Dave Ball, more famously known as the mustached half of Soft Cell, has had a vast—and surprising—career beyond his first endeavor with Marc Almond. With collaborations and trysts in goth, new wave, industrial and house, Ball has been a diverse musician and producer over the years. (This article will cover only his 1980s projects—or at least most of them, leaving out tracks under his alias—as his discography is much too expansive!)
Soft Cell formed after Ball and Marc Almond met in art school at Leeds Polytechnic in 1978. Their first demo EP Mutant Moments was released soon after that same year. The label Some Bizarre picked up the band quickly and placed Soft Cell on the brilliant sampler compilation Some Bizarre Album in 1981 with the likes of Depeche Mode, Blancmange and The The. Daniel Miller, Mute record label owner, produced Soft Cell’s first singles “A Man Could Get Lost” and the catchy smart song “Memorabilia.” It was apparent the band had caught the attention of the underground scene with their off-kilter electronic tracks, composed in a sparse and minimal manner with lyrics exposing the dissident life of alternative youth in the 1980s. They were able to maintain their art school credentials up until their number one hit song “Tainted Love” in 1981—which we all know and have listened to, even to the point of exhaustion. However, after the track’s mainstream success, Soft Cell felt that the song misconstrued the true heart and aesthetic of the band. They returned to releasing more subversive, less pop hit songs such as the kinky “Sex Dwarf”, the heartbreaking “Say Hello and Wave Goodbye” and “Torch”, a melancholic song with the soft vocals of Cindy Ecstasy. Because of this, the band never reached the #1 spot on the charts again, and felt fine about it— the teenybop sensation procured by “Tainted Love” just wasn’t Soft Cell.
Ball would later say that their fame was quite different from the success of other new wave and romantic artists: “When you consider all the Thatcherite stuff that was going on when we were first around, and the bands like the Spandaus and Durans celebrating this champagne lifestyle—lots of playboy pin-up girls on yachts and stuff. We were singing about bedsits. We were the grim Northern realists. I don’t think we were vacuous and I think a lot of that stuff was vacuous.” The band broke up in 1984, sparked by drug use (mainly ecstasy) and the NYC party circuit. But that was not the end of either member, Almond went on to collaborate and create great music, just like Ball.
In 1983, Dave Ball put out his only solo record In Strict Tempo on Some Bizarre Records. It was quite a left field album in comparison to the new wave Soft Cell sound, a severely uncommercial, darkly electronic and, at times, industrial record. Ball recruited industrial be-all Genesis P-Orridge to co-write and sing on two tracks, both quirky in style. The standout song on the record is “In Strict Tempo” featuring vocals by the Virgin Prunes’ Gavin Friday, with his devilish chanting over marching snare drums. Certainly a niche album, Ball proved that he was quite different without the influence of a glamtastic Almond. (It is good to mention here that Ball had a quick-lived side project with his ex-wife, Gini Ball—who also worked with Almond’s side project, Marc and the Mambas— that was called Other People in 1984 which echoes many sentiments of Soft Cell’s sound but with female vocals.)
Ball found himself as a producer for the Virgin Prunes’ last LP The Moon Looked Down and Laughed in 1986, bringing a more luxurious goth sound in the post-punk band’s aesthetic. He also participated in the new wave side project of Rose McDowall (of Strawberry Switchblade) and Einar Örn Benediktsson (The Sugarcubes) called Ornamental. Their 1987 EP No Pain is an oft-overlooked album that has all the danceability of any record during that time. Another project created by Ball was English Boy on the Love Ranch, a electronic dance endeavor that sounded a lot like Yello with two 12” singles in 1987 and 88. Its lineup included Jamie Jones and Nick Sanderson, a former member of ClockDVA and soon-to-be addition to The Gun Club. One of the most surprising efforts of Ball was the Chicago house-influenced project, Love Street, which brought a collaboration from Cabaret Voltaire’s Stephen Mallinder for a 12” in 1988.
Finally, M.E.S.H. (aka The Grid with Richard Norris of Psychic TV) was behind the successful acid/new beat track “Meet Every Situation Head On” in 1988. This single was featured on Psychic TV’s fake acid techno compilation under the name Jack the Tab Acid Tablets Volume One. In truth, the compilation was the trippy, tongue-in-cheek album by Genesis P-Orridge and Fred Giannelli that would, ironically enough, stand in line with some of the great proto-techno tracks of the late 80s.
Beyond the 1980s, Ball has produced, written and remixed for the likes of David Bowie and Pet Shop Boys (under The Grid). Despite all his success, it seems that he has been able to keep a fairly low profile through it all—intentional or not. A shout out to his 1990 remix of Psychic TV’s “Money for E…” track: a druggy trance dance tune that turned me on to Ball’s work outside of Soft Cell and In Strict Tempo.
– Andi Harriman