Splitting up, getting back together (twice), a farewell gig that wasn’t quite goodbye… and now Soft Cell are making another welcome return. Marc Almond and Dave Ball remain as thick as thieves and ‘Happiness Not Included’, their first album for 20 years, shows why the duo are still the undisputed kings of twisted synthpop

Marc Almond can pinpoint the exact moment he lost his anonymity and realised that life would never be the same again.

“It was just after our first ‘Top Of The Pops’ appearance,” says Almond, referring to Soft Cell performing ‘Tainted Love’ on the TV show in 1981. “I was in Leeds, buying cigarettes at the corner shop, and I suddenly became aware of this thing, being recognised, which is unlike anything you imagine. It is oddly invasive and intimidating, as you have no real sense of what reaction it might evoke. I don’t think anyone thrust into the limelight is ever prepared for it, regardless of how many times the movie in their head has played out. I wish I’d said it, but ‘fame is a mask that once you put on, you can never take off’.”

Almond’s musical partner Dave Ball has a recollection of a similarly “scary” episode, when the duo were recording ‘Bedsitter’, the follow-up single to ‘Tainted Love’, and the pressure was full-on.

“It was harder for us because our first hit was a Number One,” explains the synth legend. “But every band who’s been called a one-hit wonder must have gone through that terror… ‘What if it’s all over, already?’.”

He needn’t have worried. Soft Cell went on to notch up 12 UK Top 40 singles, including six Top 10 hits, and four UK Top 20 albums between 1981 and 1984, totalling 25 million record sales to date. After last November’s live shows celebrating the 40th anniversary of their platinum debut, ‘Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret’, the duo are now getting ready to release a new album, ‘Happiness Not Included’, their first for 20 years, which brilliantly reconciles their pop and experimental sides. It’s also somewhat unexpected, given that their concert at London’s O2 Arena in September 2018 was billed as their final farewell.

“Which was the intention,” insists Almond. “It felt like the right time and I sang knowing I wouldn’t sing those songs again as Soft Cell.”

Although their O2 set was rapturously received, Almond admits that he “didn’t feel elated”. He says it didn’t seem like it was a true Soft Cell show, never mind the way that he wanted to bow out.

“The scale of it meant it felt difficult to connect,” he explains. “There were magical moments, such as 20,000 people singing ‘Say Hello, Wave Goodbye’ holding up lights, but I came away with a flatness. It was too long and we tried to please too many of the fans. Ironically, it felt incomplete.”

Ball asserts that “at the back of my mind I knew it wasn’t going to be the last gig”, and Soft Cell have split up and returned before. They first parted in 1984, after being so burned by success and drugs that Ball says they were “losing touch with reality”. A reunion in the early 2000s (which produced their ‘Cruelty Without Beauty’ album) was derailed in 2004 when a near-fatal motorcycle accident left Almond in a coma for a month and Ball “absolutely mortified”.

The 2018 O2 performance had been intended as a one-off to promote the band’s career-spanning ‘Keychains & Snowstorms’ boxset and bring the curtain down, but Ball admits that he’d never been comfortable with Almond (“who can be impulsive”) announcing it was their last show. Then, after they’d had two years to “think about what Marc had said”, Covid-19 brought 
a dramatic volte-face.

“The world changed and in many ways we all changed, so what we thought was a mapped-out future wasn’t,” explains the singer. “I found myself with time on my hands and suddenly in a bizarre dystopian world of Covid and panic, real tragedy and sadness coupled with everyone going crazy, and I think Dave and I thought, ‘Why the hell not?’.”

Once they’d made the decision, they started working on Soft Cell songs – as opposed to Marc Almond solo material, which Dave Ball has penned before, between stints in The Grid or working with artists as diverse as Genesis P Orridge and Kylie Minogue.

“Dave sends me musical ideas and if they inspire me, which they usually do in some way, I write around them,” says Almond, explaining that they worked remotely during lockdowns – but then they always did. “We don’t sit down and write together. Never have.”

