Seedy CD*: A psychologist’s look at the music of Soft Cell
In a previous blog on examining all Adam Ant’s songs about sexual paraphilias, I noted that Soft Cell are probably the only other recording artists who come close to talking about the seedier side of sex. They are also artists that (like one of my other favourite bands, Throbbing Gristle) have never been afraid to sing about taboo topics including prostitution (‘Secret Life’, A Divided Soul’), a housewife’s sexual fantasy about the paper boy (‘Kitchen Sink Drama’), pure hedonism (‘Sensation Nation’), alternative therapies such as colonic irrigation, meditation, and crystal therapy (‘Whatever It Takes’), murder (‘The Best Way To Kill’, ‘Meet Murder My Angel’), suicide (‘Darker Times’, ‘Frustration’ and ‘Down In The Subway’ – “Jump on that train track and die”), incest (‘I Am 16’), psychopathic killers (‘Martin’ based on the story of a serial killer in a film of the same name), shopaholism (‘Whatever It Takes’), anorexia nervosa (‘Excretory Eat Anorexia’), and obsessional cleansing (‘Cleansing Fanatic’), to name but a few.
Soft Cell arguably saw themselves as outside of the norm. Their first official release, an EP entitled ‘Mutant Moments’ EP set out their psychological store (and where ‘Metro Mr. X’ was their “favourite mutant”). They also had a track on the seminal 1980 (various artists) Some Bizarre Album about a disfigured woman (‘The Girl With The Patent Leather Face’). Very few artists would ever sing about such topics (although there are a few exceptions such as Throbbing Gristle’s ‘Hamburger Lady’ based on the medical case notes of a badly burned woman).
Soft Cell’s reputation as a band that focused on the sleazy side of everyday life was cemented after the release of their 1981 debut album Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret (NSEC). The cover featured a photo of the band’s two members (Marc Almond and Dave Ball) taken outside the Raymond Revue Bar, a notorious strip joint in the heart of London’s Soho district.
Just as the Velvet Underground’s debut album was viewed as a ‘sex and drugs’ LP because of a couple of songs about sadomasochistic sex (‘Venus In Furs’) and drug-taking (‘Heroin’), NSEC’s reputation as a ‘sleazy sex’ album also rested on just a few songs – most notably ‘Seedy Films’ (about telephone sex as well as pornographic films), ‘Secret Life’ (about using prostitutes behind a wife’s back), and the (now infamous) ‘Sex Dwarf’ (a song glorifying sadomasochistic sex). Later songs and albums also touched on various aspects of sexuality (their third album This Last Night In Sodom raising a few eyebrows on its’ release in 1984). They wanted to “try all of the vices” (in ‘The Art Of Falling Apart’) and also sang about having sex in cars (‘It’s A Mug’s Game’ and ‘Where Was Your Heart [When You Needed It Most’).
One of my personal favourite in the Soft Cell canon is the 2002 song ‘Perversity’ which was a bonus track on their comeback single ‘Monoculture’ after reforming in 2001. It talked about studying at the “university of perversity” and provided me with the title to my series of blogs on the A-Z of little known paraphilias and fetishes. As Marc Almond and Friends, there was also a great cover version of Throbbing Gristle’s ‘Discipline’ (a song about sadomasochism) and ‘Sleaze It, Take It, Shake It’ (by Almond’s side-project, Marc and the Mambas)
Soft cell’s second hit single ‘Bedsitter’ summed up my formative years as a teenage clubber and shares some of the same lyrical DNA as The Smiths classic ‘How Soon Is Now?’ (going to nightclubs in search of love and/or sex but going home alone). I’d also argue that Soft Cell sometimes give The Smiths a run for their money when it comes to songs about misery (e.g., ‘Chips On My Shoulder’, ‘Mr. Self-Destruct’, ‘Bleak Is My Favourite Cliché’, ‘Forever The Same’, ‘Down In The Subway’ and ‘Born To Lose’).
