Sex Music For Gargoyles: Soft Cell's The Art Of Falling Apart
, December 12th, 2013 10:44
Three decades after its release, Matthew Lindsay writes an in-depth exploration of Soft Cell's The Art Of Falling Apart, featuring interview contributions from Marc Almond and Dave Ball
Da dink-dink. That sound, the intro to 'Tainted Love', was everywhere in 1981. By early 1982 it was steadily climbing the US charts where it would enjoy a 43 week run, dislodging Bill Haley's previous record-breaker 'Rock Around The Clock'. The Ed Cobb-penned song had previously been a Northern Soul floor filler by Gloria Jones, and was rumoured to be about Jacqueline Bouvier, who married into the Kennedy and Onassis dynasties. But it's most famous for being recorded by Soft Cell, a synth pop duo that inadvertently kick-started Britain's 'second invasion' of the US charts. Marc Almond and David Ball were thrust into a limelight they were barely prepared for. Almond recalls a slight feeling of nausea arising from the song's meteoric ascent. It proved to be both addictive and 'like a demon' on the singer's back - not an entirely pleasant feeling.
'Tainted Love' showed Soft Cell's knack of bringing to the fore the underlying neuroses in a supposedly straightforward pop song. They coaxed similar hidden depths out of The Supremes' 'Where Did Our Love Go?', the song 'Tainted Love' slides into in its extended version (one can only wonder what they would have done with 'My World Is Empty Without You'). The alloy of Ball's robotic post-Kraftwerk/Moroder electronics (chiefly his beloved Korg and the Serge Modulator) with Almond's overheated delivery proved to be a dynamic combination. And Roger Aimes, their label Phonogram's A&R man wanted more.
But under a deceptively sparse veneer, Soft Cell contained a multitude of influences and contradictions. When Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret appeared in late 1981 it quickly dispelled any notions that this band was a cover version-reliant one hit wonder. It boasted two more top five smashes, 'Bedsitter' and 'Say Hello, Wave Goodbye'. Producer Mike Thorne had, Almond says today, "smoothed down our rough edges and helped us make a classic pop album". Their debut album impeccably juggled post-punk iconoclasm with New Pop nous. It playfully lifted the lid on Soho's world of peepshow and fetishism ('Sex Dwarf', stripper favourite 'Seedy Films'), peered behind the mundane white picket fence of normal apathetic English life and found pent up weirdness ('Frustration', 'Chips On My Shoulder') and dignified tawdry situations with unexpected swells of show-stopping poignancy ('Say Hello, Wave Goodbye'). Both refugees from the faded gentility of England's seaside towns (Ball from Blackpool, Almond from Southport), Soft Cell were first hand witnesses to how close the quaint and queer can be, to "the extraordinary in ordinary life".
Such equipoise seemed apt for a band whose songs lurked in the mid-point between fantasy and reality, the good times and the bad times, between the dancefloor and the kitchen sink. 'Bedsitter' was the most obvious example of the singer's fascination with what the people he encountered at night "looked like doing the washing up". Almond had worked at Leeds' Warehouse Club, and had seen it go from a glam-spot with superior sound and disco imports to a site of provincial violence. A pre-fame Almond may have espoused the New Romantic mantra of "dressing up, having fun and being individual" but ...Cabaret's Youth uttered a warning to the Blitz Kid aesthetes: "Beauty is only skin deep." In an age of artifice, Soft Cell were all too real a proposition, the pop of "getting it all wrong". There was make-up for sure but it was "sliding down" with the rain. Similarly, Almond's vocal technique mirrored the vicissitudes of his characters' lives: it fell flat, overextended itself, the pitch wobbled but it clamoured passionately towards the heavens.
Of all the bands that came through in early 80s pop's brief burst of colour, invention and subversion, Soft Cell were the most obvious torch-bearers of the punk ethos. Soft Cell had evolved out of Ball sound-tracking Almond's performance art at Leeds Polytechnic. It had, the singer notes today, "a reputation for being an edgy art department" even by the punk-stained standards of the day. Their first EP Mutant Moments was funded by Ball's mother and caught the attention of Stevo who became their anarcho-manager and used their colossal early success to bankroll Some Bizzare's roster of talent which included Soft Cell favourites Cabaret Voltaire and Throbbing Gristle offshoot, Psychic TV. It was a kind of indie in spirit with the major distribution muscle of Phonogram.
When the band's more extreme side collided with mainstream society , Fleet Street (basically Thatcher's henchman), hit back. The video for 'Sex Dwarf', directed by Tim Pope saw the duo raided by the porn squad and nearly arrested. It made them front-page fodder (they were on the cover of the News Of The World, the very rag that had inspired the song in the first place). The sensation echoed the tabloid scandal of the Throbbing Gristle/COUM Prostitution show at the ICA in 1976. When they went to guest DJ at Cinderella's in Hickstead, East Sussex with Stevo, the crowd turned violent due to their playlist of Cabaret Voltaire, Throbbing Gristle and the Sooty And Sweep theme slowed down and sped up. It seemed to be a warning that provincial England simply wasn't ready to embrace a major aspect of the band's identity.
Phonogram were not impressed. The duo started to clash creatively with them too. Non-Stop Ecstatic Dancing was only just beaten by Human League's (aka The League Unlimited Orchestra) Love And Dancing in being the first remix album. Almond and Ball had wanted to enlist New York's cutting edge DJs to re-mould the tracks but Phonogram baulked at the forward-thinking suggestion, entrusting Mike Thorne with the job.
When the band did seem to make concessions to the label, they began to sound increasingly lacklustre, their tepid reworking of 'What' has none of the friction of their earlier covers, despite being a number two hit. The 'Sex Dwarf' video furore and 'What' showed a band increasingly unable to reconcile its contradictions. But elsewhere Almond and Ball were developing and expanding their musical palette in a way that would find full expression on their second album, The Art Of Falling Apart.
