Entertain me, I'm as blank as can be
January 23, 2019 11:33 AM   Subscribe

Soft Cell, the British duo of singer Marc Almond and instrumentalist David Ball, are viewed differently in the U.S. and the U.K. Stateside, they're a classic one-hit wonder band, which dominated dance clubs and eventually peaked in the pop Top Ten in 1981-1982. In the U.K., the group not only had a longer career, but also influenced a raft of similar performers. Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret, originally released in Britain in the fall of 1981, contained three U.K. hits* (William Ruhlmann, All Music). The original album had 10 tracks (official YT Playlist, audio only), which was later expanded, both with a number of videos and bonus tracks (extended YT playlist), including the Non Stop Ecstatic Dancing EP tracks and thirteen more cuts (Discogs).

Producer Mike Thorne talks to Sound On Sound magazine about Tainted Love, April 2012, and more of Thorne's history with the album, both from Stereo Society's collection of Soft Cell articles.

Another companion piece was Soft Cell's Non-Stop Exotic Video Show (Discogs), featuring the following tracklist:
  1. Entertain Me
  2. Bedsitter* (TOTP), "its title referring to what in America would be called a studio apartment"
  3. Frustration
  4. Torch
  5. Seedy Films
  6. Secret Life
  7. Tainted Love*
  8. Youth
  9. Memorabilia
  10. Sex Dwarf ("version 3.0"; NSFW promo)
  11. What*
  12. Say Hello, Wave Goodbye*
* These are the three hit singles from the album, and the non-album single "What" also charted in this period. Dave Ball loved Northern Soul, which lead to two of their first five top hits, plus a b-side: Tainted Love (Top of the Pops), covering Gloria Jones, and on the flip Where Did Our Love Go? (live in Milan in 2009), covering The Supremes. (Tainted Love and Where Did Our Love Go were officially blended, a nod in part to the duo's DJ work, and they performed the pairing live, too.) They also scored a hit with a cut from the post-NSEC EP, Non-Stop Ecstatic Dancing, with What (TOTP), covering Melinda Marx (daughter of Groucho Marx), though it is better known for Judy Street's version. "What" was also their last top 5 single, until they hit #2 in 2018 with Norther Lights (YT, official video)

Bonus Soft Cell: Smash! The Soft Cell story (23 minutes, YT)

Bonus Gloria Jones: Tainted Love - the story behind the song (5:38, YT)
posted by filthy light thief (48 comments total) 52 users marked this as a favorite
Isn't it nice, sugar and spice?
posted by SansPoint at 11:37 AM on January 23 [9 favorites]

I'd continue the lyrics, but I'd sound like a creep. Not really one to sing in your car. That said, "Sex Dwarf" is one of my top picks from the album, because I love the dark, menacing tone of the music. The Non Stop Ecstatic Dancing version is a stripped down version, which has its own charm.

Back when I was a college DJ with a "variety show" (able to play anything, compared to genre- or topic-specific shows), I played one cut from Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret per week, because it's an amazing album and people need to know that Soft Cell has more than one (or 5) songs.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:44 AM on January 23 [4 favorites]

Not much to say but YAY for this post. And also "Say Hello, Say Goodbye" is such my jam that it ended up very near the top of my "most played" tracks in Spotify last year.

What about me, well, I'll find someone
That's not going cheap in the sales

posted by MCMikeNamara at 11:53 AM on January 23 [3 favorites]

We tried to make it work, you in a cocktail skirt
And me in a suit, but it just wasn't me

I'm partial to the David Gray cover also.
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 12:06 PM on January 23 [4 favorites]

Sex Dwarf is also the name of an awesome 80s dance party I used to go to regularly when I lived in Philadelphia. It's still going, and they do play the song pretty regularly.
posted by SansPoint at 12:20 PM on January 23 [3 favorites]

And then there’s the Hendrix medley...
posted by doubtfulpalace at 12:30 PM on January 23

As a giant JG Thirwell fan, I've always wished I had been at one of the Immaculate Consumptive shows featuring Almond, Nick Cave, and Lydia Lunch as well. It was obviously a non-working s-show, but in my mind a glorious one.

