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. As with the first part, this article contains multitudes.
“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, theartsdesk.com, 2018
Many can’t stomach the school disco cheesefests, but come the noughties, retro pop package tours had become seriously big business, and Soft Cell were hardly unique in sniffing the scent of the reunion trail’s filthy lucre.
In March of 2001, the electronic goduncles reformed for a smattering of live shows, and, crucially, eager to show the well of creativity wasn’t dry, announced that the release of their fourth studio album, what became 2002’s Cruelty Without Beauty, would follow.
I found myself standing next to Rick Astley at the second reunion concert at the then shiny and new Ocean venue in Hackney, as you do. It was a belter of a gig.
In the pop wilderness for what seemed like an eternity, Rick Astley’s body language was intriguing. Wearing spectacles and not wanting to draw attention to himself, he was sweetly diffident and much quieter than the flamboyant and pretty obviously gay friends he’d arrived with.
I was News Editor for MOJO Collections magazine at the time, so with one eye on a story and another on the rear video screen which was hosting a rare airing of the scandalously sleazy NSFW video for Sex Dwarf, I struck up a conversation with Rick, and eventually swapped e-mails.
There were no major revelations, though he did admit that
“I kinda got dragged along tonight. I’m enjoying the show though. The new stuff sounds pretty good, just like their old stuff.”
There then followed a slightly muso-heavy exchange about a “heritage” act such as Soft Cell being damned if they do, damned if they don’t if they try and recreate the sonics and atmosphere of the songs they’re known for. “They’ll be accused of not showing any musical progression,” I countered, still a little flabbergasted I was witnessing the original Sex Dwarf in full for the very first time. And no, I don’t mean Rick.
And no, this isn’t the one, either… sort of.
With ’80s nostalgia all the rage, Soft Cell would soon engage in protracted negotiations with the Human League camp to stage a series of double bill concerts celebrating the 20th anniversary of their respective career-defining Dare and Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret albums in the last quarter of 2001.
Until that is, Marc Almond, giddy from the rapturous reception the Cellmates received with their tentative foray back on the boards, went off the idea, telling management supremo Stevo, with hilarious hubris
“The Human League? Oh, I don’t think we need them now!”
To which the Some Bizarre mainman who had been instrumental in setting the whole thing up called him a “capricious bastard.” I know, because I was there, often popping in to the label’s HQ underneath Centrepoint on lunch break from MOJO magazine further along Oxford Street.
The same year, Pet Shop Boys were due to headline a Homopolooza-styled US summer tour that was set to feature support slots from not only Soft Cell but also LGBT luminaries the Magnetic Fields, Sinéad O’Connor, and Neil Tennant’s chum, the vocally virtuosic Rufus Wainwright.
“There will also be a dance stage with such DJs as Danny Tenaglia, Junior Vasquez and Paul Oakenfold, and some dates will feature such special guests as Village People and Gloria Gaynor,” announced chaos control.com, with the digizine also quoting Neil as singling out Almond and Ball as the act he was most looking forward to seeing.
“It’s really exciting. When Chris and I met in 1981, one of the things we used to talk about a lot was Soft Cell. We particularly like their record Bedsitter and I think they were really the first of the great synth duos, and maybe we were the last of them (laughs). They were a really big influence on us when we started, and I think their music is brilliant, the way Marc Almond gave his incredible voice and personality against the beautiful electronic musicscapes of David Ball. I know they’ve been making a new album, so I’m very excited to see them.”
Sadly, with days to go before it opened, Wotapalava — for that is what it came to be so appropriately named — was unceremoniously aborted after swingorilliant Sinéad realised she preferred the funnel to the tunnel, and Grace Jones deemed a too unpredictable and not gay enough last minute replacement.
La porte est claquée.
“The boys who came back”
But now, two long decades on and, as Tennant used to say back in the days of Ver Hits, Soft Cell are “Back-back-BACK!”. And they’ve got it together and submerged their egos to finally join forces with the PSB on a brand new single. Together in electronic dreams? Not ‘arf.
Let’s set the scene. Soft Cell’s reformation kicked off in 2018 with their “final” show at London’s o2 Arena, a let‘s-pretend-we‘ll-say-goodbye gig that was promoted with a brilliantly self-referential single Northern Lights, its plinky-plonky melody echoing early Depeche Mode but also remarkably similar to a Pet Shop Boys’ B-side released in 2016 called One-Hit Wonder.
