedsitter” on the November 19, 1981, broadcast of TotP, which re-aired their segment a fortnight later. It reached No. 4 on the UK Singles Chart.

Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret reached No. 5 on the UK Albums Chart and peaked at No. 2 in Canada. Sire released the album in the US, where it climbed to No. 22 on the Billboard 200.

In January 1982, Soft Cell lifted “Say Hello, Wave Goodbye” as the album’s third single, backed with an instrumental version of the song. They mimed it on the February 4 broadcast of TotP, which re-aired the segment two weeks later. The song reached No. 3 on the UK Singles Chart.


1982

“Tainted Love” entered the Billboard Hot 100 in January 1982 and began its slow climb to a summer peak position of No. 8. It spent a then-unsurpassed forty-three weeks on the Hot 100, beating the record of Paul Davis and his 1977 single “I Go Crazy.”


“Torch”

In May 1982, Soft Cell released “Torch,” a standalone single backed with “Insecure Me,” a medium-uptempo dance number with a plunging synth-bass pattern (rooted in G minor) and lyrics about the pressures of stardom.

“Torch” begins with a seven-note trumpet riff on a whole-tone drop (D… C…). It’s a mid-tempo update of the late-fifties jazz-pop ballad, set to a clicking dance beat. The lyrics concern a lounge diva’s song, where sounds form a bond between two people. Almond shifts perspective (from “I” to the “he” addressed in “her” song). The song resolves with a four-line stanza on the lady’s allure (“See her eyes they are bright tonight…”), which she replicates (“See my eyes…”). Cindy Ecstasy sings the female part in an English accent.

In the “Torch” video, Soft Cell cavort in a lavender-lit setting amid walls decked in purple musical notes. Almond makes his way to the diva (Cindy), who stands on a round podium before a vintage microphone in a blue sequin gown and black updo. The camera pans behind her and gradually zooms toward Marc as he sings to her. The moment she takes her lead, the camera cuts to her zoomed-in face, then pans out, showing her bald with a dove in hand.

Soft Cell mimed “Torch” on a lavender-lit stage for the May 27 broadcast of TotP, which aired their segment in a block with chart hits by Japan (“Cantonese Boy”), Duran Duran (“Hungry Like the Wolf”), Madness (“House of Fun”), and Fun Boy Three (“The Telephone Always Rings”). Cindy Ecstasy appears alongside Almond in opera gloves and a forties-style updo.

“Torch” peaked at No. 2 on the UK Singles Chart and went Top 10 in Belgium and Ireland. The single’s picture sleeve, designed by ongoing Soft Cell visual artist Huw Feather, caricatures Cindy as she appears in the video, which begins with fast-motion footage of the sketch in progress. TotP re-aired the song on the Christmas ’82 broadcast along with the year’s biggest hits, including songs by Culture Club (“Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?”), Dionne Warwick (“Heartbreaker”), Haircut One Hundred (“Love Plus One”), and Musical Youth (“Pass the Dutchie”).


Non-Stop Ecstatic Dancing

In June 1982, Soft Cell issued Non-Stop Ecstatic Dancing, an EP with one new cover (“What?”) and remixes of “A Man Could Get Lost,” “Sex Dwarf,” “Chips on My Shoulder,” and two prior b-sides: “Memorabilia” and “Where Did Our Love Go.”

What?” is a song by American pianist–arranger H. B. Barnum (“El Pizza,” “Nut Rocker”) that was first recorded in 1964 by teen comedic actress Melinda Marx, daughter of slapstick legend Groucho Marx. Another teen Hollywood actress, Judy Street, recorded a second version as the b-side of her 1968 single “You Turn Me On.” This version later gained cult status on the Northern Soul circuit. Street’s version is a medium-uptempo number (in B♭) with an arching verse in a compound meter (7+3+10) and a brassy, vibe-sprinkled Motown arrangement.

