Monday, March 30, 2009

Trust No-One But Tall Tales And True

In 1989, I recall buying a vinyl 45 single of a song called ‘Trust’, by an up and coming Australian band, Tall Tales and True. It was a catchy, up tempo acoustic rock track, that reminded me very much of Lloyd Cole (& the Commotions - see Oct. 08 post). I was still very much in a singles buying frenzy at that time, but ‘Trust’ was the only song from Tall Tales and True that I purchased in that period, though I recall their single ‘Summer Of Love’ from ‘92. It wasn’t until 2002 that I finally purchased an album from the band, in the form of the 2001 compilation ‘That’s All Folks’. On first play, I asked myself the questions, why didn’t I listen to more of this band at the time they were around, and why didn’t they enjoy more commercial success? Like so many Australian bands of bygone eras, Tall Tales and True remained on the fringes of mainstream success, in the end consigned to being one of Australian music’s best kept secrets. Time to uncover some truth in the tale behind Tall Tales and True.

The Western Australian city of Perth has produced more than its share of quality Australian artists over the years - Eurogliders, Dugites, Christie Allen (see 08 posts), several members of INXS, Jebediah, End Of Fashion, and the Triffids, to name a handful. Perth born singer/songwriter and guitarist Matthew de la Hunty, added his own name to that list when he formed the Sydney based trio, Tall Tales and True, in 1983. de la Hunty had grown up listening to, and being influenced by a myriad of musical styles, from the music of 60s giants like Dylan, The Beatles, and Rolling Stones, across the stylistic spectrum to late 70s punk/new wave exponents like Sex Pistols, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and The Cure. His first experiences of live music, included local Perth outfits like Scientists, and the hugely influential Triffids.

In 1983, de la Hunty made the trek across the Nullabor Plain and beyond, to arrive in Sydney, eager to have a crack at the big time. He found two kindred spirits in music, Paul Miskin (bass/vocals), and Dave Ashleigh (drums), and the trio were dubbed Tall Tales and True. Over the ensuing 12-18 months, Tall Tales and True did the hard yards on Sydney’s thriving inner-city circuit, and eventually came to the attention of local indie label Survival in late ‘85. Producer/engineer Nick Mainsbridge, who would later work with other emerging bands like Ratcat (see Aug 08 post) and The Sharp (see future post), was at the helm for the trio’s eponymous debut mini-album (six tracks), released in September 1986. The single ‘Wasted Life’ was lifted from the mini-album, but neither attracted much of an audience beyond the band’s Sydney fan base. Over the course of the next eighteen months, Tall Tales and True released a further two EPs, ‘Up Your Street’ (1987), and ‘You Got Your Troubles’ (1988), with Mainsbridge again at the production helm.

A combination of the band’s live profile, and increased airplay of their music on indie radio stations like JJJ, led Tall Tales and True to sign with the fledgling, but high profile rooArt label. The band contributed a remixed version of ‘You Got Your Troubles’ to the rooArt compilation album ‘Youngblood’, released in September 1988. Tall Tales and True sat comfortably in the album’s track listing alongside artists like Martha’s Vineyard, Hipslingers, The Hummingbirds (stylistic stablemates to Tall Tales and True), and The Trilobites. Tall Tales and True shared a rooArt single release with The Trilobites shortly after, featuring the remixed track ‘You Got Your Troubles’. During 1988 the band independently released the cassette only album ‘Dirt’, a compile of fifteen tracks, taken from live recordings and early demo work.

Over late ‘88/early ‘89, the trio worked on their debut full length album, again with producer Neil Mainsbridge. Matthew de la Hunty had accumulated a strong cache of songs, that would showcase his willingness to engage a broad spectrum of musical styles, drawing on past eras, but mirroring in part the work of contemporary Australian bands like Crowded House, late era Triffids, Go-Betweens, GANGgajang, Died Pretty, and Falling Joys (see future post). The lead out single ‘Trust’, released in April ‘89, was first class acoustic rock at its best. Aside from the echoes of Lloyd Cole, particularly in the form of de la Hunty’s heartfelt vocal style, the track always puts me in mind of the Cure’s hit ‘Friday On My Mind’ (not entirely sure why). ‘Trust’ achieved a respectable #59 on the Australian national charts, and became a favourite on the indie JJJ radio network, going on to be voted #93 on their annual Hottest 100 list. In May ‘89, Tall Tale and True’s debut set ‘Shiver’ hit stores, featuring ten songs in all. The album spawned three more singles, ‘Hold On’ (OZ#96), ‘Heart’, and the edgy and emotive ‘Passing Out The Chains’, the latter evoking the sound of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, or the Cruel Sea. The ‘Shiver’ album received a warm reception on the charts (OZ#52), and earned Tall Tales and True an A.R.I.A. Award nomination in 1989, for ‘Best Debut Album’, as well being released Stateside and in Europe (a not insignificant feat for an indie Australian band back in the 80s).