Of course, Soft Cell and Pet Shop Boys are both Northern electronica duos with the most impeccable credentials. Three of the four members are from the North-West of England (all Lancashire, historically), and the other one — Neil Tennant — is from the North-East, and went to the same Newcastle school as Sting, as well as ubiquitous telly “personalities” Ant and Dec.
Both the archetypical strong silent keyboardists, Dave Ball was in the year above Chris Lowe at Arnold School in Blackpool, while Neil is two years minus a day older than Marc, both of them gay late-coming-out singers with marmite voices you either love or barely tolerate.
Following on from that conversation I had with Marc Almond in 1999, it more than begs the question what on earth prompted his surprise but welcome change of heart?
In November 2021, Soft Cell’s surprise Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret 40th Anniversary tour trundled in to London’s Hammersmith Apollo and was attended by both Tennant and Lowe. During a backstage soirée, the attendees mentioned to The Other Two how much they liked the new song that had been previewed in the encore called Purple Zone. A vague plan for Team PSB to remix it was hatched there and then.
Happily, it’s almost like a little acknowledging nod back from one pop generation to the next.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt to really like the song, either.
As Shirley Bassey may have noticed, it seems to be quite clear that it’s all just a little bit of history repeating: the Apollo is the same legendary concert hall formerly known as the Hammersmith Odeon where a teenage Henna-haired Neil Tennant saw David Bowie retire his alien alter-ego Ziggy Stardust in July of 1973. “I was in the second back row. I went both nights!”, he beamed proudly in his first interview with this writer thirteen years later.
Just a few months before that 90-minute phoner, Neil had famously gone to see the measured cool of his hero’s 1995 Outside Tour at Wembley and remarked to Bowie backstage how much he liked Hallo Spaceboy and couldn’t understand why it hadn’t been a single.
Well, we know the rest…
“Do you like boys or girls? It’s confusing these days”
The Pet Shop Boys’ daringly radical remake of the Bowie track was itself remixed with additional cosmic stardust for a series of promotional 12” singles in 1996 by Ball & Vauk. That’s the David Ball and Ingo Vauk then. (Five years before that, Dave’s other dance duo with Richard Norris, The Grid, remixed the PSB’s 1991 single DJ Culture.)
Their Absolutely Fabulous Comic Relief record excepted, this is the fourth time Tennant & Lowe have remixed another duo’s existing work, with a through line that began with Atomizer’s Hooked On Radiation (2003), taking in Little Britain‘s I’m Gay (scheduled for a release in 2007 that never happened) MGMT’s Kids (2010), and earlier in 2022, Claptone’s Queen Of Ice.
Talking of the ice man…
However, Purple Zone is more than a remix. Way more. With its retro rework, additional Tennant vocals and an appearance in the video, it’s a co-credited release that, just like Bowie’s Spaceboy, sounds more like a Pet Shop Boys single than some diehard fans of the primary act may be comfortable with.
So, what does it sound like?
With its airy and deliberately retro mix, Purple Zone reminds me a little of the PSB’s makeovers of Coldplay’s Viva La Vida and, with those uplifting and slightly cornball drum fills and cheesy snare rolls, the Village People’s Go West. On top of that, the rhythm track sounds a bit like an old Motiv8 production. Motiv8, of course, produced the 1997 single version of the PSB’s A Red Letter Day.
“The flowers in the garden. The wine. The Waiting For Godot and so much modern time?”
There’s even the vaguest of throwbacks to their underwhelming Elton John duet, the name of which has momentarily deserted me it was so awful.
But it gets better. Much better.
The brassy, tinny synth stabs deliberately evoke an old school disco ’80s vibe. With its distant keystroke in the chorus, the most obvious comparison is Tennant/Lowe’s first and most legendary cover version: their chart-slaying adaption of Elvis Presley’s Always On My Mind from 1987. Yeah, I’ll get the waiter…
At times, this stirring pop anthem feels more like an aide-mémoire to both duo’s trailblazing than a visceral experience in itself, which is a shame as it plays into the kitschy impression some observers falsely have of the Pet Shop Boys as the dreaded term, an “eighties act.”
