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Soft Cell - Non Stop Exotic Video

Sanctuary Records // Unrated // July 26, 2004
List Price: $24.99 [Buy now and save at Bfast]

Review by Bill Gibron | posted July 5, 2004 | E-mail the Author
It all started with Suicide. No, not the aggressive act of self-destruction, but the influential New York band founded by Alan Vega and Martin Rev. A fixture in early 70s punk and no wave, this one singer and one electronic musician dynamic started by the duo eventually bled over into the post-punk pronouncements of British pop in the early 80s. While most soggy synthesizer music seemed caught in an Emerson, Lake and Palmer plane of prog rock ridiculousness, the microprocessor portability of basic personal keyboard setups let almost anyone make their own instrumental mess. Several bands incorporated this new toy into their repertoire, while others scoffed at its simple sonic silliness. But by 1981, synth pop was a full-fledged phenomenon. In the wake of Gary Numan's immense success with "Are Friends Electric?" and "Cars", numerous acts, both old and new, were trying to mine the mini-Moog for their musical inspiration. For every work of traditional synthesized sound, like, Kraftwerk's conceptual Computer World, a young upstart like Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark released a masterpiece like Architecture and Morality, a real chance to show the infinite limits of the new medium. From the dance funk of Yaz to future combinations of pop and party like the Pet Shop Boys and Erasure, the frontman/musician combination became a symbol of self-contained symphonics, an opportunity for even the most melodically challenged coupling to find a aural way to get their point across. And no one did it better, or with more twisted style than Soft Cell. Founded in 1980 by art school students David Ball (instruments) and Marc Almond (vocals), this amalgamation of the tacky with the tasteful exemplified the sheer limitless wonders of non-acoustic harmony. New to DVD from Sanctuary Music, the 1982 Non-Stop Exotic Video Show represents the band at their zenith, a visual and vocal amalgamation of exploitation and entertainment destined to die too quickly, but making a heck of a racket before finally fading away.

The DVD:
The third in the Non-Stop series from this influential band (the first two installments being their full length album masterpiece, 1981's Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret and the remix EP, 1982's Non-Stop Ecstatic Dancing) the Non-Stop Exotic Video Show was a chance for fans to own a collection of Soft Cell's video clips, along with a few scant moments of the band messing about with their mates. Using the notoriety surrounding the group's graphic "Sex Dwarf" film (which was banned by the British government for what it considered to be blatant pornographic content) the premise of this collection was to dispel the myth that lead singer Marc Almond and instrumentalist David Ball were anything other than professional musicians out to make their own sonic statement. Hoping to let the videos do the talking, a dozen examples of old school music television were offered, and it's this impressive package that Sanctuary is recreating here for longtime fans- as well as those new to the group. Every song, save for one ("Chips on My Shoulder") from their first album, is represented on this collection, with the addition of two of the group's most glorious single-only 7" releases ("Torch" and "What!"). In order to get a better idea of the visual and aural elements at work in Non-Stop Exotic Video Show, each clip will be addressed individually, beginning with:

"Entertain Me" – as an introduction to the collection, lead singer Marc Almond addresses the audience, singing lyrics reminiscent of a similarly named show tune from Gypsy. Suddenly, the song breaks into a driving disco beat as Almond berates the public for expecting perfection when performers are merely human beings themselves. Some of the carnival/circus elements are so cliché as to border on kitsch, but what we will learn from not only this clip, but the rest of the Non-Stop Exotic Video Show as well, is that there was, perhaps no more enigmatic frontman in synth pop than Marc Almond. Like a mixture of Alan Cumming with Edith Piaf, Almond represents a repressed gay sensibility (as a homosexual in Britain, his proclivities remained closeted for years) only allowed to shine when he is onstage. His vamp, camp showboating will be a signature symbol of each presentation on this disc and it's his swagger and style that makes the Non-Stop Exotic Video Show so entertaining.

"Bedsitter" – one of many mini-masterworks of electronica from this amazing musical act, the combination of lyrics, sounds and performance create a perfect synthesis of atmosphere and attitude to tell the story of a despondent man lost in the muddle of a mean metropolitan maze. The use of varying visual backdrops to indicate mood swings, as well as the insert elements of David Ball wandering the lonely streets of London really helps to highlight the desperation and isolation evident in Almond's words. Aside from the obvious British slang for a single room apartment (only enough room to sit and sleep in...), the rest of the sentiments are straightforward and symbolic. And thanks to the evocative images utilized to tell the tale, we instantly understand the emotions involved. It's a great song, as well.