Tall Tales and True embarked on a tour to Canada late in 1989, initially set down for three months from a base in Toronto, but they extended the tour to nine months, encompassing stints in the U.S., Britain, and Europe, extending into 1990. Guitarist/violinist Simon Alcorn, augmented the trio for the early stages of the tour, with Triffids’ guitarist/violin player Rob McComb replacing Alcorn for the U.S./U.K./Euro legs. In April ‘91, the five track EP ‘Superstition Highway’ was released, with guitarist McComb featuring on the edgy pop-rock title track. Over the ensuing twelve months, violinist Vanessa Lucas was also added to the core trio, as an auxiliary member of Tall Tales and True. During 1991, the band joined labelmates The Hummingbirds, alongside Canadian rock outfit The Pursuit Of Happiness (see future post), for the ‘Trilogy’ tour. At the end of a long stint on the road, Tall Tales and True had arrived as a more focussed, and mature outfit.

The quirky, atmospheric single ‘Lifeboat’ was floated during the second half of ‘91, followed in early ‘92 by the timely ‘Summer Of Love’ (timely in seasonal terms). The latter, a radio friendly slice of jangle guitar pop, reached #62 nationally, and was a tasty little appetizer for Tall Tales and True’s sophomore album. In my recent years, whenever I’ve listened to ‘Summer Of Love’, I’ve been struck by how comfortably the song would fit on a Powderfinger album (very Bernard Fanning-like vocals). ‘Lifeboat’ went on to earn Tall Tales and True two more A.R.I.A. nominations, for Engineer of the Year (Nick Mainsbridge), and Best Video (director Brendo Young). In May ‘92, the ‘Revenge’ album hit stores, offering up a dozen tracks, recorded in part in Australia, and in London (during their last tour). Mainsbridge produced the entire album, aside from the next single, the feel good ‘Watching The Wind Blow’, which had been produced by Chris Lord-Alge (cut his teeth in the 80s, mixing work for the likes of Tina Turner and Chaka Khan). The winds were favourable for ‘Watching The Wind Blow’, and delivered Tall Tales and True their highest charting single (#45) in mid ‘92. The ‘Revenge’ album (OZ#36), spawned one more single with ‘Looking For A Place’ (OZ#98), and featured the emotive duet ‘Anything 4 U’, with vocals/piano by Margaret Ulrich (who also featured on ‘Watching The Wind Blow’ as backing vocalist).

Just as they appeared on the verge of elevating themselves to new heights in the pecking order of Australian popular music, Tall Tales and True pretty much slipped from view, and lost all momentum. During mid ‘94 de la Hunty, Miskin, and Rashleigh reconvened in a Sydney warehouse to record their third album together, and have one more tilt at breaking through into the big time. The trio revived the rousing and ragged edged feel of their early work as a garage-band, way back when, lending a stripped down, live feel to the likes of the very grungy sounding lead out single ‘You Sleep I’ll Drive’, released in October of ‘94. The album ‘Tilt’ was released shortly after (on rooArt/Warner), and was the least acoustic-based of the trio’s efforts, evidenced in tracks like ‘Happy Birthday’. The album yielded a second single in early ‘95, with ‘Moonshine’, but neither single nor album managed to shine on the charts, and soon after the trio called it a day.

Drummer Dave Rashleigh went on to play with the Jackson Code, before joining Sydney based outfit WEMO. Bassist Paul Miskin formed the band Angel Gear in 1997, followed by a new project called The Good Vibrators. He also performed regularly with Jodi Phillis (ex-Clouds - see future post), and has composed/produced several film scores. Singer/guitarist Matthew de la Hunty eventually returned to his hometown of Perth, and released his debut solo album in 1999, ‘Scissors, Paper, Rock’, followed by ‘Welcome To My Rock And Roll World’ (2001), both on the Q-Stik label, which extended de la Hunty’s sound beyond his Tall Tales and True work. In subsequent years de la Hunty has balanced production/remix work for other artists, alongside continuing to record his own material, and lecturing in song writing and production. Most recently, he has fronted a Perth based neo-punk styled outfit called The Smokin’ Eldorados, no doubt still spreading tall tales, and the musical truth.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

The Darts Hit A Bullseye On The Charts

It’s only a few posts back that I covered the career of rock ‘n’ roll revivalist Shakin’ Stevens, and wrote about the swag of artists to emerge on the British scene during the late 70s/early 80s, that took inspiration from 50s era popular music and fashion alike. Among the names cited, and written about on this very blog, was the group Rocky Sharpe and the Replays (see June 08 post), who shared a common heritage with several members of the British doo-wop revival act, Darts.

In the early to mid 70s, Rocky Sharpe and the Razors had established themselves as a popular live act in and around the Brighton area. By 1976, a major split had occurred in the groups ranks, with Rocky Sharpe (AKA Robert Podsiadly), going on to form a new backing group, The Replays, featuring Helen Highwater, Johnny Stud, and Eric Rondo. Ex-‘Razor’ Den Hegarty (bass vocals) set about putting together a new group of singers/musicians, in similar vein to the Rocky Sharpe project, and taking some cues from like rock ‘n’ roll/doo-wop revival acts, such as Showaddywaddy, Sha Na Na, and even Mud. Ex-‘Razors’ Griff Fender (vocals), Rita Ray (vocals), and Horatio Hornblower (sax), all joined Hegarty in his new enterprise, and the quartet were joined by three ex members of the John Dummer’s Blues Band (who had recorded four albums together) - Thump Thompson (bass guitar), George Currie (guitar) and John Dummer (drums). Rounding out the nine member line-up were Hammy Howell (piano), and ex-Mickey Jupp singer, Bob Fish.

