Soft Cell review – a swansong full of sex, noise and darkness

O2 Arena, London
Performing their final concert, Marc Almond and Dave Ball get thousands of people screaming lyrics about sexual degradation

A pale figure in black leather jacket and sunglasses, Marc Almond’s first words to the audience at Soft Cell’s final gig carry a note of surprise. “Who’d have thought,” he says, gesturing around the O2 Arena, “we’d end up in this place?”

It’s the kind of aw-shucks remark that artists who’ve made it to Britain’s biggest venue tend to make, but, in Soft Cell’s case, you see what he means. Of all the artists who made the leap from the left field to the top of the charts in the post-punk era’s anything-goes atmosphere, Almond and partner Dave Ball were perhaps the most ill-suited for, and uncomfortable with, vast success. Their dark early releases had less in common with chart-bound synthpop than Throbbing Gristle, whose logo decorates a badge on the lapel of Ball’s suit tonight.

They were jet-propelled to fame by Tainted Love – the UK’s biggest-selling single in 1981– but what happened over the next three years may amount to the longest career suicide note in pop history, a catalogue of brilliant but wildly uncommercial releases, chaotic live performances and screw-you transgressions: Almond duetting with his drug dealer on Top of the Pops, videos that caused their record label offices to be raided by the police, or featured the duo literally smashing their gold discs. Coupled with Almond’s lyrical empathy for outsiders – his songs were staffed by rejected prostitutes, alienated teens, depressed bedsit-dwellers and people on the verge of a nervous breakdown – it was the stuff of which rabid cult followings were made: “An army of black-clad parent-haters,” as Smash Hits memorably put it.

Marc Almond and Dave Ball.
A bracingly weird show … Marc Almond and Dave Ball. Photograph: Jim Dyson/Getty Images

Thirty seven years after they reached No 1, there’s still both a hint of chaos and an obdurate take-it-or-leave-it air about this show, billed as a one-off reconvening of the duo following an abortive reunion in the early noughties. Songs stop and start, cues are fluffed, Almond protests that he doesn’t have a set list, but, as he points out, this is the height of professionalism compared with their early-80s live shows.

A man who’s spent recent years cannily balancing intriguing arty projects with appearances at 80s Rewind events, Almond is big on audience participation, but there’s something uncompromising about the set itself, which dives deep into the darker corners of Soft Cell’s back catalogue. Given the bleakness of the songs they chose to put out as singles – the wrenching saga of familial dysfunction Where the Heart Is, Numbers’ John Rechy-inspired depiction of loveless promiscuity – those dark corners are frequently very dark indeed. Meet Murder My Angel (1984) comes decorated with howling noise from Ball’s modular synthesiser; B-side Martin and the title track of The Art of Falling Apart (1982) are both harrowing and high-drama. “I could be a great dictator … I want to die, I want to die,” offers the spoken-word section of Frustration (1981).

There are occasional chinks of light – lyrically tormented, Torch is still an effervescent pop song; singer Mari Wilson performs a high-camp duet on Last Chance – but it’s hard not to be taken aback by the disparity between the darkness of the music and the celebratory mood in the crowd. The latter reaches a peak when the duo finally start rolling out their biggest hits – Bedsitter, Tainted Love, Say Hello Wave Goodbye – and glitter cascades on to the crowd.

It should be a straightforward home run, but into the middle of it they throw Sex Dwarf, the song whose video provoked the police raid. There’s something bracingly weird about hearing 20,000 people screaming along to its lyrics about sexual degradation. If this is Soft Cell’s grand finale, it’s hard to think of a more fittingly strange way to bow out.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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