A transitional stand-alone single, 'Torch'/'Insecure Me' bridges the gap between the hit-making machine of ...Cabaret (it was yet another number two triumph) and the richer, darker, more personal work that was around the corner. The A-side is a New Pop 'Killing Me Softly', prompted by Almond being moved to tears by a barroom singer in New York. It was the singer's most impassioned vocal yet; bewitching, incantatory, yearning. 'Tainted Love''s ethereal backing vocals were now centre stage. As was ace New York session man John Gatchell with his Bacharach-style flugelhorn. "Even though Gatchell and Dave Tofani had worked with musos like Steely Dan and Simon and Garfunkel, they never looked down on us," Dave Ball says now. The sophistication of Soft Cell's music was becoming harder to overlook.
Where Tofani's clarinet was, in Almond's estimation, overly polite on Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret, here the maestros are subsumed more effectively into the band's sound. According to Thorne, Almond and Ball initially resisted Tofani's Tenor sax on 'Insecure Me'. But it glides through the B-side's febrile groove like Roxy's 'Avalon' being dragged off the yacht and getting roughed up on the Lower East Side (Ball had started dating Anita Sarko and was getting exposed to the latest NY sounds). Tougher and more personal than before (it mentions actual locales the band frequented like the Naked City porn cinema), the song scrutinises Almond's own chaotic life ("my mirror never lies") and seems to draw parallels between the dehumanising effects of fame and cruising ("nobody gives a damn who are"). Destructive and defiant, it is a bruised survivor's anthem (Gaynor's 'I Will Survive' is referenced). Or as Ball puts it more succinctly: "Current club sounds, upbeat with downbeat lyrics." Either way there would more probing of "the morning after the month before" to come.
While making their first album, the pair delved deep into the endless possibilities New York nightlife had to offer. A favourite was the Danceteria club which had recently morphed out of Interferon and was a dance-based crucible of the city's intersecting punk, hangover disco and hip hop scenes. Such a disregard for musical boundaries was Cell's modus operandi too and the club became a gateway to America for many other UK acts. But they also experienced the last gasp of Studio 54 and Almond visited the city's fetish/S&M club circuit (The Anvil, The Hellfire Club). More of an inquisitive voyeur than an active participant, the wilder side of nightlife would work its way into the band's new music. Inevitably, chemicals would play a major role too.
...Cabaret was, legend had it, recorded and mixed almost entirely on MDMA, back then a little known drug only taken by a small elite and almost unheard of back in the UK. Marc's first exposure to MDMA was at guest vocalist and friend Cindy Ecstasy's house. The Cure's misery masterclass Faith was on the turntable. Far from being the expected buzzkill, Almond found the funereal 'All Cats Are Grey' particularly alluring. Such a perverse blend of ecstatic thrills and gathering gloom flickered sporadically on their debut ('Youth') but would virtually define the follow-up. Second time around, Almond recalls how it was an altogether heavier scene: "The drugs which though soft (Ecstasy) during Non Stop... had become harder in The Art Of Falling Apart. Speed, coke, black bombers, purple haze acid and even more ecstasy, even heroin. It was a big factor in Soft Cell disintegrating."
But the music was coming thick and fast. Ball, frustrated with the creative inactivity that comes from touring and promotion, had been furiously stockpiling material for Non-Stop...'s successor back in Leeds. The demos were "harder, more confident, more mature and with a rock edge", says Almond. Ball had been dissatisfied with the first album's sound, feeling it sounded tinny next the music he was hearing in clubs. Almond concurs, remembering how some dismissed the album as "lightweight". All that pop gloss had softened the music's hard core.
Both members saw the synth pop route as a cul-de-sac and both had an ambivalent, punk hangover attitude towards their sudden fame. They sought to eschew the narrow confines of both with their second album. "The whole Pop success was a surprise and even a shock to us", says Almond today. It was seductive though, as success is, you want more of it but it was not really what we were about. We fought against the pigeon hole that Phonogram were trying to push us into and a twee pop image. It was fun for a while and we both weren't anti pop, we were both pop music fans. We just felt we were being pushed into a dishonest corner. The nadir being on the cover of Smash Hits in party hats, like two clowns. We had to kill that dead… We rebelled and decided to go in a different direction. Soft Cell as an electro rock duo. Our performances were becoming edgier, aggressive with more of a rock stance. Dave was also laying guitar on stage as well as playing big guitar like chords and darker noises on his keyboards." Ball concurs, adding that he wanted the music to be "more dramatic in a filmic way as opposed to synth pop melodrama".
In tandem with this desire to add a real instrument rock edge to their sonic mise-en-scene was a more cinematic approach. Almond and Ball's musical tastes had always been catholic and this was going to be more overtly evident in their new music. Ball talked about providing a "soundtrack to Marc's ideas". Both of them were avid collectors of film scores. "Not just John Barry [they eventually covered Bond theme 'You Only Live Twice'], but Morricone, John Carpenter and Goblin." They also loved the menacing scything strings of Bernard Herrmann's accompaniment to Hitchcock's Psycho; music for film's dark heart. They dropped acid and watched The Shining. Nocturnal, tortured and saturated in sex and drugs, The Art Of Falling Apart would be an album that was about, to quote Murnau's Nosferatu, "making sense of the horrors of our nights".
Such closely paid attention to film music parallels another top drawer double act of the time, The Associates. Not only were The Associates' Billy Mackenzie and Cell's Almond singers of a similar untutored grandeur but Rankine and Ball were kindred multi-instrumentalists. The Scottish group were, along with Cell favourites The Cure and Siouxsie and The Banshees, purveyors of a darkly twisted English rock. This was the company Soft Cell wanted to be keeping. "We loved those bands and wanted the same people who liked them to like us too," Ball says today. But the Art Of Falling Apart's sound went darker and deeper than that, the sampled TV voices that ran through 'Baby Doll' and classic offcut, 'Martin' showed their root affinity with industrial acts like Cabaret Voltaire and Throbbing Gristle (early Cell song 'The Girl With The Patent Leather Face' had the same alien quiver as Gristle's semen-splattered 'Something Came Over Me'). Both 'Martin' and The Art Of Falling Apart's title dated from Almond and Ball's college days. 'The Sex Dwarf' video hadn't been an aberration; art school terror was coming back to the surface and staying there.
