Towards the end of 1981, with the world going mad around and about us, it was time to record the follow-up to Tainted Love. That first major-label single from the group would go on be the biggest-selling single in the UK of that year, eventually topping charts around the world and even making #8 in the US Billboard Hot 100 in a national market defiantly resistant to new sounds in general and, at that time, synth-based music in particular.
You never become blasé about hearing your work sounding in public places, and Tainted Love had a ubiquity that could verge on overwhelming. By stepping outside the stylistic norm instead of slavishly following it, you leave yourself high- or zero-reward options only. There’s no middle ground. You can’t have an average hit, as you can when playing safe by cozying up to the sonic style of the moment. In the UK, the record had exceeded the wildest expectations, and there was no more discussion about whether acoustic drums should substitute for the novel machine sounds. In fall 1981, the record was all over Europe but hadn’t established any foothold in even the most progressive of New York club spaces.
Then I went to see Human Sexual Response, an anarchic Boston seven-piece for whom I had just produced In A Roman Mood, their second album. They were playing fairly late at Chase West, a briefly-functioning club above the bank at the corner of Houston and Broadway in downtown New York which could only be accessed by a large and ancient industrial elevator. As the cage rose slowly towards the fifth floor, Tainted Love gradually faded up from the receding traffic noise below.
We hit the dance floor so fast to savor the first time we had ever heard it out loud in the city. Anita Sarko, soon to become one of New York’s most prominent 80s Djs, had brought it back from London and, much to her disgust, it was killing the dance floor after the Motown retro that to which the crowd had been lurching earlier. That didn’t matter to us, nor did the track’s feeling unusually fast for its time.
The committee had chosen Bedsitter as the second single. I wanted the best resources available, given that we had to follow what was to be one of the best-known singles of the era, so I insisted the recording take place where I could provide the support of my considerable collection of sound-mangling machines and new-fangled synthesizers. The group did not object to traveling to New York…….
You would think that making a great record when sales were clearly guaranteed would be the priority of any record company. Not so. That’s a longer-term issue than the promotion department’s landing interviews and TV performances to boost whatever already is. Fighting off other interests to give the group and me the space we needed, even if only for a follow-up single, was a constant background pressure. Could they just do one more show on Saturday morning before flying to New York??? There are worse problems, but these were a strain for all concerned.
Soft Cell’s idea for Tainted Love of recording the whole extended dance track then extracting by edit the commercially all-important 7” single had become my constant method when recording any single, and would remain so until I retired from hired-gun production in 1994. Recording the long version gave a better conceptual whole, and provoked sufficient material to keep the interest going over long dance-floor periods. Extra material generated for a long version after the fact of the initial recording can often feel a little tired. Conversely, ideas can be generated within an extended framework which rebound into the short version and lift it.
This time, I took more of the initiative in the large scale structure, building an eight-minute behemoth out of the original 3’35” song. The group rose to the challenge with new musical ideas only to be heard on the 12” version, and the process worked very smoothly. Especially creative was Marc’s dense additional center vocal section, prefiguring the inevitable rap centerpiece of dance tracks a decade later. The mounting bedlam of the last choruses of the 12” grew imperceptibly sideways of what might otherwise been just a rousing repeat of the familiar theme as was on the 7”.
Many years later, a musical collaborator would remark about what an awful existence Marc must have had if you gauged it by his song lyrics. Bedsitter, the self-written follow-up to the cover of what was already a classic song, threw into harsh perspective the downside of club fun and the futility of escaping from sordid, youthful hormonally-driven reality. He would develop such themes throughout his musical career, far more articulately than most later pretenders. He had the ability to draw us into the depressed character and his hangover pain but then treat the subject lightly with a few images we all recognized. We could all laugh along ironically together, including the sad character singing the song, in a sympathetic conviviality.
Sunday morning, going slow
Out in clubland having fun
The sounds on the record, mostly derived from the Synclavier, still glow brightly. This, the first commercially-available digital synthesizer and the only one until Yamaha’s DX7 of 1983, had also helped make Tainted Love sonically unique. It shared the stage with Dave Ball’s own appropriately grungy two-octave bass keyboard which he sneaked back and forth to New York at risk of US immigration’s questioning what he might be doing with it there. This was the start of the group’s love-hate relationship with the powerful machine that would eventually culminate in a power struggle and the end of an unusually productive creative relationship.
There was never any argument about the drum machine, the Roland 808 which had just been introduced and whose tinny but distinctive sounds were to become classic. A few days before the group were due in, I just walked into Manny’s and bought it sound unheard. (I later gave it away to Holly Beth Vincent and eventually regretted doing so, but the sounds themselves are quite easy to synthesize and in any case I sampled them all before parting.)
One of the strengths of Soft Cell’s music at that time was its unadorned simplicity. This was no accident. With Dave’s bass lines played with something resembling one-finger typewriter technique and Marc’s wordy vocal lines and passionately idiosyncratic delivery, the musical space was filled without fluff or unnecessary fat: the opposite of Baroque. Flash was at a minimum, the message maximum. The stiff, unvarying patterns of the early drum machines served the same minimalist function and kept us fully grounded. You’re forced to get it right with the minimum of resources, and if you can transcend the ever-lurking banality you can achieve direct and effective music.
I’m not a particularly competent keyboard player, but often found myself technically more capable than the musician whose recording I was producing. Very early, I made the rule for myself that I would never sit down at someone else’s keys and usurp their position. Most producers might not exercise such reserve, but I had recognized that the simple musical results would work only when a player of limited capabilities evolved them to the best of their abilities. That way, you don’t get dazzled and diverted by pure technique, as has happened often in too many pop music phases. Prog rock is a term that rightly sends shivers down any minimalist’s spine, and much of that genre seems to me to be a result of fingers moving faster than the heart.
We delivered the follow-up single and it duly made the top five in the UK charts. This was the confidence boost essential for the group. A poor showing with their own song following a gigantic cover version could have been devastating. But their existence was fully vindicated with this unique-sounding track.
While not sacrificing its ingenuousness, most of the enclosing album, Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret, has an assurance unusual for a first album. Not least of such tracks is Sleazy Films, a track clearly inspired by the old Times Square of peep shows and exotic dancers. The bedroom synthesizer sound came of age when we co-opted several top New York session musicians whose technical class and quality in the middle of the simplest electronic texture might have sounded pretentious but somehow fitted immediately. Dave Tofani’s lubriciously extended clarinet solo takes the whole track away from anything previously heard. We didn’t miss noticing, and it would be a staple for the next two albums.
The balancing of Soft Cell’s quirky and whimsical observations of the soft personal underbelly is songs like Youth and, most prominently, Say Hello And Wave Goodbye. Youth is written about people who suffer just that. The other is a perceptive insight into an older trapped individual retreating bitterly from a hurtful experience. We didn’t see it coming that this track would become a signature classic and the third single which would confirm the group’s position in the top handful. But we did put some work into it. It deserved to be their third top-five single.
Standing at the door of the Pink Flamingo