I can look deep inside your light
In a pleasantly unguarded moment many years later, while working on Fantastic Star, Marc Almond and I would agree that Torch was the best single of the many tracks we made together in the intense and creatively productive period that included their first two albums. The dominant A side of what was intended to be a double-A side, brings together all the classic Soft Cell elements: the world-weariness, the tender bitterness, the vulnerable regret of making avoidable mistakes. It was to be a real pinnacle of achievement, and would rise to #2 in the UK charts. Soft Cell singles after that classic would start a slow decline in quality and chart success. Sometimes those two things do go together. Those days were more halcyon than we realized at the time.
It didn’t help that the group had just flown into New York the previous day, from Ankara, Turkey. (‘Please, Mike, just one more promo spot before they come to record?’) They were exhausted. I was seriously irritated, although certainly not with them. Throwing a tantrum would have been pointless and would have limited the music-making energy even more, so I just thought about doing the best job in the more-than-usually adverse circumstances. It’s a struggle to get a record made when you’re not successful, but sometimes it’s even harder in those sweet times when you’re actually winning. Two days after arrival, Marc and Dave were literally not speaking to each other, and would not relax back together until the record was pretty much complete. If ever there was a time when the producer was the glue that held a project together, this was it.
Torch had already been recorded in demo form, with a synthesizer occupying the prime musical real estate that was eventually to be appropriated by John Gatchell’s flugelhorn. The song, as usual, had to be extended to provide the club version, which turned out more than eight minutes long. Cyndi Ecstasy’s was a welcome return, signed up for a couple of typically aching/whimsical Marc Almond rap/commentaries on each side.
In 1982, John Gatchell was one of the top trumpet players in New York, at a time when the session professional was riding supreme and commanded intimidating fees. I had worked with him on many projects, starting with John Cale’s Honi Soit album, on which he played the piccolo trumpet (which first appeared prominently in the public ear on the Beatles’ Penny Lane). It’s not easy to play this tiny version of the trumpet, let alone deliver a solo (on Dead Or Alive), but after recording the master in just two takes he went on to play it on stage. For these Torch sessions, he left his regular Bb trumpet home again, this time in favor of the flugelhorn, an instrument with a more mellow, slightly hoarse and human sound, but harder to play in tune. By the same token, it’s also easier to bend a note, which he did to great effect.
It’s not often that a solo instrument lifts a track as much as his did. Not only did he define the instrumental hook (which became the opening phrase of the 7” single, edited from the body of the 12” version which doesn’t start with it) and displaced the synthesizer lick from Dave (which had prefigured it). On the 12”, his solo wound up as 36 bars. (The plan was a four-bar pause, followed by 32 for his solo, but he jumped straight in on top of the preceding chorus and we didn’t think it necessary to grumble.) Before he watered them, those 32 bars started out as an awfully arid desert, which concerned us greatly before he delivered his notes. It’s one thing to say, ‘let’s have a really long, cool solo here,’ quite something else for it to be executed so elegantly. We knew we could have cut out redundant bars if we were stuck will a dull passage, but it wasn’t necessary.
Cyndi Ecstasy is credited with the group’s discovery of the drug around this time. Now, it's enormously popular, mainstream and undergoing the same hysterical vilification as marijuana and hashish had in the sixties, but it would be some years before use of the love drug would spread. Marc and Dave had jumped into New York club life with unhesitating enthusiasm. Although Marc writes in his book Tainted Life that the two of them high as kites on sessions, the truth was more mundane and workmanlike. I never bothered what anyone was on, as always preferring just to deal with the personality I found in front of me. Sometimes their eyes shone unusually brightly, but when you’re making a record you just get on with the job and anyone's altered state just becomes part of the equation. The only person who couldn’t indulge was the producer, if he was to serve as a constant musical and emotional reference point. Somebody has to play the straight man. I could enjoy myself socially and thoroughly at leisure, but in the studio I find that even a half pint of light ale throws me off balance. Such is the intensity of that situation and the constant demand for a quick, perceptually reliable response.
In one book about the group, Cyndi is obnoxiously described as ‘a drug dealer’, which is glib and convenient journalistic nonsense. She was a camp follower who contributed to the general party energy level and had her own distinctive style and rasping Brooklyn sense of humor and delivery. She passed on wonderful substances to Marc and Dave et al, but in a street social way. Ms Big she was not. I wonder where she is now. She was very good at hats. I last bumped into her at a bus stop in London just down the road from my apartment in Notting Hill.
