Soft Cell 'Tainted Love'

Classic Tracks

Published in SOS April 2012
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Technique : Classic Tracks

Soft Cell's cover of 'Tainted Love' not only catapulted the duo to stardom in the UK, but also went on to spend a record-breaking 43 weeks on the American Billboard Hot 100 chart.

Richard Buskin

Dave Ball and Marc Almond: Soft Cell.Photo: Fin Costello/RedfernsDave Ball and Marc Almond: Soft Cell.Photo: Fin Costello/Redferns

The B-side of a flop 1965 single that, 16 years later, topped the UK chart and went Top 10 in the US after being transformed into a synth-pop classic, 'Tainted Love' was Britain's biggest-selling 45 of 1981. It was also the only Stateside hit for the Soft Cell duo of Marc Almond and David Ball when, in 1982, it spent a record-breaking 43 weeks on Billboard's Hot 100 chart.

Composed by Ed Cobb, a member of pop combo the Four Preps, the song was initially recorded in 1964 by American singer-songwriter Gloria Jones (the future girlfriend of Marc Bolan, as well as the driver of the car when he was killed in a road accident). Cobb produced the track, featuring brass, backing vocals and the kind of electric rhythm and four-on-the-floor bass that could easily have emanated from Hitsville USA, and it served as the flip side of 'My Bad Boy's Comin' Home'. However, the single failed to chart and, following its May '65 release, it quickly disappeared. That was, until 1973, when Richard Searling just happened to unearth a copy in Philadelphia and deemed it perfect for his DJ'ing repertoire at Va-Va, a Bolton club that was then at the vanguard of the UK's flourishing Northern Soul music scene.

'Tainted Love' quickly became such a firm favourite on the club circuit that Gloria Jones actually re-recorded the song for her 1976 album Vixen, which she and Bolan co-produced. Still, despite her admirable persistence and the track's slightly heavier, Northern Soul feel, it turned out to be yet another flop single, and so it fell to Soft Cell to finally give the number its just reward after instrumentalist Dave Ball introduced vocalist — and former Leeds Polytechnic pal — Marc Almond to the second recording.

"I loved it so much and we wanted an interesting song for an encore number in our show,” Almond remarked in the 2005 book 1000 UK Number One Hits. "Dave loved Northern Soul and it was a novelty to have an electronic synthesizer band doing a soul song. When we signed with our record company, they wanted to record it.”

The company in question was the Phonogram-backed Some Bizzare label. After Soft Cell had gone the Gloria Jones route of achieving a club hit but chart flop with the Daniel Miller-produced single 'Memorabilia', Phonogram then made it clear that 'Tainted Love' would be the duo's final Some Bizzare release if it didn't enjoy far better sales.

"That certainly didn't prove to be a problem,” says Mike Thorne, who produced 'Tainted Love' and the rest of the Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret LP. "A number one single in 17 territories earned them an automatic album.”

Mike Thorne

Producer Mike Thorne in 2005. Producer Mike Thorne in 2005. Photo: JR Rost

Born in Sunderland in 1948, Thorne studied classical piano, graduated from Oxford with a BA in physics and, during his mid-'20s, spent three years studying composition part-time with Buxton Orr at the Guildhall in London. From the summer of 1970 until that of '71, he also gained his initial studio experience as a tape-op and assistant engineer on sessions for Fleetwood Mac and Deep Purple at De Lane Lea Music. Next came two years as an assistant editor for Hi-Fi News & Record Review, while also writing freelance reviews for various other publications, before Thorne then became the editor of Studio Sound.

In 1976, after taking that esteemed magazine international, he joined the A&R department at EMI, where the Sex Pistols were among his most notable — and notorious — acquisitions. This job coincided with numerous requests for him to produce artists' records, and this resulted in his helming no less than five album projects during 1977: The Roxy London WC2 live punk compilation; the debut records of Téléphone and Wire; Gryphon's Treason; and Soft Machine's Alive & Well.

