From the beginning, Soft Cell never looked quite right together. When the British duo made its debut on Top of the Pops in 1981, as its strutting, stripped-down cover of “Tainted Love” was climbing the charts, 24-year-old singer Marc Almond introduced himself in heavy black eyeliner, a studded neckband, and gold bangles, pouting and gyrating around the stage. Standing at a keyboard behind him was 22-year-old producer Dave Ball, the buttoned-up game-show host to Almond’s outré clubgoer. As Soft Cell, they created electronic pop tempered with Northern soul, the strain of American blues and soul music then being pumped through raucous UK clubs that rivaled New York City’s most debauched discos. The pair would leave a transgressive mark on the early 1980s and beyond, to their dismay.
Almond grew up in Southport, a seaside town north of Liverpool where he felt out of place from an early age. Using pirate radio and movies as an escape from an abusive home life, he fostered an early love of camp and performance as someone “sexually confused, academically disadvantaged, and physically challenged,” as he wrote in his 1999 autobiography, Tainted Life. By the time he left for school in Leeds, Almond found delight in the bedsit he rented beneath a brothel, the only space he could afford. He festooned it with posters and red neon lights, planting the seeds for the delightfully sordid settings that would populate his lyrics.
Ball was raised farther up the coast, adopted into a working-class family in Blackpool. He spent his youth attending parties at clubs like the Highland Room, the town’s premier Northern soul spot, and obsessively collecting Tamla and Stax singles after he heard them on the tartan-carpeted dancefloor. It was at one of those clubs that the 16-year-old Ball heard Gloria Jones’ voice for the first time, when her original rendition of “Tainted Love” sent his head spinning.
By 1977, both were enrolled at Leeds Polytechnic; Almond, who had already earned a reputation as a scandalous performance artist (cat food and bloodletting were common elements), happened to be the first person Ball saw on campus, unmissable in gold lamé jeans and a leopard-print T-shirt. They were fast friends, kindred spirits in their obsessive love of punk and electronic music, cult films, and kitsch. Once Ball started to work seriously with a Korg synthesizer, he brought his experiments to Almond, pushing Soft Cell—a play on words that summed up their favorite themes of “consumerist nightmares and suburban insanity”—into its early stages.
Synth pop was just beginning to find popular audiences in 1980, as the advent of cheaper equipment helped pave the way for a more democratic, far-flung scene. Ball and Almond’s music grew directly out of Kraftwerk’s pleasantly menacing electro pop, plus Suicide’s desiccated punk and the cabaret operatics of French chanson. Soft Cell debuted at a college Christmas show two short months after they met, performing ramshackle, anticonsumerist songs against a backdrop of Super 8 films of destroyed radios and industrial landscapes. The art-punk spark was lit. They would go on to perform more than 20 roughly sketched songs at subsequent shows, many of which formed the basis of their debut album (a spare, stuttering version of opener “Frustration” appeared on their four-track debut EP, Mutant Moments). Even early on, Almond’s lyrics were projected through a filmic lens smeared with grime: the duo’s tinny, galloping single “Girl With the Patent Leather Face,” inspired by J.G. Ballard’s Crash, memorably merges plastic surgery and S&M imagery into one twisted union.