The newly established Darts, undertook a hectic schedule of shows at regional club, pub, and university venues, and within a year had built up a loyal, and large following. They played a mix of rock ‘n’ roll and doo-wop standards, combined with an increasing number of original numbers (often penned by Hegarty), in the same stylistic vein. These musicians were all seasoned pros, and it showed in the quality of their musicianship, and performance, augmented by tightly choreographed stage arrangements. But as proficient, and popular as any artist is, they more often than not need that one big break to launch to the next level. Darts’ break came in the form of an appearance on Charlie Gillett’s ‘Honky Tonk Demos’ show on BBC Radio London. Following their knock out performance in October of ‘76, Gillett, with music agents Bob and Natasha England, undertook to secure Darts a recording deal. The group were attached to Magnet Records soon after, and during 1977 set about recording their first single/album, alongside acclaimed writer/producer Tommy Boyce, who had penned/produced a slew of hits for the likes of Chubby Checker, Jay & The Americans, and of course the Monkees.

With Boyce (and Richard Hartley) at the production reins, Darts set about recording fresh and vibrant versions of carefully selected hits from the 50s and early 60s era. As Jon Pannaman so rightly highlights, in his first rate bio for the group Darts (see link to website at end of post), all of this was undertaken in the face of the raging storm of punk that was sweeping the British music scene. With anarchy, rage, and rampant youthful exuberance, the flavour of the day, Darts presented themselves as a group of immaculately attired, and flawlessly professional musicians, offering up impeccably arranged versions of songs, that in style and substance, were positioned as far along the musical spectrum from punk as possible. But therein lay part of the reason for the group’s appeal, as surely the public could only endure so much angst ridden, tone deaf screaming, and ear-splitting guitar thrashing. And unlike most of the angry, and all too serious, young men (and women) on the punk scene, here were a group of musicians presenting a positive vibe, with a dash of playful humour, designed with one purpose in mind - to entertain.

In November ‘77, Darts threw their first single at the British public, with the medley ‘Daddy Cool/The Girl Can’t Help It’. ‘Daddy Cool’ had originally been a hit for The Rays (US#3) in 1957, whilst Little Richard was the genius behind the original version of ‘The Girl Can’t Help It’ (US#49/UK#9), also from 1957. Darts’ rendition hit the U.K. charts within a few weeks of release, and peaked at #6 early in 1978, an auspicious beginning to say the least. They followed it up with ‘Come Back My Love’, originally recorded by New York doo-wop vocal group The Wrens, back in 1955. The song delivered Darts with the first of their British #2 hit singles, during 1978. Both singles featured on Darts’ self titled debut album, recorded at Olympic Studios, Barnes, during August of ‘77. ‘Darts’ (UK#9) was released in time for Christmas ’77, and boasted eleven tracks in all, most of which were cover versions of 50s era hits, but Griff Fender (real name Ian Collier) contributed a couple of original compositions.

Once more, Darts narrowly missed hitting a chart bullseye with their next single, ‘The Boy From New York City’. The song had originally been a hit (US#8) in 1965 for New Jersey vocal quintet The Ad Libs. Interestingly, a lot of the doo-wop style material Darts chose to cover, hadn’t made much of an impact on the British charts in its original form, though doo-wop in general hadn’t infiltrated the U.K. scene to any great degree. But Darts were helping to redress the balance, as their slick rendition of ‘The Boy From New York City’, which featured pristine vocal harmonies, rocketed to #2 on the British charts in mid ‘78, and became Darts only foray into the Australian charts (OZ#34).

The group’s next hit, ‘It’s Raining’, was the first to be an original composition (penned by vocalist Griff Fender). The single also became the third release in a row by Darts to peak at #2 on the British charts, giving the group the dubious honour of being the only British act to score three consecutive #2 hits, without ever hitting the #1 target. John Fogerty (see earlier post) and his Creedence Clearwater Revival knew all about the dreaded ‘#2 syndrome’. C.C.R. managed to score five US#2 hits within an eighteen month period during 1969/70, without ever reaching the summit (though C.C.R. had released a few lower charting singles in between that sequence of #2 hits). Still, the fact that Darts’ three UK#2’s racked up combined sales of over 1.25 million, wasn’t exactly a negative. Both ‘The Boy From New York City’, and ‘It’s Raining’, featured on Darts’ sophomore album, ‘Everyone Plays Darts’ (UK#12), once again produced by Hartley and Boyce, the cover of which featured the band stuck to, appropriately enough, a pinball machine!

