thu 18/10/2018

Soft Cell, O2 review - a memorable finale to their career | reviews, news & interviews

Soft Cell, O2 review - a memorable finale to their career

Soft Cell, O2 review - a memorable finale to their career

The Eighties electro-pop kingpins go out on a three-hour epic

One of the greatest synth duos of all

Soft Cell have been teasing us for almost three hours. “I think we might have forgotten to do one, Dave,” says Marc Almond, pacing the stage, a wry smirk on his face. His protégé, Dave Ball, is next to him, ensconced behind a corral of old analogue synthesizers. The song lyrics descending down two gigantic screens behind them illustrate the burlesque of it all. Then they smash into the queasy battering electronic opening, Almond still a mischievous sprite, something Hispanic, impetuous, hysterical about the way he delivers a lyric. 20,000 join him, roaring it, “Sex Dwarf, isn’t it nice, luring disco dollies to a life of vice.” It’s so wrong. It’s so right. God, we’ve missed them.

A key 1980s electro-pop act, Soft Cell are back for “One Night – One Final Time”, as the posters have it. There’s huge anticipation in the sold-out O2. They did farewell gigs at the Hammersmith Palais in 1984 when they originally split, returned for a brief lively reunion in 2001 that eventually fizzled away. Now they say this really is it. They want to go out with a bang!

The evening breaks down loosely into thirds. The first sees them find their feet, take command of a thoroughly partisan audience. Almond, ever black-clad, gives a little speech near the start. He hopes the evening ahead will represent every side of Soft Cell the crowd has come for. He means their pop side versus their bleak kitchen sink drama aspect. “We were never politically correct,” he adds, warning that the videos on the giant screens may well offend but, then again, “Everyone’s offended by everything these days.”

A case in point is “Baby Doll”, the wretched tale of an ageing prostitute, “thinking about dollars as she loves to tease.” The lyrics’ gritty starkness cast a baleful glance on the way porno chic has slid into the mainstream since it was written. Even a couple of songs from their 2002 comeback album now appear prophetic; “Monoculture” sees consumer culture eating itself, and there’s the self-explanatory “Darker Times”. The latter is, naturally, illustrated with nightmare visions of Donald Trump.

Better this, a climax, rather than flogging it further

But it’s when they hit the gorgeous single “Torch”, with their trumpet player John Gatchell to the fore, that they truly remind of their ability to alchemize pop gold. “Numbers” is its opposite, one of the bleakest singles to ever hit the UK charts, a pulsating, doomed chug into the bleak reality of drug-fuelled, compulsive serial sexual encounters - “Throw ‘em away like Kleenex”. Its poetry is pitch black yet completely compelling.

Backing Almond are a quartet of singers who boost him. One-off gigs such as this often revel in special guests. Soft Cell make do solely with their old pal Mari Wilson, the Eighties “beehive” pop star, who joins Almond for a very cabaret take on another millennial number, “Last Chance”. Him pleadingly: “After a drink I’ll still look OK”. Her, dryly aside: “In a good light.”

The middle of the evening, the second third, is when the wheels partly come off. There’s a slight slump in the song selection. Also some mistakes. Almond has said that his devastating 2004 bike crash can affect his ability to recall lyrics so tonight’s mammoth set was always going to be a big ask. He mucks up “Where the Heart Is” and, later, “What”, but it’s the two false starts to “The Best Way to Kill” which make it seem as if Soft Cell are back playing Leeds Poly Common Room, circa 1978. It makes the mournful lament “Youth” all the more poignant.

They make no pretence. This part of the show is a bit shambolic but the audience is onside. In fact, at a time when many stadium shows are the equivalent of rehearsed-to-clockwork Las Vegas spectaculars, the rawness only adds to their appeal. Somehow it brings us all together, as if the O2 were a smaller, scuzzier venue. Soft Cell were never about polish.

And it springs them to their final imperial jaunt through 24 carat monsters, starting with the dread-filled bangin’ goth techno of “Martin” and the awesome desperation of “The Art of Falling Apart”. The latter has this writer howling the rising psychosis of its chorus like a banshee teetering on the brink. During “Heat” jets of flame rise from the stage and all is hellish. Gary Barnacle, ever Soft Cell’s go-to woodwind doyen, cleverly trims their sound with sax, clarinet and flute. Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret may be their best-loved album but The Art of Falling Apart is their dark masterpiece, and tonight they play all but one song from it.

Finally, if you want sing-alongs, you got ‘em. Things close on the lethal quartet of “Bedsitter”, “Tainted Love”, “Sex Dwarf” and “Say Hello, Wave Goodbye”. The crowd’s getting emotional. The crowd’s getting noisy. “Tainted Love” is played in its 12” incarnation melding into The Supremes’ “Where Did Our Love Go”. Almond explains that Dave Ball originally pointed him towards covering “Tainted Love”, setting them off on their rollercoaster career. But it’s “Say Hello, Wave Goodbye” that’s the true fan favourite and gig-closer. That chorus. “Take your hands off me/I don’t belong to you, you see”. The crowd so loud. Then it’s over.

“It’s been a blast” says Marc Almond to tumultuous applause. And it has been. This might have been the gig of their lives. But he’s not just talking about the concert. He’s talking about Soft Cell. In an age when decadence is defined by frappuccino houses and dessert restaurants, followed by the ritualistic penance of obsessive body-shaping at the gym, we need a dose of Soft Cell. Warts and all. Better this, a climax, rather than flogging it further. Yes, it has been a blast. Farewell.

In an age when decadence is defined by frappuccino houses and dessert restaurants, followed by the ritualistic penance of obsessive body-shaping at the gym, we need a dose of Soft Cell

rating

Editor Rating: 
5
Average: 5 (1 vote)

Share this article

Subscribe to theartsdesk.com

Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 10,000 pieces, we're asking for £3.95 per month or £30 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take an annual subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?

newsletter

Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters