23
Jan 09

SOFT CELL – “Tainted Love”

FT + Popular71 comments • 5,867 views

#485, 5th September 1981

Soft Cell’s reinvention of “Tainted Love” is based on a simple shift in emphasis. In the Gloria Jones recording, the point of the record is the love – it’s troubled, besmirched, but Gloria is strong enough to fight her way past that – or carry through her intention to quit. Either way the decision’s hers. For Marc Almond, the point is the taint. Without the taint, there is no love. “Once I ran to you, now I’ll run from you” – but he’s not running yet.

What Almond’s rough, deceptively slight voice brought to the song was vulnerability: he understood that a singer surrounded by machines could sound naked, shockingly exposed and human. In the filmed performances of “Tainted Love” on Top of The Pops, Almond looks gamine and frail, bangles heavy on skinny arms, his handclaps a gesture at once magnetic and oddly pitiful. He’s dwarfed by the sound around him while still its centre.

And the sound itself is a mix of the sleek and the rusty – cutting-edge machines that need to be jump-started into life, as in the record’s iconic intro: that double synth stab and then a rat-a-tat of hissing valves as the rhythm starts up. Like Dave Ball’s astonishingly sleazy moustache, it adds to the track’s seediness, its sinister edge. It’s a seediness which can feel slightly overplayed, teetering on kitsch: something Soft Cell were certainly aware of – like their English industrial mates, they were interested in what happens when your pleasure and humour and arousal and discomfort receptors get all mixed up. But that side to the band is more apparent on stuff like “Sex Dwarf” than it is on this, where the strength of the song is a challenge for Almond to rise to. And he does – when he sings “Touch me baby, tainted love”, his hollowed-out vowels are as chilling an evocation of need as the charts have seen.

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Comments

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  1. 51
    lonepilgrim on 26 Jan 2009 #

    I love Cindy Ecstasy’s vocal on ‘Torch’ – for me it’s the best bit about it – and their best single. I have their Greatest Hits CD and I always enjoy listening to it. There’s something about its combination of amateur simplicity and overheated enthusiasm that I always find rewarding.
    …oh, and btw the TL sleeve brings back so many memories of early 80s fashion illustration – again, it’s cheap and cheerful

  2. 52
    Malice Cooper on 26 Jan 2009 #

    I love everything Marc Almond did for the first few years and was a proud “Gutterheart”. This was superb. I felt their best single was “Soul inside” but their star status had dried up by then. I carried on buying his records and even bought three copies of “Black heart” to get the three different postcards. The single was reviewed on “Round Table” by the ever so successful Tracie Young, who laid into him heavily as being tuneless and totally untalented. I assume she was reading her own bio at the time.

    Who else can remember Marc on the Oxford Road Show when his microphone was breaking up ? Freddie Starr would have been proud of it and “Where the heart is” was almost spoiled by his strop as he threw the deviant piece of equipment to the floor in a way that only a limp-wristed drama queen could have done.

  3. 53
    Billy Smart on 26 Jan 2009 #

    This is in some ways hard to talk about because, as with ‘I Don’t Like Mondays’ two years previously, this was a song where I felt my understanding of pop music deepen, drifting further into frightening and ambiguous grown-up territory.

    I think that this is may have been the most child-unfriendly number one for a long time. The sight of Soft Cell on Top of the Pops was something which I wasn’t prepared for, and didn’t know how to process. With characters like Numan or Bowie there was clearly an element of dressing-up and costume, wheras the scowling likes of Kevin Rowland or Paul Weller looked like people you’d see on the street. But this weedy-looking character in bracelets and a black T-shirt without sleeves, he didn’t look like he was pleased to be being filmed, he didn’t look like he was enjoying dancing, but he didn’t look like he was angry about anything specific… Also, you could easily think that he was a woman, although he obviously wasn’t pretending to be one.

    And then you noticed the other one, unsmiling, as stocky as the singer was spindly, looking morose, like somebody in a minor and taxing position of authority – a prison officer or a hospital orderly, say.

    This wasn’t what pop stars were supposed to look like! But then again, as a boy who was overserious, solitary, weak and tempramental, there also seemed something rather uncomfortably personal about all of this.

