The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

A Quietus Interview

Memorabilia: Dave Ball Of Soft Cell And The Grid Interviewed
Duncan Seaman , June 23rd, 2020 09:12

Duncan Seaman speaks to the Soft Cell musician about his life and times on the publication of his autobiography

Dave Ball portrait by David Chambers

In Soft Cell, one of Britain’s most successful synth-pop duos, Dave Ball was always the ‘quiet one’, a tall, moustachioed figure bent over a Korg keyboard while singer Marc Almond took centre stage in bangles and eyeliner.

Yet, as his autobiography suggests, sometimes in eye-popping detail, he did a fair bit of living too.​

“The idea of having a normal job never occurred to me, and thank God, I’ve been lucky enough to get away with it for years,” he says as he sits down to discuss the book with tQ.​

Ball began writing his memoirs eight years ago, prompted by enquiries from friends. “People always said, ‘We’ve all read Marc’s book but no-one knows about you’.” But they began to develop in earnest when he rented a house in Pembrokeshire. “I just needed to get away from London, for a bit of peace and quiet. I used to sit and work on a timeline. It came from myself, initially. There was no great desire to be a writer, but they say everyone has a book in them, a life story. I read lots of biographies of people who’ve been in pop groups so I thought I’d give it a go. My manager read through the manuscript and said, ‘I’ll get you a literary agent’, so it progressed from there. Omnibus liked it and they’ve done an excellent job, I think.”​

Diaries he’d kept throughout the years proved useful for reference; fortunately he also has a good memory. “I do tend to store up minutiae and weird details. I literally drew a straight line, with a line for each year, and I gradually filled it in. Some bits with dates you can look up on the internet, but significant life events, they’re all in my head. I’ve almost got a photographic memory about things, I can remember faces and names and places. That’s come in quite useful, really.”​

Born into a single-parent household in Chester in 1959, Ball was given up for adoption when he was 18 months old. He grew up in Blackpool with adoptive parents Donald and Brenda Ball – who changed his first name from Paul to David – and younger sister Susan, also adopted. ​

Blackpool in the 60s and 70s could be a rough and ready place, “but it was kind of fun,” Ball recalls. “It was a great place to grow up, really, because you’ve got the beach and all the amusement arcades. The thing that we used to hate as locals was all the visitors, the grockles as we used to call them. Obviously that was the town’s livelihood but we used to hate it. The locals would never go to the pubs and clubs and discos in town, we’d go further afield. The ‘Glasgow fortnight’ as it was known could get rough and tumble.”​

Being adopted, however, left him with a feeling of difference. “I’ve always been a bit of an outsider, I think. I’m a bit of a loner,” he says. “I’ve got less so. There’s still part of me like that, but I’m a lot more sociable than I used to be. In my teens I was terribly shy. I was quite happy to lock myself away.”​

At Arnold Boys School – where Chris Lowe, later of the Pet Shop Boys, was in a lower year – Ball developed a keen interest in music and art. From the glam rock of T.Rex and Slade he progressed to Status Quo, Black Sabbath, Pink Floyd and King Crimson, followed by punk. At 15 he acquired his first guitar – a second-hand Hofner Congress – but switched his interest to synthesisers after hearing Autobahn by Kraftwerk. That, along with a fondness for Northern Soul, would go on to form the basis of Soft Cell. “When I heard Kraftwerk on Tomorrow’s World I just wanted to make that sound,” he says.​

“The first time I fiddled around on a synth was at this rich kid’s. My gran lived in the countryside, it was quite a posh house, she had land and everything, and the next door neighbour played the organ and he also had a little synthesiser, he let me come round and have a go on it. So I first had a go on a synthesiser in about 1972, but when I heard Kraftwerk in 1975 when ‘Autobahn’ came out that’s the turning point.”​

After taking A-levels at Blackpool Technical College, Ball went on to study fine art at Leeds Polytechnic. “I did three years at what was then Leeds Poly, that’s where I met Marc,” he says. “[We both stayed on after our degrees] because we’d formed a band. We were living in a housing association place for two years after college because we were doing the band. We didn’t exactly have career prospects; it was the only thing we’d got going on in our lives. We were doing gigs every weekend.”​

