A Dance to the Music of Time — “Tainted Love”

A Dance to the Music of Time is my attempt to pinpoint exactly why I like pop music (and also try my hand at music criticism). It’s entirely subjective, but if you’re interested in starting a conversation I’ll be down in the comments. It’s gonna be published whenever I feel like it and I’ve no intention to target specific songs — when a song gives me joy or makes me think hard enough, I’ll do it on the spot.


The Song: “Tainted Love”
from the 1981 album Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret by Soft Cell
reached #1 on the UK Singles Chart

The cover of Soft Cell’s 2002 greatest hits compilation, “The Very Best of Soft Cell”, shows a glimpse from outside of a shop window at night. At least, I think it’s a shop — everything is dark inside the sparsely decorated room, and much of it is obscured by the white gauze curtains hanging sleekly in front of the window. The only clear thing the viewer can see is the band name, glowing in pale pink neon, cursive script surrounded by a circle. Outside, a car just about zooms into view in front of us — but the street is desolate and dark, the surroundings fuzzy and at odds with the shop itself. Everything looks grimy and coarse, reminding the viewer of illicit adventures taking place within seedy bars and underground cabarets. Not even the brash technological glare of the neon can lift this place up — on the contrary, it seems to deliberately suggest decadence and sleaze.


My first experience of “Tainted Love” came from this very collection, and that album cover sums up the entire experience of the whole thing. Formerly a song that sounded clear-cut and triumphant in the hands of Gloria Jones, Soft Cell flips the entire song on its head and turns it into a delectable vehicle for tortured seduction. You feel tainted just by listening to it, reminded of darker forces lurking beneath the surface — your surface. The result of such a flirtation with squalor is that you can never hear this song without thinking that everything else sounds fake — all those pre-Soft Cell versions, stridently proclaiming how they’re just done with that torrid love affair, just sound hollow and unconvincing. Too decisive for it to be tainted love: once you’ve broken the illusion, you can never really put it back together again, not when you’ve seen the vulnerability that’s possible. I’ve talked before about the complex and fascinating relationship between covers and first listens: this one is the ultimate proof of that theory.

But the thing that sets Soft Cell’s version apart is about how it provides the listener with another layer of intrigue, one that makes sure that it haunts your memory even after you’ve finished it. This additional layer isn’t the result of one single factor — it’s down to Marc Almond and David Ball’s skilful juggling of so many things: sound, drama, even the choice of a relatively unpopular song itself. For there was always a kind of latent undergroundness about “Tainted Love”: Jones’ original recording was a B-side, something that was only supposed to make the A-side look pretty and then fade into obscurity; Soft Cell came to this song through their familiarity of the Northern Soul club scene (which we’ve come across before in the “Come On Eileen” piece), one that had always shunned what was popular and championed obscure records. It’s that balance of cultish popularity that made it work — you take something which few people have definitive ideas about, then you reinterpret the hell out of them so that it’s fit for mass-market consumption. That way, you could still claim to be subversive — and seductive too.

But seduction is never carried out in the open — it happens through furtive glances, suggestive looks and actions that titillate, allow us to believe that we’re the intended recipient of these little come-ons. That’s what really turns the heat up in this arrangement, where the act of tainting has become the main attraction. Many have suggested that the original was too fast, too rushed in its assertion of independence, and that the Almond-Ball arrangement gives it room to breathe by slowing down the tempo, making it sound more menacing. But I’d go further: the first few bars of the Soft Cell version strip the song of any kind of instrumentation. It’s just the two beeps of the synth and a steady beat on a drum machine: only those two things, echoing through the vast expanse of your headphones. And now that you’re alone, now that it’s just you and that slowly advancing beat in the background, you have room to think, to imagine: what does that beeping noise mean? Where do I imagine myself to be, who do I think is singing to me? The beats sound wet and slatternly, splattering onto your consciousness like rain on a trash-cluttered pavement. The original is all frantic action, denying us the luxury of thought; here there is just too much blank space for you to fill in that you can’t help wondering, imagine yourself surrounded by a crowd of unknowable sensations in that seedy environment.

