Gay, gay, gay, gay, gay.
There aren’t many short words I can think of which bear the weight of so many worlds of meaning. I grew up in small-town Wales a child of very liberal hippy parents and I was always taught that it wasn’t what or who they were that defined people, but what you found them to be like that was key. One of my parent’s friends had a brother who was gay, I can remember picking up on this fact once from my parents conversation when I was about 12 and looking at him carefully when I saw him (he was a very normal looking fella who worked on a market-stall) and thinking, ‘Wow, so that’s what a gay person looks like’ and, later, ‘I’ve just spoken to a gay person!’.
You see by that point I was in secondary school and the word gay was being bandied about as the deadliest insult imaginable – in truth I had very little real idea of what it meant, only that you couldn’t let other lads call you it and it was only boys who were gay. I certainly had no real grasp of the, umm, mechanics potentially involved. If I connected it to anything culturally at all it would probably have been all those tragic British limp-wristed comedians which seemed to abound in our films and TV for decades without end, their campness exaggerated to the point that their otherness was comic and safe. If pushed at that time, I reckon I would probably have guessed that gay men wore dresses.
What can I say? Carmarthen wasn’t the most cosmopolitan of places, possibly still isn’t. I never knew anyone gay at school, well apart from one annoyingly hyper guy who came out when he got to university and, according to a friend who was also there, immediately became a lot less annoying at a stroke. Hell, I still remember seeing an issue of ‘Gay Times’ in a newsagent in Leeds, when I got to university and thinking ‘Wow! They’ve got a paper!’; despite being a, self-diagnosed, culture junkie and connoisseur of the plays of Joe Orton by that point, I was still inescapably a hick from the sticks, no matter how sophisticated I considered myself then.
Now growing up in the 80’s there was a further source of gayness beamed at us all every Thursday night, in a primetime BBC slot no less, Top Of The Pops. Here amongst all the gurning chancers, rockers and appallingly faddy chart music were glimpses of startling otherness*, men in make-up, New Romantics, something called gender bending (‘Gender bender!’ immediately becoming that week’s deadly insult of choice) and the whole highly-sexed quandry that was Frankie Goes to Hollywood and it was all flamboyant and allowed. Huge chunks of 80’s chart pop was gay and people didn’t mind! It was all a bit baffling to tell the truth.
Marc Almond was a fellow alumni of Leeds University and along with Dave Ball was half of Soft Cell and as such, responsible for half of my favourite song to dance to ever** ‘Tainted Love’^, a song that was played once on every dance floor I ever strutted my stuff on during my time there, or ever since really. Which is how, master of the seamless linkage that I am, we get to tonight’s offering Soft Cell Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret, which is a rather gay LP and I don’t mean that in the 12-year old me sense of the word either.
The cover shows Mr Almond, looking eerily like Austin Powers would 18 years later and Dave Ball, looking all nocturnal and seedy, with Mr Almond reaching into his jacket revealing a packet – in which I have no doubt is contained the seed of all filth and depravity in the universe, or a bagel. Probably a bagel.
It wasn’t by accident I mentioned Joe Orton in my spiel above, Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret is soaked in the juices of the sense of repression, seediness and couplings that saturate Stephen Frears brilliant film about him, Prick Up Your Ears and also that inevitable sense of post-hedonistic comedown and self-loathing. Kicking off with ‘Frustration’, a staccato expose of an ordinary man’s dissatisfaction with his life – shot through with the arrogance of youth; I mean the poor sucker actually has a job! Imagine that! No wonder he wants to
Experiment with cocaine, LSD and set a bad bad example
Live a little, run a harem, be a tiger
Meet Bo Derek and be her Tarzan
There’s a good video for this track and it sounds like a more synthesised version of The Cure to me, more so than anything else on this LP. ‘Seedy Films’ which follows after ‘Tainted Love’ is the real deal and surely must have caused a stink in 1981 with its matter-of-fact references to the ‘hands of a stranger’ and casual sex.
‘Youth’, on the other hand is a different beast entirely and a song I find quite moving, a lament for youth, looks and beauty flown away. I could easily imagine it belted out by some formidable French cabaret star, torch song style. Given that it was written and sung by a 23 year-old I find the sensitivity of it all the more remarkable. ‘Entertain Me’, is a track where I think the synths are just too lightweight but the lyrics are damn interesting, the band basically decrying the banality of a performing musician’s lifestyle and deriding audiences for wanting to see cookie-cutter perfect performances night-in, night-out. The sentiments remind me of the Adverts’ storming ‘One Chord Wonders’ – although the music is nowhere near as good, I have always been a sucker for Almond’s voice though whether it’s used for crooning, or more malicious purposes^^.
Tactically ignoring ‘Tainted Love’ by far my favourite track on Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret is, the genius that is ‘Sex Dwarf’. It is undoubtedly a good job I never encountered this song during my full-on AD&D role-playing heyday – I’d probably have simply mistaken it for an obscure racial variant and had a go at creating one with a D20 and making it battle Sex Goblins and Kinky Kobolds. I lack the words to express to you how much I love this song. Firstly, beats and synths have never sounded this sleazy to me either before or since, secondly it’s just hilariously funny – I’m guessing it’s meant to be, after all in what other context could you tell your Sex Dwarf that ‘They’ll all love your miniature ways’? at least I hope I’m right there. I do just love the lyrics, they certainly do ride that depravity bobsleigh all the way home. I have on several occasions now asked Mrs 1537 if I can have ‘Sex Dwarf’ played at the end of my funeral to lighten things up a bit, so far the answer is negative, but I’m working on it – pah! hypothetical grieving widows have no sense of humour!
So there you have it, frustration, casual lust, self-doubt, mischief, jealousy (Say Hello, Wave Goodbye), boredom, laughs, sorrrow and malice (Secret Life) – not such a gay LP at all, eh? just another shot of life in all it’s rich forms, glories and contradictions. I think the point is that we’re all actors in the Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret of life that’s going on all around us. Marc Almond always makes the point that he doesn’t like being referred to as a ‘gay artist’ because such labels are unhelpful and limit the relevance of whatever he sings about to a certain section of society, diminishing the universality of feelings.
I couldn’t agree more.
*I know I used that word in the paragraph before last, but I really can’t think of a better one right now.
**dramatic license, in reality it would be a three-way tie between TL, Dee-Lite’s ‘Groove is in The Heart’ and Cure ‘Lovecats’.
^I know it’s a cover, but I’m afraid Soft Cell’s is the only version to count for me.
^^not to be confused with Malicious Porpoises, nasty.