    And that was before I started to notice their song – clang! clang! And the singer’s voice was something rather slimy to listen to, not at all ingratiating the listener.

    Wow, I love Soft Cell. They seem to be the group that friends associate me with most. Like a few bands of this time (The Beat, Altered Images), their career seems ideal to me – Don’t hang around too long, release a lot of singles, some of which everybody knows and some of which only pop people know but all of which are very good, knock out three very different albums, each of which show the same unique view of the world from a different angle, in three years.

  4. 54
    Billy Smart on 27 Jan 2009 #

    The documentary where Marc talks about Cindy Ecstacy was in BBC2’s excellent ‘Young Guns’ series, which also featured The Human League, The Smiths, Bananarama, Spandau Ballet and Culture Club.

  5. 55
    Billy Smart on 27 Jan 2009 #

    Re #48, ‘Where The Heart Is’ is, I think, my favourite Top of the Pops performance ever, the alternating pink and blue lighting, the distressing and compelling nature of both the tale and the performance of the teller. That churning, queasy, compressed synth arrangement is just right for the material too, I’d maintain.

  6. 56
    a logged-out pˆnk s lord whatnot on 27 Jan 2009 #

    oh bah i forgot to look out and play that soft cell 12″ — will try and do so tonight

  7. 57
    rosie on 27 Jan 2009 #

    Can’t believe I haven’t commented on this yet.

    I love it. At the time I loved it and hated it in about equal measure. I think that’s because Marc Almond’s tortured delivery and the jagged, rather sinister accompaniment chimed with my own tormented state at the time. Things were getting very difficult for me and they’d go on doing so for another couple of years yet before things got better again.

    Now I love it unambiguously because of that association, but also because Marc’s vocal rings out clearly across the years and it shines out to as the outstanding number one of that year. By putting an original twist on what was a good song in the first place and making it soar, it meets one of my possible criteria for a ten but it doesn’t quite get there for me so a 9 feels about right and no disgrace.

  8. 58
    Matthew H on 28 Jan 2009 #

    This is fantastic, but I love most Soft Cell singles. So stark, so emotional (baby)! The double-klaxon marks it as a great of its time – an undeniable chart-topper – and although Almond’s winning sleaze sounded grimier elsewhere, this is still uncomfortable, somewhere you suspect you shouldn’t be.

    I guess I slightly prefer ‘Say Hello, Wave Goodbye’, a track my playground cohorts baulked at because it was so… open. You’re not meant to engage in that sort of stuff when you’re second toughest in the infants.

  9. 59
    Billy Smart on 29 Jan 2009 #

    TOTPWatch: Soft Cell performed ‘Tainted Love’ on Top Of The Pops on three occasions;

    13 August 1981. Also in the studio that week were; Duran Duran, Aneka and Shakin’ Stevens, plus Legs & Co’s interpretation of ‘Startrax Club Disco’. The host was Simon Bates.

    27 August 1981. Also in the studio that week were; Startrax, The Nolans, Ultravox, Genesis and Aneka, plus Legs & Co’s interpretation of ‘Hold On Tight’. Richard Skinner was the host.

    3 September 1981. To celebrate being number one, Soft Cell decided to perform in a cage for this edition. Also in the studio in a great week were; Modern Romance, John Foxx, Bucks Fizz, The Teardrop Explodes, Dollar and OMD, plus Legs & Co’s interpretation of ‘Slow Hand”. The host was Peter Powell.

  10. 60
    mike on 3 Feb 2009 #

    For what it’s worth, even Gloria Jones herself is on record as saying that Soft Cell’s cover was a significant improvement! That said, this is now so over-played that I’d personally opt for Gloria’s version every time, one-dimensional THWACK-BASH arrangement and all.

    But really, this is all about about the 12″ version, and specifically about the strange, moody, slowly shifting instrumental segue into “Where Did Our Love Go”. I once heard a DJ in a Belgium nightclub overlay almost all of Peggy Lee’s “Fever” over the top of the segue section, to superb effect – a mix which I’ve tried re-creating on my PC, but have never quite got 100% right.

    And while we’re talking 12″ medleys: this is also indivisible from the Human League’s “Hard Times”/”Love Action”, which was released around the same time, with an equally terrific instrumental dub on the B-side. (Gotta love those extreme FX on “Tainted Dub”.) Those two 12″s absolutely sum up the summer of 1981 for me.