Now when they covered songs it was the psychedelic rock of Hendrix, a harbinger of the new direction's 'harder edge'. The Cure had covered 'Foxy Lady' on their Three Imaginary Boys debut to flick the v's at punk orthodoxy, now Soft Cell segued a string of the guitarist's hits to break out of the synth pop straitjacket. Somewhere in New York, high on acid and the hot summer of 1982, they heard 'Purple Haze' and decided that "synth pop duo taking on the greatest guitarist of all time" was a great idea, appealing to their "twisted sense of irony". Almond claims it was a balmy night on the rooftop of Danceteria, Ball thinks it was a limo ride from JFK (perhaps the purple haze acid explains this inconsistency). Either way, they entered Media Sound and quickly ran through a non-stop set of Hendrix classics, 'Hey Joe', 'Purple Haze' and a snatch of 'Voodoo Child (Slight Return)'. "One of the best things we ever did," according to Marc. The band re-imagined them as one huge slab of scorched electro-funk. Immediately apparent is the tougher beat, courtesy of the then state of the art Oberheim DMX/Linn drum machines, as opposed to those featherweight Roland 808s on ...Cabaret. America was exposing them to new technology as well as new drugs. When The Art Of Falling Apart revisited the 'toytown' electronics of the previous album, as on the title track the newly added rhythmic wallop made it sound like the debut on steroids.
Bleeding into 'Hendrix Medley''s pounding groove is a fusillade of noises administered by Ball from early polyphonic synthesizer, the Prophet 5. A synth renowned for its pitch modulation and oscillating noises, Ball fully exploits the machine's capabilities. Creating a windswept ambient epic, partly the gauzy side of Bowie's work with Eno (Low had been a student favourite of Almond's but mostly a testament to Ball's visionary use of electronics. Throughout the ensuing album, Ball used either modified presets or built sounds from scratch (as did The Human League with Dare). This organic approach flew in the face of the anti-synth brigade's reduction of the genre to 'preening n' presets'(see The Undertones' 'My Perfect Cousin').
But Soft Cell were transcending synth pop. Besides having a common interest in "trash, sleaze and glamour" and electronic music, a shared early reference point was Suicide, the pioneering New York synth duo who basically merged the two. Hendrix Medley sounds a little like Suicide. Almond's delivery of 'Hey Joe' also recalls the itchy snarl of Patti Smith's reading. Ball's soundscape has the lustrous sheen of early 80's movie soundtracks but also shifts shape, appropriately for a 'Hendrix Medley', like a new dark psychedelia. Its pitched perfectly between that 'twisted sense of irony' and straight-faced homage (60's nostalgia proliferated in the 80's). Genuinely disquieting, the recording's Roxy-like redux of irony/romantic exposes the hollow of heart of recent exercises in 'winking, knowing, kitsch cover versions (see Scissor Sister's version of 'Comfortably Numb'). Electronic skiffle this was not.
"Ironically we thought this [development] would give us more longevity," Almond muses now. For the chaos swirling around the band, chemically and otherwise, would engulf them and ultimately lead to their implosion shortly after (1984's This Last Night In Sodom would be their last album until the millennial reunion). He had a (prescient) point though. Synth pop's golden age was coming to an end, ABC's Lexicon Of Love was warming the electronic pulse with lavish orchestrations, Culture Club's music had a similar Gamble/Huff-indebted slickness to it, Yazoo's electro-soul would be short-lived, The Human League were relaxing their synth-only proviso and Eurythmics would quickly add their own 'rock' edge after two synth-heavy 1983 triumphs. By September of that year, nine months after The Art of Falling Apart's release, records like 'New Song' by Howard Jones did the unthinkable, showing how banal synthesizer music could be. It was a far cry from Foxx-era Ultravox and left-field classics like The Normal's 'Warm Leatherette' (made by Daniel Miller who produced early Soft Cell single 'Memorabilia', a major techno building block).
Producer Thorne recalls distinct mood change in the pair when they entered Media Sound and has unpleasant memories of the record in general, oddly viewing it as "monochromatic and sprawling". It's an odd assessment of an album that sounds richer and fuller than its predecessor, probably more reflective of the gulf opening up between him and the band and the material's less obvious pop appeal, than the music itself.
The classically trained Thorne had experience with both record companies (he had been the A & R man involved with signing the Pistols) and the post punk vanguard (he was Wire's close creative ally). Formerly Soft Cell's co-pilot too, Ball and Almond increasingly saw Thorne as being "in league with the record company" and "worrying about his royalties". The producer was, according to Ball, charging them a hire fee for use of a Synclavier - a state of the art sampling synthesizer (first heard on the 1980 Colin Newman solo album A-Z), that the band liked for its "warm string sounds" but also resented for the time it took up to operate. (Almond: "Thorne loved the device so much, he eventually bought the company.")
Despite all the drama, Ball views looks back at the period quite differently: "What I remember the most is most is always buzzing with ideas and drugs. It was a great time, although there was the occasional comedown." Tellingly however, Ball stayed in producer Phil Ramone's apartment and not the Media Sound accommodation, another sign perhaps that everything in Soft Cell's orbit was spinning out of control.
The album's eight tracks are best considered along with the four others from the sessions that never made the final cut (all of them are collected on the CD reissue): the aforementioned 'Hendrix Medley', 'Martin', 'Barriers' and 'It's A Mugs Game'. Both agree now that it would have made a fantastic filler-free double. "I do regret", Almond says now, "that a lot of the best material got relegated to b-sides but Phonogram wouldn't have had it, it just wasn't what a pop group did". Taken en masse, these recordings represent a band at their peak, inimitable yet dipping between myriad musical scenes, incorporating them into their DNA. Not monochromatic, kaleidoscopic.
