"Tainted Love" lasts forever

It's no secret that pop music is highly disposable. Looking back at the '80s, many hits held up worse than used Kleenex. Nobody pesters the band to play Stacey Q's "Two of Hearts" at their bar mitzvah. Yet at this very moment, somewhere a drunken karaoke patron is bellowing, "Sometimes I feel I've got to run away. . . ."

Ring a bell? That's the opening line of one of the most-requested songs at weddings. A tune covered by everyone from baggy-pants UK dance act Inspiral Carpets to Aussie punks The Living End, and a regular encore at many a Hazel gig.

The title you're fumbling for is "Tainted Love." In 1981, it made international stars of underground British duo Soft Cell, lingering on the Billboard charts in America for almost a year. Eighteen years later, the record remains instantly recognizable—even before that first phrase is sung—from the two-note doot-doot and synthesized finger snaps of the intro.

"Tainted Love" has not only endured, it resurfaces with surprising regularity. The triple-CD fetish item Soft Cell: The Twelve Inch Singles (Mercury) includes four different versions, and that's excluding the well-known edit that segues into the Supremes' "Where Did Our Love Go?" Just last year, house heavyweight Club 69 created a dark, druggy remix of the original that brought the song to a whole new generation.

"Why 'Tainted Love?'" repeats ex-Soft Cell vocalist Marc Almond. For two decades, the man behind that melodramatic vocal turn has wrestled to unravel the song's staying power; today, wriggling on the couch in his New York hotel suite, he confronts the question yet again. "It's so hard to tap into. The record's not perfect. It's not pristinely or over-produced. But it sounds like nothing else."

A slightly incredulous tone creeps into his voice. "I heard it on the radio today, and it still sounds good."

Soft Cell certainly didn't look like pop stars. Almond was a nervous slip of a lad, with the darkest raccoon eyes since Dusty Springfield and armfuls of pre-Madonna bangles; instrumentalist Dave Ball favored suits that gave him a disturbing resemblance to that pervy uncle we don't discuss. Amidst the colorful cavalcade of the second British Invasion—Boy George, Annie Lennox—Soft Cell stood apart. "The whole '80s thing was about superficial nightlife, glamour and champagne, swimming pools and lip gloss and Duran Duran and padded shoulders," concurs the singer. "And here we were in black and studs and leather, with mascara running down our faces, looking mean and singing about a different kind of nightlife." He laughs. "We were trashy!"

The success of the song surprised the band as much as anyone else. Originally a hit for '60s soul singer Gloria Jones, they'd covered it with a nudge and a wink. But the joke was on them. "We thought we were being twisted and ironic doing 'Tainted Love.' And the irony was that it became this huge pop hit. Suddenly, we found ourselves surrounded by screaming teenage girls and on the front of British pop magazines wearing silly party hats. The minute 'Tainted Love' was a worldwide success, it was the beginning of the end." Soft Cell would go on to have other hits in England (most notably the ballad "Say Hello Wave Goodbye"), but never on such a spectacular level. Pressured by its record company to repeat the feat, the band deliberately "tried to commit commercial suicide," delivering darker fare on the albums The Art of Falling Apart and This Last Night in Sodom before breaking up. While Ball went on to form the techno act The Grid, Almond has enjoyed a lengthy, if convoluted, recording career, ranging from French chanson (Absinthe: The French Album) to a chart-topping duet with Gene Pitney ("Something's Gotten Hold of My Heart"). The new Open All Night (out September 28 on Instinct) finds him in an intimate mood, integrating Latin rhythms on "Black Kiss" and swapping phrases with Siouxsie and Budgie of The Creatures on "Threat of Love."

The singer's long since made his peace with the song that thrust him uncomfortably into the limelight. In 1988, when quasi-industrialists Coil recorded the song as an AIDS benefit, Almond made a cameo in the video. And the tune shows up on his '92 concert souvenir CD Twelve Years of Tears.

"A lot of people in the States think Soft Cell were a one-hit wonder," he says matter-of-factly. "I know that forever after, when I'm promoting a new record here, I'll be sitting at radio stations going, 'Hey kids, remember this one?' and they'll play 'Tainted Love.'" The singer shrugs—there are certainly far worse fates. "It's paid a lot of bills for me in bad times. It's made me recognizable. And it gets me great seats in restaurants, which is all fame is really about."

 
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