    And of course, Almond’s great achievement with “Tainted Love” was to significantly darken the mood of the lyric, conjuring up unspoken associations with Filthy Gay Bumsex and SM power dynamics gone sour. So hurrah for that…

  11. 61
    Chelovek na lune on 9 Sep 2010 #

    First record I every (had) bought (for me). What a cool six year old I was.

    (Overlooking that the second one was “A New Fashion” by Bill Wyman)

  12. 62
    Billy Smart on 10 Jan 2011 #

    My thoughts on another astonishing song from ‘Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret’ can be found here;

    http://drunkennessofthingsbeingvarious.blogspot.com/2011/01/soft-cell-say-hello-wave-goodbye-1982.html

    (My reply to a comment on the ‘Bright Eyes’ thread that I think would probably make more sense put here instead)

    pink champale † wrote on 10 January 2011 –

    “nice site billy. i really liked you piece on ‘say hello wave goodbye’ which made me think at lot as i’ve never heard the song that way *at all*. from the lyrics on the page i can’t fault your analysis one bit, but listening to the song, i don’t hear sneering sarcasm, i hear marc tearing his heart out. to me he doesn’t sound smug about finding a nice little housewife and a steady life, he sounds utterly distraught – that bit, with the wavering synth wash rising up behind him is one of the most beautiful moments in pop music. i hear the song as someone steeling himself to do a terrible thing (all the stuff about what a mess she is him desperately trying to convince himself) for the sake of..what, i dunno – respectability, his career? ( the nation? there’s definitely a touch of hal and falstaff). so yeah, selfish maybe, but not callous – just listen to that terrible moment of hesitation in “we’re strangers meeting for the first time…okay?”. what a song.”

    You’ve made me think that one of the things that I really like about Soft Cell songs is the way that Marc can inhabit a character. So many of the songs in Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret are about downtrodden little people; the blackmail victims, frustrated nine-to-five suburban husbands, grey couples acknowledging to each other that their youth has passed them by, priapic and ashamed sex industry consumers… Only ‘Entertain Me’ could really be said to present the listener with an insight into fantastic popstar life!

    Something that’s so great about Say Hello is the way that the storytelling is emotionally pitched – The two of us aren’t even listening to the song differently – and certainly neither of us is misreading it. You’re empathising from the point of view of the character, and I tend to imagine what it must be like for the poor girl that he’s dumping.

    One of the brilliant things about Marc’s songwriting in the Soft Cell songs, is how it seems to walk a tightrope between empathy and gloating at other peoples’ delusions I think. Just compare ‘Mother’s Little Helper’ by The Rolling Stones to ‘Kitchen Sink Drama’ by Soft Cell. Both songs are equally unsettling to listen to, but Jagger is just being callous about a woman who he clearly considers contemptible, while Almond allows the listener to inhabit the Valium housewife’s imaginative world, even as the chorus acts as a Brechtian commentary, showing her as “in a fantasy (…) living a lie”.

    Amazing records. Just breathtaking.

  13. 63
    lonepilgrim on 25 Oct 2011 #

    Tainted History:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CiQ4j-D5o4o

  14. 64
    swanstep on 26 Oct 2011 #

    @lonepilgrim. Thanks for that. Good God. Clicking around in the genre, I thought that Bad Romance used to outline the French Rev worked best.

  15. 65
    Rory on 15 Aug 2013 #

    “Tainted Love” by Max Raabe und Palast Orchester.

    Soft Cell’s version dominated my Grade 8 school social (what we used to call the once-a-term disco nights where all the boys would line up on one side of the gym and the girls on the other, eyeing each other warily). That and the J. Geils Band’s “Centerfold”.

    10 for Soft Cell, 7 for Gloria Jones, 7 for Max Raabe, and what the hell, 7 for J. Geils.

  16. 66
    Chelovek na lune on 15 Aug 2013 #

    I didn’t like at the time, but Impedance’s 1989 housey reinterpretation ( a minor hit charts-wise) works pretty well, I think.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N-uQA3dlWj8

  17. 67
    Rory on 15 Aug 2013 #

    Huh, I hadn’t realised there were two Gloria Jones recordings: 1964, 1976.