'Forever The Same' opens the album, a swashbuckling curtain raiser that the record company had wanted for a single. Adios skimpy electrobeat, hello widescreen, epic soundtracks; Morricone-style brass fanfares and choral washes that recall the choir organ of Popol Vuh, the kosmische group that scored many of Werner Herzog's films. Underneath all this cine-sound is a spidery web of basslines, giving it a disco-like surge. "I was into sampling the bass guitar and mixing it with synth bass", Ball explains, "like on a lot of funk records." It might sound like Lexicon Of Love-style luxury but the song Almond sings is one where "times are hard and money's tight". Even Almond's new look, Alan Vega/street gang attire chimed with the hard times anti-chic reaction to new romanticism.
It wasn't just the sound that was informed by the movies. Almond had studied film as part of his course at Leeds and was like many musicians of the period, highly cine-literate. Douglas Sirk's Technicolour melodramas provided inspiration for 'Kitchen Sink Drama' ("lovely soap opera stuff with a dark undertow"). 'Kitchen Sink Drama' begins as off-kilter piano cabaret, deceptively chirpy in its ode to a housewife carrying out her chores and lost in a paperboy-inspired romantic reverie. Like Sirk's films, something lurks under the veneer. By the second verse, an ominous synth wash overwhelms the mix like a murky subtext. Another Cell subject caught between fantasy and reality (wishing she was silver screen goddess Elizabeth Taylor). She's the pill-popping housewife of popular song that stretches back to Rolling Stones' 'Mother's Little Helper', although the more compassionate tone and billowing orchestral flourishes are redolent of Scott Walker's 'Big Louise', the dignified ode to a transvestite that Almond later covered.
Almond's empathy for his characters (and audience) had interesting aesthetic manifestations. In Soft Cell songs, perspectives 'shift', often blurring the lines between self-portrait and character sketch. 'Facility Girls' was an early Ball-solo composition and 'Bedsitter''s flipside. It moves from a kitschy, Lichtenstein-come to life description of the amorous daydreams of a secretary to an internal monologue by the "modern Venus at the typewriter" herself. Similarly, 'Bedsitter''s 12" mix (often the definitive article, the shorter versions being merely an edit 'cut out' of the original longer recording) goes from what seems like deeply personal recollections of the singer's life to a quasi-rap where he directly addresses, reaches out to, exactly the kind of person who was listening. Even the brute subject of 'Forever The Same', possibly the kind of man who would have bullied the adolescent Almond, lives "in a world of his own" and would "like the time to play with his mind"; a trait shared by bully and the bullied.
Such intense identification with others communicated potently to audiences, making Soft Cell a pre-Smiths rallying point - stages were invaded, girls brought their mums to the concerts. But it had a wearying side too, attracting stalkers to Almond's Brewer Street flat in Soho (itself likened by the singer to a 40s film noir location). Almond was buckling under the pressure. 'Kitchen Sink Drama''s housewife is "shaping her thoughts in the sky", aware that "heaven is only a window away". It sounds like a suicide impulse dressed up in daydreams. And it is hard not to think of his own need for refuge in lines like these (like 'Big Louise''s "fire escape in the sky", even Kate Bush's "cosmic" washing machine in 'Mrs. Bartolozzi'), from pop stardom, from his own demons and the extreme reactions of loving and loathing his band were eliciting.
Songs like 'Kitchen Sink Drama' would be an unheralded signpost for a strand of subsequent Anglo-rock, particularly the more 'outsider' niche of Britpop. Pulp might have refuted a Soft Cell influence but songs like 'Pink Glove' and 'Happy Endings' make that hard to believe. And their fingerprints seem to be all over early Suede, in the same peculiar mix of the suburban and the sleazy but more acutely on Anderson/Butler's paeans to valium-infused housewives (the tender, tragic trio of 'Sleeping Pills', 'Two Of Us' and 'Still Life'). The Art Of Falling Apart even sounds like an antecedent for Dog Man Star: opulent, sexual, sad, film-obsessed, druggy and with a faint whiff of the occult around its edges.
The album's centrepiece is 'Heat', a bullring of bad vibes, a torrid approximation of The Banshees/Cure's tom-tom heavy tribal noir. Ominous descending chords pierce the haze of debauched revelry, organ-like ripples on the Synclavier nag like doubt (as does Almond's vocal counterpoint in the second verse, showing how nuanced his performances were becoming). But 'Heat' is a warm-blooded beast, swathing its dark sexuality in cleaver-sized hooks and chanson-style scene-setting; Ballard & Brel. Over an insistent refrain, Almond needles the listener: "Do you use up bodies like cigarettes? Do you need them for ego? Do you need them for sex?" It was a question posed in multiple directions, at Almond himself, his social circle and the demi-monde of extreme sex he was visiting. But it was also resonant in the wider dog eat dog world.
'Heat' whips itself into a frenzy, building to a blizzard-like climax which Almond cuts through with a devastating mantra: "Your skin's going dry and the colour of sand, ignore the cigarette burning your hand." A harsh light shed on lives lived hard and fast, it's up there with Warren Zevon's 'French Inhaler' and the heartbreaking interrogation of Bowie on 'Sweet Thing'/'Candidate' suite: "Is it nice in your snow storm, freezing your brain, do you think that your face looks the same?" On another Art Of Falling Apart song, 'Numbers', the similarity was even starker, evincing all the brutal honesty of a jaded queen: "You're looking so thin these days are you doing speed? Have you seen your face, now you've really gone to seed."
