‘To show you I’ve been there…’: An interview with Soft Cell’s Dave Ball
08:02 am

On May 1 what is probably the ultimate piece of Soft Cell memorabilia will be published by Chris Smith’s Renegade Music in a strictly limited edition of 1300. To Show You I’ve Been There… is a 176-page oversized coffee table book featuring images of Marc Almond and Dave Ball taken throughout their forty year history, from the nightclubs of the north of England in the late 70s all the way to their sold out farewell performance at the 02 Arena last year. Photographer Peter Ashworth, who shot several album covers and publicity shots for the band has opened up his archives for the project, which include his contact sheets and fantastic early live performance shots. Additional photographs from Peter Anderson, Tony Mottram, Justin Thomas and many others round out the exhaustively compiled book. Each photograph is accompanied by comments and context from Marc and/or Dave.

Exclusive to the book is also a 7” clear vinyl EP (or digital download) of three recently re-recorded early Soft Cell numbers (and a cover of Fad Gadget’s “Back to Nature”) titled Magick Moments which has a cover drawing by Dave Ball. The book will never be reprinted and the record will never be repressed independent of the book. You can preorder To Show You I’ve Been There… HERE.

In anticipation of the book’s publication, I asked Soft Cell’s Dave Ball some questions over email.

The Mini-Korg 800 DV, Dave’s first synth.

First I wanted to ask you about recording in New York. It’s nearly impossible to truly convey just how jaw-droppingly insane NYC was in early 1980s to someone who who didn’t experience it. What was your first reaction upon arriving in the city?

NYC was a crazy place back in the early 80s. I’d previously visited in 1978. The city was almost bankrupt and there was a heroin epidemic. They had one of the highest murder rates after Detroit.

How old were you then?

I was 18 years old when I first visited with my mum and sister.

Had you seen Taxi Driver before you got there?

It was about the same time Taxi Driver came out and walking in the evening was very reminiscent of the film – steam coming out of the potholes and Checker cabs everywhere.

Did New York live up to your expectations?

I thought it was like a very intense version of Soho in London. One morning I was walking down 42nd Street towards Times Square and a guy offered me a pistol for sale.

On the set of the ‘Enterian Me’ video shoot.

Marc’s predilection for sleazy situations is, of course, the stuff of legend—literal legends, quite an achievement that!—but what about you? What are some of the more notable things you saw or did in Times Square?

When I returned to the city three years later with Marc Almond and Stevo it was a totally different experience. We fully immersed ourselves in NY club culture. Apart from our usual hangout, Danceteria, other clubs we visited and sometimes frequented were Paradise Garage, the Roxy, the Ritz, the Peppermint Lounge, Berlin, the Red Parrot, Negril, the Mudd Club and Studio 54, of course. They were mainly dance clubs but we also discovered there were some very different clubs where they didn’t just play music but also got involved in lots of live sex action. One night we ended up in Manhattan’s meatpacking district and discovered a sex club called the Hellfire Club where there were people having various kinds of sex everywhere. I guarantee we never actively took part, we were just there as voyeurs. There were also predominantly gay clubs like the Mineshaft and the Anvil.

At the Factory with Andy Warhol in 1982
Tell me about meeting Andy Warhol.

When we met Andy Warhol at The Factory he was just as I expected – very quiet, creepy, old looking with a very limp handshake.

Where did you guys meet Divine?

We met Divine in a club called Danceteria. He was really pissed off and said he hated NY and wanted to go home to Baltimore.

The Roland CR 78, the “Tainted Love” beat machine.
I know that the debut album was recorded very quickly. What were the sessions like? How solidified was your sound before you went into studio for first album?

We worked at Mediasound Studios on West 57th St. from 11am ‘til 6pm everyday except weekends. We worked very fast as we knew all the material inside out. We’d been playing it live for the previous two years every week in clubs around the UK.

How conscious was the notion that you were making music for people who were on drugs to listen to? I feel like that’s an important part of what made the Soft Cell sound so powerful. Psychedelic isn’t the right word, but “druggy” is a step in the right direction, certainly.

