Soft Cell - Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret Music Album Reviews

Soft Cell - Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret Music Album Reviews
Each Sunday, Pitchfork takes an in-depth look at a significant album from the past, and any record not in our archives is eligible. Today, we revisit the English duo’s 1981 debut, a daring landmark of synth pop that went unexpectedly mainstream.

From the beginning, Soft Cell never looked quite right together. When the British duo made its debut on Top of the Pops in 1981, as its strutting, stripped-down cover of “Tainted Love” was climbing the charts, 24-year-old singer Marc Almond introduced himself in heavy black eyeliner, a studded neckband, and gold bangles, pouting and gyrating around the stage. Standing at a keyboard behind him was 22-year-old producer Dave Ball, the buttoned-up game-show host to Almond’s outré clubgoer. As Soft Cell, they created electronic pop tempered with Northern soul, the strain of American blues and soul music then being pumped through raucous UK clubs that rivaled New York City’s most debauched discos. The pair would leave a transgressive mark on the early 1980s and beyond, to their dismay.

Almond grew up in Southport, a seaside town north of Liverpool where he felt out of place from an early age. Using pirate radio and movies as an escape from an abusive home life, he fostered an early love of camp and performance as someone “sexually confused, academically disadvantaged, and physically challenged,” as he wrote in his 1999 autobiography, Tainted Life. By the time he left for school in Leeds, Almond found delight in the bedsit he rented beneath a brothel, the only space he could afford. He festooned it with posters and red neon lights, planting the seeds for the delightfully sordid settings that would populate his lyrics.

Ball was raised farther up the coast, adopted into a working-class family in Blackpool. He spent his youth attending parties at clubs like the Highland Room, the town’s premier Northern soul spot, and obsessively collecting Tamla and Stax singles after he heard them on the tartan-carpeted dancefloor. It was at one of those clubs that the 16-year-old Ball heard Gloria Jones’ voice for the first time, when her original rendition of “Tainted Love” sent his head spinning.

By 1977, both were enrolled at Leeds Polytechnic; Almond, who had already earned a reputation as a scandalous performance artist (cat food and bloodletting were common elements), happened to be the first person Ball saw on campus, unmissable in gold lamé jeans and a leopard-print T-shirt. They were fast friends, kindred spirits in their obsessive love of punk and electronic music, cult films, and kitsch. Once Ball started to work seriously with a Korg synthesizer, he brought his experiments to Almond, pushing Soft Cell—a play on words that summed up their favorite themes of “consumerist nightmares and suburban insanity”—into its early stages.

Synth pop was just beginning to find popular audiences in 1980, as the advent of cheaper equipment helped pave the way for a more democratic, far-flung scene. Ball and Almond’s music grew directly out of Kraftwerk’s pleasantly menacing electro pop, plus Suicide’s desiccated punk and the cabaret operatics of French chanson. Soft Cell debuted at a college Christmas show two short months after they met, performing ramshackle, anticonsumerist songs against a backdrop of Super 8 films of destroyed radios and industrial landscapes. The art-punk spark was lit. They would go on to perform more than 20 roughly sketched songs at subsequent shows, many of which formed the basis of their debut album (a spare, stuttering version of opener “Frustration” appeared on their four-track debut EP, Mutant Moments). Even early on, Almond’s lyrics were projected through a filmic lens smeared with grime: the duo’s tinny, galloping single “Girl With the Patent Leather Face,” inspired by J.G. Ballard’s Crash, memorably merges plastic surgery and S&M imagery into one twisted union.

After a haywire performance at Leeds’ Futurama Festival in 1980 that generated some press buzz, the band’s demo found its way to Stephen “Stevo” Pearce, a teenage London DJ who was on the cusp of founding the eccentric label Some Bizarre. His roster would grow more avant-garde, including acts like Psychic TV and Einstürzende Neubauten, but Soft Cell’s moody, diffuse electronic music—now outfitted with the occasional clarinet and saxophone—fit the bill. With Stevo as their manager, the band found its first breakout hit in 1981’s kitschy acid-house cut “Memorabilia,” co-produced by Mute founder Daniel Miller, which gained a cult following in clubs across the UK. With their second single, they hit an unrepeatable stride.

