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Together in electric dreams: Soft Cell & Pet Shop Boys are in the Purple Zone

Tracing the pop plethora of Soft Cell-Pet Shop Boys connections and missed opportunities, and how their poptastic new Purple Zone collaboration almost never happened. This article contains multitudes.

“I smiled a bit when reviews of my last album said a couple of tracks sounded like the Pet Shop Boys. I’d considered them my most Soft Cell-ish tracks for ages. I like and admire the Pet Shop Boys but that whole Eurodisco, melancholic, introspective, electro-cabaret thing was what made us famous in the first place.” — Marc Almond, New Musical Express, December 1990

Remember those days — the early ’90s?

The LP the wayward Willing Sinner is referring to was the immaculate if not quite perfect Enchanted, which would become his final release for Parlophone Records in the summer of 1990. 

Truth be told, it’s hardly surprising comparisons were made to his then-label mates when the set was helmed by Bob Kraushaar, Gary Maughan and Stephen Hague: a triumvirate of PSB production heads that had knob-twiddled on everything from Actually, Always On My Mind, as well as third party Tennant/Lowe projects such as Liza Minnelli’s Results and Dusty Springfield’s Reputation.

It’s practically a Pet Shop Boys-produced album by proxy.

And if you really want to push the boat out on the connective tissue of trivia, Enchanted’s formidable big-lunged guest vocalist is none other than Clare Torry, who made her mark performing the non-lexical vocables on Pink Floyd’s The Great Gig In The Sky — and famously only discovered she’d made the final edit when she sauntered into a West London music emporium and found her name on the credits of the band’s 1973 album The Dark Side Of The Moon. 

40+ years on and the entire block is now a branch of upscale eatery The Ivy

The “hi-fi” shop in question? Chelsea Record Centre on the King’s Road where, in one of those sublimely subliminal cyclical moments, eight years later bespectacled book editor Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe — an architecture student who once, unfathomably, designed a staircase in an industrial unit a couple of miles from my parents’s house in Milton Keynes, the Buckinghamshire town I spent my school years — would meet for the first time, on Wednesday 19 August, 1981. 

Lowe remembers “I was very much into Soft Cell then,” and that the pair further bonded over “things like David Bowie and… actually, it was mainly David Bowie.”

The day before the Boys’ serendipitous encounter at the counter, Soft Cell had entered the Top Ten for the very first time with their fourth release: that corrupted cover of Gloria Jones’ upbeat Northern soul standard Tainted Love, a supremely stark, soon-to-be global chart behemoth that would become a Top Ten hit in no fewer than 15 countries. It would end 1981 as the year’s biggest seller in several of them, including Britain*, and across the pond it remained on the Billboard Hot 100 for 10 months, a record that stood for decades.

“Songs like Tainted Love and Love Is Strange”

Pop pickers may remember that the same week, Sheffield’s finest The Human League were literally seven days ahead of their Lancastrian rivals, with the mighty Love Action (I Believe In Love) sitting pretty at No.3, having given the pop combo their first sniff of Top Ten success the week before. 

Almost a year later, and a certain book editor turned music journalist couldn’t help but notice how the good ol’ US of A had started to succumb to what would soon be termed the Second British Invasion — officially spearheaded by so-called “New Romantics” such as Adam Ant, Duran Duran and Culture Club, but, alas, it was the synthed-up Northerners got there first, aided in no small part by Tainted Love’s 12” Extended Dance Mix that brilliantly transitioned into their B-side cover of The Supremes’ Where Did Our Love Go halfway through. In the days when edits had to be done by razor and sellotape it’s still an astounding piece of work.

“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,” offered Neil Tennant, matter-of-factly, in the 8-21 July 1982 issue of Smash Hits magazine. An interview and cover story no less, with the appropriately acidic strapline “Just how sweet is Almond essence?”

Marc had absolutely no trouble picking up the gauntlet.

“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 DJ 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.”

Followed by a series of blistering deviant dramas like Bedsitter (reportedly Morrissey’s fave Soft Cell rave), Torch and the gutterheart emotion of Say Hello Wave Goodbye, the chart manna of Tainted Love was the start of a purple patch that inspired parents from Wigan to Worthing to start making long, funny speeches about the benefits of National Service just before they shuffle off in their slippers to make themselves a Horlicks.

NT at Smash Hits, 1983

In fact, it’s too easy to forget those who plinked and plonked with pride in the good-old-bad-old days when plectrums were considered the real tools of the gods. Having met at Leeds University in 1977, Almond and his fellow student turned co-conspirator David Ball took the dull, dead bod of eighties pop and electro-shocked it back to life: a freeze frame of a modern scenario – mundane reality transformed into subliminally catchy paranoid fiction. 

Before two could be divided by zero, two ordinary boys (OK, one ordinary, one extraordinary) became two imaginary stars. Except there was nothing imagined about Soft Cell except what the tabloids would peddle to Middle Britain over their cornflakes and Mellow Birds.

