Soft Cell – Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret (1981)
Is Tainted Love the biggest ever hit involving the cover of a previously obscure and unknown song? I’m struggling, off the top of my head, to come up with anything else.
Released in August 1981, it would go on to spend 16 weeks in the Top 75, including five at either #1 or #2, selling in excess of 1 million copies. The original version, by Gloria Jones, dated from 1964, and was a b-side. A second version in 1976, produced by Jones’s boyfriend Marc Bolan, was issued as a single to absolutely no fanfare at all. The fact it was, like many others labelled as Northern Soul, such an obscurity was a big factor in many people initially believing that Soft Cell‘s electronic take was an original.
The hit single helped create a huge buzz of expectancy around the duo’s debut album, helped also by the fact that Bedsitter had proved to be another hit single.
But the album was something of a flop in that it didn’t go Top 10 on its release in November 1981. Part of this was down to very harsh reviews in the UK music papers, with the NME being particularly scathing.
“The Soft Cell sex strategy should offer something spicy, rude and even a little wonderful… but Soft Cell are conceptualists who rely on too many preconceptions and play around with too many ideas to convince you of any personal energy or commitment… Soft Cell are very plain fare – unspectacular music and very drab and flat lyrics, wrapped in a hint of special promise which is never realised”
It was also compared unfavourably to synth albums by the likes of Human League, OMD, Depeche Mode and Heaven 17, while the tabloid papers had a field day suggesting it was a perverted record that no parent would want in their home, coverage which led some of the larger retailers, such as Woolworths and WH Smith, to go easy on the promotion activities with it being hidden away rather than on full display. It would take the later success of Say Hello, Wave Goodbye to finally turn Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret into a Top 5 album.
They were very strange times. Marc Almond and Dave Ball simply ignored all the fuss and got on with making music in the studio – like most synth bands, with the exception of OMD, the idea of going out and performing around the UK tour circuit was never entertained. It also enabled more time to be devoted to the making of promo videos, something that was just beginning to become an increasingly important part of the efforts to make every single a huge hit.
I fell for the charms of Soft Cell from the outset in a way that I never did with the likes of Depeche Mode. I’ve just about everything by the former and next to nothing by the latter. It was partly to do with the album, which I thought was great fun from start to end, albeit fun with a dark, creepy and sinister edge, but also from the brilliant 12″ mixes of their singles along with what always seemed to be quality b-sides.
Soft Cell, like all synth groups, did eventually take things into the concert halls, theatres and arenas. But it took until 2021 before many of the songs from the debut record were played live, with the opening show being an adrenalin-filled night in Glasgow, an occasion that made this late 50-something feel like he was in his late-teens for one last evening. This was a particular joy….a kinky middle-class suburbia tale straight out of the Sunday tabloids in the era when mobile phone hacking was just something out of a science fiction novel.
There are some synth-orientated albums still to feature in the rundown, but it can’t be too much of a surprise to everyone when I say that guitar bands will increasingly be to the fore.
3 thoughts on “60 ALBUMS @ 60 : #23”
Love these fellas – will be finally getting to see them next month.
An LP I enjoyed but didn’t love. Soft Cell fell foul of ‘good ole’ British homophobia to such an extent that a certain story about Marc Almond became street lore. The LP name and cover art probably didn’t help in ‘conservative values’ Britain.
** This morning I read of the death of Andy Rourke – the ‘bad boy’ from The Smiths and an integral part of what I came to know as one of my most favourite bands ever. The Smiths would not have been The Smiths but for his contribution and I am forever indebted.
Two indelicate points popped into my head…
1. The question of our musical times in answered. Will The Smiths reform? No. The Smiths – as a live band – no longer exist.
2. Should I raise my embargo on playing Smith’s records. I will. I will play a number of songs today where Andy comes to the forefront. I’ll bubble.
Andy, thank you.**
In my top 50 – great album – sums up a time for me – first time living away from home. I think ‘Bedsitter’ is the cream of the self written tracks here, but it all fits together well. I also rate ‘ The art of falling apart’ highly though it has more peaks and troughs – ‘Loving you, hating me’ being the highlight.