  18. 68
    glue_factory on 15 Aug 2013 #

    @66, I always liked that version, associating it with the relatively laid-back warm, fuzzy house that was about to be swept-aside by klaxons and Belgian hoover-noises.

    John B’s “electrostep” version is a bit of a guilty-pleasure – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CLutGjqlzRA

  19. 69
    hectorthebat on 12 Oct 2014 #

    Critic watch:

    1,001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die, and 10,001 You Must Download (2010) 1-1001
    Blender (USA) – The Greatest Songs Ever, One Song Added Every Other Month
    Blender (USA) – Top 500 Songs of the 80s-00s (2005) 363
    Michaelangelo Matos (USA) – Top 100 Singles of the 1980s (2001) 101
    NBC-10 (USA) – The 30 Best Songs of the 80s (2006)
    Pause & Play (USA) – Songs Inducted into a Time Capsule, One Track at Each Week
    Pitchfork (USA) – The Pitchfork 500 (2008)
    Rolling Stone & MTV (USA) – The 100 Greatest Pop Songs Since the Beatles (2000) 100
    Slant (USA) – The 100 Best Singles of the 1980s (2012) 44
    Treble (USA) – The Top 200 Songs of the 80s (2011) 55
    VH-1 (USA) – Nominations for the 100 Greatest 80s Songs (2006)
    VH1 (USA) – The 100 Greatest Songs from the Past 25 Years (2003) 82
    Woxy.com (USA) – Modern Rock 500 Songs of All Time (combined rank 1989-2009) 260
    Artrocker (UK) – The 100 Greatest Art Rock Tracks (2010) 26
    Gary Mulholland (UK) – This Is Uncool: The 500 Best Singles Since Punk Rock (2002)
    NME (UK) – The 100 Best Songs of NME’s Lifetime (2012) 49
    NME (UK) – The 100 Best Songs of the 1980s (2012) 84
    New Musical Express (UK) – The Top 100 Singles of All Time (2002) 69
    Q (UK) – 50 Years of Great British Music, 10 Tracks per Decade (2008)
    Q (UK) – The 1001 Best Songs Ever (2003) 608
    Q (UK) – The 1010 Songs You Must Own (2004)
    Q (UK) – The 80 Best Records of the 80s (2006) 16
    Q (UK) – The Ultimate Music Collection (2005)
    Wanadoo (UK) – The 20 Best Songs of the 80s
    Panorama (Norway) – The 30 Best Singles of the Year 1970-98 (1999) 1
    Theater van het Sentiment, Radio 2 (NL) – Top 40 Songs by Year 1969-2000 (2013) 27
    Berlin Media (Germany) – The 100 Best Singles of All Time (1998) 91
    Musikexpress (Germany) – The 700 Best Songs of All Time (2014) 321
    Gilles Verlant and Thomas Caussé (France) – 3000 Rock Classics (2009)
    Les Inrockuptibles (France) – 1000 Indispensable Songs (2006)
    Rock de Lux (Spain) – The Top 150 Songs from the 20th Century (1998) 147
    Toby Creswell (Australia) – 1001 Songs (2005)
    Giannis Petridis (Greece) – 2004 of the Best Songs of the Century (2003)
    Village Voice (USA) – Singles of the Year 7
    Face (UK) – Singles of the Year
    New Musical Express (UK) – Singles of the Year 12
    Sounds (UK) – Singles of the Year 2

  20. 70
    Adam on 22 Mar 2015 #

    Comparisons with the original or other versions of this piece are futile… Soft Cell has placed the “Song” in a subservient role to the call-and-answer minimalist hook, which is just rhythmically erratic enough to keep you highly engaged without feeling put upon. Chorus/bridge/verse is just a soundtrack pushing you through this supremely unique song. A 10 from me, there’s nothing quite like it. Up there with Remain in Light.

  21. 71
    phil6875 on 14 Apr 2015 #

    Wow. 70 comments and not one mention of the amazing version by Coil from 1985, the video for which features Marc Almond. They slow it right down and instead of the ‘double synth stab’ they use a tolling bell. ‘They turned an electro-pop hit into an AIDS death march’ (RYM review). The video is on Youtube.

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