"It was a lively beginning and after that I was rushed off my feet,” remarks Thorne, who relocated to New York in 1979. "It was just one project after another and I did quite a few left-of-centre, off-the-wall singles for Roger Ames and Tracy Bennett [co-owners of Polygram's London Records label]. One of those was Soft Cell's 'Tainted Love'. I happened to have my Synclavier rig in London at that time, because I was doing a feature film score for Memoirs Of A Survivor, starring Julie Christie, and that turned out to be very, very convenient indeed.”


Soft Cell performing on Top Of The Pops.Soft Cell performing on Top Of The Pops.Photo: BBC Library

'Tainted Love' was recorded in Studio Two at Central London's Advision, where Mike Thorne and engineer Paul Hardiman sat behind a 32-channel Quad Eight — which had been Europe's first automated console when flown in from California in 1973 — and monitored on JBL 4350s in the 30-foot-long by 20-foot-wide control room that also housed an MCI 24-track machine.

"The live area was really just an oversized vocal booth,” Thorne recalls. "So all that happened in there were vocals, finger-pops and clapping, while my Synclavier was set up in the centre of the control room. Dave did all the playing and I did the Synclavier sounds, so having it there was very good for cueing and for general communications.”

By the time they entered the studio to record 'Tainted Love', Soft Cell had already been performing the song live, using their two-person stage setup of a stereo Revox tape recorder for audio backing, Dave Ball's keyboard and two-octave bass synth, and a padded cell that Marc Almond used as a prop as well as a place to periodically kick back and relax. In their hands, the song was not only accorded a slower tempo than on either of the Jones recordings, but also the key of 'G' instead of 'C', in order to accommodate Almond's lower vocal register. On first hearing this in the form of a rough demo, Mike Thorne was infinitely more impressed than he had been when acquiring Jones's aforementioned redo for EMI.

"You could smell the coke on that second, Northern Soul version,” Thorne asserts. "It was really so over-ramped and so frantic. It was good for the dance floor, but I didn't like the record and didn't pay much attention to it. On the other hand, when Soft Cell performed the song I heard a very novel sound and a very nice voice, so off we went.

"Marc presented me with the overall map of the track and, taking that, I did a bar count and converted his scheme to bar numbers. Their drum machine was busted, so I borrowed [singer] Kit Hain's old Roland. It was just a little wooden box and, since it only had one output, Paul Hardiman separated the kick from the tinny, electronic-sounding snare by using EQ and recording them on different tracks for the convenience of having more kick or more snare as we required. In addition to the Roland drums, we recorded the bass with Dave's Korg, and then the overall piano sound was something that I generated on the Synclavier, along with the orchestral swells and the long horn sound in the middle of the 12-inch single that precedes the transition to 'Where Did Our Love Go'.

"Incorporating their cover of a Supremes song was Marc and Dave's idea. The whole concept of the single was theirs, and that medley in the middle of the track really grew out of the fact that they had both been DJs. When they came together and started doing their shows, that was a natural outgrowth and it was really good. Then again, generating that horn sound was also fun. We knew the suspension worked all the way through, but we didn't quite know where it would go. There was a pitch-control ribbon in front of Dave, so we just egged him on to gradually pull it down. He pulled it very, very slowly and I gave him warnings him about when the next song would arrive.”

Got It In One

Engineer Don Wershba (left) and Mixing Engineer Harvey Goldberg in Central Park, early 1980s. Engineer Don Wershba (left) and Mixing Engineer Harvey Goldberg in Central Park, early 1980s.

Meanwhile, no such coaching was required for Marc Almond's lead vocal.