Soft Cell transpose “What?” to a keyboard arrangement (in G) with the same tempo and sixties vibe, replete with synth bass and a programmed rhythm track. Ball approximates key touches of Street’s version, such as the bell tones and tambourine pace. Despite its jovial tone, “What?” is a heartbroken plea to a departed lover. In the video, Soft Cell mime in a chess-patterned studio with a Marylin Monroe lookalike (on keyboards). Various sixties references appear throughout the clip: Pop Art wall decorations (comic lettering), two go-go dancers (in De Stijl-inspired mod dresses), and a cameo by retro girl-group singer Mari Wilson.

Memorabilia” (5:22) is a shortened remix of the 1981 b-side with faint, fluttering trumpet and double-layered percussion (acoustic and electronic drums with rattling sundries). Midway, Cindy Ecstasy raps five seductive stanzas, including one that inserts Soft Cell’s titles:

I may be soft, I made the top,
I like my cabaret non-stop,
It may be erotic, it may be ecstatic
With it down on your floor or in your attic

In the “Memorabilia” video, Almond sings to the lens as a holograph on a green screen of jump-cut random footage. Cindy, decked in an Edwardian hat and pearl necklace, raps bedroom-eyed into the lens, delivering salacious lines like:

You take it low or shut our eyes, and let our love materialise,
And I don’t mean love on a chocolate box, I mean the love that really rocks
I say call me the baby, the good time lady,
Just look at me and it’s easy to see why they call me Cindy Ecstasy.

“Sex Dwarf” starts as a stripped version of the original but adds numerous touches (moaning gasps, rattling sounds) to the unwavering back beat.

Soft Cell recorded Non-Stop Ecstatic Dancing in a brisk one-week period after the original plan — a project with several tracks co-written by Donald Fagen (then finishing his debut solo album The Nightfly) — collapsed amid contract legalities. Thorne produced the EP in succession with titles by Albania, B-Movie (their re-recorded “Nowhere Girl”), Holly Beth Vincent, Nina Hagen, and The The (“Uncertain Smile,” a 7″ on Some Bizzare).

Non-Stop Ecstatic Dancing is housed in a standard 12″ sleeve with a photo of Soft Cell leaning into colored fixtures in the shape of musical notes. The photo on the back cover (credited to one Josh) shows the duo standing outside a peep parlor. Ashworth photographed the front cover amid 1982 visual assignments for Annabel Lamb, The Associates, The Clash (“Rock the Casbah” 7”), and Monsoon.

Soft Cell lifted “What?” as a single, backed with “…So,” an exclusive instrumental with a fuzzy synth pattern (in A minor) and a mid-tempo dance beat, overlaid with vibe-tones.

“What?” reached No. 3 in the UK, No. 6 in Ireland, and No. 10 in Israel. Soft Cell mimed “What?” on the August 19 broadcast of TotP, which aired their segment between numbers by Duran Duran (“Save a Prayer”) and Dexy’s Midnight Runners, whose current UK hit “Come On Eileen” became a juggernaut of the Second British Invasion.

Non-Stop Ecstatic Dancing reached No. 6 on the UK Albums Chart.


Marc & the Mambas

Between the promotion of Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret and the completion of Ecstatic Dancing, Almond formed Marc & the Mambas, an experimental side project with The The mastermind Matt Johnson and Leeds DJ Annie Hogan. They issued their first single, “Fun City” (b/w “Sleaze (Take It, Shake It)”) in March 1982 on Some Bizzare, which issued the band’s first album, Untitled, that September. “Fun City” appears on a 12″ version of Soft Cell’s “Say Hello, Wave Goodbye” single.


The Art of Falling Apart

Soft Cell released their second album, The Art of Falling Apart, in January 1983 on Some Bizzare and Sire. The set contains an LP with eight Almond–Ball numbers, plus a two-track 12″ with “Hendrix Medley” and “Martin.” Musically, the album ranges from uptempo numbers about decadence (“Forever the Same,” “Heat,” the title-track) to balladic suburban vignettes (“Where the Heart Is,” “Kitchen Sink Drama”). Select cuts (“Numbers,” “Baby Doll”) toy with odd progressions and cryptic sonic layers.

