Forty years ago, U.K. synthpop duo Soft Cell released 1981’s song of the summer and the song that, along with the Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me,” has been long been credited with kickstarting pop music’s Second British Invasion. “Tainted Love” — a cover of an obscure 1965 B-side by Northern Soul diva Gloria Jones that Soft Cell’s Marc Almond and David Ball completely de- and re-constructed as their own — spent a then-record breaking 43 weeks on America’s Billboard Hot 100, and it became an even bigger hit in Britain, where it was the No. 1 single of the year. Soft Cell became an overnight sensation in the U.K. after they performed “Tainted Love” on the BBC’s massive music program Top of the Pops — and while that TV footage seems tame now, in 1981, lead torch singer Marc Almond’s gender-bending appearance caused quite a scandal across the pond.
“Yeah, people wanted to either kill me, marry me, or f*** me — of either gender, you know?” the openly gay post-punk provocateur laughingly tells Yahoo Entertainment. “It was very shocking the first time I did that Top of the Pops appearance. I was very, very naïve about it all. I didn't even know which camera to look in. I remember I had all these bracelets, spiky studded wristbands, black eye makeup, and I wanted to have my hair like some ‘60s look. I remember somebody saying, ‘Don't go on dressed like that, you mustn't go on dressed like that, because people will think you're gay. All the public will be alienated from you. You mustn't do that!’ I said, ‘I'm just going to go on how I want to be.’ I fought against that, and it had this torrent [of backlash] the next day. But then I went on again wearing false eyelashes one time. I just loved to create that mischief with it.”
Despite their huge early success and all the ensuing commotion, it took years for Soft Cell to get their critical due. Now Almond and Ball can release a nine-disc, career-spanning anthology like Keychains & Snowstorms and sell out London’s O2 Arena (and their upcoming new album, their first since 2002’s Cruelty Without Beauty, is eagerly anticipated). But in the early ‘80s, the press treated them dismissively or downright disdainfully, especially in Britain. “I think it was a lot of homophobia, to be honest. I do,” says Almond. “It's easy to cry ‘homophobia’ all the time — which it's not always. But I think at that time, the music industry and the music papers were very lad-orientated. They were run by lads. Very guy-orientated, straight guys — you hardly met anybody gay in the music industry at all, or if they were, they weren't talking about it. In 1981 and '82 in Britain, you just couldn't talk about it. One of my press people even said to me, ‘We've got to get you [beard] girlfriends. You have to have girlfriends, because you can't let your career run about!’ It was terrifying. You want a career, so you can't say you're gay. A few years later people started to be a bit more open, but in 1981 it was very hard to do. You couldn't do that at all.”
But many fans — queer and straight, on both sides of the Atlantic — picked up on Soft Cell’s not-so-subtle subtext, and Soft Cell’s flamboyant Top of the Pops appearances and edgy music videos did for Gen X what androgynes like David Bowie and T. Rex’s Marc Bolan had done for Almond’s generation: introduced a different archetype of how a man could look or behave.
“Yeah, you didn't have to fit in. You could celebrate being different. You didn't have to hide away, embarrassed about being different,” Almond muses. “It had nothing to do with the sexuality, necessarily; it's not always to do with sexuality. Like, growing up, I liked it when glam rock came along — it gave us a public disguise, in a way. You could go out and you could curl your hair, you could wear makeup, you could wear clothes that were slightly feminine, and it gave you this permission to do that on the street. It was amazing how glam rock gave permission to a lot of heterosexual men to wear makeup and glitter, expressing that side of themselves. Sometimes I’d go to glam rock shows, like T. Rex or David Bowie, and you'd get these big blokes that'd be there with the eye makeup on and dyed hair; they'd be there with their girlfriends, but they would be kind of dressed up more than their girlfriends were! And I thought that was fantastic. I feel lucky to have grown up through that time.