There was yet another film reference on 'Heat', 1941's Mamoulion-directed matador epic Blood And Sand. But Almond ascribes the song's "sweaty passion" and overripe sensuality to the film adaptations of Tennessee Williams, a playwright whose themes of addiction and desire would be echoed throughout the album, as would his subjects' tendency to seek magic only to be mangled by realism. A voracious reader, Almond's literate lyrical viewpoint came to the fore concurrently with the emergence of The Smiths. 'Forever The Same''s sketch of an angry young man "living life on the assembly line" could be Arthur Seaton while the following song, 'Where The Heart Is' even refers to the character's origin, Saturday Night And Sunday Morning. The album's first single, the downbeat 'Where The Heart Is' was released, in yet another act of 'twisted irony', at Christmas 1982. It is Madness' 'Our House' broken, a narrative elaboration of The Smiths' 'Barbarism Begins At Home' and a precursor to Bronski Beat's 'Smalltown Boy'. Almond's itinerant, turbulent upbringing with an alcoholic, Lieutenant father was finding its way into song. Musically, it doffed its cap to the titanic emotions and productions that were squeezed into pop nugget miniatures by the likes of Petula Clark, Sandie Shaw and The Walker Brothers. As well as being a onetime back-flipping northern soul aficionado, Ball, like Almond, loved the sound of vintage heartbreak and its updated here. An electro-pop goes MOR classic that ranks alongside Human League's 'Louise'.
This was all territory Morrissey would occupy but Almond was there too. The title track, a libertine's lament is full of pithy rhymes, Wildean in their gallows humour. They united the disenfranchised, like The Smiths, and were an antidote to the era's false luxury ('Jeane' and 'Half A Person' are 'Bedsitter' without the boogie). But unlike Morrissey, Almond was the voice of experience, not shrinking in the underpass innocence. Perhaps The Smiths' beat combo reliance on a traditional rock vocabulary as opposed to Soft Cell's synth pop stigma (and all the frivolity that erroneously implies), led them to be more easy to canonize critically. But just as Douglas Coupland acknowledged the literary clout of Morrissey's lyrics with his books, so did Mark Dawson with a book named after The Art Of Falling Apart. Appropriately enough it was a dystopic novel about the rockstar lifestyle.
Like true children of art school and glam rock, Soft Cell mixed high and low like they mixed music styles. Almond loved trashy, exploitation literature (novels with lurid titles Like Teenage Vice and Summer In Sodom) as well as video nasties. They were both early admirers of John Waters too. This 'sicko' strand of American culture runs through their work, more playful and campy than the punitively gross industrial bands like Cabaret Voltaire and Throbbing Gristle. Despite the Shelagh Delaney-style unvarnished look at ordinary life, much of Almond's work seems to derive from an American gay literary tradition.
There was the aforementioned Williams. Something of the hedonism in songs like 'Heat' also sounded like they were ripped from the pages of Andrew Holleran's disco novel Dancer From The Dance, particularly an excerpt where the clubbers seem locked into the orgiastic nightlife as if it were some religious ritual, at once ecstatic and life-sapping. But the most overt literary lodestar for The Art Of Falling Apart is John Rechy, trailblazing chronicler of the gay underbelly of hustlers and queens zig-zagging across America, and author of Numbers, the book from which Soft Cell's song takes its name.
Best heard in its epic 10-and-a-half minute 12" mix, which foregrounds Balls' fantastic bass runs, (showing again how skilled a musician he was away from the keys), 'Numbers' squelches and throbs with the sound of New York at night, like the Tom Tom Club clad in black, moulding zesty hybrids in the fissures where dub, electro, hip hop, funk and post punk all seep in. Huge gated drums and a xylophone (thicker and deeper than the music box sparkle of ...Cabaret) weave a Bush/ Gabriel/ Japan art-rock sophistication into this ode to chemically-enhanced cruising (surprisingly it was the references to speed and not monotonous gay sex that got it a radio ban).
Behind the counting of conquests in Rechy's novel there is an existential malaise, something bordering on terror. The author called it a "sexual horror story" and he noted how its title conflates the sexual excess of trade with emotional withdrawal (numb-ers) and even biblical associations. Effectively this conundrum summed up the idiosyncrasy of gay US literature (and in turn, Soft Cell); a hedonism that often descends into nihilism, graphic but underpinned by a romanticism bordering approaching something the spiritual. Almond follows suit with a deadpan, flat vocal that on the extended version continues the song's climactic body count chant with an eerie repetition of numbers. He sounds like the sexual undead, occupying a desolate landscape between Donna Summer's orgasmic moans on 'Love To Love You Baby' and the superior, dub-effects laden Spunk mix of the Pistols' 'Submission'.
Thorne's verdict of the song was that it was "just plain nasty", understandable for a song that throws lovers away "like Kleenex": the sex of the sensually deprived. But 'Numbers' keeps emotion in the basement where Tin Pan Alley kept sex. Underneath the ice queen sang froid, real sadness and loss smoulders, usually at the end of each verse ("Did you ask yourself where love went wrong with you?", "I was never good at saying goodbye, a funny thing happens, I always cry"), punctuated by Ball's wistful electro-whistles. Almond describes another Rechy novel, City Of Night as his bible, stating 'I wanted to live that life and I did live some of that life at one time. Numbers was in some ways a mirror to how I felt about my life then'.
It was also a mirror to the hedonistic world around him - the spectre of AIDS was looming. 'Numbers'' body count weren't just notches on the bed-post, they were becoming a death toll. There are portents of doom running through many strands of pre-AIDS gay-related culture. From the sublime, Rechy's work, Holleran's Dancer From The Dance where the narrator senses that a 'tidal wave' is imminent. To the ridiculous, William Friedkin's controversial leather slasher movie Cruising. Soft Cell's 'Numbers' stared at the reality of all that nameless dread.
Almond had heard about AIDS the moment he touched down in America in 1981, hearing about the disease on the radio in a limo, driving from JFK airport to Manhattan. "Now places were being shut down by order of the city and people were dying on the spot, then without the medication," he says today. He visited places like The Anvil and The Hellfire Club at a time when it was akin to skating along the precipice of an abyss (he once noted how a being refused admission to The Mineshaft may well have saved his life).
All of this was pretty taboo-busting stuff for a mainstream recording act in the early 80's and 'Numbers' was a brave, bold choice for a second single. Soft Cell were flouting pop conventions while their singer sought the relative freedom of the authors he was reading. The carnal frankness in songs like 'Numbers' and his campy stage presence raised eyebrows ('Tainted Love''s Top Of The Pops performance received complaints). But there's a universal dimension in Almond's work that resists easy classification, just as his bold persona back then teased a sexual ambiguity. This refusal to be pinned down was partly due to fear. According to Almond, the label's press office attempted to concoct stories about girlfriends for Marc in the "less friendly gay climate of the early 80s". Initially he went along with it' but then rebelled.
Both unapologetic and refusing to be pigeon-holed by anyone, for a brief time at least Soft Cell seemed years ahead of anyone, post-gay perhaps in a culture where AIDS was going to reinforce society's obsession with the prefixes of human sexuality. Almond was neither the cuddly, coy 'asexual' Ziggy panto of early Boy George (who famously would rather have a cup of tea) nor the militancy of Jimmy Somerville/Bronski Beat (or for that matter the calculated shock tactics of the Morley-masterminded Frankie Goes To Hollywood). Soft Cell's work predated them all.
'Numbers'' fruity, skewed pop wasn't just a trailblazer thematically (Suede's 'Animal Nitrate' was ten years away) but the soundscapes Ball sculpted had an overlooked effect on the very bands Soft Cell were taking notes from. The layered chartbound sound of post-Pornography Cure owes a debt to tracks like these ('Six Different Ways' for sure). Another Soft Cell song, 'It's A Mug's Game', the 1982 flipside to 'Where The Heart Is', anticipates the sound of 1983's 'The Lovecats' (the same goth gone soulboy brass with scat singing).
A bum trip through the dead end, It's A Mugs Game, like Rita, Sue And Bob Too, is Thatcher's Britain "caught with its pants down". It dwells in same place as John Cooper Clarke's 'Chicken Town', the same dole queue doldrums as those Smiths records and anticipates Jarvis Cocker's magical realist epics ('Sheffield Sex City', 'I Spy', 'Wickerman'). It's a puke-sodden picaresque romp through hard times, empty pockets and "throwing up like Christmas, culminating in straight sex without contraception. On the way there's a few snatches of autobiography, the almost nostalgic mention of Dodo's, those speedy cough tablets of Almond's student days and Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple records. The parting shot was a desire to flee England for America, the singer was always inside the songs.
Again, like 'Say Hello Wave Goodbye', it describes heterosexual relations "in a kind of gay way", making it inclusive and to quote Morrissey, "human sexual" (one member, David Ball was, after all, heterosexual). It's a glorious mess of rhythmic clatter, that marauding giant Pacman synth bass being used by everyone from the Rah Band to Madonna, Gatchell's brass, as on 'Forever The Same', starts off Mariachi, Spaghetti Western-style then wanders into jazzier territory. New York meets Leeds, gay meets straight, reaching out to everyone on the margins.
The flow of influence with The Banshees seems to be as equally symbiotic as it was with The Cure, or at least they were all forming a phalanx of post-industrial, new psychedelic pop. Almond may have had Siouxsie in mind when laying down the brutal sturm and drang vocal of 'Baby Doll' but the track's industrial, lacquered bump and grind flashes forward to later Banshees tracks such as Peepshow. 'Baby Doll' is yet another nod to Tennessee Williams, being the title of a Elia Kazan film adaptation of a one-act play. The song's harrowing tale of a sex worker strips every layer of humour from ...Cabaret's red light vignettes, veering closer to that Cabaret Voltaire/ Throbbing Gristle brutalism. It's sex music for gargoyles. And it sounded like a trope for the toil of the music biz machine, the dehumanizing grind of the media glare and the promotional conveyor belt, 'Entertain Me' without the chuckles. "One of the best things we ever did," notes Ball today. Trent Reznor would most likely concur. The tech noir of 'Baby Doll' explains partly why Nine Inch Nails cited The Art Of Falling Apart as a favourite.
Another "modern horror story" was 'Martin', based on George A. Romero's 1977 'vampire' movie. It was included for a limited time, coupled with 'Hendrix Medley', as an extra 12" with early pressings. It's one of their best, an epic plunge into pulsating terror: 'Frankie Teardrop'-meets the subliminal unease of 'Sunset People'. Over this Ball layers a symphony of horror movie menace, rolling tympani and scything synth string stabs, motifs that riff on Herrmann, John Carpenter and the menacing maximalism of Goblin. 'Martin' ghost rides through reverb-laden tunnels of infernal disco and prog excess (Van Der Graaf Generator's was a teenage epiphany for Almond, Soft Cell often sounded like progressive electro-pop). Goblin scored films for Italian horror director Dario Argento (Suspiria, Deep Red). Argento also oversaw the European cuts of George A. Romero's films, often replacing the American score with Goblin, as he did on Martin.
Romero's film concerns a troubled young man who may be a vampire or a serial killer. Set in the bleak, industrial nowheresville of Pittsburgh, USA. Almond related to the alienation at the heart of the central character. Like Almond, the voyeur in all those sex clubs, Martin "likes to watch". It was another eerie foreshadowing of AIDS and reflected an abject inability to form human relationships. Stoker's 1897 Dracula novel evolved from a repressive late 19th Century that sought to emphasize conventional sexual morality in the shadow of venereal disease. The myth was rearing its head again now in the advent of AIDS,
In the song, there's an "illness flowing through him". In the movie Romero mocks vampire movie conventions, at one point dressing the character up in full on Bela Lugosi garb and making Martin a rather hapless Dracula (his blood-draining attempts are frequently botched). Almond (like Romero) humanizes the alleged villain ("deep inside he's good"). In the film, black and white flashbacks show the character pursued by an angry mob, alienated and pursued (like Almond). He could be a vampire, serial killer or maybe just a lonely boy with an overactive imagination fuelled by too many scary books and films. It's this ambiguity that makes it a far less schlocky entry into the vampire rock lair than classics like Bauhaus' 'Bela Lugosi's Dead' and The Birthday Party's 'Release The Bats'.