Nevertheless, the Gilbert and George of pop are still capable of sophisticated pop bangers. The song’s yearning quality, combined with its atmospheric tone and incredibly catchy melody, is as alluring as it is uplifting. And the soaring, killer chorus is heartfelt at the same time as very cleverly burrowing its way under your skin. At first, it sounds like a passable, polite riff and then you find yourself wanting to hit repeat… repeatedly.
Conversely, what’s intriguing is how rich, varied and eclectic PSB’s own catalogue is, and how they have always denied the existence of a “PSB sound’, and yet left to their own devices (ie with no milquetoast producer to push them in exciting new areas) they often revert back to type and hit on the preset marked ’90s.
“I look at my short life and think of all the champagne that I drink”
Is it possible to be a little lightweight but a belter all the same? Because the re-production of Purple Zone is a bit cheesy, but sits just on the right side of edam.
If Purple Zone sounds a little PSB-by-numbers, at the end of the day, Tennant and Lowe obviously have had a ton of fun upscaling it while deliberately recycling former glories. They’re masters of rote synth-disco and their energetic, underlying beat adds a welcome fizzy pop pulse: a refreshing restorative that, if I can talk technical for a moment, takes a mid-tempo scarf-waver in F major up a dozen notches, from 117 bpm to 129, in the new key of C.
A sparkling slice of drama that’s basically a supernova, with added champagne then.
Soft Cell’s original Tennant & Lowe-less version of Purple Zone is moodier, and there’s a high synth line in the chorus that is perkily reminiscent of Blue Savannah by PSB’s great “pop rivals” Erasure. That Neil and Chris chose to bury it in their mix will be a matter of debate among the very rabid of fan fora the Community world over.
David Ball described the remix as: “Probably our finest pop moment since the early 1980s.” Indeed, Soft Cell are so delighted by the results that they’ve delayed their brand new album until May to include it. Astonishingly, Happiness Not Included is the 45th original album Marc Almond has put his name to.
Sadly, their original version currently sits in limbo with absolutely zero release plans for it*, not even as an extra track on any of the formats of the singles. Of which there are three additional PSB mixes: Extended Mix is quality, with a great vocoder bit at 4:30 that recalls the PSB’s “controversial” cover of U2’s Where The Streets Have No Name; Club Mix is tauter than a porn star’s abs; and the Club Dub does what it says on the tin.
“Don’t you dare imply that it’s grim up North”
Grimness isn’t the preserve of North of Watford, right?
And what better to illustrate that than Purple Zone’s wry if somewhat incongruous video, which was filmed in mid March at the Black Prince public house in Kennington, South London; an old school boozer whose colour scheme seems to have been cribbed from a landfill site in Ostend.
The video features a cross-section of unique and LGBT performers ruminating upon the struggles of life in the modern world, seemingly made all the more difficult if you’re working class, not to mention living in society paradoxically more and less accepting of individuality.
We see beauty in both the young and the ageing populace, all grappling with various forms of identity and self-expression at different stages of life, some having survived the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, but all sharing one commonality: a love of food, drink, and public ritual, be it having a sweet street cone or a pint of Skol at a pub.
It’s a touching if slightly clichéd narrative. Think Russell T “It’s A Sin” Davies on a budget.
But between me, you and the bedpost, are there some seriously dodgy sexual metaphors at play here?
The wrapping of a battered sausage in the chippy followed by a knowing wink, as if to say “Oh, cock lovers are into this Europop stuff. Let’s give them it in fried form. Do you want fries with that?”
Then there is the (admittedly rather easy-on-the-eye, cough) black muscle hunk in the jacuzzi tub squeezing out the creamy foam in his hand? It’s either gratuitous or there are saucy subtexts that even I’m not going to get into on a family friendly website.
Most disturbing of all, though, is the council kid licking his 99 in a phallic throwback to Morrissey’s homoerotic clip for We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful. Because, as with the Pets’ Red Letter Day single, there’s an ice cream van theme going on, and like the song its promoting, it’s sweet, delicious but distinctly unmodern.
