An Exhaustive Survey. And I mean the good kind of exhaustion, the type that comes with an exhilarating batch of unexpected goodies – not the kind that has been seen in similar burnt-out 80’s boxes of late. I realize this may not be something you may expect to find in these pages, however, stay with me here, these guys really were outsiders whose quickly (if short-lived) rising star just happened to coincide with the earliest era of MTV where you may have spied a few of their videos creep up on their late night programming stateside.
Mind you, they also lit bold controversies in their breakout public years (1981-84), though Marc Almond and Dave Ball who met at Leeds Polytechnic, otherwise herein known as Soft Cell, initially paired as a duo in 1978 at the fading last hurrah of the punk era. The box set Keychains and Snowstorms: The Soft Cell Story – not to be confused with the singular 20-track disc of the same title which came out simultaneously and containing a much shaved down version of strictly hit tracks – is the epitome of retrospectives (and then some). There’s even an hour-long continuous ‘Non-Stop Euphoric Dubbing‘ on Disc 7 that succinctly covers the length of their career in case your pressed for time – but don’t worry, this set takes its sweet time, a true long-player.
The one-sy includes their two most recently recorded songs that the duo put out a few months back for the collection (do not appear on the full set however): the impeccable single Northern Lights as well as Guilty (Cos I Say You Are), both of which sound incredibly modern. By the way, each have remixes being circulated (Import Maxi CD single), the latter produced this video (and a behind-the-scenes as well):
MMMMMEMORABILIA: Now, keep in mind that these two, though after disbanding in 1984 spent seventeen years before coming back together for their final (and exceptional) studio album Cruelty Without Beauty (2001). They also have recorded in their own solo capacities, as well as in many collaborations with other artists – none of which are part of this solely Soft Cell box but are recommended alternative listening. Speaking of that word, “alternative” – this was exactly what these two were, even when they crossed into the light of pop music, which most of their songs do, as part of the original British New Wave of the late 70s and early 80s they beat to their own drummer, or drum machine as it were.
With Almond solely on lead vocal and Ball as the sole strait man on synthesizer/keyboard they were a spare act that delivered clever lyrics about youth in the Thatcher era. They also had a cadre of singles with as punchy b-sides, many showcased here as well as alternative mixes, remixes and several previously unavailable recordings. You get all that herein, as well as some surprisingly clean live performances, many heard here for the very first time (Discs 8 + 9 showcase archival shows in LA and London).
BODY ONE, BODY TWO…. Soft Cell’s sound was always a bit genre defining – it was atypical electronic pop that often had a soulful, cabaret leaning – due to the vocal styling of Almond, and their overall Non-Stop (Erotic Cabaret, Exotic Video Show, Erotic Dancing, etc.) branding. This gave them a persona that blended easily with the seedy side of London’s side streets of the era without excluding their breaking from that mold on their albums The Art of Falling Apart (1983) and prior to their millennial turn on This Last Night in Sodom (1984).
Both of these records had highs and lows given the balance between career, sex, drugs, r+r we can be certain. Aside from the basic hub bub, this is the band known best in the U.S. as breaking the Ed Cobb early 60s classic Tainted Love (still in occasional rotation some thirty-seven years from its origins). Back in the day there were few British musicians crossing over, but their version Tainted Love/Where Did Our Love Go? was one of the most popular, reaching #8 in the charts. They were savvy (likely a happy accident) to combine a crooner with an edgy look and minimal electronic arrangements that just hit the right note to endure so long.
80S REFRACTIONS + DISTRACTIONS: You still ask why am I reviewing this for Toneshift? Well, mainly because these guys may have accidentally broke an unspoken glass ceiling of sorts. They were much ahead of their time (likely why North American didn’t keep up in light of “flashier” distractions. Almond and Ball were risk-takers in their formative years, and aside from a ton of catchy ditties, stinging quips and vital melodies that stood tête-à-tête alongside other imposing outfits of the time like The Smiths, Echo & the Bunnymen, The Cure, Siouxsie and the Banshees and The Psychedelic Furs – they managed to find a way to blur the lines between pop, goth, electronica, Northern Soul, punk and a dash of disco without batting an eyelash (or running eyeliner).
This is what challenging ears would have been listening to in the early Eighties, and that goes far beyond the hit machine. I’ll admit, as a sixteen year old Catholic school boy I broke out an eye pencil on occasion, and discovered these guys as being seductively leftfield of norm when I first heard the taboos of the track Sex Dwarf (from 1981’s debut Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret). It wasn’t simply teen titillation – these guys rocked with flamboyance, and served up curious lyrics. Though the record was on heavy rotation inside my midburb bedroom outside Boston (circa 1981-82), it was never an official charting track, but it’s been, by far, one of their greatest hits as according to yours truly. But this collection brings you one step closer to defining how their overall flash oeuvre came into the light, and never faded away.
WE GOTTA KEEP SMILING THROUGH OUR TEARS: This set ties any loose ends of the duo’s trajectory with historical tidbits in audio and video, early live recordings and lengthy mixes, all sized up by Ball himself. The band just hit the stage for their near capacity farewell concert (billed as “a Wild Celebration“) at the 02 Arena on September 30th of this year. In early 2019 expect a live release in follow-up in which The Guardian referred to as “a swansong full of sex, noise and darkness” — also to fully celebrate four decades since inception, expect a brand-new hardcover book, To Show You I’ve Been There. The neon themes overfloweth.
