Listen to this track by Tainted Love men and synth-pop vectors Soft Cell. It’s “Bedsitter”, a single as taken from 1981’s Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret. This song was a part of a set of songs that explored landscapes of anonymous club liasons, drugs, and all around seediness that reflected the environments responsible for them; New York, where the record was made, and London, the city in which Soft Cell were based at the time.
Even if the times and places in which this song was made were influential on how the music came out, then so was the mood and emotional states of singer and lyricist Marc Almond. This is not a happy tune, with fun times out at the clubs on Saturday finding the song’s narrator at home alone on Sunday morning. Is that any kind of place for a pop star? Well, therein lies the genius of this song. It’s not about the pop star; it’s about the audience.
Besides the scenes and themes of indulgence of course, we get a whole point of view that sheds light on, or perhaps casts shadows on, the mindset of a whole subset of music fan listening to the radio, or watching Top of The Pops in 1981.
Soft Cell formed in 1979, a duo with Marc Almond singing, and Dave Ball programing all of the music on synths. Depeche Mode, OMD, The Human League, Ultravox, and others would employ a similar sound during this period, of course. But, no other synth-pop band dealt with such personal material, or at least made the material sound personal to such a degree as Soft Cell.
Even their biggest hit in a version of Gloria Jones’ Northern soul classic “Tainted Love” (also from this album) would sound as though it came straight from Marc Almond’s own diary, scoring one of the longest charting singles in U.S Billboard history to boot. That’s what makes “Bedsitter” so compelling too. It sounds like Almond’s life, which it may well have been. More importantly, it sounds like the lives of many who were also out on Saturday nights in London (and elsewhere) trying to make new connections, or possibly trying to lose old ones and old associations through sex, drugs, and music. This song told their story too. In some ways, the isolation Almond was singing about on this song is dispelled by the very fact that he was singing about it to that audience. Pop music wins again.
After Soft Cell’s appearance on Top of the Pops in 1981, Marc Almond would soon become known as a very out pop star as well. He didn’t hold back on anything in this regard, with all kinds of imagery, movement, and costuming that challenged the mainstream idea of what a male pop star should look like. All of this would bring gay identity into the mainstream spotlight, get music fans talking about it, and remind many that they were not alone on that level either.
Once again, he was telling the story of his audience as well as his own, with many of them having to deal with homophobia before homophobia was even a term. If this song is about isolation, than certainly Almond’s presentation made being gay in a world that feared gay identity is at least one important and socially significant subtext. As such, Almond set the ground work for other bands down the decades that draw from gay culture, from Culture Club, to Frankie Goes To Hollywood, to the Communards, to the Pet Shop Boys, to the Scissor Sisters.
Soft Cell would break up amicably after three albums by 1984 to pursue solo projects. They’d get together again in 2001, eventually releasing a new record Cruelty Without Beauty the next year, and embarking on some live dates. In the meantime, Marc Almond continued to explore several musical genres, from Flemenco, to torch songs, to Russian folk music, still making listeners believe every word.
Check out Marc Almond’s website to catch up with him.