Memory Motel: Soft Cell and The Art of Falling Apart
Synths, sex, and soul - oh my!
In 1981, a couple of odd young Brits emerged seemingly from out of nowhere to create a timeless moment in pop music. The leering lads from Leeds were Marc Almond and Dave Ball, better known as Soft Cell, and their story will forever be centered on their single "Tainted Love." The song represented a pretty unprecedented move for a synthesizer-based group from the blossoming electro-pop wing of the U.K New Wave world - it was a cover of a ‘60s soul cut, and an esoteric one at that. The original version was recorded in 1964 by R&B thrush Gloria Jones, as a B-side to "My Bad Boy's Comin' Home." As lovers of Northern soul (a U.K. term for the American R&B nuggets spun at discos in the North of England), Soft Cell came naturally to the tune, and while they invested it with a contemporary sheen, Almond's impassioned vocal bore all the emotion of the original and then some.
After becoming an international smash, the single inspired other electronic acts to follow suit with their own synthed-up covers of ‘60s pop/R&B tunes. Naked Eyes' take on the Dionne Warwick hit "Always Something There To Remind Me" and Heaven 17's version of The Temptations' "Ball of Confusion" (under their British Electronic Foundation alias) were among the many that came in "Tainted Love"'s wake, but none equaled its impact. As Kurt B. Reighley points out in his new eBook, Say Hello, Wave Goodbye: The Fleeting Fame & Lasting Legacy of Soft Cell, the world would have you think that was the beginning and the end of the Soft Cell story, tossing them too carelessly into the one-hit-wonder bin, but for a little while at least, Almond and Ball had plenty more up their sleeves where their signature song came from.
Both the duo's debut album, 1981's Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret, and its companion piece, 1982 EP Non-Stop Ecstatic Dancing, are milestones in their own right, filled to the brim with songs - both originals and covers - fully capable of standing proudly alongside "Tainted Love." Soft Cell's songs conjured up a world where the existential loneliness of urban nightlife, the quick, clandestine thrills of sordid sexual adventures, and the maddening materialsm of contemporary society came together in a thrilling rush of images and emotions, all buoyed by Ball's sparkling synth licks and drum-machine beats and brought home by Almond's enfant terrible expressionism. As Reighley reminds us, the musical microcosm created by Almond and Ball, from the discofied displacement of "Memorabilia" to the pent-up, private fury of "Frustration," and even the Swinging London sashay of "What," another ‘60s cover, also had special significance for those who identified with Almond's tsouris as an unofficially but obviously gay pop star in what was still a relatively unenlightened era.
But after '82, things began to go awry for Soft Cell. It was likely a classic case of too much too soon combined with the fact that Almond and Ball walked it like they talked it, diving headfirst into the hedonistic world they described in their songs, and ending up with some serious substance-abuse issues in the process. Or maybe it was simply the law of averages catching up with a duo that had been incredibly fortunate early in its career. Whatever the reason, Soft Cell never again came close to equaling the energy and invention they displayed on those first two records. While Reighley doesn't spend too much time dwelling on the failings of 1983's appropriately titled album The Art of Falling Apart and its '84 follow-up, This Last Night In Sodom, perhaps preferring to offer the benefit of the doubt, it's nevertheless fascinating to compare Soft Cell's aforementioned crowning glories with the lackluster production and melody-challenged songwriting that typifies the latter two albums, especially when you realize Ecstatic Dancing and The Art of Falling Apart were separated by a mere six months. By 1984 the writing was pretty much on the wall, and Almond and Ball amicably parted ways. Each ventured off into his own eccentric solo projects, Almond ultimately reinventing himself as a sort of Jacques Brel/Scott Walker for the alt generation, and Ball puttering with quirky electronic outings, most successfully as half of The Grid in the early ‘90s.
Treat yourself to a stroll through Reighley's fascinating account of Soft Cell's short-but-spectacular heyday, and don't forget that in the end, the trainwreck the pair's career quickly became only serves to further illuminate all the unlikely factors that came together to form the perfect pop storm that was Marc Almond and Dave Ball's unparalleled 1981-'82 output.
|Soft Cell - "Tainted Love"|