We were experimenting with a lot of different drugs on the NY club scene – cocaine, quaaludes, ecstasy, opium, acid, heroin, crystal meth & Special K (ketamine). Anyone wanting to read more should check out my forthcoming autobiography Electronic Boy coming out this summer from Omnibus Press.

Anita Sarko and Cindy Ecstasy at Danceteria

On his blog (Soft Cell producer) Mike Thorne says that he feels bad that Cindy Ecstasy is often described, unfairly he feels, as your drug dealer. That it was a more casual passing of drugs from one friend to another, but a friend of mine remembers her being at Danceteria and other clubs of that era and he says “No, she was definitely a drug dealer.” How did she enter your orbit?

Cindy Ecstasy’s contribution was great as it gave a little taste of the life we were living in NY. There have been all sorts of questions and answers about what became of her. The one that sounds the most plausible to me is she became a screenwriter in Hollywood, under a different name of course.

Cindy Ecstasy during downtime on the ‘Torch’ video shoot
The shots from the Non Stop album launch party at Danceteria look… rather interesting. What happened that night and who came to the party?

The NY launch party for Non Stop Erotic Cabaret was great. All the Manhattan clubbers were out in force. Some of the Warhol crowd, some John Waters people, notably Cookie Mueller who was a friend of my girlfriend, the late Anita Sarko. Mick Jones from The Clash was there and was very complimentary about us and a pre-famous Madonna was there doing her little dance routine as normal.
Continues after the jump…

Posted by Richard Metzger
08:02 am
‘Lost in Blue’: Anni Hogan’s dark torch songs with Lydia Lunch, Gavin Friday, Soft Cell’s Dave Ball

Anni Hogan by Peter Ashworth
There is, I suppose, an almost sort of secret society comprised of the most ardent admirers of Torment and Toreros, the harrowing 1983 Marc Almond solo album released under the name Marc and the Mambas. It’s a cult album, to be sure, but with a seriously passionate fandom devoted to it. If I meet someone who likes this album—not that this happens all that often, but I consider it a variant on the Illuminati handshake for rock snobs—they immediately rise in my opinion. Fellow fans of that album—obviously—have great taste in music, which is something I correlate closely with high intelligence. In fact, everyone who I know who has expressed a fondness for this album, I tend to be very fond of myself. It’s a masterpiece—a singularly bleak vision put to sensuous and violent song—although admittedly not for everyone.

Fans of that album tend to be partial to a handful of other Marc Almond albums recorded in the 80s—Mother Fist and Her Five Daughters, The Stars We Are, the first Mambas album Untitled—and are very well aware of the fact that Almond’s main musical collaborator on these records was classically trained pianist/arranger Annie Hogan, who now goes by Anni Hogan.

Hogan’s contributions to those albums are of a paramount importance to their greatness. If you tried to subtract her playing from them, they simply couldn’t have existed. The sound of her grand piano on those albums is stunning, and distinctly and very uniquely her own. It couldn’t have been anyone else in her role and worked as well as it did, not in this universe or any other. Her style was the perfect accompaniment to Marc Almond’s wonderfully idiosyncratic voice. That they had a falling out and have not worked together in decades, in my eyes, is, and I am not alone in this, truly a damned shame.

But Hogan’s musical journey has seen her collaborate with other notable voices, and prominent musicians along the way, among them Nick Cave, Yello, Robin Rimbaud/Scanner (as Scanni), Barry Adamson, Budgie, Jim Thirlwell, Kraftwerk’s Wolfgang Flur and Simon Fisher Turner. It’s worth noting that as I typed that last sentence I realized I had all of these in my record and CD collection. I have considered Anni Hogan to be one of my favorite musicians for over three decades; if she’s involved with something, I want to hear it.

Anni Hogan by Peter Ashworth

And now she’s back with an extraordinary new album, Lost in Blue (Coldspring Records) featuring new collaborations with Lydia Lunch, Gavin Friday, Kid Congo Powers, Kraftwerk’s Wolfgang Flür and Richard Strange from 70s cult band Doctors Of Madness. The album was produced by Dave Ball and Riccardo Mulhall. It’s released on March 8th, although vinyl copies signed by Anni can be ordered here now. I posed a few questions to Anni via email.