I still treasure my Soft Cell vinyl. Great post.
posted by lumpenprole at 12:43 PM on January 23 [3 favorites]

They released a single, Down In The Subway, in 1984, and subsequently this title was used for another compilation in 1994.

I lived in the Los Angeles area in the 1980's, and NSEC was on regular rotation for me...it's a solid album...in a mug's game.
posted by Chuffy at 12:48 PM on January 23

I spent a week at my grandmother's in the summer of '82 and this cassette never left my walkman—partly because I dug it so much, partly because at 16 the title was more than a little embarrassing.
posted by octobersurprise at 12:53 PM on January 23 [2 favorites]

To add even more empty commentary to my earlier comment, I am just finishing my listen to the whole album inspired by this post and it still bangs. It's always so great to have your earlier adolescent taste confirmed by your adult self.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 1:08 PM on January 23 [1 favorite]

Couldn't see it in the links above, so apologies if it's there, but the Tainted Love/Where Did Our Love Go? pairing was also out in 12" 45 rpm at the time.
posted by carter at 1:09 PM on January 23 [1 favorite]

I used to have that 12 inch and it used to blow people's minds when I played it out at a club or something. It's also just a really rad dancier version of the song.
posted by loquacious at 1:12 PM on January 23 [3 favorites]

posted by carter at 1:20 PM on January 23

As a person who loves sleaze, non stop is a top ten album. The whole thing is wonderfully unsavory.
posted by Ferreous at 1:30 PM on January 23 [2 favorites]

Maybe the Hendrix Medley wasn't one of their better ideas, but so much else of what they did still sounds great. Thanks for the post, filthy light thief. Another fine b-side from that era: Facility Girls.

lumpenprole's passing mention above of Lydia Lunch reminded me that David Ball recently co-produced a yet-to-be-released album by Anni Hogan including a track featuring Ms. Lunch on vocals: Blue Contempt.
posted by misteraitch at 1:33 PM on January 23 [3 favorites]

Never thought about it previously, but Almond had a bit of Rowan Atkinson about him in the dancing department.

Dancing, laughing
Drinking, loving
And now I'm all alone
In Brexit land
My only home

posted by asok at 2:08 PM on January 23 [4 favorites]

Along with Non-Stop Ecstatic Dancing there was also The Art of Falling Apart (good, but more of a "transitional" album) and their classic (if underrated) This Last Night In Sodom. (There was also the reunion album Cruelty Without Beauty, which was pretty much in the "it's okay..." camp).
If I weren't in a workplace with a strict no-streaming policy I'd include a link to their live version of Suicide's "Ghost Rider", but I am, so I can't. (It's on the Keychains & Snowstorms 9-CD/1-DVD box set though, for those with deep enough pockets).

Oh, and the single "It's a Mug's Game" is worth checking out if you find it on a 'best of'. (Still remember when they used to play it on pre-alternative, Modern Rock-era Live 105 with the "shit"s intact. Ah, those were the days.)
posted by gtrwolf at 2:11 PM on January 23

I remain a big Soft Cell fan. These days I am most likely to listen to This Last Night In Sodom, rather than Non-Stop. Some really great tracks on that. Some of the Marc Almond solo work is really good as well.
posted by Kafkaesque at 2:38 PM on January 23 [1 favorite]

He has an absolutely terrific singing voice, especially upper registers. Here's a cover of Johnny Cash's Man in Black.
posted by carter at 3:08 PM on January 23 [3 favorites]

Yeah, Marc's cover of The Days Of Pearly Spencer is stunning.
posted by scruss at 4:12 PM on January 23 [2 favorites]

Friends, there is nothing, nothing, guaranteed to get me pumping madly as the pitch-shifting, analog synth-laden, Blue Monday 808's-style, pre-acid house goodness that is Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret's Memorabilia.