Following the release of ‘Everyone Plays Darts’, Darts’ founding member, and bass vocalist Den Hegarty, departed the group to help care for his terminally ill father. Hegarty scored a minor hit in March of ‘79 with the single ‘Voodoo Voodoo’ (UK#73), and went on to pursue a successful career in radio and television, prior to becoming a university lecturer. Hegarty was replaced by American born vocalist Kenny Andrews. As accomplished a singer as Kenny Andrews was, those familiar with Darts as a live act particularly, noted that the group lost the edge on their dynamism and flare. Pianist Hammy Howell also left the group during this period, replaced by Mike Deacon. But the change in personnel didn’t have any impact on Darts’ aim at the charts during 1979. Around the time that the compilation set ‘Amazing Darts’ was sitting at #8 on the British album charts, the single ‘Don’t Let It Fade Away’, penned by guitarist George Currie, climbed steadily to #18 in early ‘79. Another original song, ‘Get It’ (written by Nigel Trubridge AKA Darts’ sax player Horatio Hornblower), struck a blow at #10 in Britain.

Darts’ final foray inside the British top ten, came via a cover of the 1962 US#1 for Gene Chandler, ‘Duke Of Earl’. Former Move and Wizzard front man Roy Wood helmed production on the track, which became Darts’ sixth top ten hit, when it struck #6 in August of ‘79. The year was rounded out by the minor hits ‘Can’t Get Enough Of Your Love’ (UK#43), a cover of Jackie Wilson’s ‘Reet Petite’ (UK#51), and the Darts’ third studio album ‘Dart Attack’ (UK#38) - see I’m not the only one who delights in clever (or arguably lame) puns. 1980 saw a limited release of new material from Darts’, in part due to an increasing level of polarisation between the group and their record label Magnet. The group scored their last major hit mid year, with a cover of the 1965 US/UK top five hit ‘Let’s Hang On!’, originally by the Four Seasons. Darts took their version to #11 on the British charts, but could only hit the charts twice more, with the minor hits ‘Peaches’ (UK#66), and ‘White Christmas/ Sh-Boom (Life Could Be A Dream)’ (UK#48), the latter double-A side being a combination of the Irving Berlin classic, and a 1954 hit from the Crew Cuts. ‘Sh-Boom (Life Could Be A Dream)’ was actually a track lifted from Darts’ debut 1977 album. Having been derailed by their dispute with Magnet, and with the explosion of the post-punk/new wave/new romantic scenes, Darts’ would never be able to recapture their momentum of the late 70s.

The group decided to focus on breaking into the American market, and spent much of 1980/81 touring the U.S. They recorded the album ‘Across America’, and the single ‘Sad And Lonely’ (a U.S. only release), but failed to make any headway Stateside, in terms of record sales. By the end of 1980, Darts had experienced a major shake up in their ranks, with the departures of John Dummer, George Currie, and Bob Fish. Nosmo King, Stan Alexander, and ex-Mud guitarist Rob Davis all joined the line-up (Alexander and Davis later replaced by Pikey Butler and Duncan Kerr respectively). By 1983, Darts turned their collective talents to musical theatre, with the West End production ‘Yakety Yak’, a musical based around the songs of Leiber and Stoller, and the group released an EP of music from the show. 1983 also saw Darts break free of their links to Magnet, and the group set up their own ‘Choicecuts’ label. Darts released a string of singles over the next couple of years, including ‘The Mystery Of Ragoula’, ‘Can’t Teach A Fool’ and ‘Blow Away’, all of which reflected the group’s attempt to capture a more contemporary pop sound, but none of which resurrected Darts’ commercial appeal. By 1985, Darts were in their last throws, and made their final television appearance during 1985 on ‘Saturday Live’, hosted by comedian Lenny Henry, who took the place of Kenny Andrews on bass vocal duties for the performance.

Soon after, Darts’ alumnus Griff Fender and Rita Ray went on to manage the British a cappella group The Mint Juleps, who scored a couple of minor chart hits, and Ray went on to become a fulltime DJ. In the late 80s, singer Bob Fish played with ex-Wings’ drummer Geoff Britton for a time, before going on to form Darts II, which he stayed with until the mid 90s, before forming a low key duo called Electric Fish. Bassist Thumps Thomson (AKA Iain Thomson) became a much published author; pianist Hammy Howell continued to play music until his death in 1999; drummer John Dummer combined a career in playing and music management, prior to making a quid from antiques; guitarist George Currie has focussed on the teaching side of music in subsequent years; and Horatio Hornblower (AKA Nigel Trubridge) played with the band Hitlist for a time, before combining his playing duties with promotion and administrative roles in music.

In December ‘05, the Warner Platinum label issued a long overdue compilation of Darts’ best material, under the title ‘The Platinum Collection’, and this was followed in ‘06 by a double CD release of the group’s first two albums, with bonus material. Many of the original era members of Darts reunited in recent years, for promotional appearances and some special one-off gigs.

To read more about Darts, I highly recommend the following excellent fansite:

Friday, March 27, 2009

Soft Cell's Torch Dims

Following on from the exceptional reception for Soft Cell’s debut album, and the mammoth sales for ‘Tainted Love’, the extroverted Marc Almond was elevated to the status of cult figure, and was adopted as a figurehead of sorts for the gay community, though as per usual, sections of the press were keen to undermine his actions, and criticised what they perceived as deliberately effeminate posturing. Regardless, Soft Cell continued to dominate the British charts throughout 1982, next up with the stand alone single ‘Torch’, which burned bright at #2 in the U.K. mid year (OZ#68), and featured the vocals of one Cindy Ecstasy. Cindy was a New Yorker, with whom Almond and Ball had become friendly whilst recording their debut set. Ecstasy by name, and in this case, by nature - the new club drug ecstasy, that is. It established the beginnings of a slippery slope for both, particularly Almond.