Forever the Same” (5:06) is a brassy uptempo vamp (in D minor) with lyrics about a reckless hedonist — a dead-end assembly worker (and deadbeat dad) whose weekends involve drunken, spendthrift barroom exploits.

Where the Heart Is” (4:34) is a mid-tempo ballad with a wavy synth line composed of major sevenths (in G and F). Almond, in a tender tone, addresses an adolescent in the midst of growing pains and filial disconnect, which impacts the parents differently, as Marc elucidates on the chorus: 

Mother loves to be concerned
Using lessons that she learnt
Fathers never understand
When children have the upper hand

Numbers” (4:55) is a medium-slow lurch with squirting synth tones (in F) against a stop-start rhythmic pattern. The bridge (in Cmaj7) has falling flute-tones over the same lurching pace. Midway, marimbas and percussive bursts flank the unrelenting backing track.

Heat” (6:11) is a melodramatic number with a tense rhythmic pulse overlaid with dark piano and modulating minor keys (rooted in E). In the lyrics, Almond confronts a troubled friend: an apparent gadabout who “use[s] up bodies like cigarettes.”

Kitchen Sink Drama” (3:56) is a mid-tempo cabaret number with a stately piano motif (in C) and airy torch singing. Almond examines a housewife who flirts with the paperboy while her husband is at work. The chorus shakes her facade (“She’s in a fantasy, it’s not so hard to see, that she is living a lie”) along a chime-laden ivory slope, capped with a synthesized sitar refrain. Midway, the theme undergoes a chamber variation with booming timpani.

Baby Doll” (6:44) is a dark, droning, contorted number with a tri-tone progression (Am… F#… B… F…) composed of deep bass and tumbling percussion marked with tambourine and mixed synth tones (brass, choral). The lyrics concern an unhappy burlesque dancer who works the peep parlors to support her abusive, drug-addled keeper.

Loving You, Hating Me” (4:18) is a mid-tempo number about one-way love with a perky synth-bass figure (primarily in C), overlaid with lush synths, airy vocals and pained, elongated syllables. Almond elucidates the subject in the following two lines: “It’s the other side of love; It’s the side that you don’t want to see.”

The Art of Falling Apart” (5:01) is a frenetic uptempo number about the physical price of vices. The verses have a descending synth-bass ostinato (in G minor) against a pounding dance beat, overlaid with fuzzy synth keys. Almond spirals upward on the whirlwind chorus (in C minor) while gasping “It’s the holding together… together forever.” Midway, fuzz tones spill on a five-note piano figure.

Hendrix Medley” (10:23) renders “Hey Joe” as a mid-tempo lurch with a jagged five-key synth pattern (Ab… Em… B… F#… C#…) adorned with fuzzy overlays, wiggly vibe-tones, and Almond’s melodramatic delivery of the subject’s intent to shoot his wife and her lover. This segues (at 4:00) into “Purple Haze,” presented here with layered neon-synth tones (in G) and wavering vowels.

Martin” (10:14) is an uptempo vamp with a sprinting, fuzzy synth pattern (in G minor). It tells the tale of an awkward, haunted boy who “has too many nightmares” and watches “too many creepy films.” Martin, in Almond’s estimation, is “far too pale and far too frail to be a normal boy.” Later lines about hallucinations and morbid dreams imply suicide ideation.

Sessions took place in August–September 1982 at Camden Cell, where Thorne co-produced The Art of Falling Apart ahead of albums by Kit Hain and Canadian singer Sherry Kean. Ball handles all the instruments apart from “Torch” trumpeter John Gatchell, a onetime member of Gotham and Ten Wheel Drive with numerous jazz-funk credits (Art Webb, Grover Washington Jr., Idris Muhammad, Lalo Schifrin).

Almond designed the Falling Apart visual package, which shows the duo with their backs down in cracked masks in a sandy setting amid pink sundries. North American copies have a brown-orange tint with the UK inner-sleeve (painted eyes) as the front cover. The chalk letter title fonts and mask theme are mirrored on the LP labels and inner-sleeves, which feature six bald/cracked face doodles by Huw Feather.

