Soft Cell: ‘One day you’re smearing your naked body with cat food, the next you’re at the garden centre’

The synthpop duo answer your questions on the fight against homophobia, getting an OBE at 60 and why they never thought Tainted Love would be a hit

Marc, how important was the late 70s/early 80s Leeds nightlife and art scene in the evolution of Soft Cell? JacquelinePearce
Marc Almond: I studied fine art at Leeds Polytechnic through 1976-79. In my first week, the Sex Pistols’ Anarchy tour came to the poly. Punk showed us anything is possible: anyone can start a group, unbound by fashion, political orthodoxy or gender. This creative explosion was fuelled by the rising unemployment and urban decay of the 70s and a reaction to the years of terror of [serial killer] Peter Sutcliffe. Everything was simmering. So many bands and performers would rise out of that, unbound by the constraints of the previous decade.

Dave, I understand you spent your youth attending parties at the Highland Room, Blackpool’s legendary northern soul venue. Do you have a trusted repertoire of steps, shuffles, spins and kicks? VerulamiumParkRanger
Dave Ball: I remember the flat grey building, taking the escalator up to the Highland dancefloor that had tartan carpets to hear Colin Curtis and Ian Levine DJ. Ian Levine went to the same school as me in Blackpool, but was a few years older. Chris Lowe [from Pet Shop Boys] was in the year below. When he became successful with Neil [Tennant], I remember thinking: “That’s that guy who used to play trumpet in the school band.”

How did you manage the transition from British schoolboys to music provocateurs? RomanHans
Marc: I was a provocative schoolboy so it wasn’t much of a transition.
Dave: I don’t think we knew what the word provocateur meant. The transition was going to art school and realising there were more insane people doing even wilder things. Marc was more the provocateur. I was provocative by way of the minimalistic music I was making that people didn’t get. Marc was provocative in terms of his performance art. He was the one taking his clothes off, not me.

Did you enjoy pop fame in the 80s? Or were you trying to scare off the Smash Hits readers? wyngatecarpenter
Marc: We weren’t trying to scare off Smash Hit readers. We just found ourselves corralled into promotion situations we never felt entirely comfortable with. When you combine success, drugs and insecurity, everything becomes confrontational and self-destructive. We came from art college where the boundaries were pushed. My course was transgressive, confrontational performance art. Plus I had the far-reaching influence of punk.
Dave: I think Smash Hits wanted us to scare them away because it makes it quite exciting. As a teenager, I’d read stories about Ozzy Osborne and Alice Cooper. You want to be edgy or icky. We never wanted to be squeaky clean.

What motivates you to keep producing new music? LanceRock
Marc: The fear of stopping. I’ve been in the public eye for two-thirds of my life. As American novelist John Updike wrote: “Celebrity is a mask that eats into the face.” Even if I wasn’t working, I would still get recognised and asked: “Didn’t you used to be Marc Almond?” I still feel excited by making music. So I might as well keep dancing.
Dave: I’ve got nothing else to do, really. In 2022, I fell down the stairs and fractured my spine; I haven’t been able to walk properly for a year. I’ve had to move house because of my accident, so now I have a New York-style bachelor pad with a recording studio overlooking the Houses of Parliament. That’s good for inspiration, and turning my bad situation into a good one. It was a weird feeling, being in hospital, having our album at No 7 in the chart. I didn’t tell the nurses! I couldn’t play in Berlin a couple of weeks ago; the travelling would’ve been impossible. But I’m pacing myself for Cardiff in four weeks’ time. I’ll probably be wheeled on, and when the lights go off, wheeled off again.

Dave, what was it like being at the epicentre of gay nightlife and underground queer culture, despite not being queer yourself? gutterheart54
Dave: It was never an issue, Marc being gay and me being straight. I’m not bothered by sexuality, race, religion or creed as long as I like what they’re doing. Music is meant to be inclusive. It was nice to get included in groups of society we may never have been otherwise.

Soft Cell’s Marc Almond (left) and Dave Ball in 1981.
Soft Cell’s Marc Almond (left) and Dave Ball in 1981. Photograph: Fin Costello/Redferns

Did it annoy you that Rob Newman and David Baddiel on The Mary Whitehouse Experience / Newman and Baddiel constantly joked about that 80s rumour about you, that has also and since been attributed to Rod Stewart, Elton John, Mick Jagger, Jon Bon Jovi, Britney Spears and more? Or could you see the funny side? Can you see the funny side now? TopTramp
Marc: Even asking that question perpetuates the lie. What is the funny side, then or now? It remains – as intended – deeply homophobic. It was the idea that, in the 80s and early 90s, all gay men were depraved sex-crazed perverts engaged in sordid orgies and partner-swapping. And somehow fair game for derogatory remarks and cheap laughs to diminish and emasculate them further. LGBTQ+ people didn’t have any tangible rights at the time. We clearly didn’t receive the equality and respect we deserved. I feel so blessed to see things change for the better. This doesn’t mean the struggle is over. Our freedoms balance precariously on a precipice. The rightwing and nationalists would curtail any freedoms if they could. Social media continues to divide. We need to be kinder. Only through standing together can we hold on to the gains we have made. You are the only one who gets to say who you are. Every generation struggles to find their place and context. I know older gay people who are still not out; they are unable to embrace the openness of the modern world, their closets sealed shut by decades of abuse and shame. Try to see the world from their point of view. You might learn something about your own past and what it cost others to get here.