Almond and Ball spent a large part of 1982 in New York, and it was the cities thriving club scene that substantially influenced Soft Cell’s next album. ‘Non-Stop Ecstatic Dancing’ (UK#6/US#57) was released mid year, and essentially comprised revamped dance versions of previous material, including their first single ‘Memorabilia’, and a remix of ‘Sex Dwarf’ which made a minor impact on the U.S. club charts. The album also featured the new single ‘What!’, a reworking of the original 1978 song by Judy Street. ‘What!’ came up with a definitive answer at #3 on the British charts. ‘Non-Stop Ecstatic Dancing’ served to keep Soft Cell in the charts, whilst Almond and Ball initially took a brief hiatus from duo duties. Almond had already released a single in March of ‘82 titled ‘Fun City’, and credited to a side project called Marc and the Mambas - a vehicle that allowed Almond to make music without the intense scrutiny that seemed to accompany all things Soft Cell. Initially Almond was joined by pianist Annie Hogan, bassist Tim Taylor, and Soft Cell partner Dave Ball handled everything else. During mid ‘82 Matt Johnson (of The The) also came on board to work on the debut album for Marc and the Mambas, ‘Untitled’ (UK#42), a mix of covers and electro-soul originals, though the associated single ‘Big Louise’ missed the charts. Naturally enough, rumours of the impending demise of Soft Cell began to circulate, also fuelled by reports of increasing tensions between Almond and Ball.

Rumours aside, the duo then commenced work for a new Soft Cell project, which would essentially be the duos second album of all new material. The lead out single, ‘Where The Heart Is’, proved a relative disappointment in commercial terms, when it peaked at #21 on the British charts in late ‘82. The title of its source album, ‘The Art Of Falling Apart’, hinted at the still brewing internal problems plaguing the duo. The album hit stores in January of ‘83, and soon after hit the U.K. top five (US#84), reaffirming Soft Cell’s popularity, if not their potential for longevity. Dave Ball’s moody synth colourings once more permeated the album, whilst Almond’s lyrics once more explored themes of moral disorientation. Songs such as ‘Martin’, which took inspiration from a cult George Romero vampire movie, displayed Soft Cell’s willingness to attempt an epic album track. With a bigger budget at their disposal, the production values were also slicker, but lost none of the duos penchant for melodramatic performance. Initial copies of ‘The Art Of Falling Apart’ came with a bonus 12” EP, which featured the aforementioned track ‘Martin’, in addition to a valiant, though misguided, attempt at a medley of Jimi Hendrix songs - ‘Hey Joe’, ‘Purple Haze’, and ‘Voodoo Chile’.

The follow up single ‘Numbers’ (UK#25), caused quite a stir, in more ways than one, when it was released in February of ‘83. The song, and accompanying video, were both banned by the BBC (there’s a surprise), due to lyrical references to the drug speed. Phonogram Records initially issued the single ‘Numbers’ with a bonus copy of ‘Tainted Love’. Given the relative disappointment of the previous single, ‘Where The Heart Is’, no doubt some clever dick in the label’s accounting department thought it a prudent move to include a two year old #1 single, in an attempt to boost sales of the new single. When Almond and manager Stevo Pearce heard of the ruse, they reportedly stormed into the companies offices during March of ‘83, set off a fire extinguisher in the lobby, and smashed several gold records mounted on the walls. Needless to say, the incident caused some residual friction between Soft Cell and Phonogram. The album’s third single, ‘Heat’, remained frozen outside the charts, and by mid year it was apparent that Almond and Ball needed to part ways once more, to allow things to thaw.

Both Marc Almond and Dave Ball were desperate to escape a combination of unbearable pressures, brought on in part by the lingering shadow of ‘Tainted Love’s mammoth success, excessive external demands on their time, and in Almond’s case, a growing issue with drug abuse. Ball spent mid ‘83 recording his debut solo album, ‘In Strict Tempo’, whilst Almond resumed his pet project Marc and the Mambas. The second Mambas album, ‘Torment And Toreros’ (UK#28), was released in August of ‘83, and spawned the minor U.K. hit ‘Black Heart’ (#49). Around the time ‘Torment And Toreros’ was released, Almond issued a public statement to the press, indicating his impending retirement from the music business. It followed a series of controversial incidents, and reflected ongoing behavioural issues for the singer, related to his drug addiction. Soon after, Almond rescinded his proposed retirement plans, and found time to record a new track with Ball under the Soft Cell banner. ‘Soul Inside’ (UK#16), was released in September of ‘83, but it would take another six months for its source album to surface.