Then the two crashes kick in. Ah yes, the two crashes — the single most important addition from Almond and Ball. I’ve heard this song like fifty times now and still I wonder every single time: why ARE there two drumbeats between “I’ve got to” and “run away”? Every time, I come up with a different reason: maybe it’s a knock on the door, maybe it’s a sign of paranoia. Of course, it doesn’t actually mean anything — it’s just two loud crashes on the drum machine. But the fact that they sound foreboding, the fact that I’ve never been able to listen to without flicking my hands or snapping my fingers or just any kind of dramatic hand gesture means something — it’s an immediate draw, a motif running through the entire song that drags you back and opens up the possibilities of hidden depths. This was something that was actually added for Jones’ 1976 revamp of the song, but it was buried within the instrumentation, a couple of punches that simply felt like a way to pass the time after that awkward pause. It was Soft Cell that turned subtext into text, allowed those two beats to take on an ominous significance of its own.


We have now been told that relationship flows in two directions: that behind the text there exists a created subtext, and that subtext can also be brought forward to become text itself. But there’s a third kind of force at work: the turning of text into a completely different kind of text. Because Marc Almond’s performance completely turns the entire song around: besides switching the genders, he also turns the boy into a quivering mess of nerves and sex. It’s interesting, for instance, that in the original the emphasis in the bridge lands on “the command”: “DON’T TOUCH ME, please”. There’s no doubt that it’s an order, that Jones’ protagonist is already on her way out. Yet Almond pushes the emphasis to the latter half of the line — “I cannot stand the way you (breath) TEASE” — and in doing so completely changes the meaning. Far from being unable to stand the teasing from his lover, that sudden burst of volume tells us it’s actually something he finds irresistible. It’s not even sung by Jones in the original: she leaves her backing singers to say the word, like the mere thought of it is beneath her. Yet for Almond, the tease is EVERYTHING — the desperate desire for acceptance, the dirty thoughts of being seduced, those are what made him so conflicted in the first place. With that one word, he makes it evident how he knows it’s bad for him — and how he is so unable to tear himself away. When he sings as a follow-up “touch me baby, tainted love”, it’s not in a tone of resignment. He’s already lost the battle against this tainted love, and he knows it only too well.

The video for the song illustrates this brilliantly — probably too brilliantly, in fact. There are two videos of Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love”: the original 1981 version has Almond dressed in a toga and waving away titbits imperiously, a model of decadence and also snobbishness. Yet it’s the 1991 video that drives the message home: it shows a male model being accosted in bed by two starry humanoid figures, unable to sleep at night. I’ve never been able to buy that this guy is scared about what’s happening to him: there is a slight shadow of a smile on his face even as he trembles and shakes. One might say, in fact, that it is orgasmic euphoria. Whether that was a conscious choice or not, that shot captures the tension within this song: the double possibility of pleasure and fear, rolled into one. You feel so guilty, yet it’s just too good not to indulge.


One more thing about that video, though. It’s not just the man in his undershirt that’s being seduced — in between the shots of the starry starry knights gyrating against him, we can see Almond in full makeup, singing at us from inside the stars. Far from the frightened personality he’s portraying in the song, he sneers and bites his lips, overtly flirting with the camera. The camp is turned up to eleven, the insinuations almost laughably overt. Yet the temptation to dismiss this as just another way of selling the song fails, because at the end of it all, we realize that this is what the song is about. It’s not just about looking coy and being suggestive: campiness and vulgarity is the whole point, a kind of call to the perversions within us. We humans are easily seduced by seediness, attracted to the dangers inherent within self destruction. So even as the singer says “once I ran to you”, the corresponding “I ran” echoed in the background never sounds like a rueful reflection. Like so many elements of “Tainted Love”, it’s yet another seduction — a call to us to start running again, to throw ourselves back into this masochistic depravity once more.

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