As the half of Soft Cell charged with operating the machines, Dave Ball has played a crucial role in the popularisation of electronic pop music. With Ball leering on the keyboards and Marc Almond prowling with his microphone, Soft Cell was a futuristic panto made with equal measures of soul and sleaze. They looked like they were lifted from Soho but delivered in a spaceship, issuing melodic hooks like lighting bolts. They introduced the synth duo to the mainstream with their UK Number One, “Tainted Love”–a cover of the soul classic originally performed by Gloria Jones–and subverted all expectations from then on. Soft Cell came and went as an act, but Ball continued to innovate with experimental collaborations and dance music: from Psychic TV to Kylie, he has added electricity to the acts that followed in their footsteps.
Ball was raised in Blackpool, a town on Britain’s left coast that was also the hometown of Chris Lowe, his counterpart in the Pet Shop Boys. He left its faded seaside glamour to attend Leeds Polytechnic, where he met his future musical partner, Almond. They started working together in 1977, rescuing disco from the jaws of punk, and released their first EP, Mutant Moments, the next year using money from Ball’s mother. The result was more industrial/Suicide-influenced than anything that followed, but it caught the attention of the emerging electronic influencers in London. One of them was an eccentric DJ called Stevo, who built a relationship with the band that took them to major label heaven and global success. Another was Daniel Miller, who produced the act’s first singles, “A Man Could Get Lost” and “Memorabilia” for Stevo’s label, Some Bizarre.
Soft Cell’s success was rapid and quickly outgrew the creative relationship between Ball and Almond. Easy access to drugs didn’t help, and it had fallen apart by 1984. It would take until 2001 for the act to release new material, but the hiatus didn’t leave Ball without interesting projects. From a solo album in 1983 to the acid house craze, he always found relevant and creative personalities to work with. There were no publishing royalties from “Tainted Love,” due to a lack of foresight by Some Bizarre, but there were always new ideas to be explored. Soft Cell have now returned with new management, selling keychains and working with the Pet Shop Boys, but the ideas keep coming.
(Photo of Dave Ball by Peter Ashworth)
10. Soft Cell – Martin
As the Mutant Moments EP revealed, Soft Cell were not all sweetness and light. They were happy to explore themes of horror, mental illness and danger. Early copies of Soft Cell’s second album, The Art of Falling Apart, came with a bonus 12″ featuring this tribute to the George Romero film of the same name. Recording of the album had been difficult, and producer Mike Thorne recalled that “Martin” injected a sense of fun to the proceedings. He described it as “a monstrously over-the-top extravaganza,” and he wasn’t wrong. It was the aggressive, experimental spine that held the Soft Cell monster erect.
This is a live version, as performed on The Tube in 1983. As a bonus, we have included one of the bands most heavily influenced by Soft Cell, Psyche, performing a delicious cover version at a Cold War Night Life event.
9. M.E.S.H. – Meet Every Situation Head-On
Genesis P-Orridge was a counterculture figure with a distinctive presence in the 1980s. After Throbbing Gristle imploded, he founded Psychic TV with Alex Fergusson of Alternative Television. Genesis claimed to have invented acid house with his compilation album, Jack the Tab, which featured a number of acts organised for the purpose. Ball and Richard Norris contributed to the process with “Meet Every Situation Head On,” which led to them working together as the Grid, one of Ball’s more successful projects outside of Soft Cell.
8. Psychic TV – Money for E
Ecstacy use is said to be one of the things that broke up Soft Cell. It is, perhaps, then, ironic that Ball remixed “Money for E” for Psychic TV. This is one of the more successful attempts to rework PTV’s acid-house material; and it shows Ball displaying an innate sense for the dancefloor while being respectful of Fred Giannelli’s original material.
7. Kylie Minogue – Breathe
For someone who mixed with Genesis’ Temple crowd, Ball has had some unexpectedly commercial turns. In 1994, he worked on Billie Ray Martin’s “Your Loving Arms.” A few years later, he was in the arms of Kylie Minogue’s record label, who brought him in to produce three songs on her album, Impossible Princess. This one became a Top 20 single in the UK.
It isn’t, perhaps, surprising to find Minogue working with a producer outside of the commercial mainstream–it was around this time that she was emerging from her indie phase, which saw her working with Nick Cave–but Ball and collaborator Ingo Vauk weren’t necessarily the obvious choice. It worked well for the Australian pop icon, even with a old school synth opening to thrill Moog enthusiasts.
6. David Bowie – Hallo Spaceboy (Lost in Space Mix)
Described by Bowie as “Jim Morrison meets industrial,” this track was originally crafted with Brian Eno for the Outside album in 1995. The official single went to the Pet Shop Boys for their contribution before being released, but this remix by Ball and Vauk made it fit for the dancefloor.
5. The Grid – Swamp Thing
On paper, mixing banjo and samples from old records shouldn’t have been much cop. The novelty paid off, however, for Ball and collaborator Richard Norris, with a top ten single around the world. You can probably still find sealed copies in discount bins, but there is no doubting Ball’s ability to make a hit from the things he found lying around the yard.
4. Other People – Have a Nice Day!
An oddity in the Ball canon, this was a collaboration between Ball and his wife, Gini, together with Andy Astle. With sampled voices, a chugging bass line, sirens, and a repetitive vocal, it came out in the same year as Propaganda’s “Mabuse” and Depeche Mode’s “People Are People” – there was clearly something industrial in the air.
3. Vicious Pink Phenomena – My Private Tokyo
Originally the backing singers for Soft Cell’s live shows, Vicious Pink Phenomena were the duo of Josephine Warden and Brian Moss. With Warden all Euro and Moss all electro, they were too sexy to stand behind Almond forever. Two Ball-helmed singles led to an album of stuttering greatness, but it started for them with this studio work.
2. Client – In It for the Money (The Grid Static in the Attic Mix)
Sarah Blackwood‘s sabbatical from Dubstar led to an outing as Client, the first signing for Andy Fletcher’s Toast Hawaii label. The St. John’s Wood/Notting Hill set took them to heart, and the act’s showbiz connections led to some interesting collaborations. Ball contributed to this one as part of a Grid remix, showing that his finger was never far from the beating pulse of underground music.
1. Soft Cell – Sex Dwarf
In the Soft Cell canon, there are many influential songs to choose from. The best representation of them, however, is in the banned video for “Sex Dwarf”–an over-the-top fantasy of drama and sleaze that reaches comic book proportions. The duo did excess to excess, and the swooping synths left a trail of wine bottles, wrappers and hair products behind them that still hasn’t been properly cleaned up.