ELECTRONIC BOY: My Life In and Out of Soft Cell by Dave Ball
Review by Lee Sobel (9/8/20)
5 out of 5 stars
First of all, I am a huge fan of Soft Cell, and its been twenty years since Marc Almond's memoirs came out, so it's great to see the (until now) quiet band member, Dave Ball, pen his own book. Most people know Soft Cell from "Tainted Love," and I'm certainly not knocking that song but the rest of the songs the band created on their first three albums in the early 80s were much darker and nearer to my heart. I can only imagine the teeny boppers who bought Soft Cell's debut album, Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret, thinking they would get more "Tainted Love" type songs and then wondered what the hell they'd gotten into with "Seedy Films" and "Sex Dwarf." And don't get me started on how I wore out my VHS copy of their Non Stop Exotic Video Show, loaded with great Tim Pope music videos (but missing the controversial X-Rated "Sex Dwarf" clip that got their record company's office raided).
I must admit that back in the early 80s I was always fascinated by Marc Almond -- his look, his voice, how he moved when he performed. I would always wonder who that bloke in the back was at the keyboard with that
mustache. Didn't he know that nobody had a mustache anymore except Freddy Mercury? Funnily enough, Dave Ball recounts in his book the time his New York girlfriend, Mudd Club DJ Anita Sarko, took him to the gay bar The Mineshaft where he bumped into none other than Freddy Mercury who asked if Dave and Marc Almond were lovers. When Dave told Freddy he was straight and that he was there with his girlfriend, Freddy looked at him in confusion and walked off. This is the moment when Dave Ball realized his mustache had to go as his look was giving off the wrong signals.
Ball is no Dostoevsky but who cares - his book flows along quite nicely with short unpretentious chapters that get right to the point. This is the perfect book if you're an on-the-go person as you can read a quick chapter on the bus, the loo, on line at the bank, or wherever you happen to be going. Ball was given up for adoption when he was one and a half and his original name was Paul Pritchard but his adoptive family whose surname was Ball felt that Paul Ball might get him teased too much at school, little realizing that just having the last name "Ball" was more than enough to make him the butt of kids' jokes.
Being that Dave Ball was "the band" behind singer Marc Almond, there's lots of talking about equipment and synthesizers used to make the music of Soft Cell so people into electronic music will find the book very useful from a technology perspective. Me, personally, I just like stuff that beeps and blats and as much as I love rock 'n roll, I've always loved those analog synthpop bands from the 80's. The ones that were really into synthesizers like Depeche Mode hold up well today but the ones that just jumped on the band wagon and threw electronic sounds on their music or enhanced their vocals with some kind of metallic echo just to sound modern usually sucked. (They usually looked like Herberts as well.)
I have to admit I sadly never saw Soft Cell live in the 80s, which is too bad because I heard from people I knew who saw them in New York on their Nonstop Stop Erotic tour that they had people with whips and nude dwarves on a trapeze or something like that. I did see them in 2002 at The Roxy in New York when they got back together to tour their Monoculture CD, which I have to admit, I did not like. Also that was the period when Marc Almond was bleaching his hair blond, which I did not think was a good look for him. Also, no naked dwarves onstage. Two years later, Almond was in a terrible motorcycle accident that nearly killed him and Ball recounts in his book how shook up he was when Almond nearly died. Fortunately, Almond survived and appears to have recovered very well (and his hair went black again which was a good choice).
Some informational goodies in the book include such things as original names for the band such as "Man Made Fibres" and "Here's Health" (what were they thinking??). It's already well documented that when Soft Cell recorded their cover of million selling "Tainted Love" that they also put a cover of the Motown hit "Where Did Our Love Go" on the flip side, losing a ton of money they would have made if one of their original songs had been on it. No one was more surprised than them when "Tainted Love" became a hit and they were invited to perform on the BBC's Top of the Pops where their record company wanted the synth duo to appear onstage with a drummer and bass player and wanted Marc Almond to town down his appearance. Soft Cell promptly refused to conform and after their TOTP performance the BBC's switchboard was jammed with callers saying Marc was corrupting Britain's youth. As Soft Cell got busy recording their first full-length album, their record company told them that a German television program was frantic to have them perform "Tainted Love." Not wanting to stop working on their album, Dave Ball sent someone else to pretend to be him performing behind Marc Almond.
Soft Cell is my cup of tea and so is Dave Ball's book Electronic Boy, which I wholeheartedly recommend!