Such dark dabblings would place Soft Cell at the fringes of goth. Like The Banshees and The Cure, Soft Cell shared a few traits with the black leather and lace aesthetic of the movement. Almond was a visitor to The Batcave, the Specimen-run locus of the scene that moved from Gossips in Soho to Leicester Square and even enjoyed one night at Cell favourite, Danceteria. 'Martin' could be a goth staple were it not for the fact that, chafing at the etiolated gloom in the band's music was an irrepressible groove, a swing (the Batcave operated on a strict "no funk, no disco" policy). Lovers of disco and soul, Soft Cell were too restless in their short life to be assimilated by any one scene.
Or the demands of the hit-making machine.
Much to the record company's consternation, they had delivered a second record that was the sound of a pop group in conflict with itself. "I think the record company knew they had a great album but there weren't any obvious singles so they didn't really get behind it," says Ball now. 'Where The Heart Is' was granted a low budget promo but 'Numbers' received none at all, a death knell in an age of the burgeoning MTV. What was even more galling was that image-conscious Brit-popsters were thriving on the US channel , enjoying fruits of a trend Soft Cell had spearheaded). Seymour Stein, from the band's US label Sire bemoaned the lack of anything of the calibre of 'Tainted Love' or 'Bedsitter'.
Maybe he wasn't listening closely enough. Shelved single 'Loving You Hating Me' amplifies the maudlin/malice tension in 'Say Hello, Wave Goodbye'. A viper's nest of poison and sweetness, it would have made a great successor to that top three classic. But it's an earworm with an identity crisis. The vocals are a shambolic array of hastily laid down takes and glossy double tracking, partly a sign of Almond's then impatience with the studio. His recollections of his performances are suitably bittersweet: "The vocals I did in one or two takes and double tracked I feel too much at times. I regret that Mike hadn't curbed one or two of my vocal excesses and made me think carefully a little more about my singing, given me more vocal production. I think the album would have been a little more accessible with a better vocal on some songs, which would have bought it to more ears. We lost a little too much of the pop at times. I also didn't know much about keys and trying a song in a better key would have given me a better vocal for my range. With my more trained ears these days its one of the reasons I find them hard to listen to at times without cringing. But they were honest passionate, emotive and angry and from the heart and they were the sound of that period." Both artful and falling apart, the vocals make perfect emotional sense.
'Loving You, Hating Me' featured an off the cuff, laconic guitar solo, a drowsy descendant of the Buzzcock's terse 'Boredom' riff (that year being quoted by Orange Juice in the sunnier 'Rip It Up And Start Again'). 'Loving you, Hating Me''s US mix went even further, separating the drum parts and the festive 'Sound And Vision' synth strings leaving them to hang in the stereo space like a pop song, vivisected: the rattling skeleton of a potential hit.
'Loving You, Hating Me' plumbed the unfathomable depths of "the other side of love" and so did 'Barriers', the flipside of the 'Numbers' single. It was pure feeling, languorously thawing all the A-side's iciness: "I still have your smile burned into my mind." The lyric stretches the shabby, personal regret of 'Youth' out ("Searching through the memory books") and circles once more around the contradictions of a broken love affair with an almost religious, Cohen-like intensity (triggered by the singer's stormy relationship with an Englishman living in New York called Peter).
Almond sings it with the sky-bound anguish of Patti Smith on Birdland. Ball's backdrop is mournful and meditative, an ethnotronic bed of marimbas and celestial shimmers, strafing the same lofty altitudes as Bowie/Eno's 'Moss Garden' and Japan's later work. The jazzy extended instrumental breaks recall Andy Mackay's Eno-ssified oboe interjections on all those desolate requiems to ill-fated romances on Roxy's first two albums. An almost ambient use of space in songs like 'Barriers' amounts to a presence, as on the gaping void-abyss of Nico's work with John Cale.
The chaos and contradictions that were creating such rich and strange music was reflected in the cover art. Swirling around in a vortex of beauty and beastliness, the sleeve positions the pair at an aesthetic crossroads. The pink of pop is going slightly rotten, decaying into something gothic, new romantic dress up gone ghoulish. Almond and Ball, half covered by cracked masks (remnant props from Marc's performance art days), lie amid the carnage left by pleasure-seekers (jewelery, torn Polaroids, pearls, skull-rings) strewn across a scene that resembles a cross between the Batcave and Turner's bedroom at 81 Powis Square in Performance. The torn masks simultaneously cloak and illuminate their faces, the ultimate image of intrigue for conflicted, disenchanted pop stars. It was a collaboration between Almond, art college chum Huw Feather and photographer Peter Ashworth, the go-to lensman for early 80s pop (Visage, The Associates, Eurythmics). And most likely, another opportunity for Almond and Ball to drop acid.
Peter Ashworth recalls the shoot: "It took place on November 10, 1982. It was the 14th session I had done for the band since I first met them on February 16, 1981. We were always trying new ideas - taken from a wide range of references from the world of theatre, symbolism, religion, cinema. Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret, shot about nine months earlier, was a film noir based shot. Mixing night time Soho street life with the (then) hidden world of plastic & rubber fetishism, and adding a touch of theatre with colour overload from the pink/gold and blue cross lighting created a very distinctive sleeve that reflected Soft Cell's playful mood. Art Of Falling Apart had a new mood, hiding the pair amongst a myriad of tribal, voodoo, sacrificial elements, provided by Marc and Huw Feather. A small landscape was created on a bed of sand on the studio floor big enough to envelope Dave and Marc, wearing cracked masks amongst the bones and beads, the Polaroids and crucifixes; looking for all the world as if the two of them were caught in a swirling Heaven or Hell. The sole use of coloured light gave a feeling of suspension within a thick, almost claustrophobic, atmosphere to the image. There were contradictions within the image; it was pretty but contained dark elements; clear but confusing; gave a moody edge to it all."
It was a perfect visualization of a band moving away from pop stardom and embracing the darker stuff. Five or so years later, Ashworth's portrait of Morrissey around his favourite things would revisit the shoot, minus the magick. 'Loving You Hating Me' mentioned 'black games'. From that early Top Of The Pops performance of 'Tainted Love', there was a vague hint of the Mephistoplhilean in Almond's androgyny. His inquisitive nature would lead him to the "other side" reading (and eventually meeting) Anton LaVey. Such curiosity would make him a reluctant witness to a corpse being exhumed at Highgate cemetery in the company of Genesis P. Orridge's Temple of Psychick Youth. More a dilettante than practitioner of the dark arts, he fled in horror. But it was one step in the direction of Crowley scholars Jimmy Page and Bowie.