True believers bonus: this freestyle-prescient, unexpectedly fresh-dated Memorabilia remix.

PS and oh yes God bless Cindy Ecstasy.
posted by Mike Mongo at 4:43 PM on January 23 [3 favorites]

Another Marc Almond vocal track: System F vs Marc Almond - Soul On Soul (2001 era electro-trance) [bonus heavy electro remix from The Hacker]
posted by filthy light thief at 5:43 PM on January 23

There was an epoch of my life where Sex Dwarf and the Grace Jones version of Warm Leatherette were basically all there was.
posted by bgribble at 5:44 PM on January 23 [4 favorites]

A guy once called in to The Best Show on WFMU to share the following break-up story: he had decided to break up with his girlfriend, for some reason chose to do it in a cafe or something, and just as he was saying the awkward words, "Sex Dwarf" started blasting on the speakers.

The guy became something of a regular caller, and each time the host made him identify himself as "Toronto Sex Dwarf Alex."
posted by Beardman at 5:59 PM on January 23 [4 favorites]

This brings up the interesting phenomenon of bands that hit differently on different sides of the pond. I fell into a Joni Mitchell rabbit hole last night, and was struck that she got almost no airplay in the UK. (Only hit was Big Yellow Taxi at #11.) OTOH 2 early albums (Ladies of the Canyon, and Blue) hit there much harder than anywhere else.

I don't know but this suggests she might not be nearly as well known there, except among diehard fans. Reverse phenomenon: Bros, The Damned.
posted by msalt at 6:10 PM on January 23 [1 favorite]

Dave Ball’s “In Strict Tempo” is also great. It features Genesis P-Orridge and Gavin Friday. It holds up for me in a way that some of the Soft Cell Material doesn’t. Here’s a link that covers Soft Cell, but also delves a lot deeper into Ball’s solo and producing career than I can with having to type on this crappy iPad onscreen keyboard.
posted by Conrad-Casserole at 6:35 PM on January 23

I have enjoyed "Tainted Love" as long as I can remember, ever since it was a US single, most likely (I remember asking "what's 'tainted' mean?" and getting the answer back "Poisoned, like Mr. Yuk says to watch out for"). But I feel sad that "Sex Dwarf" never got the attention it deserved in the US.
posted by infinitewindow at 6:36 PM on January 23

I grew up in Iowa, and going to summer camp in northern Minnesota, mostly with Minneapolis kids, completely opened my eyes to the world of Not Shitty Music. Non-Stop-Erotic Cabaret was one of the big ones in that, along with Devo, and I still listen to the album frequently.
posted by mcstayinskool at 6:39 PM on January 23 [2 favorites]

I always liked Tainted Love, but as a kid the music video scared the hell out of me. Now it just cracks me up. It's this weird scenario where Marc Almond is this fey, decadent Roman emperor type in a disconcertingly short toga, and a smiling, oblivious little girl has been delivered to him for reasons that can't be wholesome. The whole scenario is over-the-top gay, complete with a great big shirtless bodybuilder guy fanning Almond, but then Almond is singing to this angelic little child about how she's such a tease. It's undeniably creepy but I've got to figure that whoever made the video was kind of in a bind. You just couldn't have Almond singing that song to a woman, nobody would buy it. (And maybe Almond wasn't having it, I dunno.) But mainstream pop culture wasn't ready for a guy singing to another guy in 1981 either, that probably would have gotten the clip banned from TV. So they have him singing to a little girl, making it wrong in this whole other way but also taking some of the sexual charge out of it. It makes him read as a naughty villain, like he just wants to feed this girl to piranhas or something, but not like he actually has sexual designs on anybody. On the one hand that's a sad reflection on how fucked up the 20th Century could be, but on the other it gave us this wonderfully strange, sinister, hilarious thing.

