Soft Cell: ‘We thought we were millionaires when we did our first paid gig in Leeds’
Some farewells are not quite as final as they seem. Three years after waving goodbye with what was billed as their last UK concert, Soft Cell are back on the road, with a new album to follow next year.
“I wasn’t expecting it,” says keyboard player Dave Ball a little sheepishly as we discuss their impending shows to celebrate the 40th anniversary of his and Marc Almond’s longplayer Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret.
“It was actually Marc that made that announcement. I tend to think ‘never say never again’, to use the James Bond theme. Why burn your bridges, because you never know. Then Covid happened and lockdown and I think everyone had a lot of time to sit and think about things and review the situation.”
Also their record label BMG was looking to promote their forthcoming album, *Happiness Not Included. “There seemed to be demand for it, so why not?” Ball says. “I was always up for it anyway.”
The 62-year-old views this as Soft Cell’s “third incarnation”, after two previous break-ups, in 1984 and 2003. “There was pop stardom, the massive initial burst of it, then we didn’t do anything again for almost 15 years. Then Marc had his (near fatal) accident with the motorbike (in 2004) and another 15 years slipped by. It’s amazing how we managed to stretch it out for so long and still manage to work together.
“I say to people sometimes I don’t know how the Pet Shop Boys do it. They’re a similar set-up, just a duo, but they seem to be always doing stuff. I suppose they take quite big breaks between albums.”
The show at the O2 Academy Leeds brings Almond and Ball back to the city where they first met, as students at Leeds Polytechnic’s art college, in 1977. It was here that the synth pop duo found their feet before going on to conquer the pop world in 1981 with their electronic revamp of the Gloria Jones Northern Soul stomper Tainted Love.
Ball is anticipating a “mad” night when they return to Leeds. “I think it’s sold out,” he says. “They’re not performing with us, but even Josie (Warden) and Brian (Moss) from Vicious Pink Phenomena (who sang backing vocals on Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret) have emailed saying they’re coming down. There’s going to be a lot of old faces.”
Although neither he nor Almond are originally from Leeds – Ball was born in Chester but grew up with adoptive parents in Blackpool, while Almond was from Southport – they both consider Leeds as Soft Cell’s spiritual home. “It is a kind of homecoming, in a way,” says Ball, recalling how the pair of them revisited old haunts in the city in 2018 for a BBC4 documentary.
“We re-lived some moments at Leeds Warehouse,” he remembers. “I think that’s where we did our first ever paid gig. We thought we were millionaires! It was like, blimey, we can actually make some money out of this.
“Marc was working at Leeds Playhouse in the daytime in the bar, then he was doing the coat-checking at the Warehouse (in the evening). That’s how we got the break, really.
“Marc was good at getting those sort of breaks for us. We did the Futurama festival at the Queens Hall because he knew (the promoter) John Keenan. It went down really well that, considering we were third on in the afternoon.”
It was at that festival in 1980, headlined by Siouxsie and the Banshees, that Ball gave the BBC Radio 1 DJ John Peel a copy of Soft Cell’s first EP, Mutant Moments, that they had financed with money borrowed from his mother.
Peel’s subsequent airplay led the band to their first manager, Stevo Pearce, who signed them to his indie label Some Bizzare. “That was the beginning of it, really,” says Ball. “Then it became a very long and treacherous road.”
Soft Cell are planning a two-hour show for their November tour, featuring the whole of Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret plus greatest hits and tracks from their new album. “We’re doing it in two halves,” Ball explains. “The first half will be singles and favourite tracks, a couple of fan requests plus one or two new ones off the new album. We’re not going to make everyone listen to our new album live for the first time – we’ve only got an hour and we’ve got a massive catalogue, considering how few albums we actually made. Then the second half will be the full first album which we’ve never actually performed live before. We’ve done lots of tracks off it but we’ve never done the thing in its entirety, so that’s going to be a new experience for everybody.”
Ball has fond memories of writing much of Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret while he and Almond were living in the Woodhouse area of Leeds. “We were both living in a housing authority building in Leicester Grove. There were various other people too – Kris Neate, who did the sleeve (for Tainted Love) was there, and Annie Hogan who was (later) in Marc and the Mambas. It was a little art colony.
“I used to sit in my room and write tunes on a couple of cheap synths and my mum’s old sterogram cassette recorder. Then I’d make cassettes and give them to Marc. Bedsitter was actually written in a bedsit in Leeds, it was very attuned to the surroundings. Basically all the first album was written there. Obviously we didn’t write Tainted Love but we’d been playing our arrangement of it in our live shows. It was very much a Leeds album in terms of the writing part of it.”
The pair had first met on Ball’s first day at art college. He remembers Almond stood out from the crowd. “He definitely looked like he wasn’t in accounting or something,” he says. “I looked like all the other students. I’d got a brand new denim jacket and jeans and Doc Martens and medium-length hair and a bit of bum fluff. Everyone looked like clones of Status Quo fans. Then there was this guy who had gold lame jeans on and dyed black hair. He looked interesting, I thought, ‘He’s got to be in the art department’ and I was right. I asked him where to register – I just wanted to speak to him, really, because he looked interesting.”
While forging a friendship, they made regular visits to Hyde Park Picture House. “It was great,” Ball recalls, “because they’d show John Waters’ Divine films and all of George Romero’s zombie films. We liked a lot of trashy American slasher films. I’d never heard of John Waters – it was Marc who introduced me to that, and Russ Meyer and Kenneth Anger, people like that. Passolini. Arthouse with trashy elements, which fitted us perfectly. And they played a few Paul Morrissey Warhol films. That was kind of our background.”
The cinema trips would inspire Almond’s lyrics. “A song like Martin (from The Art of Falling Apart) was actually based on the George Romero film about a teenage vampire,” Ball says. “That sort of stuff inspired us. We always got into the seedy or darker side of life, although in a nice way.”
Persuasion, on the B-side of Tainted Love, was written after a looting incident at Morrisons supermarket in the Merrion Centre. “There were blackouts in, I think, ’79 and Marc happened to be in Morrisons in the Merrion Centre. He said it was really weird, all the lights went out in the shopping centre and all you could hear was people chucking tins and bottles and grabbing bags and just loading up and running off. It was mass looting.
“We’d read that book The Hidden Persuaders by Vance Packhard about how advertising can control you, and there was this chaos in the supermarket which kind of linked to that George Romero film Dawn of the Dead. It ties in with all that supermarket culture.
“Also, we were really obsessed with Andy Warhol and he had that thing with the Brillo box and Coca-Cola bottles. It was our version of that culture that we were absorbing as art students.”
Ball remembers other notable Leeds bands of the time, including Gang of Four, The Mekons and Delta 5. “We used to know them all, all the bands used to congregate in The Fenton,” he says. “The guitar bands used to sort of sneer at us – The Mekons, Gang of Four, Delta 5. They would look at us and ask, ‘A synth duo? How are you going to do that?’ Marc wore make-up and looked a bit effeminate and they just thought, ‘What are they talking about?’ We were a bit of a laughing stock. I think we got the last laugh there somehow.”
Soft Cell play at O2 Academy Leeds on Saturday November 13. The album *Happiness Not Included is out on February 25, 2022. www.softcell.co.uk