Synth pop pioneers Soft Cell are to celebrate the 40th anniversary of their seminal 1981 debut album Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret with a series of UK live shows in November. The five dates include shows in Manchester and Leeds and they will perform their ground-breaking album in full for the first time at these shows, along with old favourites and some tracks from a new album Happiness Not Included due out in 2022. The first single from the album, Bruises On My Illusions, is now available to download.
“We plan to do two sets in the evening,” said legendary frontman and LGBTQ icon Marc Almond. “The first set will be greatest hits, some album and fan favourites as well as previewing some new songs live for the first time. The second set will be Non Stop Erotic Cabaret in its entirety and in track order with accompanying visuals and a few extras at the end. It’ll be a full-on and exciting show.”
Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret featured the global chart-topping smash, and cover of Gloria Jones’ Northern Soul classic, Tainted Love, along with two more huge hits Bedsitter and Say Hello, Wave Goodbye. Deliciously confrontational and always glamorous, Soft Cell brought the colourful spirit of late 70s New York club scene to the UK and wrapped it up in irresistible pop songs. Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret played an essential part in making the early 80s pop world feel so vibrant, diverse and futuristic.
“What surprises me is how fresh Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret still sounds today,” says producer/instrumentalist Dave Ball. “I suppose we were both 40 years younger, so Marc’s voice sounds more youthful and not so polished as now. My synth playing and arrangements were more simplistic, although I’ve always tried to stick with my minimalist style.”
“If I sit back and think about its hard to believe that a small collection of songs has had such a long life, that people still listen to and enjoy it. I’m amazed at how current it still sounds,” Marc agrees, “and, lyrically, it is still relevant. It doesn’t feel like it’s 40 years old at all, but it scares me a bit to think that it is!”
Soft Cell flew in the face of the guitar-orientated punk bands of the late 70s, so recording their debut album in New York showed these Northern lads – Marc from Southport and Dave from Blackpool – to be made of tough stuff.
“I think it was our sheer determination to be successful, against all odds,” Dave reflects. “We probably wouldn’t have passed the audition stages of Pop Idol or X Factor nowadays, in our day that would have been Opportunity Knocks or New Faces. All the guitar bands in Leeds used to laugh at us. It was the tail-end of punk and the idea of a synth duo was unheard of back then, especially with a camp looking singer and a guy who looked like a bouncer on a funny electric organ. We remained convinced we were onto something and, luckily, we were proved right, the British synth duo was born – Pet Shop Boys, Eurythmics and Yazoo soon followed.
“What surprises me is how fresh Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret still sounds today”
“We were usually very conscientious in the studio under the watchful eye of our producer, Mike Thorne, so we never usually took anything stronger than coffee when working – we saved that for the evenings and when we were out partying in New York the chaos would usually commence.”
“I think being born in Lancashire seaside towns gives you a Vaudevillian sensibility” adds Marc. “It’s the home of cheap showbiz and hard-bitten entertainers, of lurid cabarets, casinos and pier shows, of seaside postcards, Coronation Street and The Beatles. Being born in the North gives you a tough survival instinct and the humour to deal with it. We definitely needed it with Soft Cell in the early days because we were treated, in some quarters, as the cheap sideshow Northerners.
“We were young guys from Northern seaside towns who formed the band in a Northern city and here we were, in one of the top New York Studios, recording! We ate up the experience and, in some ways, New York ate us up.”
Hit singles Torch and What and a second UK top-five album The Art Of Falling Apart followed but, by 1984, the duo had amicably agreed to move in separate directions. After one final album This Last Night In Sodom, they went on to extensive, varied and successful solo careers. They would reunite in 2002, for the album Cruelty Without Beauty, and again for what was intended to be a ‘final’ show at London’s O2 in 2018.
The impetus for making a new album Happiness Not Included, set for release on 25th February 2022, began with the rapturous reception at the sold-out 20,000 capacity arena. What they had planned to be the end, instead, has become a brand-new start and both are excited about this latest chapter in the Soft Cell story.
