Marc Almond and Dave Ball, better known as ’80s electronic outfit Soft Cell, have always gotten a bum rap. Fundamentally unappreciated in North America, save for their 1982 hit cover of Gloria Jones’ northern soul classic “Tainted Love,” they wound up perceived as an odd act with a shockingly avant-garde frontman who no one knew what to think of at the dawn of the televised promotional music video. In fact, they may have been more successful in North America if no one actually saw them. Almond is, and always has been, a true performer, embracing his queer sensibility and all the eccentricities that entails, dressed in PVC and leather, singing pop and torch songs about everything from love and romanticism to kinky sex, trannies and even murder.
It really is a shame that people on this side of the Atlantic only knew them for “Tainted Love,” a song that’s not even a Soft Cell original. So few people know the true Soft Cell at all. But those who bothered to dig a little deeper with this eccentric English duo were richly rewarded by the fact that Almond and Ball’s body of work contained some amazing pop melodies, brilliant concepts (“Sex Dwarf,” anyone?) and colourful sentiments, sounding utterly unlike any of their contemporaries. As far as “one hit wonders” go, they are the most undeserving of the label; they actually racked up a string of hit singles in Europe, all of which were better than “Tainted Love.”
The 1981 album Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret set the standard for the synthesizer duo; it should be noted that Erasure and Pet Shop Boys came long after. The follow-up, 1982’s Non-Stop Ecstatic Dancing, inspired by Almond and Ball’s discovery of MDMA in New York at such storied clubs as Paradise Garage and Danceteria, is considered to be the first-ever remix album as well as the first UK record to feature turntable scratches, which arguably gave the Brits their first-ever taste of Bronx hip-hop DJ culture.
Given this dancefloor-friendly legacy, it only stands to reason that Soft Cell produces a new, full-length remix album of its own. Heat: The Remixes has been a long time coming. In the liner notes Ball explains: “In the early ’80s we didn’t have computers or recall for mixing, so it was all very physical. All hands on deck, so to speak. There could be four of us all with our assigned mute buttons and faders, so the mixdown became like a miniperformance in itself. There was also a lot of clever tape editing involved, including editing the multitracks, as well as the mixed half- or quarter-inch master tapes. We never knew exactly how it would turn out, which made it very exciting.”
For the most part remix albums nowadays are marketing afterthoughts in the major label guidebook of how to squeeze maximum profit out of a group or act who has no historical connection to the dancefloor whatsoever. Look at Good Charlotte’s just-released Greatest Remixes as an example. In terms of remix credibility Soft Cell is up there, and Heat is on par with genre-defining collections like Depeche Mode’s sprawling triple-disc collection Remixes 81-04 which charted the evolution of the format from the basic extended 12-inch to later (and often radical) reworkings.
A two-disc set, Heat: The Remixes collects new mixes of tracks from Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret and Non-Stop Ecstatic Dancing, as well as from the follow-ups, 1983’s The Art of Falling Apart and 1984’s This Last Night in Sodom, for the most part taking the strongest songs from those albums and working from there. Almond and Ball may no longer be fresh-faced art school students but they remain savvy – they’ve taken their tracks and handed them to some of the best dab hands in the industry today, including Richard X (“Seedy Films”), Manhattan Clique (“Bedsitter,” “Torch”), Atomizer (“The Art of Falling Apart”), Nitewreckers (“Martin”) and even Almond himself on the astoundingly gorgeous rework of “Meet Murder, My Angel.”
The mixes are as quirky, theatrical and punchy as the originals. On “Sex Dwarf,” remixed by The Grid, Almond croons “Sugar and spice/ Isn’t it nice?/ Luring disco dollies/ To a life of vice.” The Grid’s 2008 beats ‘n’ effects arrangement makes it sound utterly fresh while not for a moment ruining the seedy feel of the original. It helps that The Grid is in fact Dave Ball, but if anything, it shows that the duo have been very selective in who exactly gets to reinterpret them.
Soft Cell is important in that the duo charted new territory in cool: a lead singer who was so obviously gay he didn’t even bother (or feel the need) to announce it; an artistic aesthetic so unique, no one’s even bothered to try to copy it, save for maybe Trent Reznor. Except Soft Cell never for a minute came off as contrived.