The Sinister Sounds of Soft Cell: More Than One-Hit Wonders

Soft Cell looking sharp. Photo by Peter Ashworth.

The contemporary view of 80’s pop music likes to paint the hits of the decade in a glossy, pastel-colored hue. Much of the pop music of that time seems to stem from a happy-go-lucky attitude that was only concerned with worldly problems. Of course, we all know that pop music can be more nuanced than that and that the 80’s also was a time of fears. Drugs, AIDS and a superficial culture permeated society. And if there was one particular pop outfit that spoke to the adolescent experience, it was Soft Cell.

If there’s one word that describes Soft Cell, it’s “overlooked.” While the band achieved great success back in the day with their cover of Gloria Jones’ “Tainted Love” on their first LP Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret in 1981, they might not be more than a one-hit wonder to the general public (despite having 12 singles English charts). However, I’d argue that the band was so much more than that.

The Bling-Ring. Photo by Paul Cox.

But Soft Cell’s rise as hitmakers is enigmatic. How could an out-there pop duo score such a hit with a forgotten soul song from 1965? Was it the catchy melody, the lyrics or its in-the-vogue synths? The success of the song is somewhat bittersweet, since the single was released with another cover as a B-side: The Supremes’ “Where Did Our Love Go”. Normally, a band would incude a song of their own in order to get a larger cut of the sales, but since neither of the songs on the single was made by Soft Cell, they received next to nothing.

Even though they were never able to trump the success of “Tainted Love” and that the band was pretty much falling apart by 1983, their last albums of the 80’s — The Art of Falling Apart and Last Night In Sodom — are also their most interesting. On those records, they veered away from the danceable tunes that made up the debut and its dance floor friendly follow-up Non-Stop Ecstatic Dancing.

It’s a shame that those two albums didn’t garner any more attention. Even when music writer Kurt B. Reighley chronicles the band in his book Say Hello, Wave Goodbye: The Fleeting Fame & Lasting Legacy of Soft Cell, the two albums are merely glossed over.

Pretty in pink. Artwork for The Art of Falling Apart.

Soft Cell weren’t strangers to music that dealt with darker themes, but these albums came from a more twisted place. The Art of Falling Apart shines with the unsettling “Heat” and the 10 minute long Hendrix medley, a mixture that infuses Jimi’s songs with a neon-tinted haze and heavy beats that seems to echo from sweaty nightclubs.

Marc Almond’s effeminate appearance, on-stage mannerism and sexual lyrics oozed of a promiscuity that could only be displayed in a pre-AIDS world. Though his lyrics about debauchery might sound like any other Top 40 song made today, their music did run into some resistance. For example, the original video for “Sex Dwarf” was supposedly confiscated by the police. The song is probably the most infamous in their career. It’s part electronic orgie, part proto-industrial onslaught with weird voice samples (like simulated spanking) and primal screams by Almond.

Here’s the banned video for “Sex Dwarf”, complete with nudity, meat and chainsaws.

Soft Cell had a sound of their own, even though it was a product of the new wave. Marc Almond and Dave Ball’s sleazy synth-pop stands in sharp contrast to much of their glitzy pop contemporaries. There’s a sense of mystery to their music that few other bands of the time came near. This is partly music about mundanity and suburban anxiety (“Frustration” and “Kitchen Sink Drama” to name a few), but mainly secrets and sins. They tackled taboos and transgressions at a time when few dared to voice it. Sure, punk had already happened, but Soft Cell did it without wailing guitars and the lyrical simplicity of that movement.

For a band that was so overlooked, Soft Cell have inspired a wide variety of artists and bands, one of the most prominent ones being Nine Inch Nails. Frontman Trent Reznor has spoken time and again about the band’s influence on him. Landmarks such as the debut Pretty Hate Machine and The Downward Spiral just wouldn’t sound the same if it hadn’t been for Almond’s lyrics and Ball’s synth assault. Even the opening track on The Downward Spiral takes its name from the Soft Cell song “Mr. Self Destruct”. Nine Inch Nails have even covered the band, doing a fucked-up version of “Memorabilia” (on the extended version of Downward Spiral) and performing “Sex Dwarf” at an early stage in their career (sometime around 1988/89).

Nine Inch Nails doing a live cover of “Sex Dwarf”.

The duo’s electronic style can still be heard today. Their music has informed a diverse set of genres such as goth, industrial, dance and the 80’s revivalism that we see today. Even though Soft Cell might never shake that one-hit wonder label, it’s hard to argue that they weren’t trailblazers that left a lasting legacy.