“Dave’s music has a great cinematic feel and pop sensibility,” Marc enthuses. “It’s dark and threatening at times, but with a sleazy naughtiness too. I’ve sung over other electronic tracks, but there’s nothing like it, hard to define really, it’s just the recipe and the chemistry.
“It has humour too. Dave and I are as different as chalk and cheese, but we do share a darkly sardonic sense of humour and our tastes in music, though different, in some ways do overlap in enough ways. Ever since I heard Donna Summer sing over Giorgio Moroder’s cold ethereal electronic backing track of I Feel Love, I realised that there’s a great recipe with an emotive singer mixed with cold electronics. Soft Cell try to get a bit of that, electronic pop and soulful songs with a happiness on the surface, but a bitterness underneath, like salted caramel.”
“We never worked in the studio together at all during the recording,” Dave continued. “We used to write like that back in the 80s, I would give Marc cassettes of my demos, he would go away to write the lyrics alone and then we’d get together and combine our efforts. Writing in isolation has always been quite normal for us. As for the lyrical subject matter, you’ll have to ask Marc as he wrote them all, I just provided the background. I always think of Soft Cell’s modus operandi in a cinematic way, I write the score and Marc writes the script.
“Both Marc and I have worked on many other projects outside the Soft Cell umbrella as I think we both enjoy collaborating with other artists. My main other band is The Grid, which is still an active unit – in fact there is a Grid remix of the forthcoming Soft Cell single. Depending on who I’m working with I’ll adjust my approach accordingly so, if I’m doing solo ambient stuff, I’ll work differently to working with The Grid. Likewise, if I’m working with Marc, I’ll put my Soft Cell hat on, which means I will have a set of parameters that are specific to us, certain sounds and chords that comprise our sound, like a signature, I suppose.”
Now Soft Cell share the album’s first official single, Bruises On My Illusions. The single is available, now, digitally with CD and 12” vinyl singles available for pre-order.
Bruises On My Illusions possesses a baroque-meets-gothic ambience with Dave Ball’s ominous, yet dramatic, synths supplementing the mood cast by Marc Almond’s evocative lyricism. Despite the pessimistic poetry of his words When every day is coloured in Soviet greys of sorrow, I’ll hold on to my blues, the overarching message is to keep striving for brighter times ahead.
As Marc Almond explains, “Bruises On My Illusions is a mini film noir-Soft Cell story about a disillusioned character, with everything against him or her, who still has hope for a better future despite the odds, a darker Bedsitter. Dave’s ominous yet punchy defiant chords inspired the song.”
“One of our darker cinematic pop moments with a classic Marc Almond lyric,” Dave Ball adds.
As for the upcoming live shows, Dave explained how things have changed from those heady days of the 80s. “The main difference in the 21st Century is the technology. All our visuals, lights, sequenced synths and drum machines are run live from off-stage computers as opposed to the old Kodak projectors and Revox reel-to-reel tape machines we used to use onstage. It makes changing the set running order around a lot easier and gives us much more control and clarity in the sound and visuals. I still play live analogue synths onstage (a Korg Prologue and an ARP Odyssey) and we certainly don’t use autotune on Marc’s, or the backing singer’s, voices. One thing that hasn’t changed is Gary Barnacle still plays a mean saxophone.”
“We also have a richer catalogue of songs that have a history and an audience that has grown with the catalogue,” Marc adds. “We’re able to explore the visual side a lot more and have more experience as musicians and performers.”
Soft Cell Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret 40th Anniversary tour dates:
Wednesday 10 November, Glasgow, O2 Academy
Friday 12 November, Manchester, O2 Apollo
Saturday 13 November, Leeds, O2 Academy
Monday 15 November, London, Hammersmith Apollo
Tuesday 16 November, London, Hammersmith Apollo
Tickets are selling fast from myticket.co.uk/artists/soft-cell