Richard Metzger: Anni, you’re best-known for your celebrated collaborations with the other half of Soft Cell, but this time you’re working with Dave Ball. How did that come about?

Anni Hogan: I’ve known Dave the same amount of time as Marc Almond and we have remained friends for nearly 40 years!  I’d chatted with him over the past few years about doing something together and we eventually met up at a pub in Soho, which actually became the album meeting place, The Coach and Horses, where I promptly tripped and spilled his pint all over him, perfect! We laughed a lot and so I knew then this was going to work,  we still had tons in common including our sense of humour, and of course our passion for music and music related books.  A couple of pizzas later and we had a plan.  I knew I wanted to make a really good record and from my heart rather than going through someone else’s remake as it where.  Dave is a genius anyway, but a generous and understanding old school producer.  He felt it was his job to elevate my musical ideas, we share a love of soundtracks and I wanted that shape around the album.  Dave had his own ideas to make this work, including working the main musicians as a band, and a adding electronics, orchestra, etc. where needed. 

It seems like in each case the singer wrote the words they are singing. Generally speaking how did the songs become composed and how did the recordings get made? I would imagine that the circumstances were different for each song. Was the album recorded over a long period of time?

The whole album was recorded mainly over two years, although I did already have a couple of demos from a few years earlier.  I had sent a piano piece to Kid Congo a few years ago and he sent back his wonderful autobiographical adventure in spoken word Kid drawl, which totally worked great against my Bernard Herrmann-influenced piano which I recorded on my baby grand in my own Studio Blue.  I kept it to one side and did the same with Wolfgang Flür, I had already made the song “Golden Light” with him after we met djing at the same event in Dublin, incidentally Dave Ball was also at that event, we all dj’d and destiny was in motion.  Of course I was a much better DJ and I remember Dave was like laughing and calling me “bitch!” when I mixed all my tracks seamlessly, haha, It was a funny night.

Anyway I digress, I sent Wolfgang a piano piece, very emotive and he sent back to me the spoken word “Silk Paper” over the piano.  Sounded gorgeous and perfect.  Again, I kept it to one side and similarly I had a song which I recorded with Richard Strange in London a few years previously, at the time I was house DJ for him at his fabulous weekly night Cabaret Futura.  I had given him a rough demo and we recorded vocals and trumpet in London. So I had these three tracks and late in 2015 began writing some new material. 

I got in touch with Lydia and sent her over a piano and melodica piece which she responded to “I love it” and “Blue Contempt” came from that.  I had not intended to sing anything myself, but after meeting up with David Coulter in Liverpool, he sent me a beautiful, hypnotic viola piece and I immediately heard a vocal melody and had a few words which seemed to fit so I went for it.  My friend of many years—and top sound engineer Andrea Ando Wright—came over to my studio and recorded piano and melodica to David’s violetta and then I said I wanted to try a vocal.  She wrapped me up in quilts and cushions, pillows and more quilt and we got the desired effect.

I don’t usually record vocals at my place. “Thunderstruck” came from a dark place of devastation an instant emotional response on the day Jo Cox MP was horrifically murdered, both the music and lyric came out as one. So I would basically write and pre-produce and then send down to the studio in Richmond, owned by Dave’s production partner Riccardo Mulhall and they worked on tracks whilst I wrote the others. 

I went to London for the physical recording, so for the horns and harp and some backing vocals.  Dave suggested Gavin which was a brilliant idea as was bringing in 1970s legend John Fiddler from Medicine Head and the writers Scarlet West and Celine Hispiche. I wrote the music for them to then respond to, it was a very challenging and interesting aspect of recording to write for people I had not yet met, but did do research on.  Most of the vocals were recorded in London but Gavin wrote and recorded his epic love poem (with a vast array of backing vocals) to a fairly complete demo I sent over.  The real magic happened in production I think, bringing all the songs to full potential and the boys created a wonderful resonant album “sound.”