Written in the 1960s by Ed Cobb, a vocalist in the pop quartet the Four Preps, “Tainted Love” was first recorded by Gloria Jones, the Motown singer-songwriter and eventual T. Rex member (and romantic partner of Marc Bolan, from whom Almond took his stage name). Her original crackles with gritty energy, using an agitated tempo to convey its tormented urgency. Yet Soft Cell’s narcotized version is immortal, a darkly glamorous blend of betrayal and lust. (“I loved the emotion in his voice,” Jones remarked of Almond later. “Their version was far better than mine.”) Rakish and dirtied up, Soft Cell’s recording builds its tension around the sparse interplay between Ball’s secondhand synths and drum machines and the distinctive, glossy pulse of producer Mike Thorne’s expensive Synclavier. Then there’s Almond’s icy voice, which injects a brittle, sexual desperation. For the B-side, they recorded a second cover—a similarly eroded, slow-burning version of the Supremes’ “Where Did Our Love Go”—and bloomed into a sensation.

“All we thought was that this weird little record could be a minor hit,” Almond wrote afterward, “then disappear to leave us to get on with being the dark, disturbing alternative band we really were.” But “Tainted Love,” with its metallic, levitational pleasure, became inescapable during the summer of 1981, turning them into stars. Depeche Mode had recently made way for deadpan synth pop to climb the charts, but Soft Cell took it to new heights. Though they were eventually lumped in with groups like Spandau Ballet, Almond and Ball insisted that they were doing something different with the formula: slipping genuine, gimlet-eyed emotion into their rhythmic electronic music, rather than making stuff “to pose against the Berlin Wall to,” as Almond put it. The song brought about swift and unprecedented success, culminating in that iconic Top of the Pops performance. Just watch Almond slink around the stage, totally off the wall and yet unbelievably committed.

It caused a media row. Suddenly Soft Cell were ushering in a new age of indecency: Teenagers began to dress like Almond, sporting his bangles and thick eyeliner at school. The homophobic music press couldn’t grasp the general ambiguity of the song nor Almond’s effete performance of it. “They said there seems to be a lot of homosexuality creeping into our charts, and for example the number one record is obviously about a gay relationship gone wrong,” Almond snickered to The Face. “I wonder if Gloria Jones realized it!” Almond evaded questions about his sexuality in interviews at the time, despite constant, ignominious snooping from gay and straight journalists alike. The silence was enforced by Soft Cell’s record company, Phonogram, who perpetually told him to change outfits, invent girlfriends, and use less makeup. The pressure got to Almond; eager for his art to stand on its own and in denial himself, he felt “wary of all the baggage and consequences that would accompany an admission,” he wrote in Tainted Life. “But in many ways I always thought the question was a bit redundant. If they wanted a sworn affidavit about my sexuality they were never going to get it, yet my sexuality was undeniably obvious to all.”

To escape the growing hype and scrutiny, Almond and Ball fled to New York with Stevo and Thorne for a month to record their debut album, Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret, titled after a neon sign over a revue bar they frequented in London’s Soho district. In the U.S., culture shock gave way to decadence: After recording by day at the famed Media Sound studio in Hell’s Kitchen, Almond and Ball would jet to clubs like Paradise Garage and Danceteria by night, experimenting with party drugs and encountering characters that gave further shape to the band’s seamy songs about the misunderstood. “It’s like a peep show,” Almond explained about the record before it came out. “I like to write about real-life situations, under-the-carpet situations.”

On Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret, Soft Cell brought those situations to life with lurid, theatrical depravity. “Bedsitter” is a gleaming exercise in urban isolation that pays homage to Almond’s cramped, squalid apartment back in Leeds. Over a bending synth that mimics twangy guitar, they capture a vampiric morning after a night out: “The memories of the night before/Out in club land having fun/And now I’m hiding from the sun,” he moans. The cartoonishly jaunty, upbeat keys on “Secret Life,” meanwhile, punctuate lyrics about a blackmail scheme, with a narrator admonishing someone who has “the favorite persuasions of the people in the headlines” in their little black book, including his own.