Almond, who was studying performance art, was actually the first person that Ball, a fine art student, spoke to at the Polytechnic. “I remember the first day we enrolled there were loads of guys who looked just like me with bum fluff moustaches and long hair and brand new Doc Martens and Levi’s and Wranglers, how you expect a fresher to look,” Ball recalls. “Then there was this one guy wandering around with a leopard-skin top and bleached hair and spandex trousers, and I thought ‘he’s got to be in the art department, he’s not an accountant’, so I asked him ‘do you know where I enrol?’ He was the first person I spoke to there.”​

Their musical bond was formed when Almond overheard Ball making “weird noises” on his synthesiser in the college studio. “He came in for a cup of tea and a chat and said, ‘Do you want to do some music for my performances?’ I was like, ‘What?’ because I’d never thought of my stuff being used publicly. I was delighted and we forged a friendship from there.​

“He’d done a couple of things where he said, ‘I’ve got this song that I want to do’. There was one called ‘Fun City’ that did actually make it onto the B-side of ‘Say Hello, Wave Goodbye’, which was one of our biggest singles in the 80s. I played him some of my weird little songs and he said, ‘Can I try singing those?’ I said, ‘Of course.' Then he said, ‘Can I write some different words?’ and I went, ‘Yeah.’ Suddenly it actually started sounding quite good. There was some kind of symbiosis. Then it was, ‘Should we start a band and what should we call it?’ We did our first gig [as Soft Cell] in 1979 at the Christmas party in the art department and it went from there, really.​

“There was certainly never any intention to be a pop band. We just thought we were some sort of little indie band. We’d have been happy to be that, but then it became something bigger than we’d ever imagined.”​

The pair played early gigs at the Warehouse and the F Club run by John Keenan, who also put the band on at the Futurama 2 festival at the Queens Hall. It was there that Ball gave DJ John Peel a copy of Soft Cell’s first EP, Mutant Moments, which he then played on Radio 1. “That was a key moment,” says Ball. “It was not bad considering we had our own made-up record label. We had no manager or anything. He played one track, ‘Metro MRX’ three times on his radio show. “Futurama, John Keenan, I always thank him for that. I think Marc pestered him for weeks to get that gig but it was a turning point for us.”​

The EP’s pressing had been funded by Ball’s mother, who became a keen supporter of his musical ambitions after the death of his father in 1977. “I had issues with my adopted dad, he was a man’s man,” Ball says. “He did teach me some valuable lessons about electronics and he was very loyal and disciplined, I still have a lot of respect for his memory, but we didn’t see eye to eye. He definitely wasn’t very creative, he wasn’t into music or art, whereas my mum was much more sympathetic to my artistic tendencies. I don’t know where I got them from. My real father, who I never met, was apparently successful in the building trade, so the chances are had I not been adopted I might have been a builder.”​

Ball would later repay his mum’s “unbelievable faith” in him by buying her a house in Blackpool for £40,000. “That was back in the 80s so she got quite a good return on her investment,” he jokes. ​ Another early champion of their music, Steve Pearce aka Stevo, would become their manager and featured their song ‘Girl With The Patent Leather Face’ on his label Some Bizzare’s first compilation album. ​

In 1981 the duo reached number one in 17 countries with their cover of ‘Tainted Love’, a Gloria Jones song that Ball knew from his days going to Northern Soul clubs in Blackpool and Wigan. “Who can be prepared for that?” Ball says of his new-found stardom. “We were just a couple of oiks from art college. We’d done ‘Memorabilia’ which had done quite well in the clubs then we put out this other record which we thought might do a bit better in the clubs and it does more than a bit better, it goes mega. It was a life-changing moment in some good ways and some bad ways. It really did change our lives. We’ve both had lifelong careers musicians because of that record.”​

More hits followed with ‘Bedsitter’ and ‘Say Hello, Wave Goodbye’ – both written in their house on the edge of Chapeltown. “It was like a little art commune,” Ball remembers. “There was Anni Hogan, who was in Marc And The Mambas and I produced an album of hers, she’s still a great friend, and Kris Neate who designed the sleeve of ‘Tainted Love’. Marc and I had the top floor – he had one little room and I had another across the landing. I had a little reel-to-reel tape machine and my synth, some very basic equipment, and my mum’s old sterogram. I’d go to Marc’s room with a cassette of new tunes and he’d write lyrics. ‘Bedsitter’ was probably the most autobiographical story I’ve ever been involved in.”​