“I sort of know what makes him react,” explains Ball. “I will [adopts a Kraftwerk voice] ‘play a little melody’ and try to get a response. We’ve always bounced off each other like that. Then once we get together, it sounds like Soft Cell. It can’t be anything else.”

Although the pandemic hardly left Almond short of lyrical ideas, what he didn’t want to do was fall into the trap of writing about it. Not directly, anyway.

“There was an early song called ‘Strange Kind Of Dance’, which was inspired by trips to the supermarket where everyone was trying to social distance, but it never made the album. It’s not an album of Covid songs, but it reflects that period.”

As well as much else. ‘Happiness Not Included’ certainly isn’t a record by a veteran band trying to recreate their youth. Contemplating their experiences and their time on the planet, if a theme emerges it’s one of disillusionment that a promised vision of tomorrow – of hover cars and endless periods of leisure – has never actually materialised, and yet the lyrics are ultimately hopeful.

“The picture on the cover is the abandoned radioactive funfair at Chernobyl,” reveals Ball. “There’s a Ferris wheel and an old dodgem car. We’re both in our 60s [Ball is 62, Almond is 64] and when you get to middle age and beyond you’re looking forwards and backwards.”

“Very early on we gave the album the working title ‘Future Nostalgia’, which of course then became the title of Dua Lipa’s album, as odd as that seems and as annoying it is,” expands Almond. “So I suppose the general theme was around that idea. I think you deal with themes that are meaningful to you when you get to a certain age and discover that everything you hoped or imagined has come true, but only in part. A kind of warped and disappointing view of the future.

“There is so much madness presently in the world that it is hard to process it. I find I usually start from a point of negativity. But in the end – if indeed this is the end – there is a thread of optimism that comes with accepting who we are and where we are in the world.”

Photo: Andrew Whitton

This is most apparent on the track ‘Purple Zone’, a favourite of the Pet Shop Boys when Soft Cell unveiled it during the ‘Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret’ 40th anniversary shows. It seems to explore the issues of ageing, digging deep into anxieties. Almond isn’t censoring himself – not that he ever did.

“‘Purple Zone’ is such a lockdown song,” he notes. “I think you sum it up actually better than I could have! I was also reading about synaesthesia, where your senses are displaced and contorted. Within the condition is something called a ‘purple zone’, a no-man’s land of senses, disconnected from the past and therefore fearful of the future. That song came to me very quickly. It is as much about the fear instilled in us by the media, about control, about consumerism. There are countless references to purple zones, be they in religion, politics and, of course, areas of quarantine in China.”

If ‘Purple Zone’ is a sublime electronic banger, ‘Light Sleepers’, another standout, has a gently swayable, almost symphonic vibe. It’s one of the most mesmeric tracks Soft Cell have ever recorded. It’s certainly a long way from ‘Sex Dwarf’ on ‘Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret’.

“I was working with a friend of mine, Jon Savage, who’s a concert pianist,” explains Ball. “I made an album called ‘Photosynthesis’ with him in 2016. I’d stay with his family in Essex – a lot more peaceful than London – and I said I wanted to do a ballad. So we wrote something that was slower and more pastoral, with an orchestral arrangement. John Barry is one of my heroes.”

Almond penned the lyrics – a eulogy to outriders, rebels and dreamers – in a cafe in Los Angeles at six in the morning, thousands of miles away from his musical companion.

“I’d been there for a couple of days and was still suffering jet lag,” remembers the singer. “I was watching the other early risers and it just came to me. LA gives an air of nostalgic decay. I’d always wanted to evoke that feeling of a city waking up, a city yawning. For me, LA exists in my mind like a 1970s West Coast album cover – Joni Mitchell, The Eagles, or The Doors’ ‘Waiting For The Sun’.”