I’ve always felt that Lydia Lunch is an underrated singer. She’s got such an instantly recognizable voice—when she opens her mouth there is no one else it can possibly be—and that sort of bleak, Erik Satie-esque dreamscape you’ve got her singing to works spectacularly well, I thought. You can really hear the nuances in her voice.

“Blue Contempt” is a sensational recording, and I agree, underrated and oozing visceral edgy coolness forever. Queen Of Siam and 13.13 are two of my favourite albums.  Queen Of Siam particularly blew me away when I first heard it in the 80s and still does. Jasmine Hirst actually filmed Lydia on the day she wrote the lyric and the video was equally sensational with Lydia looking gorgeous as ever.  Dave and Ricc were excited to work on the track and enhanced the delicious “Lynchian” film vibe.

I think her prodigious cigarette smoking has given her voice a greater depth as she’s gotten older, like Marianne Faithfull’s, and that’s also true of Gavin Friday. I understand that he’s a pretty heavy smoker, too. These wonderfully smoky voices. Obviously he’s worked with Dave as a producer in the past, on the final Virgin Prunes album, so it was Dave who brought Gavin into the project?

Yes, sure was, Dave suggested Gavin early on when we were chatting about the album.  Of course I’m a Virgin Prunes fan, saw them live several times and love Gavin’s solo stuff.  Dave suggested I particularly listen to his ‘95 solo album Shag Tobacco (which is brilliant!) as a reference and that helped me find a way into a piece for Gavin. It turned into quite the epic!

I wasn’t expecting Wolfgang Flür’s contribution to be vocal. I guess I was expecting him to be playing drum pads or something!

Well he is rather well known for that : )  But yes we explored his performed written word for the tracks we have recorded together.  Previously we recorded “Golden Light”  and he loved it so much he included it on his album Eloquence and Wolfgang has encouraged me ever since we have become friends. “Silk Paper” was seductive little prose which worked so well against my semi classical piano piece and then production enhanced along the way.

How did you coax Richard Strange back into the studio?

Well it wasn’t difficult: I asked, he said yes : )  Richard is a gorgeous, giving guy, very talented and very open.  He was very encouraging actually and wrote and delivered a great lyric and performance in “Death Bed Diva,” an intricate camp tale of faded glory. I love it.

I wanted to ask you about Celine Hispiche. Her voice is so striking. I loved the lyrics where she’s mentioning famous drinkers at the Colony Room and lamenting what’s become of Soho. It seems like that could be an entire concept album on its own, a lost London lament, if you will.

Yes, the regeneration of our famous old cities and the life fading out of them and turning into something corporate and just much less. A lost London lament but it could be equally talking about New York or any other major old city. Celine is a wonderful character, a talented writer and actress, a bohemian figure at the center of Soho life. She painted a perfect picture of the London we all knew and loved, our 80s haunts all but gone now. The album was certainly planned in Soho and Dave and I did a tour of all our old haunts on the fateful “spilled pint” day.

The album factored in to the artists involved and our combined musical histories and many cities did feature in a way, all being regenerated as we speak, Liverpool (my nearest city) London, Dublin, New York ..

Having collaborated with so many iconic voices is there a “dream” collaboration that you’d like to see happen in the future?

Françoise Hardy I listen to practically every day so that’s a secret special desire. I would love to work with Stuart A. Staples and Claire Denis as I love his music for her films and I love her films, they are a beautiful combo and seeing Tindersticks film performance in Liverpool inspired my melodica playing on my album.  Scott Walker still inspires me, his latest musical ventures really challenging textually, visions of wonder and artistic truth.  Beth Gibbons is also an artist I love to listen to and respect very much … there’s a lot more I’m sure!

What happened to your “e”?

Hahahahaha, well there is a photographic artist Annie Hogan who I have actually become friends with, anyway seemed easier to drop the e, less confusion. 

Lost in Blue is released on March 8. You can order signed CDs and limited edition blue vinyl here.