"When we were still working on getting the right sound, Marc did a run-through, and it's fortunate that we recorded it because that's the one we ended up using,” Thorne says. "He poured his heart out on it and what you hear is a complete take. The compressor was pinned — Paul and I looked at it in horror and he was reaching to change stuff, but I told him, 'No, he's doing pretty well.' So, we just left it. The compression probably wouldn't have been far short of what we would have done in the mix, but fortunately the voice laid in very nicely, thanks to the rather over-compressed recording. Normally, you would compress a bit on the recording and then do more just to suit on the mix, but in this case Paul got it right, by way of accident or good management, or both.

"Marc subsequently recorded about five takes of 'Tainted Love', but when we went back to the sound check we realised that none of them captured the energy or spontaneity of that original run-through. We recorded him with a [Neumann] U87 and an EMT plate, with some pantyhose stretched over a coat hanger as a pop shield. Paul and I experimented with quite a variety of mics on different artists. At one point we even used a Sennheiser shotgun on some of the Wire sessions and, as Paul described it, there was so much presence it was almost internal. At that time, however, we'd typically use an 87.

"A lot of Marc's best vocals were captured on the first take. He commented later that he thought I didn't push him hard enough, but I didn't think he had to suffer for his art. He had a way of delivering a tremendous, spontaneous lead vocal which he couldn't argue with. So I might have him perform another few takes and use them to pick up mistakes or off-key stuff here and there, but there was usually one take which served as the main backbone.”

In his 1999 autobiography, Tainted Life, Marc Almond wrote that, in addition to singing, his other main contribution to 'Tainted Love' was suggesting that it open with the instantly recognisable 'bink bink' sound that crops up throughout the track.

"A snare-ish noise was mangled through a distinctive delay line — Delta Labs' DL4 — to generate that metallic ringing effect,” Thorne explains. "Marc was always a very, very good arbiter of taste. He understood his music. He isn't just a singer, he's a musician.”


Soft Cell 'Tainted Love'

All of which was fortuitous for Mike Thorne, in light of the fact that he was simultaneously working with two sets of artists on different records.

"I was producing 'Tainted Love' back-to-back with B-Movie's second single 'Marilyn Dreams',” he explains. "Even though I was constantly working 14-hour days or even longer, I thought it was important for both groups to get some rest and some perspective in order to appraise things. So, while 'Tainted Love' was recorded in about one-and-a-half days, this was spread out over a total of three days, before we then spent another very long day mixing the track. Paul Hardiman would set up before I'd get to the studio and then I'd weigh in. We had a nine-minute track and a long dub version to do ['Tainted Dub'], and we finished at about three or four in the morning.”

The seven-inch version clocked in at just over two-and-a-half minutes, and it was this Advision recording that Mike Thorne subsequently remixed with engineer Harvey Goldberg at Mediasound in New York, so that it could then be spliced into the 12-inch.

"Instead of spreading sounds left and right and pulling them to make a bit more of a stereo wall, I had positioned the instruments in very specific places,” Thorne recalls. "It sounded very mono and Roger [Ames] wanted a broader, more contemporary sound. I was perfectly happy with that, so Harvey Goldberg and I did the remix according to Roger's wishes and you can hear the edit on the released 12-inch.

"I'd usually give the engineer space so that his own ideas would flow. I was not a producer who'd sit there, worrying about the kick-drum sound. I would only worry about the overall presentation when he'd put it together to his satisfaction. Obviously, I'd answer questions along the way, but otherwise I preferred to let him do his thing. Typically, a steady mix without the automation would be in place before I'd come in and start talking. Then, once I was happy with it, I'd pull the band in and we'd start talking again.”

The Mediasound remix took place within a couple of weeks of the Advision recording and took about a day to complete.

"That's actually one of the very, very few records that's been thrown back at me because the voice was too high,” Thorne remarks. "So we lowered the voice and dug it into the track a little bit more. I'd thought the vocal would lie better when we took it to the mix and limited it. Still, it all worked out very nicely in the end, and that, incidentally, was one of the reasons why I really enjoyed working with Tracy and Roger. It was always a pleasure to have a strong, intelligent A&R presence, because that meant I had a sounding board, whereas on so many other projects I found myself working in a vacuum.”

Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret

It was at Mediasound, in Studio C, that recordings for Soft Cell's Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret subsequently took place. This time around, Don Wershba was the engineer, and he sat alongside Mike Thorne behind what was, undoubtedly, no run-of-the-mill console.

"At that time, the Studio C setup was, in a word, hideous, but it was also the only one available for Mike to use whenever he wanted,” Wershba explains. "Located in the basement, it had some horrendous tube equipment because it was really just a voice-over room. It had a pair of Trident Fleximix PA consoles that were not set up for recording — they had no monitor section. However, since Mediasound was then one of the best studios around and Mike intended to do a lot of work there on a long-term basis, it actually hand-built a 24-track monitor section with pan pots, aux sends and no EQ. It was beautiful and the two 12-channel boards were stitched together.”

A 24-track, 3M tape machine was used for the Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret recording sessions, while Wershba usually monitored on Yamaha NS10s, even though he had the option of listening through Altec 604Es.

"It was a very small control room, but it was loaded with gear,” he continues. "This included [Teletronix] LA2As, [Urei] 1176s, Pultec and Lang EQ, EMT plates, some outboard Neve compressors, [an Eventide] 910 Harmonizer and an early Lexicon digital delay modulation device, which we used a lot because Mike liked it and he was always looking for unusual sounds. Then again, because we weren't really into outboard mic preamps at that time, I probably just used the mic preamp in the console on Marc's vocals... and I now apologise for that. Who knew?”

Don Wershba was just 17 years old when, in 1971, he began working at Mediasound. Attending college in between working his way up from the shipping department to assistant engineering on projects by the likes of Luther Vandross and Peter Frampton, he was afforded his first shot at full-scale engineering with the Soft Cell album.

"By then, Mike had made Mediasound his home base,” recalls Wershba, who recorded some vibraphone-sampled additions and percussion overdubs that were integrated into the 'Tainted Love' 12-inch mix by Harvey Goldberg. "He had already done a lot of stuff with Harvey engineering, and I was starting to tag-team with Harvey when Mike told me, 'There's a lot of recording that I need to do.' Harvey was very, very busy and also doing a lot of mixing, so he probably said to Mike, 'Why don't you use Don? He works cheap...'”

"The album sessions weren't quite so straightforward as those for 'Tainted Love',” adds Thorne who, in addition to producing Soft Cell's subsequent single 'Torch', EP Non-Stop Ecstatic Dancing and LP The Art Of Falling Apart, has garnered credits with artists such as John Cale, Nina Hagen, Bronski Beat, the Communards, Roger Daltrey, China Crisis and Blur. "By then, in addition to the Synclavier, we had a Roland 808 drum machine and we managed to get a sync track going. We'd run that sync track and, since there were 16 steps to it, Dave would throw in a fill where appropriate and then re-program in real time as the track was whizzing by, just to get back to the basic pattern. He had to be quite alert and if he missed it once he'd have to go back to the beginning.”

Once again, a Neumann U87 was employed for Marc Almond's vocals, and this was set up in Studio C's relatively spacious booth, where the backing vocals were also performed by various permutations of Almond, Ball, Cindy Ecstasy and Vicious Pink Phenomena.

"For the group backing vocals, we probably would have used a pair of 87s or [Neumann] KM86s,” Wershba says. "However, I also recall that Marc was really good at doubling vocals, so that's what we recorded a lot of the time. He was a very intuitive, from-the-gut performer. So, even though we'd try to get things as technically perfect as possible, that wasn't the top priority. The top priority, especially with his lead vocals, was the emotional intent, and he was really easy to work with. As was Dave. They were really pleasant people to be in the studio with and they were both very efficient.”

"Let The Players Play”

In addition to Dave Ball's playing of assorted acoustic and electronic instruments, Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret also featured the contributions of John Gatchell on trumpet and flugelhorn, as well as David Tofani on sax and clarinet.