This look back is an achievement in terms of being sensitive to all of their previous recordings without repeating ad nauseam like many other big labels do, this is more like one of those incredible Rhino collections where you get variations on themes, instead of every dance mix of every track as filler you get an uncensored extended version of Forever The Same, Ball’s The Grid mix of Where The Heart Is and a 2018 remix of the classic Facility Girls. And that’s just for starters.
AN EXPLOSION OF F.E.E.L.I.N.G.S: The DVD comes packed with clips from their stints on The Old Grey Whistle Test, Oxford Road Show (these were my fave) and various BBC programs, as well as a single camera capture of a really early live performance and the standard promotional music videos, the previously released Non-Stop Exotic Video Show (Sanctuary/BMG, circa 2004) in its entirety. They even left the original DVD menu template floating on the opening number, Entertain Me.
The video quality has a rough edge that somehow is compatible with the era and output of the band, so it doesn’t effect my viewing experience, however it would be awesome if the original films were reprocessed someday for modern monitors/televisions. That said, this may be the best we’ll ever get. It most definitely captures otherwise peculiar concepts with a bye-gone era patina, like listening to a really old dusty vinyl that’s quasi romantic – hey, it’s got flaws, but don’t we all? I make no excuses for the lurid colors, for the risque conceptual content, for the hairstyles…..
The remastering of the audio is quite detailed, with intense clarity and brightness. This is the best that Soft Cell ever sounded, it is astounding. While listening to the original 12″s from Phonogram (1981-84) it is like listening to those long lost platters for the first time. I’m in love with this 8 1/2 minute version of Torch, you can hear every sax solo, every lyric, it’s crystal clean. The lulling horn section of Say Hello, Wave Goodbye really sounds like a fitting salute to these gents’ legacy. The Nancy Sinatra-penned You Only Live Twice as well as the 007 Theme pay particular respects to their versatility and attraction to the very British Broccoli franchise. And these I had never heard before, so nice surprise.
DANCING, DRINKING, LOVING: One of their most overlooked tracks about a teenage vampire with problems inspired by George A. Romero’s late 70s horror flick of the same name is given a stylish facelift in the Hallowe’en Mix of Martin. Their surreal turn goes even deeper on Slave to This (Life of Existence Mix) – as Almond croons “sick and tired of being used and abused.” This whole album had such an alt rock riff edge and this is one of those fleetingly delivered pieces, fueled by angst and muddy bottom end rhythms, and it all makes so much more sense with all this time ‘tween. Oh, and there’s this strange and wonderful crunchy-funk Erasure Remix of Bedsitter – with bonus rap no less!
LOOKING FOR LOVE IN A SAD SONG: Lyrically the boys brought some serious stingers that still hold weight, waxing poetically on every one of their four full albums. And you can hear Almond, Ball, Cindy Ecstasy and crew in a whole new light in these variations. Classic lines like “I haven’t got time to worry about the future, when I’m busy covering up my past” from Insecure Me bring you back to the time, but somehow ring even truer today.
One of the most ear-popping is Disc 4 subtitled: Rarities, Alternative Versions and Curios. Opening with the original of The Girl With The Patent Leather Face the set-up couldn’t be more peculiar into these edits, demos and special versions from hither and yon. I’m particularly drawn to the abstract Daniel Miller edit of the poker-faced A Man Could Get Lost – it makes sense that the man behind Warm Leatherette (Miller aka The Normal) was behind the knobs here. Miller actually is behind the decks on half of Disc 5’s variations – the highlight is the really scaled down Devo-esque version of Bedsitter, it’s far less bright than the single with clown noises and very top-heavy vocals.
Isn’t it nice, sugar and spice, luring disco dollies to a life of vice…
But pay close attention to these twenty-three tracks as these are Almond/Ball at their earliest (78-81) including the never even heard of Red Tape, Sticky Tape, more spoken word over a muddy synth than a pop track. They even have some live bits from the university where they met that were likely recorded on a Panasonic tape player, but they’ve done a fair job of restoring the ambiance of the place and time – you get the gyst. And how can you resist the liquid old school synth on Ball’s Dave’s Theme! Most of these have more in common with early Human League than any of their soulful striations that would come soon after.
If you loved the multiple Peel Sessions over several decades you will want to dive into Disc 6’s Richard Skinner and David Jensen Sessions. They are ‘unplugged’ long before that became a thing. There are so many memorable songs embedded within like the incredible Heat (US 7″ Version) – I didn’t even know this was released as a single on this side of “the pond”. One track that stands out is the remixed version of God Shaped Hole, one of those upbeat dance-pop tracks that somehow slipped through the cracks as part of promotion of their 2001-02 reunion comeback, originally included on the Some Bizarre comp I’d Rather Shout at a Returning Echo than Kid Someone’s Listening. It’s a funky song with a great chorus.
FAR FROM MONOCULTURE: Oh, there’s so much more for you to discover in this packed and well designed set that boasts a 70pp hardcover book with archival photobooth images, also includes lyrics, an essay by Simon Price, an image of the band with Warhol, pics of original reel-to-reels, quotes from fellow artists and colleagues and the men behind the mic and keyboard. The set as a whole can be overwhelming to a newcomer, but hopefully this will open a new whole can of worms for the youth of today and tomorrow. Keychains and Snowstorms: The Soft Cell Story can only be described as Non-Stop Essential Listening!