Best known for their smash 1981 cover of Gloria Jones' "Tainted Love," which turned the pop-soul tune into a haunting electronic torch song, synth pop duo Soft Cell formed in England in the late '70s. Also remembered as the first project of singer/songwriter Marc Almond, he and producer/multi-instrumentalist Dave Ball released four U.K. Top 20 albums together between 1981 and 1984 before pursuing separate music careers. Soft Cell eventually reunited in the early 2000s, releasing Cruelty Without Beauty in 2002, which produced a Top 40 U.K. hit in "The Night." The duo performed a farewell show at London's O2 Arena in 2018.
Soft Cell was founded in 1977 by Almond and Ball, who met as art students at Leeds Polytechnic. They quickly recorded an EP on a two-track recorder. Originally funded by family members, Mutant Moments was eventually released by the Big Frock label in 1980. That led to a record deal with Some Bizarre Records, which would release all of their forthcoming studio albums.
The duo had a Top 40 dance hit in the U.S. with stand-alone single "Memorabilia" in May of 1981. Two months later, Soft Cell released a 12" single version of the medley "Tainted Love/Where Did Our Love Go," which paired the Ed Cobb-penned tune originally sung by Gloria Jones in 1965 (a reworked club version produced by Marc Bolan followed in 1976) with a cover of the 1964 Holland-Dozier-Holland tune that was a hit single for the Supremes. The Soft Cell single became an iconic hit of the already thriving new wave era, reaching number one in countries including the U.K., Germany, Canada, and Australia. The song was included on their full-length debut, Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret, that November. It reached the Top Five of the album charts in the U.K. and Canada. "Tainted Love" peaked at number eight on the Hot 100 when it was released in the U.S. in early 1982, and spent over 40 weeks on the chart. Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret also offered the singles "Bedsitter" and "Say Hello, Wave Goodbye," which were Top Five hits in the U.K.
Though Soft Cell never again reached the U.S. singles chart, they landed in the Top Three in the U.K. with 1982's "Torch" (a stand-alone single) and "What!," the sole original song on the remix mini-album Non-Stop Ecstatic Dancing, issued in 1982. That album charted at number six in the U.K. and peaked at number 57 in the U.S. They hit the Billboard 200 one more time, with 1983's The Art of Falling Apart. Containing the U.K. Top 30 singles "Where the Heart Is" and "Numbers," it reached number five at home. Released in 1984, This Last Night in Sodom peaked at number 12 behind two more U.K. Top 30 hits, "Soul Inside" and "Down in the Subway."
In the meantime, Almond had formed Marc & the Mambas, a collaboration with Anni Hogan and The The's Matt Johnson, and Ball issued his first solo LP, In Strict Tempo. Soft Cell soon disbanded as they both pursued other collaborations and their own solo careers. Almond released his first proper solo album, Mother Fist and Her Five Daughters, in 1987. His steady stream of solo material kept him in the limelight in the U.K., with his sole number one, the single "Something's Gotten Hold of My Heart," a duet with the legendary Gene Pitney, arriving in 1989. By then, Ball had formed the electronic dance group the Grid, which found chart success well into the '90s with songs such as 1994's "Swamp Thing."
Almond and Ball got back together in 2001 for a brief Soft Cell reunion tour and stayed together to record the 2002 album Cruelty Without Beauty. Their cover of Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons' "The Night" reached number 39 on the singles chart in the U.K. A compilation of rarities recorded between 1978 and 1980 titled The Bedsit Tapes followed in 2005. In 2007, Heat: The Remixes included new remixes of Soft Cell songs by over a dozen acts, including the Grid, Ladytron, and Richard X. As Almond continued to release solo material, Ball formed the post-punk-inspired group Nitewreckage, which issued their debut album in 2011. Almond made his highest solo appearance to date on the U.K. albums chart in 2017 with the covers LP Shadows and Reflections, which reached number 14.
In 2018, Soft Cell reunited for a final time, releasing the original singles "Northern Lights" and "Guilty (Cos I Say You Are)" before performing a farewell show. The concert took place at the O2 Arena on September 30, 2018. That same month, Mercury/Universal issued the ten-disc compilation Keychains & Snowstorms: The Soft Cell Story, over half of which consisted of previously unreleased material. It was accompanied by the 20-track Keychains & Snowstorms: The Singles. ~ Marcy Donelson