A couple of nights ago, I went to see 80s synth-pop pioneers Soft Cell in the slightly incongruous surroundings of Hampton Court Palace. As the show was about to start, a hunched, elderly-looking gentleman was pushed in his wheelchair into place behind a keyboard; the realisation that this was Dave Ball, the quieter half of the duo but always present in the posters and Smash Hits interviews, cast a melancholy tone across the crowd, most of whom appeared to be of a similar age.
It turns out that Ball’s health has not permitted him to take place in many of the band’s shows in recent weeks and some have argued that they’d paid to see the band, all two of them, not just Marc Almond plus session musicians. At first I queried whether these complaints held water. Ball’s contribution to the act has always been as a tunesmith and studio tinkerer; live, he just tended to stand there, stabbing one-or-two-fingered at the synth, staring impassively ahead. And all the music is programmed anyway so his presence or absence really didn’t matter much, compared to the fizzing, flesh-and-blood impishness of Almond. (Incidentally, Marc is an unusual example of someone whose voice has actually improved in technical terms since his heyday.)
But this isn’t really about what the music sounds like, is it? It’s about nostalgia, homage, touching base with your own teenage self, about seeing the posters and interviews and videos come to life. I had a similar epiphany the last time I saw Brian Wilson; he spent most of the time sitting behind his piano, not playing, occasionally singing but letting his bandmates hit the high notes he can these days only dream of. We were there to be there with him, and that’s all.
What the disgruntled Soft Cell fans are after is the same sense of belonging, once expressed by writing the band’s name on your geography exercise book and as such the band, Soft Cell, not just Marc, just needs to turn up, to be present. And maybe sign one of those posters.