“Where the Heart Is” appeared in November 1982 as an advance single, backed with the non-album “It’s a Mugs Game,” an upbeat number (in G minor) with billowing brass and slippery synth set to a Motown beat. It’s another song about reckless party-going youth. Here, the subject is a teen drunkard who knocks up a girl in his backseat and provokes his father with hard-rock records — Deep Purple In Rock, Led Zeppelin II — at maximum volume.

Soft Cell mimed “Where the Heart Is” on the December 9 broadcast of TotP, which aired their segment before the yuletide medley “Peace On Earth – Little Drummer Boy,” the 1977 duet between David Bowie and the late Bing Crosby that, on its fifth anniversary, was issued as a single.

“Numbers” followed the album as a second single, backed with the exclusive “Barriers,” a minimal, rhythmless ballad (in G with rising two’s) composed of soft synth sustain and light strands of sax and marimba. In the lyrics, Almond recalls a lost love. Despite his claims that “there was nothing… not a feeling as you glanced back from the door,” he admits “I still have your smile burned into my mind.”

The Art of Falling Apart reached No. 5 on the UK Albums Chart. In the US, Sire extracted “Loving You, Hating Me” and “Heat” as a-sides.


Separate Projects

With the second Soft Cell album completed by late 1982, Almond and Ball spent most of 1983 on separate projects.

Almond renewed Marc & the Mambas for a second album, Torment and Toreros, a two-record set recorded between January and May 1982 with a revised lineup. Marc plays guitar and keyboards on this release, which features Annie Hogan (piano, harpsichord, Farfisa organ, vocals) along with bassist Lee Jenkinson, reedist Steve Sherlock, and drummer Frank Want (aka Foetus), plus the Venomettes chamber quartet. (Johnson, then readying the first The The album Soul Mining, plays guitar in an auxiliary role). The song “Torment” is a co-write between Almond and The Glove, the art-pop duo of Siouxsie and the Banshees bassist Steve Severin and Cure frontman Robert Smith (then moonlighting as a Banshee).

Ball recorded his only proper solo album, In Strict Tempo, released in November 1983 on Some Bizzare. Side A (Over) features short songs with select backing by Genesis P-Orridge (Throbbing Gristle, Psychic TV) and Gavin Friday (Virgin Prunes). Side B (Here) has three numbers, including the 12-minute “American Stories.” Flutist Virginia Astley (Pete Townshend‘s sister in-law) adds select backing along with members of the Venomettes. Ball also added keyboards and drum programming on two songs (“Animation” and “Crackdown”) on The Crackdown, the 1983 Some Bizzare release by industrial rock pioneers Cabaret Voltaire.


This Last Night in Sodom

Soft Cell released their third album, This Last Night in Sodom, in March 1984 on Some Bizzare and Sire. The songs are mostly upbeat and layered with dense percussion and a balance of electronic and traditional instruments. Despite the liveliness, most of the lyrics deal with grim topics. The title comes from a line in “Slave to This.”

Mr. Self Destruct” (3:12) is an uptempo number with a blaring synth-brass intro (in G) set to a Motown beat. Almond delivers rapid-fire lines about a shady hot shot whose rise occurs in tandem with his self-destruction. The track sprints along loudly with rippling, swirling Hammond organ and Marc’s multi-tracked backing vocals.

Slave to This” (5:04) is a dark track with a deep-bass dirge set to a pensive rhythm. Lyrically, it captures the musings of a sadist with similarities to Ball’s character in the original “Sex Dwarf” video (“Meat rack and ruin, boarded up and beaten up”).

Little Rough Rhinestone” (4:33) is an uptempo track with a winding progression (F… C… G… D…) capped by a honking far-chorded refrain (D→E♭E♭E♭). Musically, the arrangement weds elements of industrial post-punk (namely Killing Joke in the thick bass, dirgy guitar, and tribal-esque drumming) and the ‘cuter’ side of Soft Cell’s earlier material (the upbeat vibe and bell-tones). The lyrics concern a lonely boy who can no longer play make-believe (once the source of his friends).