“I grew up watching pop music in the ‘60s, fascinated by performers like Mick Jagger, but I didn't recognize what it was then — this idea of playing with sexuality. It wasn't until someone like Marc Bolan came along on Top of the Pops, who was so pretty, wearing glitter… that coincided with my teenage years, and suddenly I recognized what it was,” Almond, now age 63, continues. “I recognized through him and people like David Bowie, Bryan Ferry, that there was another world out there from my place in the north of England. That was calling out to me. And when I became a musician, a singer, I guess other people must have felt like that when I went on Top of the Pops and wore black eye makeup and a cap from a leather store. I look back at it now, how people have told me: ‘You did the same for me that Marc Bolan and Bowie must've done for you.’”
Below, Yahoo Entertainment celebrates Pride Month and the 40th anniversary of “Tainted Love” with this delightfully candid chat with Almond about his unpreparedness for sudden fame; that notorious, banned “Sex Dwarf” music video; Soft Cell’s influence on everyone from Paul McCartney to Britney Spears to even their hero Bowie; Almond’s hard-fought recovery after a near-fatal motorcycle accident; and his mixed feelings about being an LBGTQ+ icon, a late-in-life member of the “establishment,” and a supposed “one-hit wonder.”
Yahoo Entertainment: Soft Cell’s lyrics always painted a picture of sleazy glamour. A song like “Seedy Films” was such a vivid depiction of London’s red-light district at that time. Where did your fascination with that sort of imagery come from?
Marc Almond: I was in Leeds before, when I went to art college. I was actually born in Southport, which is an old seaside town near Liverpool. I think even growing up in Southport, I was introduced to a subculture there because seaside towns have a slight seediness to them — cabaret shows, people hanging around amusement arcades, old guest houses and things like that. I worked at the Southport Theatre as an afterschool job to see me through art college, and you would get all the pantomime characters, drag queens, cabaret people, kind of transient people from these variety shows in the north of England. They'd be very, very seedy, inviting you into their caravan and things like that. Or you'd get pressed up against the wall by some seaside theater promoter who would stick their hands down your trousers and their tongue in your mouth, and then you'd run out and tell everybody about this thing that happened to you. My God, if you did that now? Obviously now it’s good that people can talk about these things and can confront those things; some people have had bad experiences, and that's undeniable. But that's just what happened then, you know? Me and the stagehands working at the theater, we were just assaulted all the time by different people, but we kind of thought it was hilarious. It was just part of our experience. I didn't feel it kind of lingered with me over the years or anything like that.
But then you ended up in seedy London, when Soho’s New Romantic/new wave scene was blowing up. That must have been a thrilling time.
Well, Britain at that time was very conservative. We had a very conservative government. I think Soft Cell were trying to be very transgressive against that, very against that climate. Even the popular ‘80s artists were a very kind of pristine pop — it was a different kind of glamorous, a very high-production and high-end sort of pop, which really reflected the puritanism that Britain was going through at that time. Dave and I were really two art college students coming from a very post-punk ethic. We both went to an art college in Leeds — Northern England, Leeds Polytechnic — which allowed you to be very free and expressive, very confrontational. I did at that time experimental theater, performance art, experimental theater pieces, that were quite confrontational involving great industrial music. That's kind of how I met Dave, doing soundchecks for that. We came from that background, so we never wanted to be part of that corporate pop thing.
But then you had the biggest U.K. single of 1981…
Yes, that was surprising to us! We always thought we would be an underground band, and suddenly we were catapulted into the pop arena, at first by the club success of “Memorabilia” and then by “Tainted Love” of course, which was gigantic. Then that was followed by a string of hit records [in Britain], so we were put in that pop arena. We were very confrontational with all that, because we were just these two art students who weren't playing the game the way people wanted us to play. … But sometimes, it did actually become quite frightening. I got quite frightened by my success in those early days. It really scared me a lot. I was quite reclusive and found it very, very hard to cope.
Then things got really scary when you released the X-rated “Sex Dwarf” music video, which was banned everywhere. That was an even bigger scandal than Top of the Pops.
