“Students had a particular look in the late-70s,” remembers Soft Cell’s Dave Ball. “When I walked through the doors of Leeds Polytechnic in 1977, all I could see was Levi’s and long hair. That was the standard uniform. Complete with a Yes tour T-shirt, bumfluff moustache and Dr. Marten boots.
“But then I noticed this one lad who was wearing gold lamé trousers and a leopard print top. Bloody hell, he looks interesting. That was Marc Almond, and he was the first person I spoke to!”
Despite that initial meeting, it took almost a year before the two started working together musically. Like Almond, Ball was enrolled on the art course, but, after a few months, he seemed to be spending most of his time in the college’s tiny recording studio.
“Back home in Blackpool, I bought a secondhand Korg Maxi-Korg 800DV, which I was told had once belonged to Jethro Tull,” he explains. “That could have been true because Ian Anderson went to school in Blackpool. Anyway, Marc heard me noodling about with this thing at college and asked me to provide some electronic noises for these performance art pieces he was doing at the time.
“We sat down, had a cup of tea and… I suppose that was the start of Soft Cell. Funny how life turns out, innit? What would have happened if I’d gone to Newcastle instead of Leeds? Or had a guitar instead of the Korg?”
Like a lot of us, Ball’s first musical purchase was a guitar, but after his dad - an engineer - persuaded him to build his own amplifier, Ball suddenly found himself drawn to the emerging world of electronic sound.
“There was a lad who lived next to my Gran, and he played the organ. But, on top of the organ, he’d got this thing called a synthesizer. He let me have a go one afternoon and I was totally fascinated by it. At the time, I was listening to stuff like Status Quo - they were the first band I ever saw - but this was music from another planet.
“Coupled with that, you’d got all these new bands arriving in the charts. Roxy Music, Bowie, Hawkwind… weird noises, weird lyrics. Then Bowie’s on Top of the Pops in 1972, doing Starman. Wearing what looks like a woman’s leotard and draping his arm around Mick Ronson. That period from the late-’60s to the early-’70s was a remarkable time for music. Things were moving into a new phase.
“A little bit later, of course, you had Kraftwerk. I know it’s a bit of a cliché to talk about Kraftwerk, but without them, modern music would have sounded very different. To my mind, they are as influential as The Beatles; they are the techno Beatles.
“Look at how influential they were in America. You’d got the start of hip-hop, then these four German blokes in suits turn up playing this strange, angular music. Angular, but amazingly funky at the same time. Arthur Baker, Afrika Bambaataa… they were all listening to Kraftwerk. Taking their beats and turning hip-hop into electro. And out of that came Planet Rock. [The track that’s been described as electronic dance music’s ‘year zero’.]”
Ball readily admits that his songwriting and production methods owe much to those first couple of Kraftwerk albums.
“They’re full of brilliant songs, but when you have a proper listen, you immediately notice how much space there is… very simple arrangements. It’s the same with a lot of those early electronic records. Human League’s Dare; sometimes only three or four instruments on the whole backing track. To me, that’s the sign of a good, strong song. It doesn’t need all the window dressing.
“When I start a song - and this is still the same today, 40 years after our first release - I always keep things very basic. Drum machine, couple of synths. If you’re not careful, you can start getting bogged down in production before you’ve even got a decent song. And all that’s going to do is mask the fact that your song isn’t up to much. You get fooled by all the fancy effects. If you stuck me in a massive studio with every piece of gear under the sun and told me to write a song, I’d be lost. I’d rather sit there with a piano and a metronome.
“To use a simple analogy, think about how you build a house. You don’t start with your expensive doors and windows. Or that amazing light fitting you’ve got for the bathroom. You start at the bottom… you build up a good solid base. For me, that’s the drums and bassline. Then your toplines; your hooks and melodies. But keep it simple and leave plenty of space.
“That’s why I’ve never been a fan of pad sounds. The clue is there in the name… padding. That’s all it is. And once you start trying to play that live, it’s going to turn the song to mush. The more space there is, the bigger the song will sound.”
As if to illustrate his point, Ball lists the Soft Cell setup for those early singles - which included their cover of Tainted Love, a worldwide number one and 1981’s best-selling UK single.
“There was the Korg 800DV, a dual stylus Stylophone I found in a secondhand shop in Leeds, a Melos Echo Chamber, a Boss Dr. Rhythm and the best bit of kit I’ve ever owned… a Korg SB-100 Synthe-Bass. I bought it off a friend of my college tutor and it cost me 20 quid. Bargain! That was our bass sound for many, many years.”
Surprisingly, Soft Cell had an equally straightforward and sensible approach to the financial side of their career during those early years - despite their hedonistic reputation!
“Luckily, we found a good accountant,” laughs Ball. “In fact, he’s still my accountant today. When the big royalty cheques start rolling in, you immediately think, ‘Right, what can we buy?’ You look at how much is in the bank and you just want to spend it. But this guy convinced us to put ourselves on a weekly wage. Me, Marc and Stevo, our manager, all got 90 quid a week, which wasn’t bad at the time. Being careful with the money meant that I could get a mortgage and buy my first flat. It meant the tax bills got paid.
“Thank God I didn’t blow it all on a Synclavier. I did think about buying one at the time, but they were 120 grand, which was twice the price I paid for the flat!”
Although Soft Cell officially split in 1984 - Almond has enjoyed a successful solo career; Ball’s many projects included The Grid, who had a Top 3 hit with Swamp Thing in 1994 - there have been several reunions and releases. In fact, the last couple of years could almost be described as ‘busy’. There was the massive live show at London’s O2, new compilation albums, fresh remixes of Tainted Love, re-released EPs and, most recently, the re-release of the 2002 album, Cruelty Without Beauty.
The first official ‘reunion’ album, Cruelty was also their first digital album.
“Yeah, technology had moved on quite a bit since we split up in 1984. At the time we started work on it, I’d moved on to Logic. I suppose the biggest change in the studio was being able record audio into the computer. That certainly made the vocals a lot easier.
“But like I said earlier… music-wise, I’ve always preferred to keep things simple. Yes, I had Logic on the computer, but most of the time it was nothing more than a glorified sequencer. Some of the original song ideas for Cruelty were actually put together on an Alesis MMT-8. I had a couple of extra synths like the Korg Prophecy, but all the fancy computer stuff was handled by Ingo Vauk, who I shared a studio with in West London.
“I’m not anti-computer or anti-software, nothing like that. I’ve used soft synths for years and I do a lot of work inside the computer. But I’m also aware that, if I do start digging into the heart of Logic or load the computer with every bit of software available, I’m in danger of disappearing down a very deep rabbit hole. All I’ll end up doing is auditioning snare sounds for three days or trying to work out how to use some fancy effect gizmo.
“That feels like wasted time to me. I just want to write songs.”
The expanded reissue of Cruelty Without Beauty is available now from the Soft Cell website.