Meet Murder My Angel” (4:39) is a medium-uptempo track with layered, airy vocals and a deep bass pattern (primarily in D minor), set to a dense rhythmic pattern of real and electronic drums. The lyrics, sung from the mind of a serial killer, explore the rationale behind his crimes (“You’ve arrived at the moment to cross over the threshold”).

The Best Way to Kill” (4:43) is an uptempo post-punk rock track (in A) with trebly distorted guitar over a pounding beat and thick, perky bassline — capped recurrently by a descending bell-tone refrain. Almond opens with the line “Dishonesty breeds like poison in an unhealed wound” and drops metaphors of a man’s ruthless rise in the business world, hence the title.

L’Esqualita” (7:03) is a medium-slow, melodramatic number with deep bass and tribal drumming, overlaid with exotic strings, percussive sundries, and lilting vocalise. Almond’s theatrical vocals drop lurid hints of the events at L’Esqualita, a then-active NYC nightspot.

Down in the Subway” (2:51) is an upbeat neo-rockabilly number with booming drums, sprightly organ, and jovial vocables over a three-note piano boogie pattern — elements that subvert the song’s grim references to suicide.

Surrender to a Stranger” (3:38) is a medium-uptempo number with layered drums and a piping four-note synth-brass riff, which opens a tight, contorted ostinato (F#… C#…. E♭… G…). The song is about a businessman who engages in seedy sex acts (possibly with prostitutes) at one-night hotels.

Soul Inside” (4:25) is an uptempo number with brassy synth, faint organ, and a two-note bass pattern (B♭… F…) against a layered, snappy dance beat. Almond, in an airy croon, sings of mixed emotions (“there are times when my mind is an explosion of feelings”).

Where Was Your Heart (When You Needed It Most)” (5:09) is a heavy mid-tempo number with a plunging bassline (in G minor) and thick Hammond notes (hammered sixes). Almond observes the emotional predicament of a girl who endured a sexual assault while intoxicated.

Soft Cell self-produced This Last Night in Sodom in the winter of 1983–84 with engineer Michael Johnson, a soundman on titles by Cozy Powell, Durutti Column, Jon Lord, Joy Division (Closer), Michael Mantler, Nash the Slash, and the Skids. Most recently, he engineered New Order‘s breakthrough second album Power, Corruption, and Lies.

Ball plays bass, guitar, and keyboards on Sodom, which features guest appearances by session saxophonist Gary Barnacle (Leisure Process) and Dave’s wife (and Venomettes violinist) Gini Hewes Ball. Gini also appears on the 1984 Banshees EP The Thorn, which features chamber arrangements of prior Banshees tracks.

This Last Night in Sodom is housed in a bright red sleeve with gold hand-lettering and assorted doodles, including sketches of a knife and two hands: one closed (with a spider and the word “peace”); one open (with an eyeball and the word “hate”). At the tip of the knife it reads “My hand but not my mind.” The inner-sleeve has lyrics scrawled in black ink on white paper in various handwriting styles.

“Soul Inside” appeared six months ahead of Sodom in September 1983 as an advance single, backed with “You Only Live Twice,” a synth ballad with a cascading organ riff and lyrics that explain the title’s premise in the first stanza (“One life for yourself and one for your dreams”). An extended mix of “Soul Inside” (11:57) appears on 12″ with a third track, “007 Theme,” a near-unrecognizable take with booming drums, organ, and fuzzy E-bow guitar. All three songs appear on a double-7″ with a fourth track, “Her Imagination,” a slow, droning ballad about an aging woman and her regrets about not fulfilling the showbiz dreams of her youth.

“Down in the Subway” appeared as the second advance single in February 1984, backed with “Disease and Desire,” a harmonized, bell-laden rhythmic dirge with lyrics that allude to the AIDS epidemic. The 12″ includes a third track, “Born to Lose,” a peppy cover of the 1977 song by Johnny Thunders’ Heartbreakers.

