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Say What? Sex Dwarves and The Man in Black: The time Neil Tennant interviewed Soft Cell in Smash Hits

Remember those days, the early eighties?

Ask anyone from the Guardian to government’s Ministry of Culture and the contemporary view of British pop music in the 1980s tends to paint the hits of at least the first part of the decade in a glossy, pastel-coloured hue. 

Indeed, a deep dive into the archive of Smash Hits magazine – premier colour me pop bible in the time of Adam And The Ants, Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet – suggests Mark Ellen, David Hepworth and co always seemed particularly confused by one British group. Wilfully so, what? 

But these electro-goth outsiders weren’t wearing Vivienne Westwood kilts, or dressed like dandy highwaymen, or mincing around Top Of The Pops making your dad think their male singer was a girl. And not just your dad either…

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 the ’80s was also a time of tears, fears.… and queers.

I’ve argued before that there was no period in music quite as gay as the decade when I came of age. Drugs, AIDS and a superficial culture of consumerism permeated society, whether Margaret Thatcher announced there was such a thing or not.

And if there was one particular pop outfit that spoke to the adolescent experience, it was the sleazoid synth duo Soft Cell. 

There’s a sense of mystery to Soft Cell’s salacious oeuvre that few other acts 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 a covert polari of secrets and sins. They tackled taboos and transgressions at a time when few dared to voice it. Sure, punk had already happened, but Almond and Ball did it without wailing guitars and the lyrical simplicity of that movement.

Never one to let a quip get in the way of a catty comment, Boy George once described Soft Cell as music for teenagers who hate their parents.

First found on 1982’s Where The Heart Is (the ‘flop’ 45 that announced the duo’s imperial phase was over), that ethos came to the first of many heads with It’s A Mugs Game, one of their greatest flipsides and a comical tirade of angry, adolescent angst. The narrator goes, Edina Monsoon style, from self-induced crisis to self-induced crisis as he tries to annoy Dad by playing his records “so loud, all the ones he especially hates… Deep Purple In Rock, Led Zeppelin II… Well, even you hate those!”

The closing rant of “I can’t wait until I’m twenty one and I can tell them all to sod off!” is classic teenage rampage. School’s Out for the out-there generation and a comeback for wonkily applied eyeliner.

Marc Almond and David Ball were, simply, a very odd couple. They still are in fact.

Writing about the northern duo in November 1981, when their second single Tainted Love was well on its way to becoming the year-end’s best-selling 45, the fortnightly music mag described Marc, the “singer, 24”, as speaking “in campish tones with a lot of italics. His hands serve as exclamation marks, musically infatuating with the jangles of bangles and bracelets.”

As for Almond’s 22-year-old musical partner Dave Ball, “he has the build and moustache of a second-row rugby forward charmingly combined with the gentle face and dark brown voice of a trainee vicar”. And this was the hulking and ecclesiastical square who had co-authored with Almond a deliciously shady debut album called Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret?

By the summer, of ’82 when Tainted Love was partway through a record-breaking 43-week run in the American Billboard Hot 100 – Smash Hits was still trying to work them out. In the mag’s 8-21 July edition a certain book editor behind the Dairy Book Of Home Management turned music journalist was sent to interview Soft Cell for a cover story with the appropriately acidic strapline “Just how sweet is Almond essence?” The very same issue where he reviewed and rubbished Culture Club for using backing tapes on stage. Mia-ow!

Marc Almond had absolutely no trouble picking up the gauntlet, though chances are his dish of the day came in powdered form. In his outrageously candid 1999 memoir, Tainted Life, the singer writes “I hated interviews, I still hate them… I would often smoke a joint, or take several lines of cocaine before an interview, which only served to intensify my paranoia.” 

But the choppy days of white lines and Cindy Ecstasy was yesteryear; and these days the newly OBE’d belle of St Marc is a newly pensionable 65, much more likely to be sipping a bottle of mineral water — still, not sparkling — not to mention making peace and poptastic dance tunes with his former interrogator… in the purple zone.

For, yes, it was he, Mr Neil Tennant the future Pet Shop Boy, now 68 (his birthday’s on July 10, a day after Marc’s). Forty years ago, the PSB frontman had been the impertinent interlocutor sent to cross-examine the original “gay disco” pop duo on all matter of things from sex dwarfs and out of tune singing to a slightly bitter rivalry with the Human League. Notes were furiously made that day. 

