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35 Years Ago: Soft Cell Merge Soul, Synths and Seediness on ‘Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret’

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As the pop landscape of the early ’80s began to unfold, synthesizers became the common language to the point of cliché. High gloss and style over substance would quickly be in charge. One act who embraced the sound, but discarded the clichés, was Soft Cell. From the outset, the Leeds-based duo of multi-instrumentalist David Ball and vocalist Marc Almond struck out on their own path by bringing soul and sleaze into the mix on their debut, Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret.

The album kicks off with “Frustration,” a manic and jaunty tune brimming with despair and soul. Session player David Tofani adds a swinging jazz inflected sax solo which elevates the song out of synth complacency. Meanwhile, Almond rants and raves about everything from Bo Derek to LSD.

“Tainted Love” was originally recorded by American soul singer Gloria Jones, appearing as the b-side of her “My Bad Boy’s Comin’ Home” in 1965. The track was never a hit, but eventually attained a huge cult status via U.K. Northern Soul clubs in the early ’70s. Ball and Almond stripped the song down to its framework, then painted it with their own electronic flavor and, in the process, turned it into a worldwide smash.

“We thought at the time it would be great to do a cover of something,” Almond recalled in a 2016 interview. “So many of the bands at that time were being very ‘electronic’, like a robot, very Kraftwerk-like. So we thought it would be nice to be different from that. We both loved Northern Soul.” The single made the U.S. Top 10 and hit No. 1 in the U.K., where it stayed on the charts for over 16 weeks and became the biggest-selling U.K. single of 1981. “The record company were just totally shocked that it suddenly just took people’s imaginations and ran away with itself to become this huge monster of a record.”

Songs like “Seedy Films” (“Blue films flicker, hands of a stranger”) and “Sex Dwarf” (“I would like you on a long black leash“) left little room as to the subject matter Almond was writing about. From the streets of Soho to the seedy side of New York City, it all had an impact on the album. “We recorded ‘Tainted Love’ and it became the huge hit that nobody really expected,” said Almond. “We were taken to New York to record our album. We really embraced the whole place, it was the mad, wild west at that time. Great club scene, great things happening. It was a great time to be in New York.”

While fans loved the album, critics were on the fence. “Critics were a bit sniffy towards us at first,” said Almond. “We seemed to be the kind of poor Northern cousins of the electronic scene, in a way. We were always kind of looked down upon by the London bands of that time.” The album proved a global hit, making the Top 10 in several countries, and just missing the Top 20 in the U.S. Ball and Almond would never again reach the commercial heights, and called it a day as Soft Cell after two more albums, both of which found the duo working on much more experimental material.

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