What does it sound like?:
Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret is the opposite side of the same synthesised coin as The Human League’s Dare, the grubby tails to the polished heads. Released a month apart in late 1981, they have much in common but tell very different stories of the industrial North. Both bands came into being because of a drop in the price of electronic parts, making early Korg synthesisers affordable. Dave Ball and Marc Almond met at Leeds Polytechnic, The Human League hail from Sheffield. Both love Tamla Motown, Soft Cell the frantic Northern Soul end of the catalogue, the Human League the romantic soulful end. They share a sense of melody, a wicked sense of humour and a desire to fill dancefloors. Both created club hit B sides, Memorabilia and Hard Times, and both followed up the parent album with one of remixes, Non Stop Ecstatic Dancing and Love And Dancing. However, whereas Phil Oakey sang with insouciant cool, Almond was sweaty, breathless, constantly gyrating. Oakey’s baritone was sleek and stylish, Almond’s voice wild and expressive. Jo Callis and Ian Burden’s synthesisers sound smooth and silky, Ball’s battered and second-hand. Dare aspired to glamour, dreaming of a better future, Cabaret wallowed in the sordid reality of the here and now.
The amazing thing, listening to it over four decades later, is that Marc Almond was asked to disguise his sexuality by inventing a fictitious girlfriend. The album screams camp S&M. Pre-HIV and AIDS, it is rampant with decadence. The album title and song titles practically foghorn his proclivities: Frustration, Tainted Love, Seedy Films, Youth, Sex Dwarf and that’s just side one. The video for Sex Dwarf is still banned from TV screens today. If Almond was hiding in a closet, it was an entirely transparent one. However, the album would not have been such a success without three bold and beautiful melodies, one of which was borrowed. Ball credits hearing Gloria Jones’ Tainted Love at Blackpool’s Highland Room as a moment that changed his life. Their arrangement certainly changed the life of the song, taking it from Northern Soul obscurity to a global smash, spending a record forty-three weeks in the Billboard top one hundred. It was recognised as the UK’s best selling single of 1981 until a recalculation in 2021 showed it was outsold by, you guessed it, Don’t You Want Me. The other two singles both went top five. Bedsitter is an effervescent ode to the joys of hedonism and the redemptive properties of a hangover. Say Hello, Wave Goodbye is Soft Cell’s finest work. The words are direct but the conflicted emotions are brilliantly expressed by a truly outstanding vocal performance. The producer, Mike Thorne, added a few touches of class. He brought in David Tofani to play sax and clarinet on a couple of tracks but, most importantly of all, he allowed Ball to use his £120,000 NED Synclavier, giving the band a distinct advantage in the electronica soundstakes of the time.
There are six CDs in this box, 96 tracks, 40 of which are previously unreleased or new mixes. Disc one is the album itself, remastered, with contemporaneous singles and B sides. Disc two is largely made up of modern day extended remixes, though Bedsitter is the 1981 twelve inch version. Disc three is radio sessions, rarities and curios from the time. Disc four is new instrumentals, not the 1982 Non-Stop Ecstatic Dancing ones, and some early demos. Disc five is an illustration of the benefits and excesses of the era’s fondness for twelve inch extended versions. It starts brilliantly with the Tainted Love/Where Did Our Love Go medley and the definitive Memorabilia plus another inspired take on a Northern Soul classic, Judy Street’s What, before descending into indulgent experimentation. Finally, disc six captures a live concert from Hammersmith Apollo 2021 and a few other live recordings from 1981. Adrian Thrills writes the story of the album in the booklet, which includes interviews, photos, lyrics, credits. Plus, of course, you can dip your toes by streaming. There are gems all over the set but discs one and five are the places to start and you may be surprised how good the instrumentals are on disc four.
Soft Cell followed up with two more big selling albums, then split until reconvening decades later. Nothing they have done matches Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret but it’s not a millstone weighing heavily round their collective neck, it’s a gold medal of which they are very proud. The Super Deluxe Edition Is well-thought through, avoiding much overlap with the career compendium of 2018, Keychains And Snowstorms, and gives it all the attention it deserves.
What does it all *mean*?
We are left with one important question; can a Dare box best it?
Goes well with…
The dying embers of CDs. The only vinyl version is a 2 LP set
20th October 2023
Might suit people who like…
Early eighties electronica. It was an exciting time, a new decade and a new sound with bands like Depeche Mode, Simple Minds, Heaven 17, New Order, Cabaret Voltaire.