As the prototype “pervy synth duo” (merci, Neil Tennant), if it wasn’t for Almond & Ball leading the way, the outsider pop path for Frankie Goes To Hollywood, Pet Shop Boys, Erasure, and even stygian suburbanites Suede and Placebo, may not have been so smooth.

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

That’s another notorious extract from the Tennant typewriter, Chez Smash Hits. Curious and curiouser…

“Ha ha ha!” laughs Dave Ball when Craig McLean relayed it to him for an interview in The Telegraph in 2020.

“Well, I think we maybe gave the Pet Shop Boys some ideas. They modified the silent-looking keyboard player at the back with the flamboyant singer. But that’s not a problem. We were probably the first British synth duo, and after us was the Pet Shops, Yazoo, Erasure, Eurythmics…”

Hastened by the double jeopardy of a spiralling drug habit and an even steeper commercial decline, the pair saw their life imitating album titles, slowly imploding with the release of their bitterly demonic second and third LPs The Art Of Falling Apart (1982) and This Last Night In Sodom (1984).

Bizarrely, their “goodbye” single, a raucous cover of Jack Hammer’s Down In The Subway, would become my first Soft Cell purchase. Hello?. It’s a also matter of some intriguing coincidence that PSB’s debut record, West End Girls, was first released the week after Down In The Subway checked out of the charts in March of ’84, putting one duo on hiatus for eighteen long years just as their electronic inheritors were getting going.

As Tainted Love was four years prior, the second, “hit” version of West End Girls, had, like a chunk of the debut album it was extracted from 1986’s Please — been recorded at Advision Studios in the West End of London, though their frontman is keen to dispel notions of electro innovation.

“The thing is, I don’t see us as pioneers of electronic music where I’d think of someone like Kraftwerk, The Human League, Depeche Mode, Soft Cell, OMD, and what have you. Those were the records we were listening to and in a way I guess that makes us The Last Great Synth Duo but not pioneers. What we were was the first sample group. Our first record was made in New York and every single track apart from my voice was a sample. West End Girls starts with someone walking down the street like the beginning of a film. So I suppose I think we were sample pioneers.”

— Neil Tennant, Under The Radar, 2013

“(Together) we will start life new”

Speeding through a decade and a half, when Marc issued Open All Night, his alluring, atmospheric tenth solo set from March 1999, I marvelled at how he’d contemporised his sound; it was still an evocative, exotic melange of cinematic pan-European influences but also denser and dancier, and, well, somewhat trip-hoppy, as if Massive Attack had produced a soundtrack album for Jacques Brel on the condition that he sing in English. How the Siouxsie Sioux duet Threat Of Love wasn’t a single I’ll never know.

In a year that saw a veritable avalanche of major new releases from Basement Jaxx, Beck, Blur, Chemical Brothers, Creatures, David Bowie, Everything But The Girl, Magnetic Fields, Moby and, of course, Pet Shop Boys’ Nightlife, Open All Night remains my favourite piece of mood music from that busy fin de siècle period.

On a publicity tour of Blighty the week of the LP’s release — and coincidentally, his Beautiful Twisted Night book — I decided to quiz Marc at his public appearance at the much missed Borders bookstore on London’s Oxford Street. There could be only one possible question, though his response was typically astringent.

Would you like to work with the Pet Shop Boys?

“Yes…. Er, no. Actually, no I wouldn’t, ‘cause everyone works with them, don’t they?”

Then he posed for pictures with the competition winners. Or something.

Crankin' Out was a Bowie mag I published in a secret life

Ouch. Still, his remark was nowhere near as cutting as the time I asked him who his favourite 1970s pop idol was, four years earlier. In my defence he was plugging his latest glam-inspired single, naturally called The Idol, released in July of ’95.

“Marc Bolan, actually. David Bowie made the mistake of living too long and subsequently making lots of awful records.”

When he saw the look of shock horror on my face he offered a brilliantly theatrical, devilish “Ooops!” Yes, he really did say that. Helpfully, I even wrote about it at the time.

Sticking with the PSB theme, Neil Tennant was interviewed by American journalist Gregg Shapiro, in the November 1999 issue of Next magazine, who revealed that “I recently interviewed Marc Almond, who just released a new album, as well. Would you consider your relationship to be on a friendly or professional basis?”

“Well, I don’t know him very well, but I liked him when I met him. So, I suppose, both (laughs). Did you ask him about us?”

Yes, and he pretty much said the same thing. That you say Hello when you see each other, and so on.

“He’s really, really nice. He’s probably more relaxed now than he used to be, as well. When I first met Marc Almond, I was a journalist and I interviewed him (laughs). That was when I worked for the magazine Smash Hits in England in the very early ’80s. Chris and I loved Soft Cell, and they were the inspiration for the Pet Shop Boys.”

Swingorilliant then.

Steve Pafford

The second part of this poptastic double-header — They’re justified and ancient: Soft Cell & Pet Shop Boys are in the Purple Zone — is here

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