Tainted pop

Ever since ‘Tainted Love’ became a worldwide smash hit for his new wave duo Soft Cell, Marc Almond has forged a remarkably diverse career spanning 25 years.

Soft Cell 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Soft Cell 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
It was a combination of whimsy and vision that prompted Marc Almond and his partner in the seminal synth band Soft Cell, David Ball, to record a stylish new wave version of Gloria Jones’s 1960s British soul hit “Tainted Love.”
A whimsical decision that ended up a huge monster No. 1 hit in 17 countries, and establishing Soft Cell as the main purveyors of synthesizer-driven pop in the early 1980s.
“Electronic bands at the time were so cold and pretentious, all about being bleak and gray,” Almond said recently during a phone conversation from his London office, describing the modus operandi of the duo.
“We wanted to be electronic but still have some of that warm soulfulness as well, displaying a slightly shambolic, slightly human aspect. I knew that like myself, David was a big fan of ‘Northern soul,’ since we both grew up there. And one day we sat down and listened to a lot of old soul records, and one of us said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great for an encore at our shows to do an electronic version of a ’60s or ’70s soul song,” Almond added in a breathless, excited tone that belied any tediousness he may have felt about talking about the past for the umpteenth time.
“We loved ‘Tainted Love’ – the words, the sound, and Gloria’s vocals, and we knew that she had then gone on to be a back up singer in T Rex, who we also loved, so there were all these connections.
“In the studio, we kind of developed that sound – the beep beeps, the minimal chords and that cold synthesized background, and then I did my slight attempt at an impassioned soulful vocal over it. And it kind of worked.”
That’s an understatement – as the odd, but endearing tune entering the Guinness Book of Records for a period of time as the longest stay on the Billboard Hot 100 chart – at 43 weeks, and along with Flock of Seagulls’ bad haircuts, the song remains one of the era-defining pop culture moments of the 1980s.
Despite, or maybe because of “Tainted Love’s” massive success, Soft Cell only lasted a couple more years before dissolving.
Since then, Almond has attempted to dig out from under the shadow of his mega hit by forging a remarkably diverse solo career spanning 25 years and an array of styles. They’ll all be on display when the 53-year-old Almond and his five-piece band arrive for a show at the Barby Club in Tel Aviv on Sunday, his first time back in Israel since performing here in 2004.
“Back then, I was backed by Israeli musicians the promoter found for me, but this time, I’ll have my own band, and we’ll be carrying on from my 30th anniversary tour I started last year,” said Almond.
“It’s basically all the A-sides from different parts of my career, including Soft Cell of course. I might do a couple songs from my last album Verite, but it’s mainly going to be songs that have over the last 30 years been released as singles.”
That repertoire includes a range of material – from the cabaret-inflected electronic dance-pop that he’s mostly associated with, to renditions of Jacques Brel classics, torch songs, obscure songs by Vadim Kozin, a Russian songwriter and performer active in the 1930s and ’40s, and reworkings of song by another hero, David Bowie.
“I always look at life and music as an adventure, taking it to a different place that you never expected to go,” said Almond.
“For an artist to last in and kind of way – not even commercially – but to be some place on the musical map, then you have to be willing to diversity, and take some risks. There are things that will sometimes fail spectacularly, but it’s worth a try.
“I’ve done some things I thought were great until I actually did it, and they didn’t work out so well. You can reevaluate your decisions a few years later, but it’s all about creating a body of work that people can look back on many years later and be surprised and entertained by.”
That’s certainly happened with Soft Cell’s and Almond’s music being cited as influences on many current artists including Antony and the Johnsons, and Almond’s openly gay lifestyle laying the groundwork for multitudes of gender-blind artists to crash the mainstream.
“I’m absolutely thrilled when I hear that someone like Antony [Hegarty] says they were influenced by me,” said Almond who has collaborated with the singer on occasion.
“It’s always great as an artist to hear that you’ve inspired people, especially other musicians. That’s what music is all about, a continuing story of artists inspiring other artists. That’s one of the greatest accolades someone could give me,” said Almond.
FOR THE native of Southport, England, the 1970s were the inspiration – from the heavy blues rock early in the decade to the glam rock of the mid 1970s to the punk rock explosion of the latter part of the decade.
“The ’70s were really an amazing musical time,” said Almond.
“A lot of young people making music today were influenced by other music and there’s very little that’s new anymore, maybe a new attitude or viewpoint. But the ’70s had everything.
I really got into the glam rock of Bowie, Roxy Music and T Rex, and then Lou Reed.
“Then the whole punk rock thing happened just as I was attending art school. It really influenced me and taught me that I didn’t have to be a trained musician to make music, I could combine music and art and performance art.
“Then came the whole electronic new wave movement which Soft Cell was part of, and the whole disco era. It was a great musical journey and incredibly innovative. I remember hearing “I Feel Love” by Donna Summer and [producer] Giorgio Moroder on the dance floor at Studio 54 in New York and it was just incredible. The first time you hear a record like that, you go, ‘Wow, I’m hearing something that’s going to change my life.’ So I don’t know if people can appreciate now what it was like to hear that, or to hear someone like Bowie or the Sex Pistols for the first time.”
What Almond has also learned is that it’s not always wise to revisit the past, as he did when he reunited with former partner Ball for a Soft Cell album and tour in 2001 and 2002. While the project was well-received, Almond said he was glad to see it end.
“It was nice working with David again, but for me, it went on a little too long. I began to feel that I was acting the part of the singer in Soft Cell. I like the diversity of being a solo artist, and felt that I wasn’t being entirely true to myself. It reminded me why I didn’t want to be in Soft Cell in the first place,” he laughed.
Still, Almond expressed pride in the group’s indelible legacy, with “Tainted Love” standing as its pinnacle.
“I don’t think anyone who’s covered the song since has looked at the original as the blueprint, they look at Soft Cell’s version,” he said, adding that the new wave dance sounds of the 1980s are back in style as if they never left.
“People are rediscovering that music now. A lot of those ’80s groups like Human League are sounding kind of fresh now, and musicians and producers are searching for those same synthesizer sounds we used to use.”
Embracing the synthesized past but looking to the future, Marc Almond’s musical adventure is headed exactly where he wants it – unknown territory.