Here’s the interview anyway.

Steve Pafford

Soft Cell: The Man in Black 

Neil Tennant, Smash Hits, July 8 – 21, 1982

Marc Almond gets a few things off his chest. Neil Tennant provides the vapour rub.

MARC’S FEELING a bit chesty today. He’s got to go and see a specialist tomorrow. There’s no mistaking him when he walks into the room with his headband and mascara, black clothes and two different earrings. Only a bad cough and sudden bursts of nervous laughter interrupt his continuous staccato chatter.

“Actually, I’ve got a bit of a throat infection at the moment. I’m feeling very sort of hoarse and a bit tense and a bit horrible. I’ve always had problems with throat and chest things and I have a feeling I might have caught something off Stevo because he’s had whooping cough and everything.”

Stevo is Soft Cell’s legendary manager and the owner of Some Bizzare. He has a reputation for being rather more than some bizarre himself. Stories abound of his outrageous exploits, from threatening to jump off the window ledge of his hotel room to entertaining the clientele of a South London disco with a mixture of “Cabaret Voltaire and The Sooty Show”.

“He’s certainly a character but I think it’s good in the music business where you meet so many people who are either so suit-and-tie and very straight-faced or belong to the silk bomber-jacket brigade. I think he puts a bit of character into it, he shakes it up.”

One gets the impression that people in the music business neither understand nor like Soft Cell; perhaps they even resent their success. They see Marc prancing about on Top Of The Pops singing in an out-of-tune voice one of those dreary songs which have nothing to do with music and which is another Top Three hit!

“They find it all very annoying because they’d like us to be moulded into a nice sort of Dollar situation — not that I’ve got anything against Dollar — where we’d be totally presentable and nice and smart.

“I don’t like the safe and ordinary, people who aren’t prepared to take a little risk every now and again.” So instead of being packaged and clean, Soft Cell continue to scratch a lot of people with their rough edges.

On television Marc comes across as the most extraordinary performer, pouting and waving his arms, while an impassive David Ball stands with his synthesizer, looking like the quiet bank manager who has a secret life behind the lace curtains.

Imagine the scenes all over the country when Soft Cell appear on Top Of The Pops. Dads peering over their newspapers and Mums dropping their knitting in horror — “What does he think he looks like?” — while teenage offspring hiss them into silence.

“I know we don’t seem to fit into Top Of The Pops but I’m really glad. Who wants to fit in? I don’t. I always send myself up in that sort of thing. I think in some ways that’s why certain people in the press have always been annoyed about us because we were the ones who never should have made it and I was the one who should never have been a pop star.

“When I was younger, I liked the unusual, I liked things my parents didn’t like — things that were a little bit on the edge. And I think Soft Cell fans do as well, judging by the mail we get! We get hate mail as well. I think it’s as interesting having hate mail as having good mail because I like controversy. I’d hate a situation where everybody liked you or was against you.”

A lot of controversy was generated recently by news of the ‘Sex Dwarf’ film they made as part of a video album. All something to do with raw meat and chainsaws, apparently. Marc reckons the whole thing was blown up out of all proportion.

“The annoying thing was that the video was in an unfinished state at the video company and they let it out overnight to people who bootlegged it — so that’s how it got in all the papers. It shouldn’t have been let out.

“But I think it’s good that so much controversy was caused and ironic that the first people to latch on to it were the News Of The World who we were giving a poke in the ribs to in the song. We were saying people love their Sunday newspapers which play on sensation and are very hypocritical about it. It was very tongue-in-cheek.”

“Anyway, I don’t think that version is going to appear on the video special because we’ve got another idea. I’m not going to say what we’re going to do — it’s top secret!”

The hour-long Soft Cell video special will feature videos based on songs from Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret among others and should be released in the autumn.

At the time of writing, The Human League are at the top of an American Top Twenty which also includes Soft Cell’s ‘Tainted Love’. The single was released in America many months ago.

“It’s been hovering around the Top 75 there for months and months and so has the album. Now all the radio stations have really picked up on it.

