College Countdown: CMJ Top 250 Songs, 1979 – 1989, 25 – 23

25 tainted

25. Soft Cell, “Tainted Love”

According to David Ball, the synthesizer player in the duo Soft Cell, he was familiar with song “Tainted Love” from its venerated place in the Northern Soul club scene in U.K. in the nineteen-seventies. Originally recorded and released by Gloria Jones — as a B-side to the 1965 single “My Bad Boy’s Comin’ Home” —the track was rediscovered by club DJs, leading Jones to give “Tainted Love” a spruce-up, in 1976. That rerecording was the version Ball’s bandmate Marc Almond heard one night, spinning his head. “Marc was working in the cloakroom of a club called the Warehouse, when the DJ played ‘Tainted Love,'” Ball reported many years later. “He ran up and asked, ‘What’s this?'” This was relatively early in the musicians’ partnership, which began when Almond asked Ball to craft accompaniment music for oddball performance art pieces. (“His main piece was called ‘Mirror Fucking,'” Ball said. “He’d be naked in front of a full-length mirror, smearing himself with cat food and shagging himself. It provoked quite a reaction.”) When their work together evolved into the band Soft Cell, they needed a couple of covers to help fill out their live sets. After settling on a take on Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid” as one of them, they toyed with “The Night,” by Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, before opting for “Tainted Love,” in part because Jones had shared the stage with T. Rex, giving her extra credibility in Almond’s eyes. Freshly signed to Phonogram Records, Soft Cell decided to record their version of “Tainted Love” as a single. Although the label was apparently already agitating for a hit — reportedly threatening that the band we be dropped if there was a lack of chart success on what would be only their second single for the company — the recording process was easy and blissful. “It was one of those dream sessions where everything worked,” said producer Mike Thorne. “Everything we reached for seemed to fit effortlessly, whether it was the surprisingly effective horn sustain in the middle or the classic ‘bink.’ Time passed very pleasantly, and very energetically.” The “bink” Thorne cites is the signature airy, chiming electronic sound that provides the distinctive rhythm line of the song. Released as a single in 1981, the track became a worldwide smash, topping the chart in the U.K. and at least four other countries, though it had to settle for barely scratching into the Top 10 in the U.S. (it peaked at #8). Clocking in at a blithe, breezy two-and-half minutes, the song was ideally structured for radio playlists, but the cool kids knew that the best version went a little longer and incorporated a second gem from the nineteen-sixties. “We recorded ‘Tainted Love’ as a long, improvised 12-inch single that at the end morphed into ‘Where Did Our Love Go,’ by the Supremes,” said Almond. “It was chopped in two for the 7-inch version, a half for each side. This was the biggest mistake we ever made: having a cover version on both sides meant we didn’t get any songwriting royalties for the biggest-selling hit of 1981. That must have cost us millions of pounds.”


24 infected

24. The The, “Infected”

When it came time to work on Infected, Matt Johnson’s second album with — or, really, as — The The, the musician wasn’t lacking for ambition. He spent about two-and-a-half years collaborating with a trio of producers and dozens of musicians, including an eighteen piece orchestra. And the scope of the record’s themes was similarly expansive. “This album deals with subjects like AIDS, lust, terrorism and trust, nuclear proliferation and spiritual salvation,” Johnson told Spin at the time of the album’s release, in 1986. The title cut and second single seemed to be preoccupied with the disease that Johnson named first in his litany. Lyrics such as “Will lies become truths in this face of fading youth/ From my scrotum to your womb, your cradle to my tomb” are unmistakably shadowed by the disease that was ravaging the gay community to the callous disinterest of most major political leaders. Making the artistic statement even more forceful, Johnson lapped the MTV-driven field, crafting essentially a feature-length music video for the entire album, a process that ate up a lot of budget and sent the performer all over the world. “My songs are very cinematic, and there can be no pulling of punches when dealing with these kinds of situations,” Johnson told Billboard. “I’m not trying to be gratuitously pornographic or violent, but I had to put myself in some dangerous settings to capture the intensity of the album.” The resulting product — commonly referred to as Infected: The Movie — was tough-minded enough that it received the most restrictive rating available in the U.K. And it was filed away fairly quickly, only recently enjoying its first public screenings in thirty years.


23 between

23. The Cure, “In Between Days”

In 1985, bands often had to spend as much time explaining their music videos as the songs they promoted. This led to Robert Smith expending a lot of energy discussing socks. “It all began when I said to the video director, Tim Pope, that we’d like flashes of color going between my head when I was singing,” the Cure lead singer recounted about the music video for the single “In Between Days.” “And he said, ‘What, color like this, like my socks?’ and I said, ‘Yeah.'” Pope showed his fluorescent socks to the digital animators who worked on the video and they retained the color — which they were supposed to — and the shape — which they weren’t. “Then it was all done, and I got this anguished phone call apologizing,” Smith told Sounds magazine. “At first I hated it, then I came round to it, but now I’m fed up with it because it’s obliterated the idea of the video.” The video might have been knocked asunder, but the song did quite all right for itself anyway. Released as the first single from the Cure’s sixth album, The Head on the Door, “In Between Days” was the band’s fourth straight Top 15 hit in the U.K. and became their first to cross into the Billboard Hot 100 in the U.S., albeit peaking at a meager #99. Smith, who reveled in his own obliqueness, said at the time that he figured “In Between Days” was the closest the Cure would ever come to a straightforward love song. He also noted its relative simplicity in delivering a mini-manifesto on the proper ambition of pop music. “I don’t expect to be told things in songs or have something illuminated for me,” said Smith. “I just want to amused or inspired or entertained in a huge, umbrella-like sense.”

As we go along, I’ll build a YouTube playlist of all the songs in the countdown.

The hyperlinks associated with each numeric entry lead directly to the individual song on the playlist. All images nicked from Discogs.