40th anniversary show,
London the O2
We came in our eyeliner, some of us bearing sequins, which – it has to be said – looked fabulous on some, a little less so on others. As the 20,000-strong hoard flooded into London’s O2 Arena for the sell-out Soft Cell 40th anniversary reunion concert, the cameras were being put in place to stream the show live to 200 cinemas.
Frontman Marc Almond was in excellent form. He sustained a two and a half hour set, without a break, pitch perfect, alikeable and relaxed showman throughout. He could be forgiven the odd moment when he forgot the words, bemoaned not being provided with the running order, and even re-started one song three times. Marc, ever the perfectionist, had his heart on his sleeve and the audience in the palm of his hand.
You can see Marc’s love of the torch song in his stage persona. He uses prolific, grand arm gestures, even when he is singing electro-pop. This fluid movement is one of his defining characteristics, a theatricality that gives visual energy to his performance. It helps hold your attention, even if you are sitting at the back of a huge venue like the O2.
Dave Ball, the other half of Soft Cell remained, as always,firmly behind his keyboards. Now grey haired, a little heavierand bespectacled, he comes across as a steady foil to Marc’smore outgoing character. They seemed comfortable together.Marc made a point of acknowledging Dave’s contribution, telling an anecdote about how he initially spotted one of their biggest hits, Tainted Love, and suggested to Marc that he sing it.
It you were to make a list of political bands, it’s unlikely Soft Cell would feature. However, ‘Darker Times’, a track from the 2002 album ‘Cruelty Without Beauty’, tips into that category. Predictable but evocative images of Donald Trump and various other contemporary monstrosities were flashed onto screens to land the point.
Marc prefaced the concert with the comment that some of what we were about to see might be judged offensive. You can take the boy out of the art school (where the duo met) but you can’t take the art school out of the boy. Anyone who has followed Soft Cell since the beginning – as I suspect most people in that audience had – would have been disappointed if they had come up with a sanitised version. Their lyrical focus on the outsider, and telling stories that many would judgeweird or even gruesome, are a fundamental element of their appeal. I didn’t see anyone leaving as the occasional gory horror image flashed into the backdrop to songs such as Martin. The motif of the burlesque dancer cropped up at numerous points too. This was a signifier for the old Soho. At the time when Soft Cell were at their peak, red lights and seedy encounter booths were a highly visible part of everyday life in London.
Mari Wilson made a guest performance to sing a duet of ‘Last Chance’, now sporting just a suggestion of backcombing.They could have chosen a better picture for the big screen, as there was something unflattering and zombie-like about the image that hung over the stage, nothing at all like the fresher-faced singer who held the microphone. Although it added something different to the night, the levels didn’t seem quite right and I wondered whether they had the chance to do a sound check together.
The one song I hadn’t heard before was Soft Cell’s latest single, ‘Northern Lights’, a fast-paced, evocative, upbeat tribute to Northern Soul. Very danceable. I imagine the blue skies mentioned in the song are the ones that stretch over the vast beach at Marc Almond’s home town of Southport, in the North West of England, which he referenced and where I also grew up.
Naturally they saved the best ‘til last. ‘Tainted Love’, ‘Bedsitter’, and a song known only to true aficionados and rarely ever performed, ‘Sex Dwarf’, were among the final tracks. At this point it turned into a massive great singalong. Marc urged everyone to turn the lights on their phones and wave them about for the closing number, ‘Say Hello, Wave Goodbye’. Compared to some of the earlier tracks, we were now firmly in mainstream territory. Although most of us had been dancing non-stop for more than two hours, we obediently created the sea of arms and voices he had asked for. The joyful crowd was occasionally punctuated by a floating inflatable pink flamingo, a nifty piece of merchreflecting the opening lines of ‘Say Hello…’ As we ended the evening, being a Soft Cell fan felt rather less edgy but no less enjoyable than it did back in the 80s.