Videos after the jump…

Posted by Richard Metzger
03:29 pm
Keychains and Snowstorms: The Soft Cell Story
04:38 pm

I’m a huge Soft Cell/Marc Almond fan and I have been ever since “Tainted Love” was a hit and their memorable 1982 Solid Gold TV appearance—where Marc beat the stage with a leather belt and generally camped it up bigtime—caused my father to become visibly agitated and angry. It was an incredibly subversive thing to see on such a goofy middle-of-the-road disco hits program—one that usually followed The Lawrence Welk Show or Hee-Haw on Saturday evenings, depending on where you lived—and I wholeheartedly approved.

From that point on, I had every Soft Cell album, EP, 12” remix, book, VHS, fan club issue, bootleg, you name it. I still have them all along with practically every Marc-related release, Dave Ball’s solo album, everything by The Grid and many things produced or remixed by Dave Ball. I even own the entire discography of Vicious Pink Phenomena. In short, I am not only qualified to properly evaluate their new career-summing box set Keychains and Snowstorms: The Soft Cell Story, I am squarely within the fanboy Venn diagram that this exhaustive compilation is meant to appeal to. Truly I am the target audience for this product by any metric.

Admittedly after the above preamble, it will probably come as no surprise to anyone who has read this far to find that I’m absolutely unashamedly nuts about this compilation. If you’ve only ever heard “Tainted Love” and are intrigued enough to still be reading, this box set might be for you. I’m admittedly biased but I think it’s the best thing I’ve heard all year. Let me count the ways…

Soft Cell were—and still are—practically unknown in America. However true that statement might be, everyone in this entire country aged nine to 99 knows “Tainted Love” as it’s still played on oldies radio and in drugstores, shopping malls and supermarkets nationwide on a daily, even hourly basis. It’s playing in a CVS or a Walgreens location somewhere in America—if not several of them—right this very second. “Tainted Love” has never left the outer periphery of popular awareness since it first hit the American top ten in 1982. That song has a uniquely ubiquitous pop culture persistence, a staying power rivaled only by the likes of something by Fleetwood Mac or the Beach Boys, even if virtually no one on this side of the Atlantic has ever heard a second song by the duo who recorded it or could name the group themselves. (The more culturally savvy might have noticed the heartbreaking use of quite a long swatch of “Say Hello, Wave Goodbye” in the big final scene of series two of Master of None.) Anyway, think of that as an opportunity. If you are looking for something “new” to listen to, look no further.

It’s TEN discs. Freaking TEN discs from a band who have only released four proper albums in their career and if you already own those albums—and every Soft Cell fan does—almost nothing from those albums is repeated here. (The exception is that their 2001 reunion album, the annoyingly overlooked Cruelty Without Beauty—one of the finest “comeback” albums I can think of—is excerpted heavily here with the strongest tracks present plus three great numbers left off the album that would have made it an even better release. As few heard this album, I agree with this approach. Those songs are worthy and should be heard.)

There is very little (none really) overlap with last year’s similarly packaged Marc Almond career box. Speaking of, the packaging is glossy, sturdy and first rate. The design, by Philip Marshall, is elegant and slick. The extended essay by Simon Price is terrific, even someone who has followed the duo from the start will find much new information and insight into the creation of their music and the insanity of being shoved to the forefront of the global music industry the way these two were. It’s a great story, well told and a thoroughly good read.

Here’s a rundown of what’s on each disc.

Disc #1 has each of the 12” extended versions of their Phonogram singles. With most acts, this sort of thing holds no interest for me, however with Soft Cell the opposite is true. Their extended mixes had additional verses, and new instrumentation. Ball didn’t merely slice and dice their music like everyone else, he resculpted it and redid it in a radically different fashion from the 7” and album versions. I tend to hate remixes and find them generally speaking pretty useless as a listener, but not here.

