The Story Behind The Song
It's a little after five o'clock in the morning, 16 September 1977. In the eerie silence, a crumpled car lies on the roadside, a glimmer of moonlight highlighting the smoke twisting from the wreckage. The male passenger in the purple Mini is dead, the female driver seriously injured. The world knows the name of the man - Marc Bolan - but fewer know the survivor, 31-year-old Gloria Jones; she is Bolan's romantic partner and backing singer for T Rex. In the 60s, Jones had recorded Tainted Love as B-side to song that never charted.
Two years later after the horrific crash that killed the T Rex star, Marc Almond meets Dave Ball at Leeds Art College, and they form Soft Cell, the name a clever wordplay on a lockup for the insane and a method of advertising. Ball introduces the Gloria Jones song to Almond, who loves it. He recalled: "We wanted an interesting song for an encore number in our show... I was fascinated that Tainted Love was originally by Gloria Jones, the girlfriend of Marc Bolan and I'd always been a T-Rex fan."
But it was no ordinary cover of the Motown song. Soft Cell's version was slower than the original and synthesizers replaced the original's guitars, bass and horns. The bass was generated by a Korg synth, the whip-crack sounds by synth-drums and the keyboard was a Synclavier."When we signed with our record company, they wanted to record it, but told us to put bass, guitar and drums on it as they said it was too odd." Fortunately, the lads rejected the label's advice.
Producer Mike Thorne had not been impressed by the Gloria Jones version, but was taken by the new arrangement and Almond's vocal: "You could smell the coke on that second, Northern Soul version, it was really so over-ramped and so frantic." The electronic classic was recorded in a day and a half and the final mix used Almond's first vocal; it wasn't even a proper take but a run-through to check the settings. Almond later described their version as "a mixture of cold electronics with an over-passionate, over-exuberant, slightly out of key vocal." On hearing the cover, Jones said: "I loved the emotion in his voice."
Despite misgivings, the record company released the track as the group's second single in July 1981. When Soft Cell had an opportunity to appear on Top Of The Pops, they seized it. Almond recalled: "I wanted to make the same shocking impact on Top of the Pops that Marc Bolan and David Bowie had made on me, so I wore black, with studded wristbands, bangles and eyeliner." The BBC was inundated with complaints but studs and black eyeliner were in, and one of the quintessential songs of the electronic era was born.
Tainted Love climbed to the top of the UK charts in September. Despite only staying at the summit for two weeks, it became the year's best selling single and is securely placed in the UK's bestselling singles of all time. It topped the charts in 17 countries, but not in America. Released in January 1982, it remained in the lower reaches of the Billboard Hot 100 for nearly five months, only entering the Top 40 by summer. It eventually peaked at No. 8 (in the same week that Don't You Want Me by The Human League was No. 1) but spent an unprecedented 43 weeks on the chart, a record it held for many years.
When it was written by Ed Cobb in the 1960s, Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome was unknown, although it is now believed the disease may have originated as long ago as the 1920s. It's slow and sporadic contagion meant the insidious disease received little attention until an epidemic swept America. The phrase "tainted love" took on a new meaning for the communities most affected by the disease. Almond later said: "It was the first time we'd heard about this then-unnamed disease that was affecting gay men in America. It wasn't an intentional tie-in, but as the record hit the American charts, it took on this other meaning." Later that year, the disease was named and became known and feared across the globe by its acronym: AIDS.
Tainted Love is one of the most played and influential songs of the early 1980s. Not bad for a song that was intended only as an encore.
We hereby instate Tainted Love by Soft Cell on The Wall as the No. 9 Best Single of 1981.
One of the greatest covers of all time? Probably. And no matter where you went this year there was no escaping this song's huge influence on the music scene. Dave B