The ensuing recording sessions were reportedly a stop start affair, plagued by new explosive levels of tension and disharmony between Ball and Almond. The heightened level of internal angst, fuelled much of the resultant album, the aptly titled ‘This Last Night In Sodom’ (UK#12). Marc Almond and Dave Ball had already issued a letter to the music press in early ‘84, announcing the split of Soft Cell. In February ’84, the album’s second single, the rockabilly styled ‘Down In The Subway’ (UK#24), originally recorded by Jack Hammer, preceded the album release by a month, and represented one of the few highlights from a largely fractured work. Almond seemed to have experienced an even more intense venting of the spleen, via morosely themed tracks such as ‘Meet Murder My Angel’. Even Ball’s usually measured stroking of synthesizer keys took on a brutish edge at times, whilst a more overt usage of gritty guitars and thumping drums, seemed disturbingly out of place. Soft Cell’s music had rarely entertained the feel good side of life, but ‘This Last Night In Sodom’ sadly mirrored the chaotic disintegration of a once thriving creative union. ‘Tainted Love’ had a life well beyond the tenure of Soft Cell, and re-entered the British charts for a record third time in February 1985 (#43). In March 1991 ‘Say Hello, Wave Goodbye’ (UK#38) was re-released to coincide with the issuing of ‘Memorabilia - The Singles’ (UK#8), a collection of Soft Cell’s and Marc Almond’s best work to date. Almond recorded a new vocal track for ‘Tainted Love’ (and a new promo video was shot), and the track bolted back into the British top five in mid ‘91 (OZ#92), credited to Soft Cell Ft. Marc Almond.

Both happily free of the seemingly suffocating constraints of Soft Cell, Ball and Almond took off in distinctly differing directions post duo duties. Dave Ball initially turned his studio genius to production work, focusing on electronic dance music, in partnership with Ingo Vauk and Richard Norris, and worked extensively with the acid-house outfit Psychic TV. In 1990 Ball and Norris formed a studio project under the name The Grid. The Grid ostensibly took elements of late 80s house and techno ‘music’, and fused them into dance tracks. Their debut 1990 album ‘Electric Head’, featured the club favourite ‘Floatation’ (UK#60), whilst the 1993 follow up ‘4,5,6’ featured the hits ‘Figure Of Eight’ (UK#50) and ‘Crystal Clear’ (UK#27). But it was 1994’s ‘Evolver’ album (UK#14), which produced The Grid’s biggest hit, the banjo-plucking techno wizardry of ‘Swamp Thing’ (UK#3/OZ#2), followed by ‘Rollercoaster’ (UK#19). After a prolonged break, Ball and Norris reunited as The Grid in 2008, with the album ‘Doppelganger’.

Marc Almond’s first project, post Soft Cell, arrived during November ‘84, in the form of the album ‘Vermin In Ermine’ (UK#36), credited to Marc Almond and the Willing Sinners (Annie Hogan, Billy McGee, Richard Riley, Stephen Humphries, Martin McCarrick). The album was stylistically evocative of earlier work, but was more positively received, in critical terms, than his Mambas material. In April ‘85, Almond returned to the top five in Britain, albeit as guest vocalist, on Bronski Beat’s version of ‘I Feel Love’ (UK#3), a cover of the Giorgio Moroder inspired 1977 #1 by Donna Summer.

Almond’s affection for campy cabaret elements, surfaced in subsequent albums, 1985’s ‘Stories Of Johnny’ (UK#22), which yielded the UK#23 title track hit, and 1987’s ‘Mother Fist And Her Five Daughters’ (UK#41). Almond was fast developing as an interpretative balladeer of some distinction, regularly revisiting the work of such popular music luminaries as Jacques Brel, Brel devotee Scott Walker (of the Walker Brothers), and even 50s crooner Johnnie Ray. In 1988, Almond released the album ‘The Stars We Are’ (UK#41/US#144), his first work since Soft Cell to receive a U.S. release. The album was more upbeat in places, and featured sweeping arrangements, alongside more delicate and moody numbers. Following the promising performance of the singles ‘Tears Run Rings’ (UK#26/US#67), and ‘Bitter Sweet’ (UK#40), Marc Almond stormed back to the top of the British charts with the melodramatic duet ‘Something’s Gotten Hold Of My Heart’, alongside 60s legend Gene Pitney. The song had originally been a top ten hit for Pitney back in early 1968, one of ten British top tens for the ‘Rockville Rocket’, without previously achieving the coveted #1 slot. His collaboration with Almond changed all of that, and their sweepingly grandiose rendition of ‘Something’s Gotten Hold Of My Heart’ spent four weeks at the summit of the British charts in early ‘89 (OZ#22). Due to nothing short of stupidity, on the behalf of Pitney’s U.S. label, their updated version of the song never received a release Stateside.

Almond had left the ghost of ‘Tainted Love’ behind him, and was free to embrace the 90s as a bona fide solo hit maker. With a #1 fresh in his wake, Almond indulged with an album of covers, dedicated to one of his heroes, Jacques Brel. He followed this with the well received 1990 album ‘Enchanted’ (UK#52), which spawned the top 30 hit ‘A Lover Spurned’ (UK#29). The aforementioned 1991 compilation ‘Memorabilia’, further boosted Almond’s fortunes, and led into his first studio collaboration in almost a decade, with former Soft Cell partner Dave Ball, on Almond’s 1991 album ‘Tenement Symphony’ (UK#39), featuring the hit single ‘Jacky’ (UK#17). He returned to the British top five once more the following year, with the single ‘The Days Of Pearly Spencer’ (UK#4), originally a hit in the 60s for David McWilliams, and also lifted from ‘Tenement Symphony’.

