AN IMAGINARY COMPILATION ALBUM : #156 : SOFT CELL

This will be an ICA heavily reliant on singles as there can be no question that Soft Cell, especially in their most commercially successful period between 1981 and 1983, released a number of 45s that today can still be regarded as classics. It also contains songs that have featured in the blog in the past and I’ve taken the liberty of doing some cuttin’n’pastin’ from old posts as I don’t think I can improve on what I said previously.

It really is a frightening thought that Marc Almond and David Ball first hooked up at Leeds Polytechnic more than 40 years ago and that they unleashed their music on the listening public as long ago as 1980. They were very much at the forefront of adding pop hooks to synth music thus broadening its appeal beyond that of the musos and nerds, but they did so in a way unlike any of their contemporaries.

It is always worth remembering that the duo didn’t set out to be pop stars and that their collaboration was initially all about creating music for extreme and often very confrontational performance art shows in which sexual imagery was readily deployed. This was in the middle of an era when colleges and schools all across the UK were able to offer students the opportunity to study art in its broadest sense of the word and the likes of John Lennon, Keith Richards, John Cale, Pete Townsend, Ray Davies, Freddie Mercury, Bryan Ferry, Brian Eno, Ian Dury, Joe Strummer and Mick Jones were among the best examples of musicians who had benefitted from such courses. In later years, Sade, Jarvis Cocker, Graham Coxon and PJ Harvey would do similar.

Their academic background meant that Almond and Ball had innovative ideas and ways to add to the music they were making and they also emerged just as video was becoming an integral part of the make-up of pop singers and bands; in some ways, they were in the right place at exactly the right time but there is no question that their ability to write and record some amazing original hooks, as well as finding ways to modernise and update obscure but brilliant northern soul records, was what enabled them to rise to the top.

SIDE A

1. Memorobilia (edit)

The best-known of the early songs remains the perfect calling card. A limited edition EP in 1980, funded, as so many of the great records of era seemed to be, through borrowings from family, had caught the attention of Stevo, the owner of Some Bizarre which was a newly established label based in London, and the duo were invited to contribute tracks to a compilation album aimed at showcasing the label. The early promise was followed up by a couple of singles, neither of which set the heather alight, but one of which was finding huge favour in some of the more alternative and fetish nightclubs that were beginning to pop up in all sorts of strange new venues in the capital. Memorobilia had a weird, other-wordly riff to drive it along while the desperate vocal sounded as it had had been penned and was being delivered by someone who was dancing the hours away in one of these clubs – when images of Soft Cell began to circulate, along with rumours that they had all sorts of pervy songs in their canon, the touchpaper had been truly lit.

2. Bedsitter (12”)

You have to allow me to leap forward a bit. Soft Cell could have become just another cult band if it hadn’t been for what happened next, namely that they recorded and released a single that was as equally perfect for radio and dancehalls. The fact it was a cover version was neither here nor there, for it was of such an obscure song that everyone assumed it was an original, written to take advantage of electronica, including synths and drum machines. But we’ll come to that later in the ICA.

The next again single provided a remarkable social commentary, juxtaposing the loneliness and emptiness of living alone in a cold and damp single-room within a multiple occupancy flat with the temporary and artificial highs that come with being the party animal. I bet the protagonist in this song was a Gemini.

3. The Art Of Falling Apart

The title track of the sophomore album bounces along at a frantic pace and fits in really well at this stage of the ICA. It also works in a sort of conceptual way in that I’ve long thought this is the tale of the boy in the bedsitter, having achieved some unexpected fame and fortune, soon realises that he’s incapable of sustaining anything in his life and, piece by piece, it is going to come crashing down spectacularly on top of him. Soft Cell were, by this time, regulars in the singles charts and on Top of the Pops but all three of their albums went beyond mere pop and I’m thinking a few parents would have been horrified by the sounds and noises emanating from the stereos in their teenage kids bedrooms.

4. Martin

The ones most horrified would be those whose kids were quick enough to buy The Art of Falling Apart to also receive the limited edition bonus 12” single in which the duo, on one side, did an extended medley of songs made famous by Jimi Hendrix (with each of Hey Joe, Purple Haze and Voodoo Chile being brilliantly, almost unrecognisable) and on the other they unleashed Martin, a completely OTT number. more than 10 minutes in length, chronicling the exploits of a teenage vampire, complete with ‘kill kill kill’ refrain. Sweet Suburbia indeed.

5. Soul Inside

Pop stars in the 80s were able to enjoy all sorts of the trappings associated with success and the incredibly rapid rise came at a hefty price for the duo. The promotion of the hits and the albums had been fuelled by a mix of alcohol and drugs and probably the only thing that saved them was a temporary six-month break during which the singer formed Marc and the Mambas and the instrumentalist drew breath. They got back together in late 83 to work on their third album but soon came to realise that they had different perceptions for the best way forward. The decision was taken to complete and release the album but to call an end to the group. The album, This Last Night in Sodom, is a bit on the patchy side, (although some think it is their finest effort), but this, its lead-off single, is an absolute belter, an upbeat and joyous anthem of wild celebration which seems to acknowledge that it really had been worth it.

SIDE B

1. Frustration

The opening song of the debut album Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret. As I’ve said before, it’s a great opener to one of the greatest albums of all time and is, more or less, The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin set to pop music.

2. Tainted Love/Where Did Our Love Go?

On the LP, the last wail of the sax on Frustration goes straight into one of the most recognisable two-note pieces of music ever recorded.