That dark, serrated humor is pivotal to Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret. “Frustration” cuts down heternormative oppression over saxophone and a synth stretched to oblivion. “I have life/Ordinary wife/I have car/A favorite bar,” Almond begins robotically, before the song quickly turns hedonistic: “I wish I could reach right out for the untouchable…/ Experiment with cocaine, LSD, and set a bad, bad example.” The tongue-in-cheek single “Sex Dwarf,” a warped headtrip about “luring disco dollies to a life of vice,” was inspired by a News of the World headline that caught Almond’s eye; the song repackages exploitative tabloid fodder into something approximating John Waters’ gleeful concept of filth. (Its notorious video, another exercise in outright bad taste that provoked a London vice squad to raid the Some Bizarre offices, remains banned from television in the UK.)

The warmer, body-heated music on the album is a snapshot of pre-AIDS queer life at its heady peak. Over a winding funk beat on “Seedy Films,” Almond croons about flickering blue movies and the hands of a stranger, evoking a seductive vision of the era’s anything-goes spirit. “Tainted Love,” which became the best-selling single in England in 1981, also assumed a different light as the epidemic became a pressing concern. The duo first heard of the then-unnamed disease the very day they arrived in New York to record. “It wasn’t an intentional tie-in, but as the record hit the American charts, it took on this other meaning, coming off this hedonistic time of the late ’70s and into this very dark period,” Almond said in 2000.

“Tainted Love” is the album’s most timeless, alluring song, but the most striking is its desperate closer, “Say Hello, Wave Goodbye.” The melodrama places its narrator at the Pink Flamingo club on a rainy night, attempting and failing to maintain distance from an affair with a sex worker. Its histrionic refrain—“I never knew you/You never knew me/Say hello/Goodbye”—is unmistakably direct, but the words grow complicated with longing in Almond’s crooning, barroom delivery, even when he can’t exactly carry its final notes. The ballad is the record’s perfect, atmospheric nightcap, a pleadingly lovesick exhale that showcased their writing and performance skill at its peak.

Soft Cell would go on to make two more albums, selling 10 million records in the process. The wild flush of success proved destructive: Almond bristled under the intense spotlight, and he and Ball both struggled with substance abuse as they recorded their emotive, genre-blurring follow-ups, The Art of Falling Apart and This Last Night in Sodom. “We lived a 10-year band life in three years,” Almond said in 2019. “It was always us against the record company… More ‘Tainted Love’s. More this, that, and the other.” Ball echoed that notion in his autobiography, 2020’s Electronic Boy: “We’d been so successful very quickly, in constant demand and therefore always together—living out of each other’s pockets,” he wrote. “I don’t think any relationship could have endured that pressure.”

Soft Cell disbanded in 1984, and both artists pursued other projects. In his solo career, Almond has released more than 10 albums, sliding from Jacques Brel covers to bruised torch songs. Ball, an electronic-music pioneer in his own right, put out records as part of rave duo the Grid in the ’90s and has produced and written for artists including Kylie Minogue. He and Almond reconciled in 2002 and have continued to tour and release new music since, but Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret is still the band’s cocktail-soaked classic, a winking dispatch from the gutter that provided a template for countless synth-based acts to come. It inspired Nine Inch Nails’ scuzzy industrial rock as much as the throbbing electroclash of Fischerspooner and Scissor Sisters, providing sanctuary for artists who shared the duo’s love of battered synths and sinister glamor.

That Soft Cell’s hypnotic music made such an impact isn’t a surprise in hindsight, but it certainly was to them. “We were punks and we just wanted to cause a little bit of trouble. We didn’t want to toe the line,” Ball said in 2020. “It was a weird dichotomy, to be an art school thing that became a pop phenomenon.” Those first blinking, lustrous notes that kick off “Tainted Love” are now stitched into the fabric of the ’80s, in all the decade’s beguiling artificiality. But the proto-electro sound and tawdry sense of humor on Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret has endured, a singular style that gave the pop landscape a campy, needed jolt.

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About Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera

Hey, I'm Perera! I will try to give you technology reviews(mobile,gadgets,smart watch & other technology things), Automobiles, News and entertainment for built up your knowledge.
Soft Cell - Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret Music Album Reviews Soft Cell - Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret Music Album Reviews Reviewed by Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera on October 30, 2022 Rating: 5


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