“I couldn’t dance around naked covered in cat food forever” is Marc Almond’s explanation for how his collaboration with fellow Leeds Polytechnic student Dave Ball went from provocative art project to million-selling global phenomenon - ‘Tainted Love’, their rapidly recorded cover of Gloria Jones’s Northern Soul favourite, went to number one in 17 countries. They soon reverted to type, however, their career as a duo faltering as they struggled to free themselves from the straightjacket of success – rarely has an album been more aptly titled than ‘The Art Of Falling Apart.’
They were, briefly, a fabulously kinky-but-cute synth pop group before turning into something grittier, painting candid, even lurid, portraits of obsession, decadence, squalor and mental breakdown. They’re as much an outsider’s band as The Smiths, perhaps more so, their songs littered with failures, addicts, drag queens, sleep-arounds and utterly hopeless romantics. Perhaps there are some people who are just here for the hits, but the sheer quantity of eye-liner, glitter and leather indicates that for many this is about belonging. During ‘Bedsitter’, Marc sings “I look around and I can see… 20,000 people just like me.” You know it’s coming, and it floors you anyway.
This is, in one swoop, Soft Cell’s first arena show, a 40-year anniversary celebration to tie in with the new ‘Keychains & Snowstorms’ boxset (perhaps that’s one reason Soft Cell have always resonated with me – we’re the same age), and their last ever gig, and it covers every facet of their career, classic b-sides included. Opener ‘Memorabilia’ is delivered with such authority that you start to envisage a frictionless, dominant performance. No such chance of course – Almond forgets words and has to restart songs, and it’s not often clear whether Dave Ball, his great figure hunched over his keyboards, is pressing the right keys at the right time (a lot of the music is in playback anyway) – but this is entirely in keeping with a band who have never, ever been slick. Why start playing the game now?
‘Memorabilia’ is one of many Soft Cell tracks to address memory and the passing of time – ‘Youth’, from debut album ‘Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret’, really soars (“after all, the years have been fairly kind”) with live flute and accompanying fresh-faced early footage of Almond and Ball adding to the poignancy. New single ‘Northern Lights’, with its melody half-borrowed from The Cure’s ‘Let’s Go To Bed’, also looks back wistfully.
We do get a few forgettable, tracks from 2002’s flaccid comeback ’Cruelty Without Beauty’ (the best of which is a duet with Mari Wilson on “Last Chance”) but this is largely a welcome reminder of the depth of the Soft Cell catalogue. Almond is at his most intensely animated in a gothic sequence featuring torrid, Romero-inspired b-side ‘Martin’, ‘Heat’ and ‘The Art Of Falling Apart’, while a run of meaty tracks from the final (and finest) album ‘This Last Night… In Sodom’ - ‘The Best Way To Kill’, ‘Meet Murder My Angel’ and ‘Surrender To A Stranger’ - is also testament to Ball’s talents as an arranger and composer, as well as a proto-techno boffin, employing those crashing John Barry chords that also dominate ‘Loving You, Hating Me’. The addition of four backing singers and live brass (including long-time associate Gary Barnacle on saxophone – “he played on every record in the 80s” says Almond) give the likes of ‘Where The Heart Is” extra muscle, the vocalists sometimes reproducing swells that were originally synthy in origin.
We do get the hits of course – the immortal ‘Torch’, ‘Bedsitter’, ‘What’ and ‘Tainted Love’ which, as on the original 12-inch, segues into ‘Where Did Our Love Go’. Then Almond plays coy, asking if there’s anything the duo have forgotten, while flashed of lyrics flash on the screen behind him. Suddenly 20,000 people (or the majority of them anyway) are baying for ‘Sex Dwarf’ - it’s curiously uplifting moment and a sign of what a peculiar fit Soft Cell are for a gig like this. Finally, inevitably, it’s time for ‘Say Hello, Wave Goodbye’; pink flamingos, showers of glitter and perhaps the finest pop song ever written about the emotional compromises we have to make to stay sane. Nothing else here tonight smacks of compromise though - Soft Cell stayed true to themselves.