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Compressions on a dance floor: Soft Cell, Human League and the evolution of the remix album

Soft Cell may have played their “last“ show with a much trumpeted adieu at London’s O2 Arena in September 2018, but Marc Almond and David Ball continue to build on their impressively twisted odd couple legacy with the publication of a luxury limited edition photo book.

Strictly limited to 1300 copies, the lavish hardback, To Show You I’ve Been There… is in some ways the ultimate piece of Soft Cell memorabilia, featuring over 150 images spanning the whole of the pervy synth duo’s glorious career, plus new interviews with my BowieStyle buddy Mark Paytress and Magick Mutants, an exclusive seven-inch EP featuring four new old tracks with artwork by David Ball.

For gear geeks, there’s even two pages devoted to Ball’s equipment. It happens to be the musical maestro’s 60th birthday today, so I thought it timely to devote a page or two on a Soft Cell album that, due its very nature as a side show of experimental and often instrumental electronica, may often be construed as “Dave’s album.”

By the early 1980s, and the growing popularity of the shiny and new 12” single format that facilitated and fuelled the rise and rise of the remix, record labels soon cottoned onto the fact that remixes and extended versions could even be recycled. ‘Why not put them on an album?’ they chimed. And they did, starting with new wave wonders The B52’s in July 1981, swiftly followed by Birmingham reggae outfit UB40 three months later. 

It would be difficult to make too great a claim about Party Mix! or Present Arms in Dub, but the following year saw the mix album move up a gear, and the pioneers in this field just happened to be two synth-based acts from the north of England.

Flush with the immense worldwide success of their third album, Dare, Sheffield’s the Human League put out Love and Dancing in July 1982 under the pseudonym League Unlimited Orchestra. This was a budget priced mini-album containing dub versions from Dare (as well as Hard Times, the flip side to Love Action), all lovingly recreated by producer Martin Rushent. The public went for it, taking the album to number three in the UK album chart and going platinum.

But Soft Cell got there first. Just. 

Under a deceptively sparse veneer, this odd-couple pop duo from Leeds (Almond) and Blackpool (Ball) contained a multitude of influences and contradictions. When Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret appeared in late 1981 it quickly dispelled any notions that the band was a cover version-reliant one hit wonder.

Two more Top Five hits followed that Tainted Love juggernaut: Bedsitter (reportedly Morrissey’s favourite Soft Cell song) and Say Hello, Wave Goodbye, a bittersweet torch song paying tribute in no small way to Almond’s hero, the swoonsome Scott Walker. Producer Mike Thorne had, Marc says today, “smoothed down our rough edges and helped us make a classic pop album”. 

The follow-up, Non Stop Ecstatic Dancing (the boys had clearly fallen out of love with hyphens at this point) was, as the title implies, conceived, by the band’s own admission, under the influence of MDMA (or as it was colloquially known, ecstasy) and consequently, is more dance-orientated than its predecessor.

It’s an odd beast though. There’s some great tracks but overall it lacks the cohesion of the League’s set. 

There’s a pair of non-album A-sides (an instrumental dub of A Man Could Get Lost plus what would soon turn out to be their last top ten single, a remake of yet another Sixties soul classic, What?); a pair of remixes of early B-sides (the proto-techno Memorabilia and their cover of Where Did Our Love Go, neither of which were a patch on the originals), and finally, a pair of rejigs from the Erotic Cabaret parent album, the delicious Chips On My Shoulder and the lubricious Sex Dwarf.

And no, sorry this ain’t the video you were hoping for.

What’s even more curious is what was left off: no Say Hello, Wave Goodbye or even the then most recent 45, Torch (not enough beats per minute, I’d imagine) and most notably, the Supremes cover was missing its superior sibling; the peerless 12” mix of Tainted Love/Where Did Our Love Go that transitions from A-side to B-side in nine glorious minutes.

Even as early as the summer of ’82 Tainted Love — which was on its way to setting a Guinness World Record for the longest stay on the American Billboard Hot 100: 43 weeks — felt like an albatross waiting to happen. In their typically contrary way, Soft Cell would soon banish the song from their live sets too.

Despite the omissions, NSED entered on the chart dated 26 June 1982 (the very day I became a teen, fact fans) at No.7, nudging up a place to peak at six the following week. It became the first remix album to reach the Top Ten, so with that factoid uppermost it’s earned its place in history.

Ultimately the Soft Cell story is one against adversity and conformity. It’s about how two working class northerners shot to No.1 and became a chart fixture, achieving five Top 5 hit singles in the space of 13 months during the Britain of 1981-82. And that’s a strike rate that neither Human League, Depeche Mode, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, Japan, Ultravox or any other contemporaneous synth act managed.

In fact, of their supposed chart rivals, only Gary Numan and Adam Ant came close.

The duo’s remarkable if all too brief catalogue is a must have for electronica obsessives, but for popular culture observers too because without Marc Almond and Dave Ball paving the way, life might have been that bit more difficult for Culture Club, Frankie Goes To Hollywood, Erasure, and of course, their most obvious successors, another northern synthpop duo called the Pet Shop Boys.

It’s a matter of some intriguing coincidence that PSB’s debut record, West End Girls, was first released the week after Down In The Subway, Soft Cell’s swansong single checked out of the charts in March 1984, putting the duo on hiatus for eighteen long years. 

The US edition of NSED for rid of Chips On My Shoulder in favour of Insecure Me, the fabulous flipside of What?

There’s more than a certain simpatico there. Chris Lowe, the PSB’s keyboard king, even attended the same Blackpool school as Dave Ball. And if we chart the evolution of the remix album, many artists followed suit with variable degrees of success: some quite good — Imagination, Eurythmics, Bronski Beat, and some quite atrocious — Howard Jones, Madonna.

Stuck in his mid Eighties malaise, poor old David Bowie didn’t even get that far, withdrawing his Dance megamix LP in 1985 before it even reached the presses.

Conceptualists to their core, Pet Shop Boys took the idea even further, and have continued to release a series of brilliantly curated remix albums. Like their electronic forefathers, the second PSB album, Disco, was a six track set of remixes, though in a way their fourth LP, 1998’s Introspective, with its incorporation of new material into the running order, was even more of a creative parallel.

In fact, when its lead single Domino Dancing stalled at No.7, signalling an end to the Pets’ outstanding run of Top Five singles, Neil Tennant remarked, blithely, that the relative failure would be “been seen as our Numbers,” referencing the end of Soft Cell’s imperial period.

“I think Pet Shop Boys take an element of Soft Cell, that mundanity mixed with hopefulness, with looking for something bigger, a yearning. They’re very clever. They made it much more fine-tuned and successful. They’re great. Rent is a great song that I wish I’d done myself. And Chris Lowe is just the loveliest person. He once said to me that he always has my book In Search of the Pleasure Palace: Disreputable Travels by his bed to delve into.” – Marc Almond, 2018

Lastly, the Pets’ tenth studio set was paired with a bonus dub album, Yes etc., that was an affectionate nod to Love and Dancing, even sledgehammering the point by featuring the vocal demonics of Phil Oakey himself on its opening track, This Used To Be The Future.

The remix album was once the future. And thanks to the success of Non Stop Ecstatic Dancing, the future’s bright, the future’s posy.

Steve Pafford

45 at 35: Soft Cell’s Say Hello, Wave Goodbye is here

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