Their debut album, Non Stop Erotic Cabaret, was recorded with producer Mike Thorne in New York. Ball and Almond threw themselves into the city’s art world and nightlife - even once meeting Andy Warhol. “We loved the place,” Ball says. “Big cities go through phases, Manchester had its big time with the Hacienda and the Happy Mondays, Leeds with the goth scene. New York just seemed the place for us to be at the time.​

“The interesting thing was you’d still got bits of the disco scene there and the punk thing was still going. It had started in the late 70s with Studio 54, which was playing disco, and CBGB’s playing punk, and there was still that mixture, that energy was still there. There was a post-punk thing and a hardcore club thing going on, and that influenced us a lot. ​

“I always said we were kind of an electronic punk band, really. We were never New Romantics, I don’t like it when we get lumped in with that. When I think of New Romantics I think of Spandau Ballet. But when you look at Depeche Mode when they first appeared on Top of the Pops they were all wearing ruffs. They seemed to take a tip from us. ‘Soft Cell are wearing black leather and looking moodier.' I think we did them a favour when we disbanded; there was a massive power vacuum there. Their music got a lot darker and they started wearing leather, they became a bit more S&M-looking.”​

By Soft Cell’s second full-length album, The Art Of Falling Apart, Ball admits they were becoming jaded, and the pair split up after their third album This Last Night In Sodom in 1984.​

“The problem was our interests were a bit more rooted in our excesses,” Ball says of the break-up. “We were taking too many dodgy substances and getting into weird nonsense. I think The Art Of Falling Apart was actually a title that Marc came up while he was still at art college. He was always great at coming up with titles and that was before we had a record deal. There was always that self-destructive, self-imploding agenda because both Marc and I used to be quite self-destructive. Once you’ve got the excesses involved it was ‘Let’s see how long this lasts before it blows up.'”​

While Almond pursued a solo successful career after Soft Cell, Ball dabbled with various projects including recording an album with his then wife Gini, the short-lived groups Ornamental (featuring Rose McDowell from Strawberry Switchblade and Einar Orn Benediktsson of The Sugarcubes) and Loveranch, and a soundtrack for Derek Jarman’s short film Imagining October. He was also an honorary member of Genesis P Orridge’s Psychic TV. In the 90s he formed a partnership with Richard Norris as the ambient dance duo The Grid and scored a top ten hit with ‘Swamp Thing’. They were also much in-demand as producers and remixers.​

“I’m quite pleased with what I’ve done,” he says. “The fact that I’ve worked with Genesis P Orridge, God rest his soul, and also Kylie Minogue and Billie Ray Martin, I like to keep a broad church. I like the more extreme, leftfield stuff but I also like pop stuff as well. If Taylor Swift said, ‘Do you want to do an industrial track?’ I’d probably say, ‘Yeah, OK.' I don’t see why you can’t do all of it if you get the chance.”​

He and Norris remain friends and last teamed up on the 2018 album One Way Traffic, using Moog modular synthesisers.​

“There’s actually an album that’s still not come out of The Grid and Robert Fripp,” he says. “It’s supposedly coming out on Robert’s label but it takes a while for him to release things. I think he’s got such a massive back catalogue with King Crimson, but one day hopefully it will surface.” ​

Soft Cell have reunited periodically since the turn of the Millennium. After a ‘farewell’ concert at the O2 Arena in 2018, they signed to BMG and are now working on new music. “Thanks to the wonders of the internet we’re doing it remotely, but the album will come out next year,” Ball says.​

The pair might both now be in their sixties, but Ball says they haven’t necessarily grown closer. “I think we’re just older,” he laughs. “And wiser. ​

“Marc now writes lyrics of an older man. It’s a bit like listening to a Leonard Cohen record or Bob Dylan, you can hear the age, but it’s a good thing, I think.”​

Dave Ball’s book, Electronic Boy: My Life In And Out Of Soft Cell, is out now, published by Omnibus

If you love our features, news and reviews, please support what we do with a one-off or regular donation. Year-on-year, our corporate advertising is down by around 90% - a figure that threatens to sink The Quietus. Hit this link to find out more and keep on Black Sky Thinking.