Despite the record company's reservations, the album garnered rave notices in the weeklies, granting them the critical kudos they had only half received previously. Barney Hoskyns in particular, praised their ability to move beyond "post-Kraftwerk electrobeat and compressed repatternings of Northern soul", showing their depth and versatility. It should have ushered in a new phase for the band as part of that Banshees/Cure elite but the writing was on the wall. Commercially the album hit number three while its two singles, 'Where The Heart Is' and 'Numbers', reached 21 and 25 respectively. But they were no longer bound for the upper echelons of the singles charts, somewhat to Ball's relief.
Partly this was due to the darker hues of Soft Cell's work and partly their erratic unwillingness to play the game. But the pop landscape was changing too. The "other side of love" was no longer what the record company or the record-buying masses wanted to see particularly. It was a time for organization, not for artfully falling apart. (In America, there were no more record breaking singles either, although they retained a fierce cult following, more manna for the dispossessed anglophiles). When Gary Kemp compared his own band Spandau Ballet unfavourably with Soft Cell, comparing the former with a superstore and the latter with a grocer's, it wasn't just a typically bitchy swipe for the competitive times. It revealed how Cell's fiercely independent, ramshackle pop individuality was no longer in vogue. For one brief bright moment a band as punk-informed and visionary as Soft Cell could be accidental pop stars. But the royal blue shoulder pad brigade were nudging out the more oppositional voices. You couldn't imagine Soft Cell being Charles and Di's favourite band but it made sense that Duran Duran were. Even Bowie temporarily left the subversion behind him, making the transatlantic smash 'Let's Dance', slick sound and vision to the fore, art and androgyny to the back.
The album had some notable fans Stateside. The then unknown Madonna played at Almond's birthday, courtesy of Sire's Seymour Stein. She might have been taking notes, her debut occasionally sounds like Soft Cell. According to Almond's Tainted Life memoir, Michael Jackson in his full military Thriller regalia was seen watching the stage at the Palace Theatre in LA when the Soft Cell toured The Art Of Falling Apart.
They didn't always help their cause. Almond admits today that even though the record company didn't always understand them "they did want the best for us and we didn't meet them halfway". They turned down a Bowie support slot, refused to play 'Tainted Love' live and Almond's behaviour got wilder. He ranted at Smash Hits for placing him in between Clare Grogan and Adam Ant in their pages. When 'Numbers' was packaged by Phonogram with 'Tainted Love' in an attempt to raise its chart position, he went down to their offices and smashed gold discs with a fire extinguisher, abetted by Stevo. The twin poles of invasive adulation and the glare of the media, compounded by excessive narcotics was taking its toll.
But like his hero Tennessee Williams, a frantic work ethic would pull him through. Soft Cell, soldiered on for another year, releasing first phase swansong This Last Night In Sodom, a total immersion in mono, murder and madness. By closing track, 'Where Was Your Heart When You Needed It Most', the blood-letting catharsis sounded like a band hurling itself over the edge of a cliff. There was nowhere left for them or the characters that lived in their songs to go. Paul Morley ended his Last Night In Sodom review with a curt "piss off Soft Cell" (he had written several withering articles of them previously). But perversely, Soft Cell were perhaps the most perfect exemplars of the movement he dubbed had New Pop. With Frankie around the corner, one wonders if he didn't resent the fact that he never invented them himself.
Beyond the 80s, Soft Cell continued to cast an almost imperceptible shadow. If Britpop's retrograde orthodoxy represented a partial erosion of the arty pretensions, the Anglo-American synergy, the queerness that shaped much of the legacy it aped, Soft Cell are nevertheless, in its aforementioned outsider niche of Pulp and Suede . You could also see the likes of 'Hendrix Medley'/'Martin' as the missing link between Suicide and the outré side of Primal Scream ('Kowalski'). Across the pond, they overtly influenced Nine Inch Nails.
And how do the band themselves see the record with benefit of hindsight, wrenched from the chaos that created it? Ball sees it as being the best Soft Cell record, the adult album that was right for them and their fans. Almond concurs, although his view is tinged with bitter-sweetness: "I think that those people who are aware of The Art Of Falling Apart really love it and understand it. Underrated? I think you always want your work to be more appreciated. I think its already been cited in press as a classic album so I'm not sure. I think many people still see Soft Cell as 'Tainted Love' period! Therefore The Art Of Falling Apart gets missed out on in the roll call of classic seminal albums of that period. I think it influenced more people than would admit it, as did Torment And Toreros, the Marc and the Mambas album from that period. It's known enough to be on the radar to musicians but underground or obscure enough to steal from, lyrically and musically, without being obvious and therefore not having to credit it. But that's ok because that's the story of music and I've done the same thing myself. I see this record through a strange light. It was Soft Cell's seminal moment I felt but I also find it near impossible to listen to as it brings back quite dark memories (as does Torment), and though we limped on to make another hard edged record in This Last Night In Sodom, it was really over for us. It was the end of Soft Cell. We had got keeping it together down to a fine art but it really was the start of falling apart."
But that potent and precarious musical chemistry produced a great record. A fame-singed, genre-hopper by pop stars with lousy attitudes and lofty aspirations. It shows Almond at the peak of his powers as a vocalist and writer and states the case for David Ball as one of the most undervalued musicians these shores has produced. A record of chaos of beauty that spirals from New York dancefloors to cobwebbed caverns, onto blood-splattered cinema screens, peering into books where men feed their appetites and force their feelings away. A record that slips through the worlds of drugged up housewives and then finds itself in the vomit-stained backseat of copulating teenagers. A record of a band "buzzing with ideas and drugs" and suffering the inevitable comedown. A record all about "Making sense of the horrors of our nights."