Despite several changes of label stable, Almond continued to deliver a steady line of albums through the remainder of the 90s, featuring an ever evolving mix of styles and influences, from contemporary dance and electronica, to French chanson, disco, northern soul, piano ballads, cabaret, and 60s pop. Following the 1999 tell all biography ‘Tainted Love’, Almond maintained a consistent and regular level of studio output, despite a serious motorcycle accident in 2004, and with his most recent album ‘Stardom Road’ (2007), the enigmatic singer once more put everything on the line for the music he loves, and delivered a five star performance in the process.

As most groups of bygone eras seem to do at some point, Soft Cell resurfaced in 2001, as Ball and Almond set aside past differences, and performed a series of sell out shows. The positive reviews prompted the duo to embark on a mini tour later in the year. In 2002 the album ‘Cruelty Without Beauty’ was released, and featured the duos first newly recorded material together in almost twenty years. All reports are the album featured strong material and first rate performances, from two mature and confident musicians, in control of their craft. There were echoes of the 80s era Soft Cell, via Ball’s atmospheric synth-laden music scape, and Almond’s engaging lyrics, and emotive vocals. The album yielded the hit single ‘The Night’ (UK#39) in early ‘03, and prompted many Soft Cell fans to ponder over what might have been, had the duo remained together during the intervening eighteen years.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Tainted Love Shines Bright At #1

During 1981, British duo Soft Cell emerged from the pack to announce themselves as one of the pre-eminent synth-pop acts on the U.K. scene, with a million selling single, which would assume anthemic status for the genre. Much in the vein of artists such as Visage, Landscape, A Flock Of Seagulls, Blancmange, Thomas Dolby, Berlin, Missing Persons, Yazoo (see previous posts), Ultravox, Human League, Devo, Tubeway Army, Depeche Mode, early Spandau Ballet, Classic Nouveaux et al, Soft Cell were one of a plethora of synth-driven ‘futuristic’ style acts, that jointly comprised the ‘futurist’ faction of the broader ‘new wave’ movement, during the late 70s/early 80s. Though on the surface Soft Cell’s sound took inspiration from the likes of late 70s era Sparks and David Bowie, and electronica pioneers like German group Kraftwerk, New York duo Suicide, and Brian Eno, its members Dave Ball and Marc Almond, both shared an unabashed love for the U.K. soul scene of the 60s, and contemporary disco/dance. Their high-tech, atmospheric adaptation of a little known ‘northern soul’ track from the 60s, announced Soft Cell’s arrival as serious players, and became one of the few offerings from the British ‘futurist’ movement to achieve significant success Stateside.

Soft Cell were the combined talents of vocalist Marc Almond, and synthesizer guru Dave Ball. The duo met whilst attending the Leeds Polytechnic art school in the late 70s, initially finding common ground in their mutual admiration of the U.K. soul scene. Their earliest collaborations took the form of composing and performing theatrical music for local school productions, with Almond writing the lyrics to accompany Ball’s music. In 1978 the creative union evolved into Soft Cell, and they began performing on local club circuits, their shows making as much of an impact through striking visual accompaniment (slide shows) and special effects lighting (a reflection of the duos background in theatrical productions and the visual arts), as for their trademark hypnotically dark electronic sound. Friend, and visual technician, Steven Griffiths played a key role in Soft Cell’s stage production. Marc Almond would often be the focal point of the shows visuals, performing provocative, and at times bizarre acts, commonly with a sexually explicit theme. Early on, the duos image, and performance dynamic, adhered to like formula employed by Sparks (see recent post), in respect of combining the flamboyant, manic antics of a charismatic front man and vocalist (Marc Almond), with the studious and introverted (read apparently detached, possibly moody, mostly mysterious) musical backing of a genius instrumentalist (Dave Ball even sported a Ronald Mael style moustache for a time) - a template later used by Pet Shop Boys to great effect. Later in ’78, Soft Cell recorded their debut EP, ‘Mutant Moments’, funded by a £2000 loan from Dave Ball’s mother. The EP was recorded using a simple two track recorder, and featured four tracks in all. A limited run of two thousand copies were pressed, and released via the group’s own Big Frock Records label (the EP is now a prized possession among collectors).

The EP release, combined with the impact of their provocative and popular performances, attracted the attention of several cutting edge record labels, including Mute Records and Some Bizzare Records, both of which specialised in backing up and coming synth-pop based acts, such as Depeche Mode and Blancmange. It was the Lincoln based operation Some Bizzare Records, run by Stevo Pearce, that signed Soft Cell to a recording deal. Soft Cell’s signing with Some Bizarre, coincided with the labels major launch in early 1981, via the compilation album ‘Some Bizzare Album’, which featured tracks from Depeche Mode, Blancmange, The The, and B-Movie, among others. Soft Cell’s contribution was the track ‘The Girl With The Patent Leather Face’.