Perhaps the most outrightly nostalgic song on ‘Happiness Not Included’ is ‘Polaroid’, a semi-fictionalised account of a real-life meeting with Andy Warhol in New York. As befits their very different personalities, Almond was slightly disheartened, Ball was blown away.

“I was expecting to be let down,” admits the keyboardist. “Because what if Warhol had turned out to be this really nice and normal chap? I mean, maybe he was when the public weren’t around, but no one understood him. He was worth millions and he had properties all over New York. He was probably the first person to fully understand celebrity culture. Did I like him? I liked the fact that he was Andy Warhol, the most famous artist in the world.”

Their encounter took place in 1982 when, as the latest hot English celebs in town, the electronic duo were invited over.

“We were sat across from Warhol and I was thinking, ‘I can’t believe we’re here’,” continues Ball, still sounding slightly incredulous even now. “And it was so… mundane. ‘So, how do you like New York?’ he said. He started taking Polaroids of us, so we took Polaroids of him, and it became a weird game. He gave us some signed copies of ‘From A To B And Back Again [The Philosophy Of Andy Warhol]’ and we gave him our album. We had our hour and that was it.”

In ‘Polaroid’, Almond imagines what it might have been like had they met in the 1960s, when Warhol was still based at The Factory and The Velvet Underground, Nico and Candy Darling were milling around. Ball, however, insists that Warhol “was exactly what I had expected and I was really pleased he was like that.”

Experiences like that would have seemed the stuff of fantasy when Almond and Ball met as art students at Leeds Polytechnic in 1977. They formed Soft Cell after Ball started composing electronic music for Almond’s performance art pieces such as ‘Mirror Fucking’.

“He’d be naked in front of a full-length mirror, smearing himself with cat food and shagging himself,” says Ball. “It provoked quite a reaction.”

For Almond – as private and introvert offstage as he is extrovert on it and someone who has endured the isolation that can accompany fame – their chemistry was obvious from day one.

“We are so different, but our roots are firmly from the north and north-west of England,” he explains. “The affordable glamour and heart of Blackpool [Ball’s home town] and seaside resorts out of season like Southport [Almond’s]. The darkness of Leeds in the time of the Yorkshire Ripper, the anger and the excitement of the music scene with northern soul, disco, punk and electro… this was new to all of us.

“I was angsty and spotty and gay – the least likely pop star – and Dave was tall and handsome and charismatic. As Jung said, ‘The meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances – if there is any reaction, both are transformed’. We were both transformed by each other.”

It’s not always recognised that Soft Cell were one of the first British electronic duos – predating the Pet Shop Boys, Erasure et al, never mind Orbital or The Chemical Brothers.

“There was Sparks in America, but they’d been a five-piece rock band,” reflects Ball. “And Suicide, but they were more about the Farfisa organ.”

When Soft Cell performed ‘Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret’ in 2021, Ball was surprised how great it sounded. The same for the duo’s non-album cult single, ‘Memorabilia’.

“A lot of people say it was a precursor to Detroit techno, but I can’t take full credit for that,” he says. “A lot of that was down to Daniel Miller, who in my view was one of the inventors of techno. He was doing his version of Kraftwerk and he had sequencers and an ARP synthesiser. He gave Depeche Mode their basic sound. If you listen to the bass drum sound on ‘Memorabilia’ and Depeche Mode’s ‘Speak & Spell’, they’re exactly the same. It’s the same Roland drum machine.”

Ball – who is full of wonderful, tiny details – points out that Miller bought his Roland from Elton John, while his own second-hand Maxi-Korg 800DV duophonic/monophonic synth (purchased for £450 in Blackpool) had once belonged to Jethro Tull.

“So in a way, both Elton John and Jethro Tull had a hand in the development of British electronica,” he laughs.

