Say hello, wave goodbye to Soft Cell, the naughty boys of Eighties pop

Marc Almond & Dave Ball
Marc Almond & Dave Ball Credit:  Redferns

On Sunday night the Eighties band Soft Cell will perform at the O2 arena in London in front of a 20,000-strong crowd and many thousands more watching a live broadcast in 200 cinemas across the UK. The gig, which sold out over a weekend, is the final chapter in the history of one of pop's most influential duos.

"There won't be another Soft Cell concert," says frontman Marc Almond, svelte and black-clad in his office in London's Mayfair. "If we went on tour [the public's interest] would go down and down, then everyone's seen you which takes away the aura of it all. You end up doing retro events in some rainy park. I can't do that. The expression really is 'Once more with feeling'."

To the casual observer, Soft Cell are famous for two things: their enormous Eighties hit Tainted Love and the stories (some true, some urban myths) about Almond's hedonistic, drug-fuelled lifestyle. But, in fact, as the popularity of this Sunday's concert proves, there was much more to Soft Cell than that.

Marc Almond, left and Dave Ball, right, in 1981

Alumni of the fine art department of Leeds Polytechnic, Almond and his bandmate Dave Ball were taught to be transgressive and their original mission was not to perform catchy pop songs, but to make music that revelled in ideas and mischief. Early performances saw Ball providing electronic effects while Almond smashed glass or smeared himself in cat food. And, while Tainted Love became a mainstream crowd pleaser, and the bestselling single of 1981, it is easy to forget what a furore the band caused when they performed it for the first time on Top of the PopsAlmond's sexually ambiguous appearance, inspired by a picture he had seen of the socialite Nancy Cunard wearing black eye make-up and bangles all the way up her arm, provoked a visceral reaction in sexually confused men and women alike.

Thanks to the success of Tainted Love, Soft Cell were briefly given a licence to do whatever they wished. And, much as their record company would have liked them to produce another floor filler, Almond and Ball had other ideas. Their debut album, Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret, recorded in New York, was a brilliantly sleazy, poetic vision of night-world hedonism and angst. It produced hits – the singles Say Hello, Wave Goodbye and Bedsitter – but the video to one song, Sex Dwarf, also caused controversy.

A melange of blood, bondage and transvestites, it was leaked to the News of the World, condemned as obscene and confiscated by police during a raid on their record label offices. Almond still shudders at the recollection. "Look at the video now and it's more embarrassing than anything else, kind of puerile," he says. "[I am] writhing around in a jockstrap covered in maggots."

Their next album, The Art of Falling Apart, included the single Numbers, a relentlessly bleak vision of drugs and sexual promiscuity. And the next, 1984's Last Night in Sodom (Almond's favourite) was even darker. After that, Soft Cell split up.

"We were an industrial art school unit that made some pop tunes, then became angry, grew up and destroyed ourselves," says Ball now. "The more pressure the record company put on us to do more Tainted Loves, the more we rebelled against it. We were just like naughty kids really."

Both Almond and Ball went on to have successful careers in their own right, Almond scoring a number one with Something's Gotten Hold of My Heart with Gene Pitney in 1989, and experimenting with more esoteric projects (and esoteric drugs), while Ball worked with Kylie Minogue, David Bowie and others.

Marc Almond

But the caustic analogue music Soft Cell recorded made a huge impression on a generation of fans looking for an antidote to the polished, jolly sounds of Eighties groups like Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet. It also has a raft of new fans who were not alive when Almond and Ball started out.

The recent sudden burst of Soft Cell activity has seen two new songs appear - Northern Lights and Guilty ('Cos I Say You Are). But four decades after they started experimenting in Leeds, Sunday may really be the last chance to say hello then wave them a final goodbye.

Soft Cell are at the 02 arena, London, on Sunday;