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

SAME SONG CONVEYING DIFFERENT EMOTIONS

This song, and indeed its cover, have both featured on the blog before. But a while back it hit me that the two versions deal with very different feelings and emotions and in the case of the cover raises highly relevant social issues that have been with us for as long as I can remember and which nobody in power has ever made it a priority to tackle. But then again, that would require imagination, resources and a willingness to support and empower those who are most removed from the everyday norms.

mp3 : Soft Cell – Bedsitter (12″ version)
mp3 : Carter USM – Bedsitter

Where the original brought home the emptiness of living alone in the single-room within a multiple occupancy flat, the cover is an angrier and rawer version. Where the protagonist in the original goes between the highs of being the party animal and the lows of another night alone in a cold and damp space, the protagonist in the cover is bitter at the way life has given him a bum deal but resigned to his fate as there’s no prospect of escape. Where Marc and David had fun but knew it was a false front, Jim-Bob and Fruitbat feel nothing but utter misery.

As for the politicians:-

mp3 : Chumabawamba – Mouthful of Shit

JC

A LAZY STROLL DOWN MEMORY LANE : 45 45s AT 45 (44)

 

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ORIGINALLY POSTED ON TUESDAY 25 MARCH 2008

There could have been any one of a number of Soft Cell singles put up for consideration in this particular countdown. So why Bedsitter?

Simple really – it was the one that showed they were not going to be novelty one-hit wonders courtesy of a cover version.

Loads of blokes – hetros, homos and those not quite so sure – fell in love with Marc Almond on first sight. For me, it was the clothes and his attitude of seemingly not caring what anyone else thought of him. I was 18 years of age at the time, not long into my first year and university, but still living at home. I was happy enough, but looking to do something different with my life. Black became the colour of all my clothes….eye liner became the choice of make-up…..I started going to discotheques in Glasgow….but only the ones that would play non-chart fodder. Sadly, there weren’t that many of them, and certainly not on Saturday nights. But Maestro’s was one such place, as was Night Moves (which also doubled as a concert venue in midweek).

I thought Soft Cell were incredible. The fact that Marc wasn’t a classical singer in the true sense of the word irritated so many folk. The fact that Dave Ball was a bit weird-looking disturbed a lot of folk. They reminded me so much of Sparks – a band that often brightened up my childhood with appearances on Top Of The Pops (and who would have made this Top 45 if I had in fact bought This Town Aint Big Enough For Both Of Us when it came out).

It’s amazing to look back and realise just how enormous Soft Cell actually were in the early 80s. Tainted Love was the biggest selling single of 1981. Bedsitter reached #4. Say Hello Wave Goodbye, #3 in early 1982. All of these were from Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret, a #5 LP.

Then it was Torch in April 1982 – it reached #2, followed by What! in July and it hit #9 in the charts. And those were the days when you needed to shift in excess of 500,000 copies to hit the Top 10…

The songs that followed – singles and LPs alike were, if anything, much more enjoyable. Problem was, they were less catchy and less radio-friendly. There also now loads of acts who sounded like Soft Cell and who could churn out hit after hit. Not surprisingly, Marc and Dave soon went their separate ways to enjoy decades of success in their own ways.

Back in 2002, the duo reformed an played a short British tour. Having been fortunate enough to see Marc Almond live several times as a solo performer, the gig at Glasgow Barrowlands was a night not to be missed. And so it proved….

More than quarter of a century after I first listened to Soft Cell, I’m still doing so on a regular basis. And I think there’s plenty more like me out there.

I still have my 12″ copy of Bedsitter – the label tells me that the single is the Early Morning Dance Side, while the flip track is the Late Night Listening Side. Both tracks clock in at almost 8 minutes….

mp3 : Soft Cell – Bedsitter (12 inch version)
mp3 : Soft Cell – Facility Girls (12 inch version)

GETTING JULY OFF TO A POPULAR START (Part 3 of 3)

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This is where the original plan to feature all the Soft Cell 12″ efforts ran into problems as I’m missing some of the later releases.  I wasn’t all that keen on Numbers, the second and final single to be released from The Art Of Falling Apart and made the decision that I’d wait until I saw it in a bargain bin before picking up a copy.  Unfortunately, I never did…as I was to learn that the 12″ effort was again a work of art with an extended opening sequence while the b-side was a very fine electronic ballad.