“I know The Human League would like to think they broke the path for us but ask any American deejay and he’ll say that they eventually gave ‘Don’t You Want Me’ a break on the radio because of ‘Tainted Love’ — before that the electronic sound was unheard of in America. It wasn’t accepted at all.”

It’s difficult to imagine Soft Cell actually being accepted in the land of Rick Springfield and Foreigner.

“I think we’re probably classed as ‘New Wave’, possibly even as ‘Punk’ in America so we get a lot of that audience — the same audience, from what I can gather, as The B52s and Tom Tom Club.

“We’ve got a very large cult in New York, but there’s New York and there’s America. The only place I’ve been to besides New York is Florida where they’re very red-neck and right-wing. You walk into a little motel restaurant and everybody will be quiet and look round at you. Even if you’re not wearing anything special and I went toned down.”

Although Soft Cell’s American success is obviously very exciting, Marc has mixed feelings about it.

“I’m very scared of America in a lot of ways. I’m very scared of being swept up into a whirlpool of people telling you what to do and unsavoury people hanging around. It’s strange for us. The Human League geared themselves for the huge sort of ABBA/big star thing— that’s what they wanted, or so I gather from reading about them. But that’s not what we set out to do at all and it seems strange.

“America to me means manipulation and manipulation is just not me at all. I don’t like people telling me how to present myself and telling me what to do. I often think that I cannot last in America and will not do these things that people want me to do.”

Nevertheless, a few days after I spoke to Marc, he and Dave were off to Los Angeles for a promotional visit.

Marc still lives in Leeds but not in the famous bedsitter any more. He’s bought a little semi-detached house which he shares with his old friend, Anne, with whom he’s been recording some songs for release as “Marc And The Mambas”.

“I try and keep as quiet there as possible. The only trouble is you occasionally get some of the kids round the area finding out where I live and they come round standing on boxes trying to look through the windows.

“I’ve been trying to decorate it slowly but surely. The tiny living-room is like a sort of jungle because I’ve gone mad on plants. I’ve just started work on the bedroom. It’s in lilacs and purples. Hugh, who did the covers for ‘Say Hello, Wave Goodbye’ and ‘Torch’, is doing a huge mural based on those sleeve designs on my bedroom wall.”

Marc’s unusual looks and frequent television appearances ensure that he gets recognised all the time.

“Sometimes it gets a bit crazy. Especially when you go out on a morning and you feel like death, shuffling down the road, thinking about your shopping and someone comes up to you and goes flash! Everyone with a camera seems to have a flash!

“I’m getting a little bit introverted, you know. I tend to want to stay in and hide away a lot of the time. Whereas Dave seems to be becoming the secret extrovert these days! He really enjoys going out to clubs whereas I’ve tended to do a lot less of that recently.”

David Ball, the strong, silent half of Soft Cell, has also been very busy recently working at home on music for the new Soft Cell LP and producing several bands in Leeds. Recording will begin shortly with late autumn release likely. At the end of July a new single will be released, ‘What’, with ‘So’ on the flip side.

“‘What’ ties up a whole year for us. We started a year ago with a Northern Soul song that had people dancing. We’ve gone through a full circle and before the second era starts with a new sound and a new album, we have a bit of a breather and a dance with ‘What’, another soul number.”

Marc comes across as very highly strung in conversation, excitable and sensitive, serious and tongue-in-cheek. He doesn’t find his new way of life easy.

“I’m happy with the things that we’re doing with Soft Cell but I’m not happy in a lot of ways — like I’ve been getting a lot of threats from people. People in the streets or in clubs have been very unpleasant to me.

“I also get very sensitive about my singing and things like that. I don’t mind being criticised for records but I get very sensitive of deejays on the radio taking the mickey out of me. I can laugh at it once but after a while I feel they’re doing it in a really derogatory way.

“I suppose I never set out to have a pop star image. I like to be on the same level as people and I like to talk to people and go places and it often gets very impossible for me. I often find myself getting very nervous when I go out now. I get big bouts of nerves and occasional bouts of depression. Half of me’s very happy and half of me’s not.”

Are you going to grow old gracefully?

“No, probably I’ll be one of those terrible old people who are a total nuisance, a real pain. My lifeline looks good anyway, so I’ll probably be around for ever.”

© Neil Tennant, 1982 

Courtesy of Rocksbackpages

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