Marc Almond has since written that the arrangement on Tainted Love is all down to David Ball, with one exception; it was Marc’s idea to open with the tinny sounding ‘bim bim’ that would then be repeated throughout the song in the background. It was also his idea that the song would segue perfectly into another sixties classic, albeit in Where Did Our Love Go? they were deploying a tune that was incredibly well-known. At this time, the duo were still focussed on being experimental as much as possible and the plan when they went into the studio was to go for a 12” release aimed at the club market. It was producer Mike Thorne who twisted their arms to go with Tainted Love as a stand-alone track and as a compromise, a stand-alone cover of the Supremes number would be the b-side.

The 7” became a #1 hit the world over and went Top 10 on the Billboard chart in the USA, staying in that particular Top 100 for 43 weeks. It has sold millions, but of course neither Almond or Ball have any song-writing royalties from such sales thanks to the error of not including one of their own compositions on the single (albeit a re-recorded Memorobilia was on the 12”).

3. Torch

I’d like to think that Soul Inside was written with the times of writing and recording Torch in mind. New Order have, and rightly, long been lauded for heading to New York and immersing themselves in the fabric of the city in ways that influenced their sounds. Soft Cell, however, were truly the pioneers of this approach spending loads of time Stateside on the back of the success of Tainted Love and exploiting the fact that there was an ever bigger market for their kinky brand of electro-pop.

The time spent in the seedier clubs, and more importantly necking copious amounts of a new drug called Ecstacy, led to them penning a new song whose title was applicable to both the style and subject matter of the tune and lyric. Torch also made the trumpet a cool and hip instrument again, but best of all, it thumbed its nose at the establishment by utilising the band’s drug dealer on co-vocal, this ensuring she had a legitimate reason to be allowed into the UK for work purposes, including a memorable appearance on Top of the Pops.

4. Mr Self-Destruct

The opening song from the final LP which could be seen as their look back on the career they were calling a halt to. On the album it segues straight into Slave To This and this stand-alone version comes from a budget CD released long after they broke up….sadly it completely omits the use of the word ‘fucker’.

5. Say Hello, Wave Goodbye (12”)

In which Soft Cell showed that the cold and harsh synth sounds could be every bit as soulful and haunting as the Tamla Motown mid-temp ballads. Say Hello, Wave Goodbye really is What Becomes of the Broken-Hearted in a new era and a new location. Every late-teen and twenty-something, male and female alike, empathised with the protagonist who was standing in the door of the Pink Flamingo, crying their eyes out as the rain poured down in sympathy. The 12” inch is particularly glorious, with its extended and mournful clarinet solo intro setting the perfect tone for what, I would argue, has always been the finest few minutes in Marc Almond’s entire career, with his failure to hit the perfect notes at the end of the song only adding to its poignancy. There is no better way to close out this ICA.

JC

13 thoughts on “AN IMAGINARY COMPILATION ALBUM : #156 : SOFT CELL

  1. Seriously considered going to see their final concert but the O2 at £80+. Saw them at their last reunion and they were fantastic
    Glad you picked Martin – the scariest record ever made
    Love the epic and out of tune loving you hating me and Forever the Same (never really understood why that wasn’t a first single. You could almost do an ICA of their 12″ singles as there isn’t just the lazy extended instrumental session but often had whole new elements included, (The Torch one for the camp exchange between Marc Almond and Cindy Ecstasy is a delight). Also they put as much effort into the b side 12″ as the a sides (Barriers and Mugs Game are great examples). Maybe would have had to have had one from the come back lp that was way better than its sales deserved – although this is now fast turning into a double ICA

  2. Love it – only (minor) change for me would be the 12″ version of Torch instead of the 7″. As FORW says, the extended versions were a cut above what else was around at the time.

  3. Excellent ICA. I would almost prefer to see this list of songs live (and their 12″ versions) than what they will probably serve up at the O2. Always felt they had about 8-10 great songs but it was the 12″ that kept you coming back for more.

  4. Always think it’s nice when Soft Cell get a wee bit of recognition. They are probably a bit underappreciated, definitely under mentioned.

    This is a great selection, JC, and for once I can join in in discussions on the 12 inch versions. Soft Cell were true innovators of the 12 inch single, each was uniformly excellent with an organic, natural feel and surprise elements not apparent on the 7 inch. It was like they treated the 7 inch and 12 inch versions as different compositions and they were masters of both.

  5. Excellent ICA JC! I have to side with Brian though, What? is one of Soft Cells true gems for me. It’s a timeless pop song that is at the same times all 60s, 70s and early 80s spun together. Martin is one of the most harrowing pop songs ever recorded and Bedsitter stands among my 50 favorite songs at #10.

    And I am so glad you brought up the fact that Soft Cell, Marc especially spent loads of time in NYC and it really informed much of their work after The Art Of Falling Apart. There’s a song on This Last Night In Sodom called L’Esqualita which is all about the drag queens of Manhattans most famous and notorious drag cabaret of the same name. My friends and I saw Almond there more than once over the years, including in the early 2000’s. It was a wonderful place full of underground melodrama and perfect fodder for an artist like Marc Almond.

  6. “Luring disco dollies to a life of vice”

    This is a ridiculously strong ICA. I’d like to think they’d have gone a long way in the ICA World Cup

  7. Thank You so much for Torch. Brings back the sound of early summer 82 , along with Party Fears Two the sound track of my life when we had proper summer weather . And yes after to many drinks me and my guitar band mates thought it a good idea to do ‘air’ trumpet .

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