Whose idea was it to put Where Did Our Love Go into the middle of the 12in of Tainted Love? Ker555
Marc: I have no idea. Some idiot. If only we’d put our own song on it then we would be considerably richer.
Dave: It’s probably been the most costly idea of our career. No one thought Tainted Love would become the monster it’s become.

Who do you get mistaken for? KellysCity
Marc: [Depeche Mode singer] David Gahan, occasionally.

Marc, what was it like being appointed OBE at the age of 60? Did you meet the Queen? Dave, does Marc wave it in your face? TopTramp
Marc: I initially had mixed feelings. Part of me worried the younger me would have despaired at how establishment I’d become. People who say they would never accept it have almost always never been offered it. After what I’ve been through, I thought it was amazing to be recognised. So I was gracious in accepting it. I mean, who would have thought it? One day you’re smearing your naked body in cat food at art college, the next you’re choosing terracotta pots at the garden centre. That’s how quickly life goes by. An OBE at 60 was great. I guess the palace never listened to most of my lyrics. Or maybe I was truly subversive and mischievous after all! I received my OBE from Prince William, who was very tall. It made my mum very happy and she got to go to the palace with me.
Dave: Initially we said: “Oh, do we have to curtsey? Do we call you sir?” Everyone was quite gobsmacked. I don’t believe in all the British empire stuff, but I’m very pleased for Marc on his behalf. He got to meet the future king, so that’s something to tell the grandkids, if you ever have any. Marc and I have always managed to maintain a very professional relationship. We’re friends, but not friends that go: “Oh, hi, do you fancy going for a meal or a drink?” We have long breaks, don’t do anything together, then say: “Fancy doing some more?” It seems to work out. We have a good creative and professional relationship, but we don’t live in each other’s pockets. It’s a musical friendship, not a musical marriage. We’re not even engaged yet!

• Soft Cell play Rochester Castle, Kent, 7 July, and tour the UK this summer


As told to Rich Pelley

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Hot Chip: ‘Joe once hit Alexis with a baseball bat!’
Joe Goddard and Al Doyle answer your questions about their favourite remixes, working with Jarvis Cocker and what really is the best sauce for hot chips

As told to Dave Simpson

04, Aug, 2022 @3:51 PM

Article image
Dave Gahan of Depeche Mode: ‘Regret is a weird word. I don’t look back on my life like that’
The Depeche Mode frontman answers your questions, on his new covers album, taking early dance lessons from Mick Jagger and the right way to load a dishwasher

As told to Dave Simpson

21, Oct, 2021 @1:56 PM

Article image
The Proclaimers: ‘If you’re going to propose at our gig, make sure you’re sober enough to get in’
Pop twins Craig and Charlie Reid answer your questions about walking 500 miles, the joy of hearing Hibs fans singing Sunshine on Leith and being asked how they met

As told to Dave Simpson

01, Sep, 2022 @1:00 PM

Article image
Bryan Adams: ‘You can’t possibly follow up a hit that big’
The Canadian rocker-photographer answers your questions on his surprisingly bad karaoke skills, duetting with Mel C and the story behind his first six-string

As told to Dave Simpson

17, Mar, 2022 @2:00 PM

Article image
Fleetwood Mac’s Christine McVie: ‘Cocaine and champagne made me perform better’
As she releases a compilation of her solo work, the writer and singer of some of Fleetwood Mac’s biggest hits answers your questions on excess, infighting and Joe Cocker joining her wedding night

As told to Dave Simpson

09, Jun, 2022 @1:30 PM

Article image
Sharon Van Etten: ‘I don’t share 99% of my music: sometimes it’s too dark’
The singer-songwriter answers your questions, including the live performers she’s learned the most from, her favourite grape varieties, and whether her mum is still concerned for her wellbeing

As told to Rachel Aroesti

13, May, 2022 @7:00 AM

Article image
De La Soul on their belated streaming debut: ‘It felt like we were being erased from history’
Speaking before the death of founder member Trugoy the Dove, Posdnuos and Maseo answer your questions on playing Glastonbury, working with MF Doom and and utilising the power of an infectious laugh

As told to Dave Simpson

23, Feb, 2023 @2:00 PM

Article image
Devendra Banhart: ‘A tattoo of bull’s horns almost piercing my nipples felt very inspiring’
The playful Venezuelan American singer answers your questions, taking in Marc Bolan, haircuts from Cate Le Bon, and his ‘bottomless pit of regret’

As told to Dave Simpson

27, Jul, 2023 @2:00 PM

Article image
Soft Cell: *Happiness Not Included review – synth-pop elders with an eye on the future
Two decades after their last album, the band return with a wryly hopeful record – and some trademark electro bangers

Dave Simpson

06, May, 2022 @7:30 AM

Article image
Post your questions for Soft Cell
As the synthpop duo return for a new album and tour, they will answer your questions about their career

Safi Bugel

28, Apr, 2023 @12:51 PM