gullbuy music review

Soft Cell


The Bedsit Tapes


Some Bizarre


Soft Cell CD coverLet's clear something up before we go any further. Tainted Love is not original to Soft Cell. It was originally done by Gloria Jones in 1964. It is good to mention the original song and its history because that was the original is what this band covered and received internationally acclaim.

Soft Cell, along with numerous other pre-industrial and new wave artists (Human League, Gary Numan, The Normal, Klaus Nomi, Fad Gadget, and Flying Lizards), created a minimal, sparse, electronic sound that had dramatic and arresting cabaret flare. Each group worked robotic sounds, cold, dark emotions and donned variants of high-styled clothes and hair, leathers and vinyls, and androgynous sexuality.

Soft Cell rethought and probed early standards and pop music and expounded on a subtle, brooding , eeriness that lurked inside. Tapped into the pervasive, dramatic fear of nuclear Armageddon fatalism seeped out from low budget synths and bored, effeminate vocal delivery. Marc Almond and David Ball were Soft Cell. Meeting up at Leeds Polytechnic Fine Arts department (surprise, surprise- art school students turned musicians) when Almond over heard Ball making some rudimentary sounds from his Korg DV800 and a basic drum machine. It was 1978.

Almond and Ball collaborated on an Almond art piece with Ball's electronic bleeps and blips. Their musical partnership was born and they "had turned our art pop into pop art, or maybe the other way around". Each eventually went onto solo careers. Ball worked with Richard Norris on Psychic TV's Jack The Tab album. He now works on film soundtracks and production. Almond went on to be a producer and also released solo material. Most notable of his solo releases was the album, Stars We Are, that leapt the ocean to find minor acclaim in the U.S. as well as Europe. On Stars Almond collaborated with Nico and Gene Pitney when he covered the Pitney song, Something's Gotten Hold of My Heart. Before the huge success of Tainted Love and the solo careers there was the Bedsit Tapes.

Bedsit compiles the demos that are the roots of Soft Cell. These tapes were the seeds that grew into what has become legend in new wave's history. Never hearing much of Soft Cell prior to Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret, their second release that contained Tainted Love and Sex Dwarf, I have heard about these demos and bootlegs that contain "the good stuff".

Packaged in a simple cardboard digipak with simple and spare graphics the interior liner notes are brief and endearing. The design and information doesn't hint at what is burned into the plasti-disc. The look is a departure from their major releases. Over styling and self-aggrandizing, and the posed stances are gone. Simple nondescript photographs of a window and buildings wrap the exterior and the interior is stark white. The intent is to let the music come through as it did before the make-up, fashion came to be Soft Cell's reputed image.

Potential opens the CD in with a thick,heavy, synth-rhythm and clomping drum machine beats with a hint of hissing delay. Like Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark the sound is cold but almost pretty with an edge. Almond's voice is effeminate, not so much singing, as reciting. The sounds and lyrics summon the style of John Cooper Clarke's poetic speaking/singing ode to society's refuse and paranoia. Potential's chorus repeats "We have got the potential. P-O-T-E-N-T-I-A-L" and seems exhausted. The spelling of the title is a trite addition. The emotive quality and bare yet intricate production makes this a very good track with snippets that clue-in to the coming trademark Soft Cell sound.

Simple and sweet electronics start up the song L.O.V.E. Feelings. Throbbing one note organ keeps rhythm and clicking drum machine sets the time. The whole song has the spelling out of L.O.V.E. I because herjust can't say the words because that would abandon his disdain of feelings. Sarcastic and desirous the song rejects quaintness and emotion, "You make me feel like a human being with L.O.V.E. feelings" are as if a robot or child curiously discovers and questions feelings. The androgynous and cold tone is great but the breathy vocals and the spelling out of the lyrics is irksome. It matches with the the simplicity and intent of the piece. But they just spelled out the chorus in the preceding song.

Metro Mrx is also a piece that contains a fatalistic and robotic feeling. "He's my favorite mutant". Metro Mrx is the programmed everyman. He is Devo's Mongoloid. Whining vocal delivery that sneers out "Mutant" is annoying. The tune is short and makes its point about the absence of free-thinking and the "normal" life path. The sound is great but adds a hokey quality to the over all pallor of the work. It is obvious that they are trying to be different. That's a good thing. One must forgive the times.

Bleak is My Favorite Cliché has a great sound. Here you can really here the future sound of Soft Cell. The vocals mix well with the minimal sound. The lo-fi electronics and demo recording enhances the feel of the song. The next song Occupational Hazard is a good companion piece to Cliché. Kraftwerk mechanics and OMD's beauty mix with Almond's vocal style in a haunting sci-fi beauty. The song is all about obeying orders and regiment, just like a good robot. That is the hazard of complacency. You become a robot. The dank, dark, bored cast is dead on and the addition of electronic steam bursts is effective. Visuals are easily conjured and make for a more engaging listen then any earlier tracks.