Ball meanwhile suspects that his group had a hand – or at least an elegantly black varnished fingernail – in goth. The Sisters Of Mercy frontman Andrew Eldritch was an occasional visitor to the duo’s scruffy Leeds flat and could regularly be sighted around the Woodhouse area wearing a leather cap like Almond’s. Pre-goth but post-punk, the Leeds bands all knew each other because they drank in The Fenton pub, a stone’s throw from the Polytechnic and the University.

“Gang Of Four, The Mekons and Delta 5 all used to take the piss out of us – ‘What are those two doing with a synth and a tape machine?’,” remembers Ball. “And probably rightly so! We all thought Gang Of Four were going to be the next Clash. They were incredible. But if someone had walked in and said, ‘Which one of these groups is going to have a Number One single?’, and pointed to us, they’d have been laughed out of the room.”

Photo: Andrew Whitton

As the synth man tells it, Phonogram Records had been surprised when ‘Memorabilia’ made an unlikely impact in New York clubs and gave them another £2,000 to record a follow-up. Almond suggested covering ‘Tainted Love’ after he heard it at The Warehouse in Leeds and ran to the DJ asking, “What’s this?”. Ball knew the 1964 song – written by Ed Cobb and originally sung by Gloria Jones – from northern soul nights. It was the B-side to a flop single.

“When we started on our own version, it felt twisted and strange. That suited us. We were an odd couple. Marc, this gay bloke in make-up, and me, a big guy who looked like a minder.”

Ball credits Mike Thorne for his role in producing what became 1981’s second biggest-selling UK single. It was also a massive global hit.

“He put a Synclavier on ‘Tainted Love’ when no one had heard of a digital synth before. And the intro was a classic pop trick. You think of ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’ or the opening chord of ‘A Hard Day’s Night’, and the moment you hear the first note you can name that tune in one.”

‘Tainted Love’ changed everything. Almost literally overnight, Soft Cell went from would-be experimental contemporaries of Throbbing Gristle and Cabaret Voltaire to an internationally successful pop outfit, albeit one that never compromised their subversive tendencies.

“It was never by design,” says Ball. “We just found ourselves in the charts all the time. In our minds, we were still an art band. We were trying to be as rebellious as we could.”

“It was deliberately instinctive,” adds Almond. “Part of me was so full of anger and frustration. I wanted to shock.”

Ball vividly recalls their ‘Top Of The Pops’ debut and the American bands on the programme gawping at them – “Marc with his make-up and me stood behind my synth” – like they were from Mars.

“The BBC are still slightly nervous of us, but back then we were considered this weird duo,” chuckles Ball. “The record company asked Marc to tone the eyeliner down, get rid of all the bangles, get a bass player and a drummer… so instead Marc wore more eyeliner and more bangles. After that, the BBC switchboard was jammed, which was exactly what we had wanted.”

Almond had seen David Bowie playing ‘Starman’ on ’Top Of The Pops’ in 1972 – when the glam icon’s androgynous look, striking hair and different-sized pupils prompted many a playground debate over whether he might actually be an alien – and wanted the same impact. He got it.

“My dad was absolutely outraged,” says Ball. “‘What the hell is this?!’ He was a straight up, Tory voting, Glenn Miller fan. Still had his Brylcreemed hair and his demob suit. When he saw Marc, he didn’t know if he was a man or a woman. I always thought Marc looked like Liza Minnelli. The same short hair and make-up. Marc was into the whole Berlin ‘Cabaret’ thing as well.”

After the ‘Tainted Love’ appearances, sales of eyeliner, bangles, leather and black cap-sleeved T-shirts rocketed.

Soft Cell aren’t always given enough credit for the way they upset the mainstream, in terms of outfits, sonic landscapes and the lyrical content they took to the Top 10.

“If I shone a light, that’s great to know,” says Almond, the thoughtful conceptualist yin to Ball’s anecdote-dispensing yang. “Other people before me shone a light in my darkness, so it’s the most you can hope for.”

Although the singer didn’t come out publicly or officially until 1987, his sexuality was a constant guessing game for both the press and the public.