Oh yeah, we got into a lot of trouble for that video at the time. It caused a lot of problems at the time. A lot of trouble, because the people that were involved in the video… we used real people. It was kind of ahead of its time in the way we were [casting] transgender people. We would use people who were prostitutes, basically, that we found around Soho — people that were working in clubs. Then there was the dwarf himself, and in Britain, it's just very, very against what you do. We worked with the director Tim Pope, who we'd done a number of videos with, and we always used to see how far we could push it, how far we could push the boundary in a commercial pop world — see what we can get away with and be subversive. I think pushed the boundaries a long way with that one, and it caused a lot of grief at the time, actually, because it was really scary in conservative Britain at that time. We got raided by the police. I got door-stopped by the press. The dwarf – yes, I know it sounds awful! — tried to sell stories to the papers saying he had been tied up and drugged and forced to do the video. It just went completely out of control, the whole thing.
I didn’t even see the “Sex Dwarf” video until relatively recently. I thought it was an urban legend and didn’t actually exist.
It became legendary at the time, but it was a very, very scary thing for us because we didn't expect to get that. We were just doing an extension of what did in art college, but you put that in a mainstream pop arena and it becomes something else. It was: “Pop stars drugged dwarf and make him perform sex acts!” In a way, we took the song title from a newspaper headline called, “Sex dwarf luring disco-dollies to a life of vice.” We were making a comment on the bizarreness of tabloid exploitation — and then we became sort of part of that. It imitated art, imitated everything. That became our own headline. So, I've never wanted to release [the “Sex Dwarf” video] publicly, officially, because it became such legendary thing. We like the fact that some people [who haven’t seen it] create this urban myth and urban legend about it.
Do you consider yourself a gay icon?
I don't like to be categorized. I like to appeal to different people, not preach to the converted. I like the fact that I have a very mixed lot of fans — gay fans, young, old, straight, female, male, all kinds of nationalities. I love the fact that I can look out in the audience and see all different kinds of people. They have this thing in Britain where they want to call you a “gay artist” so you'll only appeal [to LGBTQ+ audiences]. That's their way of saying, “We'll put you in a box, and you're only going to be of relevance to gay people. So then we're never going to write about you or say anything about you, because most people are just not interested. Only the gay magazines can write about you, because that's all that's interested in you.” So, I've always tried to sit out of that box whenever I can. I try to blur things. … I’ve always liked to play around with gender-blurring. Sometimes I’d put on lots of eye makeup and wear false eyelashes, playing with that, seeing how I could tease people with that. Then another time, I’d be really kind of masculine, with tattoos, really rock ‘n’ roll. I still like to blur those sometimes, even now, just to see the effect it has.
Do you think Soft Cell got proper credit at that time? Or get proper credit now?
There were a couple of people that really supported us, but generally we were always, always criticized. During that time in Britain [in the ‘80s], we didn't have a lot of press support. We didn't get any bad reviews, but the media kind of dismissed or generally pushed us aside. Now a lot of the press look back and go, “Soft Cell were wonderful! They were brilliant, fantastic, innovative!” I think they came to appreciate us over years. Looking back on it, they realize where our place was in music, that we were something a bit different to what was going on. So, those critics from the early days now are saying, “Hey, maybe they were good after all!” It's all hindsight, isn't it?
In the liner notes for the final album Soft Cell released before breaking up for 18 years, 1984’s This Last Night in Sodom, it said, “To s***s everywhere, f*** off and die.” Was that a message to the press?
It was very much Soft Cell getting back to our post-punk roots. I think we knew that it was going to be the last album we were going to do, for a while anyway. I think it was just a general big sort of f***-off to all our critics and people who were doubters. … Last Night is actually my favorite Soft Cell album. The Art of Falling Apart is the classic album for most people, I think, and Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret is the kind of great electropop album, but I just love This Last Night in Sodom.
Now Soft Cell’s influence is everywhere. I mean, Rihanna sampled you. David Gray covered you. Are you aware that Britney Spears was inspired by your vocals on “Tainted Love” when she recorded her debut single “Baby One More Time”?
