Friday, March 27, 2009

Soft Cell's Torch Dims

Following on from the exceptional reception for Soft Cell’s debut album, and the mammoth sales for ‘Tainted Love’, the extroverted Marc Almond was elevated to the status of cult figure, and was adopted as a figurehead of sorts for the gay community, though as per usual, sections of the press were keen to undermine his actions, and criticised what they perceived as deliberately effeminate posturing. Regardless, Soft Cell continued to dominate the British charts throughout 1982, next up with the stand alone single ‘Torch’, which burned bright at #2 in the U.K. mid year (OZ#68), and featured the vocals of one Cindy Ecstasy. Cindy was a New Yorker, with whom Almond and Ball had become friendly whilst recording their debut set. Ecstasy by name, and in this case, by nature - the new club drug ecstasy, that is. It established the beginnings of a slippery slope for both, particularly Almond.

Almond and Ball spent a large part of 1982 in New York, and it was the cities thriving club scene that substantially influenced Soft Cell’s next album. ‘Non-Stop Ecstatic Dancing’ (UK#6/US#57) was released mid year, and essentially comprised revamped dance versions of previous material, including their first single ‘Memorabilia’, and a remix of ‘Sex Dwarf’ which made a minor impact on the U.S. club charts. The album also featured the new single ‘What!’, a reworking of the original 1978 song by Judy Street. ‘What!’ came up with a definitive answer at #3 on the British charts. ‘Non-Stop Ecstatic Dancing’ served to keep Soft Cell in the charts, whilst Almond and Ball initially took a brief hiatus from duo duties. Almond had already released a single in March of ‘82 titled ‘Fun City’, and credited to a side project called Marc and the Mambas - a vehicle that allowed Almond to make music without the intense scrutiny that seemed to accompany all things Soft Cell. Initially Almond was joined by pianist Annie Hogan, bassist Tim Taylor, and Soft Cell partner Dave Ball handled everything else. During mid ‘82 Matt Johnson (of The The) also came on board to work on the debut album for Marc and the Mambas, ‘Untitled’ (UK#42), a mix of covers and electro-soul originals, though the associated single ‘Big Louise’ missed the charts. Naturally enough, rumours of the impending demise of Soft Cell began to circulate, also fuelled by reports of increasing tensions between Almond and Ball.

Rumours aside, the duo then commenced work for a new Soft Cell project, which would essentially be the duos second album of all new material. The lead out single, ‘Where The Heart Is’, proved a relative disappointment in commercial terms, when it peaked at #21 on the British charts in late ‘82. The title of its source album, ‘The Art Of Falling Apart’, hinted at the still brewing internal problems plaguing the duo. The album hit stores in January of ‘83, and soon after hit the U.K. top five (US#84), reaffirming Soft Cell’s popularity, if not their potential for longevity. Dave Ball’s moody synth colourings once more permeated the album, whilst Almond’s lyrics once more explored themes of moral disorientation. Songs such as ‘Martin’, which took inspiration from a cult George Romero vampire movie, displayed Soft Cell’s willingness to attempt an epic album track. With a bigger budget at their disposal, the production values were also slicker, but lost none of the duos penchant for melodramatic performance. Initial copies of ‘The Art Of Falling Apart’ came with a bonus 12” EP, which featured the aforementioned track ‘Martin’, in addition to a valiant, though misguided, attempt at a medley of Jimi Hendrix songs - ‘Hey Joe’, ‘Purple Haze’, and ‘Voodoo Chile’.

The follow up single ‘Numbers’ (UK#25), caused quite a stir, in more ways than one, when it was released in February of ‘83. The song, and accompanying video, were both banned by the BBC (there’s a surprise), due to lyrical references to the drug speed. Phonogram Records initially issued the single ‘Numbers’ with a bonus copy of ‘Tainted Love’. Given the relative disappointment of the previous single, ‘Where The Heart Is’, no doubt some clever dick in the label’s accounting department thought it a prudent move to include a two year old #1 single, in an attempt to boost sales of the new single. When Almond and manager Stevo Pearce heard of the ruse, they reportedly stormed into the companies offices during March of ‘83, set off a fire extinguisher in the lobby, and smashed several gold records mounted on the walls. Needless to say, the incident caused some residual friction between Soft Cell and Phonogram. The album’s third single, ‘Heat’, remained frozen outside the charts, and by mid year it was apparent that Almond and Ball needed to part ways once more, to allow things to thaw.

