Soft Cell album cover Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret

Soft Cell – Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret

Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret was a huge album for me when it was released. It was a shocking, controversial package of songs in 1981 for parents and the newspapers, the latter of which whipped themselves up into editorial frenzies over the wilfully salacious and over-the-top video for the album’s closing track, Sex Dwarf.

Everything about that song was designed to upset closed-minded and sexually-repressed, censorious fools, it seemed to me. And it did upset those people, very much, as did all of Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret, even the ‘red light district’ cover art. I wanted to see the Sex Dwarf video when I read about it in my dad’s paper but didn’t get the chance for years. It came across as rebellious, and right to be rebellious at that, because society felt so restrictive to me as a teenager.

By the time I did get to see the (never released as a single, no surprise) Sex Dwarf video, it was something of a letdown; at least, I wasn’t shocked by it. I found it hilarious and think I and others were meant to. I mean, come on – how could anyone take a chorus that goes ‘sex dwarf / isn’t it nice / luring disco dollies to a life of vice’ as some kind of incentive towards persuading listeners to engage in acts of depravity? I don’t think songs have that power, though they’ve often been thought to (Relax by Frankie Goes to Hollywood, for one, while The Smiths were frequently accused of being responsible for something altogether darker, namely a number of teenage suicides). Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret as a title alone, let alone a collection of songs, was a provocation – two fingers up at the establishment that, on one hand, condemned gay people as evil, and, with the other hand, paid cash to rent boys for sex in cheap hotels. 

Songs do have power, of course. Incredible power. The power of Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret and Sex Dwarf in particular wasn’t found in getting kids into BDSM and prostitution, which it didn’t do; it was in making us laugh at how easily you could shock people simply by showing a man being walked as a dog on a leash, or a woman holding a whip. These consensual games take place whether we pretend they don’t, or seek to shame those who take part in them. The one thing Soft Cell always did well was to take that mainstream puritan horror, and show the hypocrisy behind it. Like many kids, I was kicking back at the idea that sex was bad – and Soft Cell showed me I was right to rebel. 

Soft Cell and Marc Almond have always explored dark themes such as isolation, broken hearts, adolescent confusion, housewives trapped in loveless marriages, and more. They can be a challenging listen at times but there’s a searing honesty to their music. They’ve always had something to say and it’s often been things others are afraid to say.

The singer, Marc Almond, was at his best when singing the defiant and cruel breakup song, Say Hello (Wave Goodbye), and the haunting examination of the transitory beauty of Youth. Entertain Me deals with the bullying of an insatiable audience thinking they own the celebrity on stage, while Chips on My Shoulder tells the story of a man growing more and more constrained and embittered by the life he finds himself living not by choice but because it was expected of him.

These and all the other tracks on Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret told stories of outcasts, so-called freaks, those considered sexually deviant, the suppressed and the repressed. Soft Cell’s lyrics throughout are razor-sharp in their psychological dissections (another band at the time with psychological interests being Tears for Fears). Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret is an album of brokenness made beautiful, with electronic dance grooves ahead of their time, exquisite melodies and Marc’s remarkable, unique voice making tears shine with strange glamour.

The band went on to build on their debut’s success with more tales of a similar vein in their sophomore The Art of Falling Apart, producing another song of equally shocking power to Sex Dwarf in Martin, an epic exploration of a serial killer’s mind that was and remains a deeply disturbing listen, released initially on a bonus 12-inch single bundled with the first runs of the vinyl record and as extras on the cassette. Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret, however, has lost its shock factor down the years but remains a powerful, uncompromising set of stories told in song about lost people, the misunderstood and marginalised, those frustrated by life’s cruelties. It was a perfect soundtrack for teenage outsiders.

And yes, I managed to get to the very end of this classic album review without mentioning Tainted Love. Until now. No reason not to, but that song is so well-known and an absolute belter, I felt the rest of Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret deserved the focus. 

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andrew hinkinson
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