Was she? I've never, ever heard that, no!
She said in a Rolling Stone interview that she listened to “Tainted Love” over and over again the night before she went into the studio. She wanted to channel that sort of lazy, sleepy, “rusty” feel to the vocals.
Wow! That's amazing. That is so cool. I love that. That's fantastic, that's incredible. That's a wonderful thing. I've never, never realized that. Even now, I'm still finding out things.
What else have you found out about Soft Cell’s influence?
I'm working with Dave again, and it’s been a great experience because he reminded me lots of things about Soft Cell that I forgot, talking about things that I didn't know — much like that Britney Spears thing. He's been really an architect for Soft Cell. He put the whole boxed set together. He's kept all the archives and stuff, whereas I haven't. I never save stuff. He was telling me things like how we turned down a tour with David Bowie, when David Bowie came and asked us to do a tour with him — we just didn't think we were good enough to do a tour with him! And how Paul McCartney sent us notes and said how much he liked us. I had no idea.
I understand it was another famous fan who helped you get your mojo back after you were injured in a motorcycle crash in 2004.
It was a really serious accident. That hasn't come up in a while. But when I came back, it took a long time to get myself back; it took me quite a few years that I could say, “Now I've reached a place where I feel I've recovered.” I have problems now, because of head injuries. I sometimes have memory problems from that, because of the impact. I have to kind of use word prompters onstage a lot more than I used to. … I lost my confidence a lot. I had to go back to singing lessons as well, to try and get my confidence and my breathing back, because one of my lungs was collapsed, one of my ears was punctured. So, I really had to do a lot of therapy work to get back onstage. Thankfully, two people who brought me back onstage were Jools Holland, who brought me back onstage for a tour, just to do a couple of songs in his show, and also Antony and the Johnsons, who is now [trans artist] Anohni. I knew Anohni for quite a while and she brought me back onstage to sing at one of her concerts. That was one of the first things I did, and that really got rid of a lot of the fright and brought my self-confidence back. I insisted on singing one of her songs as well. She said, “We can do one of your songs that you know really well,” and I said, “No, I'd rather sing one of your songs, actually.” It was those little challenges that I took on, confronting things, that got me back onstage and got me performing. I feel like I've reached a place now where I'm better than I thought I was before. … And I feel like I've reached a place in my life now where I feel more creative than I've ever been. I've gathered more knowledge from different places. I know what I'm good at. I know what I'm not good at. And when I'm not good at it, I still like to try to do it anyway!
As you mentioned, you had multiple hits in Britain. But in America, Soft Cell still is mainly known for “Tainted Love,” which wasn’t one of your originals. Does that ever bother you?
No, you’ve just got to embrace it. I understand that that it bothers the hell out of lots of fans. They get so angry about it! I suppose I could be very snobbish and say, “I'm sorry, I'm not doing your One-Hit Wonders of the ‘80s show, because I'm above that!” But I'm too far along in my life. It's too much anxiety to fight against things like that. I can't let that bother me anymore. … Years go on, and I've been making music for 40 years now. Forty years! It scares me to even say that!
So, how do feel about now being considered a pop music “elder statesman” of sorts?
You know, you become part of the establishment whether you like it or not. Everybody knows your face, they know who you are, and they like you for your transgressions, as well as everything else. They like you because of who you are.
Yes, you are an OBE [Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire] now! You’re practically a knight, like a “Sir Marc Almond.” Did you ever imagine that would happen to the art college rebel from Top of the Pops and “Sex Dwarf”?
No, never! [laughs] It was a huge shock to me, actually, but it was really just an interesting experience to have that. And I mean, really, it makes my mum really happy. She can put on a nice dress and go to the parties — they're so glamorous! I just find the whole thing very surreal and very strange, but I'm not one of those people who say, “I'm going turn that down.” I'm quite grateful for any award that anybody will give me. I'll accept it gratefully.
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