(The little girl in that clip's gotta be well over 40 now. Whoa.)

One of my fonder memories of my crazy club days was being on a crowded dance floor at some fetish ball and being joined by a little tiny lady in bondage gear. She had to be like 3 feet tall, all decked out in black rubber. The DJ started playing Sex Dwarf and for a moment I was worried this woman would feel like she was being singled out or something, but then she just laughed and kept dancing. She was there for it. By the end the whole crowd was singing along: Isn't it nice? Sugar and spice. Leading disco dollies to a life of vice...
posted by Ursula Hitler at 6:55 PM on January 23 [4 favorites]

But I feel sad that "Sex Dwarf" never got the attention it deserved in the US.

Sex Dwarf got a lot of play in LA on KROQ. It wouldn't surprise me if LA/Chicago/NYC were the only places it got significant airplay.
posted by tclark at 7:22 PM on January 23 [3 favorites]

I'm always astounded by the idea that Soft Cell were this disposable synth-pop band (not a view in evidence in this thread, of course). I've always enjoyed the profoundly weird element of their work, and the collaborations that Almond has made over the years - the harrowing video for Coil's version of Tainted Love (CW: HIV references) in which Almond takes the role of the faithless lover; or showing the sweetness and fragility of his voice in Current 93's Idumea, for example...
posted by prismatic7 at 7:31 PM on January 23 [4 favorites]

Excellent post! I've got so much and so little to say to this, I wish there was a little "++" or Dwarf Fortress emoji or something I could post to say "Me too!". I'll settle for observing that Baby (to me now) Marc Almond introducing Sex Dwarf in that video is the most fun, Young Ones thing I've seen in ages.
posted by I'm always feeling, Blue at 7:49 PM on January 23 [1 favorite]

The whole scenario is over-the-top gay, complete with a great big shirtless bodybuilder guy fanning Almond ...

In retrospect I’n surprised sometimes by how many music videos from that period look “over-the-top gay,” even ones by straight artists, but especially ones by queer/queer-adjacent artists. I think this is partly a result of how the period’s glam fashion is received today, but I think it’s also a result of a form that by its nature tried to stuff as much high-key emotion & sex as it could into two minutes, while at the same time striving, without much success, for a degree of deniability about those purposes in the first place. It’s an art form of the closet, or at least one that tries to pretend not to recognize it’s own sexuality for the sake of the censor.
posted by octobersurprise at 7:50 PM on January 23 [2 favorites]

"Heightened" is definitely the shorthand I sometimes hear or use, octobersurprise.

I'm reminded of an interaction about 10 yrs ago with a friend of roughly similar era and musical tastes, plus his not-yet-wife in a busy pub mates-type situation. Apropos of nothing he asked me, "'Ere, IAFB, who were that gay band from the '80s?". "Umm, Fun Boy Three?" I said, caught off-guard. "No, not them," he said. "Oohhhh, Erasure!" I replied. "See!" he said, elbowing his other half.

I never found out quite what point he'd won with her, but I always assumed it was that, for our then-young age group, in a mid '80s sea of very *ahem* heightened songs and performances there was still a perceived distinction between straight and gay bands/acts. We all knew that Duran Duran, Wham!, Queen and Pet Shop Boys were (assumed) straight, but Erasure were gay.
posted by I'm always feeling, Blue at 8:29 PM on January 23

When my husband and I were dating he introduced me to Sex Dwarf and I knew he had hidden depths.
posted by Biblio at 8:38 PM on January 23 [4 favorites]

He has an absolutely terrific singing voice

He does.  I recall being pleasantly surprised back in my college radio days when I I ran across "Tears Run Rings."  Once I made the connection between his name and Soft Cell, I liked the song even more.  And I still think Marc Almond could totally pull off an album of old standards with that voice.
posted by los pantalones del muerte at 8:55 PM on January 23 [2 favorites]

You people understand that Marc Almond is doing a lot of touring this year, and that the tour is called "The Hits of Marc Almond and Soft Cell"? It's primarily a Europe/UK tour, but there's a Los Angeles date next month.
posted by daveje at 12:18 AM on January 24 [2 favorites]

Looked for the David Gray reference and was not disappointed. Thank you, We had a deal, Kyle.