Soft Cell’s first official label release surfaced in March of ‘81, with the release of the single ‘Memorabilia’ (backed by the track ‘A Man Can Get Lost’). Both tracks were produced by Mute Records founder Daniel Miller (see coming post on The Normal), but the single failed to make any impact on the charts, though became a popular track in dance clubs (and eventually infiltrated the top 40 on the U.S. Club charts). Soft Cell shifted base to London, and were soon attracting a bit of media attention, as part of the burgeoning ‘futurist’ synth-pop movement. During this period, Stevo Pearce also worked a deal for Soft Cell’s music to be distributed via Phonogram, under the Some Bizzare label name. It was just as well, because the distributing muscle of a major label would be needed to keep up with demand for Soft Cell’s next single release.

During their many trips to local Leeds discotheques in the late 70s, Almond and Ball had become familiar with a bit of an underground cult classic. The song had originally been written in the 60s by Ed Cobb (of the Four Preps), and was first recorded as a ‘northern soul’ number by Gloria Jones, in 1964. Jones’ original version of ‘Tainted Love’, released on the Champion label, didn’t manage to crack the charts, but an updated version had become a popular track on the British club scene.

Soft Cell offered their dramatically reworked take on ‘Tainted Love’ in July of ‘81. Almond’s impassioned vocals were backed by Ball’s crisp and hypnotic electronic dirge, and viola! Electro-soul was born. Produced by Mike Thorne, ‘Tainted Love’ gripped you from the opening ‘bink bink’ of Ball’s synthesizer, and held you in its sway with Ball’s relentlessly pulsating electronic beat, and Almond’s plaintive vocal style.

The song made steady progress up the British charts during its first few weeks of release, but following a histrionic performance on the BBC’s ‘Top Of The Pops’, ‘Tainted Love’ exploded into the top 10, and by early September the darkly compelling track was shining bright at #1 in the U.K. Though it only spent two weeks at the summit of the British charts, it went on to become the biggest selling single of the year there (re-entering the British charts twice more during 1982). By November ‘81, the ‘Tainted Love’ wave had hit Australian shores, and it held sway over the competition for three weeks during February of ‘82. The song had initially been a bit of a sleeper in the States, but its popularity in dance clubs spilled over into the mainstream charts. ‘Tainted Love’ debuted on the U.S. charts during January of ‘82, peaked at #8 (after more than twenty weeks in the charts), and all up spent a, then record, total of 43 weeks inside the Hot 100. Soft Cell’s ‘Tainted Love’ went on to become one of the biggest selling singles of the era, topping the charts in no fewer than seventeen countries, and was one of the defining songs of the synth-pop movement. Marc Almond would later comment in his book ‘Tainted Love’, that during the recording of the song, the duo only had modest expectations of the song cracking the top fifty. Regrettably, for Almond and Ball, they only received a portion of the performance royalties for the single ‘Tainted Love’, with the song writing royalties directed to Ed Cobb (or his publishing company), whilst the single’s B-side, ‘Where Did Our Love Go’, was a cover of the old Supremes’ hit (written by the song writing team of Holland, Dozier & Holland). The track has been covered and sampled on countless occasions over the ensuing 25 plus years. Most recently, singer Rihanna used extensive samples from Soft Cell’s ‘Tainted Love’, for her global chart topper ‘SOS’.

Whilst the phenomenal success of ‘Tainted Love’ defined Soft Cell as ‘one hit wonders’ in certain parts of the world, most notably the U.S., the duo were anything but in their native Britain. The follow up single, ‘Bedsitter’, was released in November of ‘81, and made an immediate impression on the British charts. As the track was approaching its peak position of #4, Soft Cell released their debut album ‘Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret’ (UK#5/US#22/OZ#34), recorded in New York. The title was anything but a misnomer for the luridly laced musical intent that lurked between the covers. Singer and lyricist Marc Almond drew from the darker, kinkier side of his imagination, to serve up a cheekily camp, and incendiary thematic brew of aberrant sexuality, squalor and seediness, rearing forth from the mundaneness of everyday urban life. The album was a virtual red light district on vinyl, and delivered on the promise of its title. The track ‘Seedy Films’ spoke of long nights in porno cinemas, whilst ‘Secret Life’ explored the darker urges lurking beneath the false banality of suburbanites. Ball’s hypnotic dance beats, combined with a dark, often cold electronic soundscape, offered the perfect musical score to accompany Almond’s tales of depravity. The follow up single, the oddly sentimental ‘Say Hello, Wave Goodbye’, greeted the British charts in February of ‘82, and spent a week at #3 before saying its farewells. Puritans aside, the public at large embraced Soft Cell’s, arguable pretentious, but undeniably engaging debut album. Reflective of the growing influence of music videos, an accompanying ‘video album’ was release, titled ‘Non-Stop Exotic Video Show’. The original video for the track ‘Sex Dwarf’ caused quite a stir, but was reportedly confiscated by police, and heavily censored. Director Tim Pope, later associated with music videos for the Cure, oversaw production on the videos.