This Last Night in Sodom reached No. 12 on the UK Albums Chart.


Post Soft Cell

One month before This Last Night in Sodom hit shelves, Almond and Ball announced the end of their partnership.

Almond launched his solo career with Vermin in Ermine, recorded with his new backing band the Willing Sinners (with Annie Hogan) and released in October 1984 on Some Bizzare. He followed this with the 1985 release Stories of Johnny; the 1986 EPs A Woman’s Story and Violent Silence; and the 1987–88 albums Mother Fist and Her Five Daughters and The Stars We Are  — the last spawned hits with “Tears Run Rings” and the Gene Pitney cover “Something’s Gotten Hold of My Heart,” which topped the UK Singles Chart after Pitney surfaced to re-record the song as a duet with Almond.

Ball and his wife formed Other People, which issued the 1984 single “Have a Nice Day” (b/w “Another Day, Another Dollar”) on Arcadia Records. He then formed the dance-pop trio English Boy on the Loveranch, which issued the 1987–88 singles “The Man In Your Life” and “Sex Vigilante” on New Rose Records. In 1988, he co-founded The Grid, an electronic dance trio that released five albums and multiple singles between 1990 and 1995 and reactivated in the late 2000s.

Soft Cell reunited in 2000 for a series of European live dates. They cut a new song, “God Shaped Hole,” for the 2001 Some Bizzare compilation I’d Rather Shout at a Returning Echo than Kid Someone’s Listening. Their reunion album, Cruelty Without Beauty, appeared in 2002 on the Cooking Vinyl label. It contains their long-awaited recording of the Four Seasons song “The Night,” which Soft Cell originally considered in 1981 before choosing “Tainted Love” for their second single. “The Night” reached No. 39 on the UK Singles Chart.

Soft Cell reunited again in 2018 for a UK tour and released two new songs: “Northern Lights” and “Guilty (Cos I Say You Are).” In 2021, Almond and Ball did a five-date UK tour to mark the fortieth anniversary of Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret.


Albums:
  • Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret (November 27, 1981)
  • The Art of Falling Apart (January 15, 1983)
  • This Last Night in Sodom (March 24, 1984)
  • Cruelty Without Beauty (October 8, 2002)
EPs and Singles:
  • 1980: Mutant Moments (EP)
  • 1981: “A Man Can Get Lost” / “Memorabilia*”
  • 1981: “Memorabilia” / “Persuasion” (non-LP 12”)
  • 1981: “Tainted Love” / “Where Did Our Love Go*”
  • 1981: “Bedsitter” / “Facility Girls*”
  • 1981: “Say Hello, Wave Goodbye”
  • 1982: “Torch” / “Insecure Me” (non-LP single)
  • 1982: “What?” / “…So*”
  • 1982: Non-Stop Ecstatic Dancing (EP)
  • 1982: “Where the Heart Is” / “It’s a Mugs Game*”
  • 1983: “Numbers” / “Barriers*”
  • 1983: “Soul Inside” / “You Only Live Twice*”
    • + “007 Theme*” (12″), “Her Imagination*” (2×7”)
  • 1984: “Down in the Subway” / “Disease and Desire*”
    • + “Born to Lose*” (12″)

*non-album b-sides

Archival:
  • Science Fiction Stories (1987, recorded 1978–80)
  • The Bedsit Tapes (2005, recorded 1978–80)

Sources:

1 thought on “Soft Cell

  1. First draft intro (2018):
    “Soft Cell was an English electro/art-pop duo from Leeds that released three proper albums and assorted shortplayers on Some Bizzare/Sire between 1981 and 1984. The duo consisted of vocalist/performer Marc Almond and keyboardist/programmer Dave Ball. With their 1981 debut album Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret, Soft Cell became one of the U.K.’s most popular acts. The album was accompanied by one of the industry’s first video-albums in which each song has an accompanying video clip.

    While Soft Cell was still active, Almond released two albums with the cabaret-goth side-project Marc & the Mambas. After the pair split, he immediately launched a prolific, successful solo career.”

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