Mix revisits the steam burst electronics (and will keep coming back through out the song list) with a Throbbing Gristle / Blue Man Group electric tube "bass" line. Background vocals and more elaborate orchestrations and arrangements make Mix the most "tuneful" piece yet. The Mix is people, drinks, mix and match, mix together. Real development is taking place with Soft Cell. Here the vocals and lyrics lose the cheesy and annoying quality that detract. Now the vocals enhance.

Factory Fun uses a similar tube like base line. But the vocal effect is back to the robotic delivery. The theme is back to production line society and that one must pretend to get by and "go through the motions...pretend you are having fun". The loneliness of modern life is the theme. A theme that we have heard. Great "musical" work is going on but the dark and starkness of the vocals and lyrics is heavy and gets annoying.

The next track, Science Fiction Stories, mines the same themes of bleak future, robotic emotion, conformist society. This theme is getting dull. While the sounds, they remain interesting.

Purely Functional is an excellent, small instrumental vignette. It shows that Soft Cell, beyond anything else, has a real knack for mixing and managing sounds. Unfortunately it leads into an awful song, A Cut Above The Rest. A scathing song with a Twilight Zone method to the madness of plastic surgery disasters. It is a hard listen. I know that the era was saturated with the reocurring themes on this collection but there must be a more intellingent way to subtly get this point across? The range is limiting and needs to expand. Do bands that use all electronics have to been cold and automated?

Soft Cell's cover of Black Sabbath's Paranoid is good but a bit of a novelty. Taking its cue from The Flying Lizards stripped down covers and mixing it with Throbbing Gristle you get the recipe for this cover.

Excretory Eat Anorexia Nervosa is just embarrassing. It is an attempt at poetry that lands far a field from its target. Like a bad poetry jam and performance piece gone awry it is as though a piece of bad, teenage, angnst poetry from high school is made not some deep statement. Then it is put to music. This is pretty painful. There are some interesting sounds being made by using a found sound bridge of restaurant noises and plates banging together. The song takes a new and more pretty turn. As the plates bang they morph into electric bleeps very adeptly. It is a shame how this piece starts because the end is far more listenable and intelligent.

Cleaning Fanatic brings the new wave and punk theme that natural is not in and that cleanliness is just another robot function that is forced on society. There are some interesting snippets of sound but the bleak coldness is really getting trite and overdone.

Walking Make Up Counter is the same. Why take such sarcastic stance on the overuse of make-up? Almond wore more make-up than most women and certainly most men. "Don't you just envy her?" wearing her mask and concealing herself. Isn't she just conforming to society and its expectations of beauty and attraction along with the lack of self-acceptance? OK I get it.

Pyrex My Cuisine is almost the same music and sound as Make Up Counter. I am glad it is short. Tupperware party has a great start. The lyric "Getting boring" is right on. OK, now we are on to the dullness of suburban life. Plastic world and plastic people sealing up everything in preserving plastics. An era dictates its moods and themes. Late 70's society was grasping for some sort of freedom. Not the same freedom as the hippies and certainly not the mid-70's backlash of conformity. The bleak future of the nuclear arms race, families falling apart, suburban life was not the Eden promised, pharmaceuticals and eating disorders, the rise of conservativism, weighed heavy on the minds of young people. Everything was fake and a cover up.

Soft Cell does make some great sounds and atmosphere on the Bedsit Tapes. Although time may have given the material a "cheese factor", interesting effects and collages abound. The remastering is excellent. The listener can hear the evolution of Soft Cell's bigger sound that became its identifying moment of glory. The rawness is nice to hear as the Cell sound became far more over produced and dance mix ready.

This is not an easy listen. The lyrics are negative and the Eraserhead style darkness does not make for an "up!" listening. Up is not the intent here. The problem with the experimentations of this compilation of material's automated electronics is that it becomes the Stockholm Syndrome. Cloaked in outrageous outfits that were just a garrish uniform and the plastic, make-up masks these artists applied were the same ethos of their suburban captors. What seemed to be a rejection was becoming an adoption. There are no solutions here just the same redundant themes that become conforming and plastic.

Musically there was something very different happening. The sounds were getting away from disco and album rock and use of traditional instruments and opting for new technologies. This was scary and unapproachable work that rejected love and emotion of previous pop and showed a lurking toxicity of emotional attachment. This permeates the CD.

Out of all the negativity and blackness came a new approach to sound. Blooming from the tar of the themes came new wave. Less bleak, less down, less experimental and the manifesto is lost. When Soft Cell covered Tainted Love there was no way of telling that such a barren, angry rendition would be the seed that would spawn the mutant baby born from these early recordings. This is the original new wave.

---James Kraus, October 4, 2005