But Soft Cell aren’t just about sex, they also like songs about love more generally although their take on love is more about the unrequited love, the disintegration of love (‘Tainted Love’, ‘Say Hello, Wave Goodbye’, ‘Where Did Our Love Go?’, ‘All Out Of Love’, ‘Together Alone’, ‘Desperate [For Love]’, ‘L.O.V.E. Feelings’, ‘Whatever It Takes’, ‘Last Chance’, ‘What’, ‘Barriers’, ‘Disease And Desire’, ‘Her Imagination’, ‘Desperate’, and ‘Torch’). In short they focus on (as they describe in their song ‘Loving You, Hating Me’) “the other side of love” and the “devil in my bed” (‘from ‘God-Shaped Hole’). The only other band that have explored the ‘darker’ side of love lyrically in so many different songs are Depeche Mode (which I discussed in a previous blog on obsessional lyrics in pop music). Their songs aren’t afraid to feature one-night stands and casual sex (‘Numbers’, ‘Surrender To A Stranger’, ‘Heat’, ‘Where Was Your Heart [When You Needed It Most’ and ‘Fun City’). It’s also worth noting that Soft Cell were never afraid to talk about drug use in their songs including cocaine (‘Frustration’), LSD (‘Frustration’), alcohol (‘It’s A Mug’s Game’), valium (‘Tupperware Party’, ‘My Secret Life’), heroin (‘L’Esqualita’) and their “dealer in the hall” (‘Divided Soul’).
They also made cover versions that were often better than the originals. They sexed the songs up or made them mean, moody and menacing. Soft Cell were huge fans of Northern soul and is evident in their covers of songs like ‘Tainted Love’, ‘The Night’ and ‘Where Did Our Love Go?’ but their other cover versions came from a wide variety of artists including Jimi Hendrix (their 11-minute ‘Hendrix Medley’ comprising ‘Hey Joe’, ‘Purple Haze’ and ‘Voodoo Chile’), Johnny Thunders (‘Born To Lose’), Suicide (‘Ghostrider’), Lou Reed (‘Caroline Says’ as Marc and the Mambas), and John Barry (‘007 Theme’ and ‘You Only Live Twice’). From the very first note, this were instantly Soft Cell even though they didn’t write the songs.
Lyrically (and musically), some of their best songs were on their final 2000 studio album Cruelty Without Beauty. For instance, ‘Caligula Syndrome’ depicts sadomasochism (“crawling down on your hands and knees like slaves”), orgies, and “every kind of deviation on demand”. The song ‘Grand Guignol’ is about the Parisian theatre that operated from 1897 until it closed in 1962. The theatre specialised in naturalistic amoral horror entertainment shows horror shows or as Soft Cell put it: “It’s Grand Guignol/It’s rock ‘n’ roll/It’s vaudeville and burlesque/All of human life is here/In the theatre of the grotesque”. A sentiment that (I would argue) also sums up the many of the blogs I have published on this website.
*With thanks to The Passage (one of my favourite bands) who used the homonym ‘Seedy’ when naming their first CD [C-D, geddit?] compilation.
Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addictions, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Almond, M. (1999). Tainted Life. London: Sidgwick and Jackson.
Almond, M. (2004). In Search Of The Pleasure Palace. London: Sidgwick and Jackson.
Fanni Tutti, C. (2017). Art Sex Music. Faber & Faber: London.
Lindsay, M. (2013). Sex music for gargoyles: Soft Cell’s The Art Of Falling Apart. The Quietus, December 12. Located at: http://thequietus.com/articles/14100-soft-cell-interview-marc-almond
Reed, J. (1999). Marc Almond: The Last Star. London: Creation Books.
Reynolds, S. (2006). Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk, 1978–1984. New York: Penguin.
Tebbutt, S. (1984). Soft Cell. London: Sidgwick and Jackson.
Wikipedia (2017). Marc Almond. Located at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marc_Almond
Wikipedia (2017). Soft Cell. Located at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soft_Cell