- by Simon Heavisides Rating: Release Date: Label:
The premise is simple, playing on the age-old showbiz strapline of the time limited offer, 'For One Night Only', Soft Cell return after 14 years for their apparent last stand. In the age of often justified cynicism, it's already been questioned whether this really is the last time, who knows, it certainly felt like a final celebration.
A stadium gig for an archetypal cult band, but still a cult band with multiple genuine hit singles including a million seller. Contradictions run through Soft Cell's work, appealing to outsiders, yes, but a decent proportion of the audience will never experience some of the extremes they sing about, yet they still manage to strike a chord that draws people in. Yes, these are songs from the margins but everyone is welcome, something they've always made clear.
Musically those contradictions are also on constant display tonight. Although influenced by avant-garde pioneers with limited commercial potential, even at their most abrasive Soft Cell can't hide their compulsive ability to write great pop songs, no matter how dark they may get. Even their suicide note sign off album, This Last Night in Sodom, has ample evidence to show that they never lost their pop touch.
It doesn't take long to realise tonight is the real deal, as a leather-clad Marc Almond arrives on stage and the throbbing electro pulse of Memorabilia begins its relentless throb. There's a hint of possible trepidation, and who could blame them, no warm-ups, no re-runs, it's all being recorded for release AND thousands are watching in cinemas around the world, clearly no pressure. There are times when you can really feel it, this was never music meant for stadiums, not in anyone's dreams, as Marc acknowledges.
The temptation must have been to deliver a 90 minute greatest hits heavy set, a taster for future nostalgia tours maybe. But this show was clearly not about career building. The almost Springsteenesque 2 hour and 45-minute epic whizzed by and instead served to underline their determination to follow the integrity of their vision as well as providing evidence of the richness and durability of their music. Arrangements intelligently, and sparingly, using brass, backing singers (plus a duet with Mari Wilson) belie what some might feel is the blunt force of an electro duo. Even the flames shooting from the stage during Heat don't feel like overkill.
Of course, stadium gig or not, this is a Soft Cell show, so the mistakes and re-starts just give the night that extra something: the human factor always present in their machine music. Like their spiritual godfathers Suicide, this felt like music played on machines held together with solder and gaffer tape, pushed to the limits and often on the edge of collapse. Just listen to Soul Inside, where tonight Dave Ball's wheezing synths mirror the swirling mania of the song. Perhaps Soul Inside's lyrics are the best example of Marc's ability to detail basic human struggle with a stark elegance that still brims over with the desperation and uncertainty within,
'And the beat of my heart marks the passing of time, and I just want to scream to the sky, there are times when my mind is an explosion of feelings, I'm trying to hold on to the soul inside.'
This human element and willingness to f*ck up and make mistakes can only strike a chord with anyone living a life less than perfectly formed, which is most of us I would guess.
It's there at the heart of many Soft Cell songs: a reoccurring theme of people in disparate and often desperate situations fighting against the odds to retain their humanity, sometimes falling but always trying. From the dancers at the heart of the grinding Baby Doll to the titular Martin (received rapturously tonight) who despite everything, deep inside is good.
Then there's Youth, possibly the most touching part of the show, where home movie footage projected on the huge screens above the stage, underscores the fact that this was a lyric about ageing written in youth but gaining massive pathos when performed 37 years later. These songs can be brutal but they still retain their compassion.
They even manage to drop in a triumphant new song, Northern Lights, that trades in bittersweet memories and relationship failure while paying tribute to those all-important Northern Soul roots.
From the tawdry to the beautiful and back, a show that encapsulates the uniqueness of a band and touches the soul, even in the challengingly vast environs of the O2. Pretty good for a performance art duo from Leeds Polytechnic. No wonder Marc sheds a tear during the finale of (what else?) Say Hello Wave Goodbye, the love and respect reflected back from 20,000 people said it all.