Both Marc Almond and Dave Ball were desperate to escape a combination of unbearable pressures, brought on in part by the lingering shadow of ‘Tainted Love’s mammoth success, excessive external demands on their time, and in Almond’s case, a growing issue with drug abuse. Ball spent mid ‘83 recording his debut solo album, ‘In Strict Tempo’, whilst Almond resumed his pet project Marc and the Mambas. The second Mambas album, ‘Torment And Toreros’ (UK#28), was released in August of ‘83, and spawned the minor U.K. hit ‘Black Heart’ (#49). Around the time ‘Torment And Toreros’ was released, Almond issued a public statement to the press, indicating his impending retirement from the music business. It followed a series of controversial incidents, and reflected ongoing behavioural issues for the singer, related to his drug addiction. Soon after, Almond rescinded his proposed retirement plans, and found time to record a new track with Ball under the Soft Cell banner. ‘Soul Inside’ (UK#16), was released in September of ‘83, but it would take another six months for its source album to surface.

The ensuing recording sessions were reportedly a stop start affair, plagued by new explosive levels of tension and disharmony between Ball and Almond. The heightened level of internal angst, fuelled much of the resultant album, the aptly titled ‘This Last Night In Sodom’ (UK#12). Marc Almond and Dave Ball had already issued a letter to the music press in early ‘84, announcing the split of Soft Cell. In February ’84, the album’s second single, the rockabilly styled ‘Down In The Subway’ (UK#24), originally recorded by Jack Hammer, preceded the album release by a month, and represented one of the few highlights from a largely fractured work. Almond seemed to have experienced an even more intense venting of the spleen, via morosely themed tracks such as ‘Meet Murder My Angel’. Even Ball’s usually measured stroking of synthesizer keys took on a brutish edge at times, whilst a more overt usage of gritty guitars and thumping drums, seemed disturbingly out of place. Soft Cell’s music had rarely entertained the feel good side of life, but ‘This Last Night In Sodom’ sadly mirrored the chaotic disintegration of a once thriving creative union. ‘Tainted Love’ had a life well beyond the tenure of Soft Cell, and re-entered the British charts for a record third time in February 1985 (#43). In March 1991 ‘Say Hello, Wave Goodbye’ (UK#38) was re-released to coincide with the issuing of ‘Memorabilia - The Singles’ (UK#8), a collection of Soft Cell’s and Marc Almond’s best work to date. Almond recorded a new vocal track for ‘Tainted Love’ (and a new promo video was shot), and the track bolted back into the British top five in mid ‘91 (OZ#92), credited to Soft Cell Ft. Marc Almond.

Both happily free of the seemingly suffocating constraints of Soft Cell, Ball and Almond took off in distinctly differing directions post duo duties. Dave Ball initially turned his studio genius to production work, focusing on electronic dance music, in partnership with Ingo Vauk and Richard Norris, and worked extensively with the acid-house outfit Psychic TV. In 1990 Ball and Norris formed a studio project under the name The Grid. The Grid ostensibly took elements of late 80s house and techno ‘music’, and fused them into dance tracks. Their debut 1990 album ‘Electric Head’, featured the club favourite ‘Floatation’ (UK#60), whilst the 1993 follow up ‘4,5,6’ featured the hits ‘Figure Of Eight’ (UK#50) and ‘Crystal Clear’ (UK#27). But it was 1994’s ‘Evolver’ album (UK#14), which produced The Grid’s biggest hit, the banjo-plucking techno wizardry of ‘Swamp Thing’ (UK#3/OZ#2), followed by ‘Rollercoaster’ (UK#19). After a prolonged break, Ball and Norris reunited as The Grid in 2008, with the album ‘Doppelganger’.