"The keyboards were all DI'd,” says Wershba, who joined Solid State Logic in 1991 and is now SSL's Senior Vice President. "Rarely, if ever, on those sessions did we run anything through an amplifier. Some of the horn overdubs were done in Studio A and we'd often record John Gatchell — who was a fantastic, very open-minded musician — with delays to a separate track so that we could punch in. There was nothing too earth-shaking about him playing to a delay, but it was neat to see a New York horn player — especially a trumpet player — who would go, 'Yeah, sure, I'll do that!' Those guys could normally be a tough audience.

"Dave Tofani's another amazing musician and also one of the nicest guys you'd ever meet, with the very best attitude. He was an incredibly sensitive player with infinite patience, and it was really fun when we'd go up to Studio A, which was an old Baptist church with vaulted ceilings. It was our version of Olympic. Mike was always up for distance miking and we would usually do things quite simply. He was kind of into mono — he turned me onto that — and it was about just getting the sound of the instrument. You didn't have to put a whole bunch of mics on it. We used to just get the sound of the room and let the players play, and that was part of Mike's genius: he would synthesize all sorts of musical influences.

"It was never the way you thought it was going to be, and sometimes when you were in the middle of it, you'd think, 'Where are we going with this?' But then it would all come together, especially when Harvey would get it mixed. He'd go, 'Oh, OK, I see the vision he had.' You just had to hang on for dear life while you were doing it, and that's also because with Mike you had to work really fast. He was all about catching a performance. So God help you if you asked, 'Can I just move that mic?' He'd look at you like, 'Not on your life!' That's why preparation was extremely important when working with him on any of those sessions. Mike was the boss, but he was also really nice. He personified what a producer was at that time.”

Wave Goodbye

'Bedsitter' went top five in the UK, and 'Tainted Love', which had been a July '81 release there, finally entered the Billboard Hot 100 at number 90 in January of '82. Peaking at 64, it dropped down to 100 at the end of February, but that wasn't the end of the story. After a second week in last place, 'Tainted Love' began to climb again and, after a circuitous and lengthy ascent that saw it take nearly five months to break into the Top 40, eventually went all the way number eight amid its aforementioned 43-week run on the US chart.  

The Synclavier

By the early 1990s, Mike Thorne was reaping the benefits of having reinvested some of his earnings in studio equipment. In 1986, he built his own 900-square-foot, Greenwich Village facility, The Stereo Society, which supplemented his Synclavier with a 32-input TAC Scorpion console, later to be replaced by an automated, 80-input Amek Einstein.

"The Synclavier was the best studio sound I heard bar none,” he asserts, "so I used that to sequence and master to. I built up something like 8000 samples over the duration, and the reason I stayed with Synclavier was because, for a long time, I had an integrated system with MIDI and recording in the same machine. That's something Synclavier came up with and I was very, very happy when it happened, but when the company didn't keep up with the times and went out of business I was left with a system that gradually became more and more clunky.

"At one point, I was using Logic and relying on the Synclavier for MIDI. Then, about five years ago, Pro Tools got its MIDI act together and sounded very, very good indeed, so that's when I went with a completely Pro Tools system. It's now quite large, but I still have the Synclavier, not only for its library of sounds but also because it's a classic synthesizer with its own unique sounds. I can have 16 individual sounds spread through 16 individual outputs and drive those all from the Pro Tools sequencer.

"Today, I have two large Macintoshes — one of them's a Pro Tools — and there is a total of six audio interfaces with the usual MIDI and sync stuff. Another computer is the front end of a Kyma system which, I'm ashamed to say, I really haven't used very much, but I love this setup and, having gone the commercial route, I'm now happy to just use it as a project studio for my albums, and those, by artists ranging from Johnny Reinhard to Lene Lovich, that we issue on the Stereo Society label.”

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