Before the calendar year of 1983 was out the boys brought out a new single which turned out to be a taster for a forthcoming LP that would ultimately be released in March 84 around a month after the band had confirmed their break-up.  I didn’t make the same mistake as I had with Numbers  – not that I wanted to as I think Soul Inside is one of their most underrated 45s and certainly deserved a much better chart position than #16.  And at almost 12 minutes long, the extended version is truly epic.

The final Soft Cell single is another that I don’t have a copy of. I certainly bought Down In The Subway but it is missing from the bits of vinyl stacked away in the cupboard.  I’m guessing that it ended up, by accident, in the collection of one or other of my student flatmates when our lease came to an end and we packed up our belongings and went our separate ways.

But rather than have a poor ending to the series I’m going to offer up the tracks on the UK and Canadian versions of Soul Inside as I picked up a copy of the latter when I was living in Toronto a few years back as well as the tracks on the bonus 12″ single that came with the initial copies of the second LP:-

mp3 : Soft Cell – Soul Inside
mp3 : Soft Cell – Loving You Hating Me
mp3 : Soft Cell – You Only Live Twice
mp3 : Soft Cell – 007 Theme

mp3 : Soft Cell – Numbers
mp3 : Soft Cell – Barriers
mp3 : Soft Cell – Her Imagination

mp3 : Soft Cell – Martin
mp3 : Soft Cell – Hendrix Medley

Martin is a magnificently twisted and dark composition regarded by many fans as one of the best things David and Marc ever recorded and while it is a bit of mystery as to why it wasn’t part of the proper album it shouldn’t be forgotten that at 10 minutes long it fitted better as a bonus 12″ single and was provided as special reward to those of us who bought a copy of The Art Of Falling Apart at the outset.

Oh and you’ll notice that my Canadian purchase negated my need to find a copy of Numbers/Barriers as well as providing a copy of the song that had only been made available in the UK as part of the 2×7″ release of Soul Inside.

Enjoy!!

GETTING JULY OFF TO A POPULAR START (Part 2 of 3)

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It was right on the back of the success of Say Hello, Wave Goodbye, that Soft Cell returned with a new self-written song and what in retrospect many consider to be their finest 45. It was a trumpet-led effort that had class and style written all over it; it reached #2 in the UK singles chart but really did deserve to have taken the top spot.

Next up was their take on another largely unheralded single, originally recorded by Judy Street in 1968 and re-released in 1977 after it had become a staple of the Northern Soul scene here in the UK.  The b-side is interesting as it as its an instrumental which gives an early indication that Dave Ball was getting bored writing catchy hits.

Finally for today, the lead-off 45 from the duo’s second LP, The Art of Falling Apart, a record which upon release would alienate many of those who saw Soft Cell purely as a pop band and delight those of us who loved their deeper, darker and more experimental side.

mp3 : Soft Cell – Torch
mp3 : Soft Cell – Insecure Me

mp3 : Soft Cell – What
mp3 : Soft Cell – So

mp3 : Soft Cell – Where The Heart Is
mp3 : Soft Cell – It’s A Mug’s Game

Enjoy.

GETTING JULY OFF TO A POPULAR START (Part 1 of 3)

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I had thought about following up the ongoing Altered Images singles series with a look back at the 12″ versions of the 45s released by Soft Cell in the 80s. The snag however, being that I don’t own absolutely everything by them. Instead, I’ll use the next three days to offer those bits of plastic that I do own, starting with the first three singles taken from Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret:-

mp3 : Soft Cell – Tainted Love/Where Did Our Love Go
mp3 : Soft Cell – Tainted Dub

mp3 : Soft Cell – Bedsitter
mp3 : Soft Cell – Facility Girls

 

 

mp3 : Soft Cell – Say Hello, Wave Goodbye
mp3 : Soft Cell – Fun City

All three singles reached the Top 5 in the UK and all three 12″ versions expand and improve on the better-known 7″ or album versions. The b-sides are also in extended form.

Parts 2 and 3 will appear over the next two days.

Enjoy.