Of course, the most obvious visual throwback is not a PSB or Soft Cell song at all, but the KLF’s collaboration with Tammy Wynette, the marvellous confection that is Justified And Ancient. Even the van that’s been hired — from ToniBell — has the KLF’s line “Make mine a 99” emblazoned on its front end. For me, there’s a lovely circular thing about that seeing as Justified And Ancient replaced a proposed KLF Vs PSB Christmas single for the closing weeks of 1991.
Over thirty years later, and the ravages of time are unmistakable. Growing old is unavoidable, though growing up is entirely optional.
One of the closing scenes where the resolutely middle class quartet of Almond/Ball — combined age 128 — and Tennant/Lowe — combined age 130 — are all sat at a grimy pub table playing dominos really hammers home the point.
Marc Almond, with his dark sunglasses and even darker Just For Men rinse, very much looks like the oldest emo in town, but the whole sequence gives off a strange vibe of the Flying Pickets at the Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club, a horrid smelly old working men’s club in the North of England that plagued British telly in the 1970s.
What was a brilliantly cheeky little self-reference was Lowe’s little hand dance: the PSB’s first personal assistant and Chris’s companion, Peter Andreas, used to do a funny little dance at the table when he won dominos, which then became an inspiration for the duo’s 1988 single Domino Dancing.
In fact, when the track stalled at No.7, signalling an end to the Pets’ outstanding run of Top Five singles, Tennant remarked, blithely and as bourgeois as ever, that the relative failure would be “been seen as our Numbers.” He was, of course, referencing Soft Cell’s undervalued 1983 single and the end of their imperial period, though in fact it was Almond and Ball’s previous release, Where The Heart Is, that brought an end to their run of Top Five 45s that had started with Tainted Love two years earlier.
Although the colour purple is actually rare in nature and thus seen as sacred by some civilisations, its primary constituents comprise the stability of blue and the energy of red, a particularly apt midlife metaphor.
Naturally, some seasoned oonline watchers theorise that the lyrics to Purple Zone are indeed a mediation on getting older, so it’s doubly curious how Chris is using his Covid mask as a fashion accessory to add to the regulation cap ’n shades. It denotes an extra layer of anonymity for this most inscrutable of performers but also goes some way to hide his advancing years — all the more disturbing when you realise he’s the youngest of the four.
During the onset of Coronavirus in the UK, Purple Zones were also hurriedly set up in various medical buildings for those with high Covid numbers, so who knows if Almond’s lyrics may be a reference to that. Of course, you didn’t need Prince to point out that purple also denotes royalty, so perhaps this once “pervy pop star” deviant turned establishment-embracing OBE medal holder is claiming Soft Cell are comfortably pop royalty?
Which is good, but he’ll need to add PSB into the equation now.
Funny how potent cheap music is.
*Soft Cell’s plan to mothball their original version of Purple Zone has been scuppered due to long lead-in times of certain vinyl productions, so if you ordered a yellow and/or picture disc you’re gonna be in line for a collectors’ rarity. eBay will be thrilled…
“(Dave) played it me and I thought ‘it sounds like the Pet Shop Boys but it’s our song!’ And then Neil’s voice comes in singing in the verse and I kind of felt a bit tearful, actually. It was a lovely emotional moment, because, to tell you the secret, I’ve always really wanted to do something with the Pet Shop Boys for a long time, but always been too shy to ask them.
“And so when this landed on my lap, this kind of version that they’d remixed but they’ve turned it into a collaboration, I was just really overwhelmed by it, and the fact that it happened so quickly and it was such a surprise that it made it even better. It’s just an innocent spontaneous thing.”
So exclaimed Marc Almond when BBC Radio 2 had the “world exclusive first play” of Purple Zone and “two major synth bands coming together.”
I think I can say from personal experience, thank god he’s mellowed, eh?
Alas, in terms of column inches, the song got slightly overshadowed when the presenter — that’ll be Vernon Kay standing in for Zoe Ball m’ lud — made a huuuge and utterly hysterical clanger when (mis)reading a listener’s text about seeing Marc perform at a Pride event in Hyde Park, in 2003.
“Amazing, his duet with Jimmy Saville….errr, Jimmy Somerville, apologies….”
What really makes it all so jaw-dropping hilarious is that you can hear Marc laughing hysterically in the background, before he wisely decides to change the record.
“Moving on! Moving on!”