“What is ‘officially’ coming out?” he ponders. “Saying the words ‘I am gay’? I always stood by the belief that we should not be compartmentalised. I loved the blurring edges. I thought the androgyny was important and I refused to be categorised. But in many respects, did it really need saying? I was also terrified by the press officer at the record company – who was ironically gay himself [laughs]. He told me it would end my career, that I’d let everyone down, and he was constantly trying to invent heterosexual situations for me.

“But it certainly didn’t seem to be a secret to mainstream TV, where certain performers would do distressing homophobic impersonations of me. I never once denied being gay, and frankly it wasn’t anyone’s business but mine, and of course it fed into the subversiveness. That is also why I write songs that are genderless, in particular when they are romantic.”

A good example was the pair’s third smash single, ‘Say Hello, Wave Goodbye’. One interpretation is that the protagonist is a gay man who tries to make a heterosexual relationship work and the lyrics celebrate his realisation that he can’t live a lie, that he needs to be himself. Almond insists that ideally it can mean whatever the listener wants it to.

“I would never want there to be a correct reading of the song. At the time of writing it, I had a particular idea of a politician or an aristocrat in a relationship with a call girl. But if you take ‘Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret’ as a song cycle concept, you could think of ‘Frustration’ as an opening of that. He has an affair but it doesn’t work out so, as with all of us, the gravitational pull is back to ordinariness. The Soho neon-drenched film noir quality was inspired by 60s movies like ‘The Small World Of Sammy Lee’ [the Ken Hughes crime thriller] or ‘The World Ten Times Over’ [the Wolf Rilla drama].”

We live in a very different world to the one into which Soft Cell emerged. Sexuality of all kinds is far more widely accepted. Is Almond – now an OBE – proud to have been part of that national conversation?

“If indeed I have been, then of course,” he says. “Unless you lived through that period from the late 60s to the mid-90s, it is all but impossible to appreciate the level of homophobia that gay men and women faced, and then the onset of AIDS added levels of personal loss and suffering, heroism and struggle. People talk about Covid, but for most gay people above 50 years old, this is their second pandemic. At least there is a collective sense of the nation working together with this one.

“During AIDS, that was far from the case. Many gay people were poisoned by that time – myself included – searching somehow for an antidote to it. Others were nailed into their closets, unable to come out, to accept themselves as valued or worthy. The 1970s promised so much hope – a new decade with the decriminalisation of homosexuality, the androgyny of Bowie and Marc Bolan, the gay rights movement – but it would be another 40 years before any tangible change would really happen in society. Even today, homophobia hasn’t really gone away, it’s just taken another face – the double-edged sword of social media or whatever. It’s a different kind of fear.”

Similar thoughts perhaps underpin ‘New Eden’, the closing track of ‘Happiness Not Included’. Ball’s concept of a fantasy musical collaboration between Brian Eno and John Barry, with its gentle piano and gospel-tinged female backing vocals, may just be Soft Cell’s most beautiful – and hopeful – song ever.

“I think I wrote the lyrics for older people who feel lost in this current, polarised, black-and-white world,” says Almond. “I wanted to evoke the optimism that comes with at least a belief of a better place. I loved the song ‘Go West’, first sung by the Village People, as it was filled with a promise of something better and freer in the period before AIDS. Then there was the Pet Shop Boys’ remarkable version, which taps into the post-AIDS world and shifts the theme to East-West relations and political freedoms, and there’s also this lovely sadness and Neil Tennant’s melancholic delivery.”

For Ball, Soft Cell’s existence in 2022 is all about creativity and ideas and reflecting the times they’re living in. Maybe the fact that the duo have only made five studio albums over 41 years explains why the well is far from dry.

Which begs the question, will they play this new material live? And might there yet be even more to come?

“I think I’ll probably say, ‘Never say never’,” teases Almond. “I think no is the new yes.”

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