Marc Almond’s first project, post Soft Cell, arrived during November ‘84, in the form of the album ‘Vermin In Ermine’ (UK#36), credited to Marc Almond and the Willing Sinners (Annie Hogan, Billy McGee, Richard Riley, Stephen Humphries, Martin McCarrick). The album was stylistically evocative of earlier work, but was more positively received, in critical terms, than his Mambas material. In April ‘85, Almond returned to the top five in Britain, albeit as guest vocalist, on Bronski Beat’s version of ‘I Feel Love’ (UK#3), a cover of the Giorgio Moroder inspired 1977 #1 by Donna Summer.

Almond’s affection for campy cabaret elements, surfaced in subsequent albums, 1985’s ‘Stories Of Johnny’ (UK#22), which yielded the UK#23 title track hit, and 1987’s ‘Mother Fist And Her Five Daughters’ (UK#41). Almond was fast developing as an interpretative balladeer of some distinction, regularly revisiting the work of such popular music luminaries as Jacques Brel, Brel devotee Scott Walker (of the Walker Brothers), and even 50s crooner Johnnie Ray. In 1988, Almond released the album ‘The Stars We Are’ (UK#41/US#144), his first work since Soft Cell to receive a U.S. release. The album was more upbeat in places, and featured sweeping arrangements, alongside more delicate and moody numbers. Following the promising performance of the singles ‘Tears Run Rings’ (UK#26/US#67), and ‘Bitter Sweet’ (UK#40), Marc Almond stormed back to the top of the British charts with the melodramatic duet ‘Something’s Gotten Hold Of My Heart’, alongside 60s legend Gene Pitney. The song had originally been a top ten hit for Pitney back in early 1968, one of ten British top tens for the ‘Rockville Rocket’, without previously achieving the coveted #1 slot. His collaboration with Almond changed all of that, and their sweepingly grandiose rendition of ‘Something’s Gotten Hold Of My Heart’ spent four weeks at the summit of the British charts in early ‘89 (OZ#22). Due to nothing short of stupidity, on the behalf of Pitney’s U.S. label, their updated version of the song never received a release Stateside.

Almond had left the ghost of ‘Tainted Love’ behind him, and was free to embrace the 90s as a bona fide solo hit maker. With a #1 fresh in his wake, Almond indulged with an album of covers, dedicated to one of his heroes, Jacques Brel. He followed this with the well received 1990 album ‘Enchanted’ (UK#52), which spawned the top 30 hit ‘A Lover Spurned’ (UK#29). The aforementioned 1991 compilation ‘Memorabilia’, further boosted Almond’s fortunes, and led into his first studio collaboration in almost a decade, with former Soft Cell partner Dave Ball, on Almond’s 1991 album ‘Tenement Symphony’ (UK#39), featuring the hit single ‘Jacky’ (UK#17). He returned to the British top five once more the following year, with the single ‘The Days Of Pearly Spencer’ (UK#4), originally a hit in the 60s for David McWilliams, and also lifted from ‘Tenement Symphony’.

Despite several changes of label stable, Almond continued to deliver a steady line of albums through the remainder of the 90s, featuring an ever evolving mix of styles and influences, from contemporary dance and electronica, to French chanson, disco, northern soul, piano ballads, cabaret, and 60s pop. Following the 1999 tell all biography ‘Tainted Love’, Almond maintained a consistent and regular level of studio output, despite a serious motorcycle accident in 2004, and with his most recent album ‘Stardom Road’ (2007), the enigmatic singer once more put everything on the line for the music he loves, and delivered a five star performance in the process.

As most groups of bygone eras seem to do at some point, Soft Cell resurfaced in 2001, as Ball and Almond set aside past differences, and performed a series of sell out shows. The positive reviews prompted the duo to embark on a mini tour later in the year. In 2002 the album ‘Cruelty Without Beauty’ was released, and featured the duos first newly recorded material together in almost twenty years. All reports are the album featured strong material and first rate performances, from two mature and confident musicians, in control of their craft. There were echoes of the 80s era Soft Cell, via Ball’s atmospheric synth-laden music scape, and Almond’s engaging lyrics, and emotive vocals. The album yielded the hit single ‘The Night’ (UK#39) in early ‘03, and prompted many Soft Cell fans to ponder over what might have been, had the duo remained together during the intervening eighteen years.

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