Cyndi’s vocal delivery was very nervous on the record, even more so before the tape rolled for real, but Marc was (as ever) a good support and teacher of session ingénues, (as we’ll also see in 1994 on the doomed Fantastic Star). On this record, she was asked to take a far more prominent role than on Non-Stop Ecstatic Dancing’s Memorabilia. As was becoming a standard achievement for Marc, his lyrics delicately and effectively walked the fine line between pure camp and simple, basic emotion. As often, his characters care deeply but haven’t got their grip on the world quite right. Just like most of us.
When I first met
you, you looked a lot like Billie Holiday
I was probably drunk and had no makeup on
And those words you sang, you know it was my life story
It was mine too
I remember I drank too much and made a fool of myself
You looked OK to me, but when you get to like me you know you’re in trouble
Such a torch song proved irresistible, and musically it moved far ahead of Insecure, Me, barely missing reaching #1 in the UK charts as it became the Soft Cell’s fifth consecutive top five single. Not bad for coming from apparently nowhere. It remains the highest charting self-written Soft Cell single ever and is, for me, the apex of their creative success during their first period.
Torch was a song pulled out through sheer deadline necessity, but it was only as mixing drew closer that Marc and Dave realized the novel pressures they were enduring and became a team once more. If I don’t remember incorrectly, Marc was half-way writing the lyrics as he was singing them on session and, while still exceptional, they aren’t among his most considered. The sentiment is there, but the wordplay isn’t as refined and economical, the words tending to more literal description of the minds and concerns of the struggling protagonists. Insecure, Me? must have gestated for some time, the quick, clever word turns amusing us on another level.
The alto sax which had contributed to Non-Stop Ecstatic Dancing returns with Dave Tofani, whose outstanding clarinet on Seedy Films had been one of the highlights of Soft Cell’s first album. Insecure isn’t a classic track, but it’s so genial and ironic, with a wide assortment of fresh synthesizer sounds courtesy of the Synclavier and (especially in the percussion department) the Serge Modular quasi-museum piece (aka ‘classic synthesizer’).
Dave’s enormous but mellow saxophone contribution would emerge later as a further point of contention between the group and me. All was fine at the time, but later the assertion was that they wanted something more aggressive and harsh. In retrospect, anything might have worked as a flashpoint as they increasingly as the artists/teenagers felt the urge to assert themselves over this producer-interloper/parent. It was a familiar situation for me. They, and I, were all younger and less able than later to rise above our respective mind-warping situations, all of which was complicated by what I read as the destructive personal political plays of manager Steve O/Stevo.
Divide and rule is a good tactic of any politician, and on mature reflection it looks very much as if Stevo was playing Marc and Dave like a classic synthesizer. I also felt he might be jealous of the close creative working relationship the three of us had developed very quickly and under extreme pressure, provoking a purely self-perceived threat to his hegemony. He didn’t realize how much room there is when a team is winning and all are contributing. Such misguided defense of turf might have contributed, I think, to the destruction of an extraordinary winning creative combination, one of the most productive I have known.
Stevo had, in fact, been banned early on from the control room by Marc and Dave, without any prodding from me, because of his inevitably disruptive presence. He always wanted to be the center of attention, so was usually only allowed to join the working crew for playbacks or at the end of the day. He would inevitably sit on my equipment rack, which echoes the curve of his bottom 23 years later.
Just as the title of the second album, The Art Of Falling Apart, would reflect the state of the group at the time, singly and collectively, the lyrics of Insecure wryly echo the high level they had maintained since Tainted Love had hit. The strain was really beginning to tell, even though the party went on regardless.
It was the
morning after the month before
don’t have time to worry
about the future
The whole track has a most cheerful musical messiness, in sharp contrast with the chiseled pop jewel on the other side of the vinyl. Marc’s extra vocals, plastered through the whole extended track, show his considerable talent for thinking on his feet, constructing a creative bedlam that doesn’t lose charm or energy at this distance. We threw another huge solo at Dave Tofani. In the event, he didn’t throw back 36 bars of solo build back at us, and we had to augment the arrangement toward the end of his mission impossible, but his integrated sound sits solidly in the track as a constant, defining presence.
Both Dave Tofani and John Gatchell really contributed more than just the noises they made. When tensions run high on a recording session, it’s often because the participants have sunk into a hole that is, socially and musically, far removed from the reference world. Marc and Dave had gone there, and we were all suffering a certain alienation. The injection of a solid, practical personality into such an introspective situation can re-focus the whole exercise. And in the music, you can hear clearly Dave’s saxophone gluing the whole instrumental element together.
This will be Cyndi’s last appearance, the last time that the group will embrace the ingenuous. Her rap is already in the coming rhythm vogue, just two years after The Message was on every boom box in New York. Very Brooklyn-Italian.
Forget the lows, just get
The track eventually peters out with big vocal notes and orgasmic groans from Marc.
Something’s over and done with.
- MT May 7 2004
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