Thanks for the profile, filthy light thief!
posted by rangefinder 1.4 at 2:20 AM on January 24

It's kind of funny to remember a time when I could actually be afraid of a band, but as a kid I heard some radio DJ talk about how (I have no idea if this is true) Dave Ball said he wanted to get a sex change so he could marry Marc Almond, and I was SO SHOCKED. Naturally I had to check them out, and entering their sleazy, infinitely jaded world irreparably warped my young mind. For some reason my favorite album by them ended up being The Art of Falling Apart, which I played obsessively. I'm not sure why their music resonated so strongly with a sheltered 14 year old straight kid from Orange County...I guess it offered a tantalizing glimpse into some sordid vision of adulthood that lay in my future (it didn't).

Listening to "Hendrix Medley" now, and searching for more weirdly left field covers by 80s bands. "Born To Run" by Frankie Goes to Hollywood, "Always On My Mind" by Pet Shop Boys..."In The Ghetto" by Nick Cave?
posted by Enemy of Joy at 6:52 AM on January 24 [1 favorite]

Enemy of Joy: How about "Are You Experienced?" by DEVO?
posted by SansPoint at 7:50 AM on January 24 [1 favorite]

Thanks for this! I've been reading a biography of Matt Johnson/The The, and this all ties in quite nicely, and fills in a few big gaps in my own knowledge of music history.
posted by mollymayhem at 8:15 AM on January 24

I am really partial to this version of Say Hello, Wave Goodbye which Marc Almond sang with Jools Holland's band. He has an amazing voice, and this version gets across the defiance and spitefulness of the song in a way which I don't think the David Gray version captures (although it definitely has its charms).
posted by the cat's pyjamas at 11:33 AM on January 24 [1 favorite]

Listening to "Hendrix Medley" now, and searching for more weirdly left field covers by 80s bands. "Born To Run" by Frankie Goes to Hollywood, "Always On My Mind" by Pet Shop Boys..."In The Ghetto" by Nick Cave?

Paul Young's version of "Love Will Tear Us Apart".

If anything ever went past left field and over the fence.....
posted by gtrwolf at 6:45 PM on January 24 [1 favorite]

Whatever you do, don't confuse Marc Almond with Mark-Almond.

Like I've done more than once.

While you're at it, you kids get off of my lawn.
posted by SteveInMaine at 6:58 PM on January 24

The "kids" in this thread are probably all in our late thirties at the very least.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 7:06 PM on January 24 [1 favorite]

Great post. And another recommendation to check out Marc Almond's solo stuff. If you don't know it, it's a surprisingly varied body of work. There's 23 albums though, so if you want some (very) personal highlights: Mother Fist and Her Five Daughters is the great early sex album; Stardom Road is the redemptive, reflective album after his (biggest) brush with death, and has some moments of real beauty; The Tyburn Tree is the song cycle on supernatural London; Orpheus in Exile is the highlight of his Russian period etc.
posted by Hartster at 4:26 AM on January 25

I am really partial to this version of Say Hello, Wave Goodbye which Marc Almond sang with Jools Holland's band.

It is currently -17 degrees Farenheit (wind chill makes it feel like around -40) but hearing this has warmed me to my core. It feels like the theme song they would use for TV dramedy based on my life.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 9:32 AM on January 30

(Yes, something that warms me to my core has to have a very strong sadness/melancholy to do so. I'll be discussing that with my imaginary therapist later.)
posted by MCMikeNamara at 9:41 AM on January 30

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