Stick Your Two Fingers Up at the World: Soft Cell’s "This Last Night…In Sodom" at 30 2

Stick Your Two Fingers Up at the World: Soft Cell’s “This Last Night…In Sodom” at 40

The wonderful Marc Almond doesn’t half get a raw deal. Prolific solo artist, the finest English-language interpreter of Jacques Brel, Russian folk singer, writer, collaborator with such diverse artists as Foetus, Gene Pitney, Tony Visconti, Coil, Agnes Bernelle and Matt Johnson, and a man who once led a rock & roll lifestyle to rival the likes of Slash and Keith Richards; yet, to most of the British public, he’s still largely seen as that funny little man who sang ‘Tainted Love’.

By 1984 (a whole 4 years into his music career) Almond had had enough of not being taken seriously. Despite Soft Cell being a cut above their synthpop peers, and despite two superb albums with the Mambas, luring disco dollies to a life of vices such as Scott Walker, the Velvets and Brel, that Rowan Atkinson spoof still lived larger in the public consciousness than the reality of a prolific, hugely talented aesthete. But then aesthetes, especially openly gay ones who listen to Belgian torch singers, have never gone down well in Britain. So he and partner Dave Ball decided to split Soft Cell, but not to go gently into that good night, oh no, but to go out with a statement. And that statement was This Last Night…in Sodom.

Released in March 1984, it hit the lofty heights of no. 12 in the album chart (the Cell’s two previous albums had both gone top 5), then disappeared without a trace. Critically panned, commercially ignored, it’s almost been written out of history – no deluxe remastering, no critical reappraisal, no 25-year anniversary shows. In his recent, otherwise on-the-money Yeah Yeah Yeah: A History of Modern Pop, Bob Stanley describes it as “unlistenable”. Yet not only is it my favourite Soft Cell album, it’s Marc’s as well, and it’s also one of the greatest albums of the 1980s.

Sodom’s reputation as synthpop’s Metal Machine Music is almost certainly down to the album’s sound. It’s dense, dirty, muddy, with more in common with the aforementioned likes of Coil and Foetus than Dare or Upstairs At Eric’s. Hearing it in 1984 was like hearing the Wu-Tang’s 36 Chambers in 1993. And lyrically it’s chained to the same bowl of vomit as peers such as Nick Cave or Lydia Lunch – death, murder, sexual perversion, more death.

And to be fair, bits of it are so far removed from pop’s new gold dream of 1984 you can scarcely believe it came out in the same year as ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go’. Second track ‘Slave to This’, which features Almond spitting out lyrical non-sequiturs (“CHICO CHICO FROM PUERTO RICO…SICK & TIRED OF BEING SICK & TIRED OF BEING SICK & TIRED OF BEING USED & ABUSED!…YOU HAVE NEVER KNOWN LOVE UNTIL YOU HAVE KNOWN THE LOVE OF GOD!”) on top of brutal percussion, an utterly filthy bass riff and stabs of electronic noise, predicts Drift/Bish Bosch-era Scott Walker; the epic, dirge-like ‘L’Esqualita’ is a grim portrayal of a drug-addled Latino hooker – lyrics like “A fistful of love with Raoul Kowalski/He’s only a slob of a Corsican junkie” were hardly ever likely to make it onto Simon Bates’ show.

But amidst the darkness, the grime, the bodily fluids, there’s an awesome synth-punk record shouting to be heard. Ball, revelling in the sonic mayhem, cranks everything up to maximum volume and distortion, while Almond…Jesus fucking Christ, he has never sounded more on fire before or since. There’s a vicious, evil glee in every line, leading the album’s circus of perversions like some twisted ringmaster, a twinkle in his eye at the thought of innocent young pop fans putting the needle on the record and recoiling in horror.

And there are tunes here, so many damn fine tunes. Breakneck opener ‘Mr Self Destruct’ is one of the most thrilling ways to kick off an album imaginable, a surely autobiographical account of “The toughest little f… I’ve ever seen/With each downfall, you turned ten foot tall/The biggest kick in the balls you’ve ever been.” ‘Little Rough Rhinestone’ is a catchy pop tune with a bittersweet chorus (“I never knew sorrow could hit me this way/I once had a friend but he moved away”). ‘Meet Murder My Angel’ is truly insidious, one of Ball’s finest ever arrangements backing a disturbing tale of murder and erotica (“I’ve met another kind of love, different than the real thing/But just as demanding, and just as demeaning.”)

The band’s love of classic soul is very much intact too. The Best Way to Kill is a Northern-style stomper, with Almond testifying with the best of ‘em on a fists-raised anti-homophobia polemic; and of course there’s the obligatory obscure soul cover, in this case Jack Hammer’s 1968 belter ‘Down in the Subway’, for once played straight rather than given the synthpop treatment. As if these weren’t clear enough, ‘Soul Inside’, one of the band’s all-time classic singles, makes the point most eloquently – “I’m trying to hold on to the soul inside….”

It all ends, fittingly, with the duo’s crowning achievement, ‘Where Was Your Heart When You Needed it Most?’, kitchen sink drama put through the grinder and turned into gut-wrenching tragedy. Ball’s distorted synth hook gets increasingly frantic and distorted as Almond narrates the tale of a lonely girl looking for love in all the wrong places (“No comfort of beds, nor the softness of sheets/Just the back of a car, sprawled across the back seat”), no happy endings, just a fading, heartbreaking piano coda.

Almond would go onto a successful solo career while Ball would form techno duo The Grid; neither of them would ever again go as low or as high as Sodom’s breathtaking peaks and troughs, and as far as 80s synthpop goes, neither would anyone else. Dark, brutal, intense and utterly brilliant, it’s one of the finest albums of the decade. Dig it up on eBay and wallow in the dirt.

  1. Thanks for such a perfect reappraisal of what is not only my favourite Soft Cell album, but one of my favourite albums ever- a twisted decadent gem that has helped me through so many rough times. Agree with every word of the review, couldn’t have put it better!

    1. Tim Russell, nothing wrong with that guys ears! Perhapse Bob Stanley found it unlistenable cos his heads to far stuck up his own arse. Perfect Soft Cell album.

  2. Fantastic article. You’ve summed up perfectly what that album means to many of us.

    Soft Cell were the soundtrack to my childhood and I couldn’t have wished for better. They made me strong and gave me fire – “to hell with the cool, it was up-and-attack!”

    An astonishing album that remains wildly underrated.

    1. Thanks PK! It’s a very special album – Marc’s favourite Soft Cell album apparently – and I’m amazed it’s still so hard to get hold of. Surely due a reissue by now. Anyway glad you liked the article.

      1. I heard a rumour that Dave is working on the remastered vinyl box set – I’ve tried to find someone that can validate the rumour but no luck yet. I desperately hope it is true as all of my Soft Cell albums are played to death and rather tatty!

  3. So glad to read a review of this album by someone who “gets it”. A dirty, decadent, dazzling ride from beginning to end, it begs to be listened to in its entirety. Each song is so perfectly executed musically, lyrically and vocally that as one ends, it leaves you anxiously awaiting the next. If I could take only 10 albums with me to a desert island, this would be one of them.

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