Disc #2 has the B-sides from these 12” singles. They might have only released three albums during their first incarnation, but they actually did release a fair amount of material during their brief run, issuing several extended EPs and their B-sides were never throwaways… (“Tainted Dub/Where Did Our Love Go?” which leads off this disc is included in the Spotify playlist below selected by yours truly, along with several more tracks from this disc. Note the two John Barry compositions—“You Only Live Twice” and “007 Theme”—and Barry’s obvious influence on Dave Ball and the Soft Cell sound.)

Disc #3 consists of new extended mixes of less obvious tracks by Ball that utilize, with rare exception, solely the original master tapes from the era. I didn’t expect to like this disc as much as I did, but I did like it, very much. It also made a lot of sense in the overall sequencing of the set. It might seem like a daft comparison but the way the music is broken down into its component parts and reassembled throughout this entire set reminds me of Yabby You’s Conquering Lion album in the way that the constant repetition of certain themes and phrases start to sound almost like a symphony of sorts. The mixes here sounds “analog” and not like something some smartass did on a laptop.

Disc #4 is the “curios” collection and includes the early classic “The Girl With the Patent Leather Face” along with things like their incredible “Hendrix Medley” (“Hey Joe”/“Purple Haze”/“Voodoo Chile” done ala Soft Cell will fry your mind) and the harrowing “Martin” based on the George Romero creepy loner vampire film. All of these, and the 7” edit of “Numbers”—AS IF a song based on a John Rechy novel was going to get played on the radio!!!—are included in the playlist below.

Disc #5 collects demos, early punky DIY experiments, some things recorded with MUTE’s Daniel Miller and their first release the Mutant Moments EP.

Disc #6 collects various radio sessions and the strongest tracks from their 2001 reunion album Cruelty Without Beauty. Also included are three additional tracks from those sessions that were not selected for the album, but perhaps should have been. “God Shaped Hole” is one of the best Soft Cell songs, period, so why was it left to languish on an obscure Some Bizarre compilation? (Listen for yourself as it’s included, along with their excellent cover of Frankie Valli’s “The Night,” in the playlist below.)

Much more after the jump…

Posted by Richard Metzger
04:38 pm
The Rise and Fall of Soft Cell, New Wave’s sleaziest synthpop duo
09:41 am

The track was “Memorabilia” and I heard it nearly every time I was out in some club in the early 1980s. Between dances, there was small disagreement over the band’s name, who they were and where they came from. It varied depending who you talked to. Then came “Tainted Love” and suddenly everyone knew who they were: Marc Almond and Dave Ball of Soft Cell.

When this duo first appeared on Top of the Pops with their number one hit “Tainted Love” in 1981, the florid Wing-Commanders and Colonel Mustards of Tunbridge Wells thundered, “Who the hell is this woman? That can’t be a man, surely? I fought a war for this?” It certainly was a man, and those damned lucky blighters were watching Marc Almond give one of TOTP’s most memorable and thrilling performances.

Marc is the Poet Laureate of sleaze, and Dave its Schubert. Together they wrote songs that perfectly captured an underclass world of the disenfranchised, the sexually ambiguous, and the impoverished. 

When their debut album Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret came out on November 27th, 1981, I had to beg, steal and borrow a copy, and even wrote to Santa, bad Santa, for this delectable slice of vinyl. When it arrived, I played it endlessly. The NME may have hated it, but they were old, too old, and this was Year Zero for eighties music as far as I was concerned.

Just take a listen and you will hear why, as m’colleague Richard Metzger has previously written, Marc Almond:

” one of the truly great interpreters of song of our age. His distinctive voice, like Frank Sinatra’s, is instantly recognizable from the very first note.”

After Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret and Non Stop Ecstatic Dancing (arguably the UK’s first House record by a British band) came the richer and darker blooms The Art of Falling Apart and Last Night in Sodom, which only the most great and reckless talents could have produced. 

This documentary from the BBC series Young Guns traces the rise and fall of Soft Cell from student life in Leeds to the bright New York lights, and the seedy London back streets. Made in 2000, it has superb interviews form Marc Almond, Dave Ball, the band’s manager Stevo, and record execs.


Posted by Paul Gallagher
09:41 am