"Frustration" – the opening track from Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret, this frenzied fracas describes the day-to-day doldrums of the suburban life. Escaping the mundane and maddening are constant themes in Soft Cell's songs and "Frustration" fulfills this philosophy perfectly. The desire to break out, to feel the freedom to do whatever you want and to simply be yourself will be a source of inspiration for the band over the course of their career, and while this song - and its accompanying video of how life can grind down even the most fastidious fellow – is not the best example of such, it's a real showcase for the groups descriptive prowess.

"Torch" – as one of the more achingly beautiful and basic singles the band ever released, "Torch" is a testament to the power and presence of the synthesizer in popular music. While the acoustic instrument -the swinging London trumpet that recalls the glory days of Carnaby Street creativity - adds humanity, it's the dissonant electronic chords that really create an uneasy sense of defeat. Almond's mannered, mesmerizing vocals immediately evoke the singer type he is serenading, yet without Ball's brave instrumentation and mesmerizing melody, the song itself wouldn't be half as successful. Visually bleak, with Almond stalking a stoic singer as Ball waits in the wings, the video element can hardly match the magic in the song. Still, thanks to this musical magnum opus, the overall effect is fantastic.

"Seedy Films" – as if to prove that not every track on an album needs visualization, the rather routine slink/stomp of "Seedy Films" is given a near literal translation from song to screen and the results are mediocre at best. As Dave drives around London, Marc uses a hand held camera to capture young women walking the streets. The obviously smutty setup – from both the tune and the tone taken by the clip - is to get willing ladies to come up to Soft Cell's flat and film some decedent debauchery for the band's delight. But unlike "Sex Dwarf", which uses a "Love to Love You Baby" sex sound scenario to shade its sonics, the moans and groans here are just plain pitiful. Ball looks as bored as we are as Almond tarts it up for the camera.

"My Secret Life" – thankfully we get back on track with another certified Almond tour-de-force, this time discussing scandal and gossip in gloriously acerbic swatches. Seated on a barstool as Ball plays accompanist in the background, Mac's manic reading of the entendre filled lyrics juxtapose outrage with winking acknowledgement to send a deliciously mixed signal of guilt and gratitude. The song itself is a standard musical hall time step, but thanks to the ballsy bravado Almond brings to it, the player piano parameters suggest something more prurient rather than crowd pleasing.

"Tainted Love" – for many, this will be the only Soft Cell they know. Thanks to its one hit wonder status in the US (frankly, Cell deserves better than to be remembered so) and its constant resurrection in nostalgia based programming, many miss the more sinister, obsessive aspects of the song. Indeed, Almond's reading is almost psychotic as he makes you feel the poison in this passionate pen letter. The video is equally evocative. Mixing the depraved designs of ancient cultures (Rome, Greece, Egypt...Victorian England?), Almond plays a pouting, deranged demigod Emperor tormenting an angelic child with his ostentatious anger. The final image of Marc mandating that the child place their fingers in a fish tank filled with piranhas exemplifies the song's more ominous message perfectly.

"Youth" – using a bit of video magic, home movies are superimposed onto the white portions of Almond's monochrome silhouette as he presents a straightforward analysis of this sad songs somber sentiments. The use of an extended close-up, Almond's face filling the screen, showcases the subtle shifts in emotion and mannerism of this most poignant of modern pop singers. Indeed, Almond recalls the classic crooner from the heyday of such an entertainment ideal that it's easy to imagine him taking on the songbook from Tin Pan Alley, or other well-worn standards in a manner Robbie Williams only wishes he could recreate (oddly enough, that is something Almond has pursued in his solo career).

"Memorabilia" – let's face it, disco is disco, and nothing stinks of the 70s more than a repetitious bass line beating into your brain over and over again. Over a montage of home made hi-jinx (the band and their friends are frolicking around and basically making asses of themselves in sped up footage) we see cityscapes and the ghostly image of Almond floating throughout, representing the memories he is so urgently crooning about. As the first single Soft Cell ever released "Memorabilia" is an anomaly, not really indicative of the mad musical avenues the band would eventually explore. It's just very good, but very basic dance music. Besides, who told guest artist Cindi Ecstasy that she could rap?

"Sex Dwarf" – (Snippet) – the one disappointing aspect of this DVD is that Sanctuary didn't pursue the inclusion of the original "Sex Dwarf" clip as an extra or bonus feature. A great deal has changed in the 20 plus years since the video was first show, and even with its supposed sexual subject matter, the chance to finally see this infamous, mythological music video would make the day of any fan of Soft Cell. As it stands, this 30-second clip of Almond leading a band of formally clad little people like a crazy conductor is just silly.

"What!" - in this Pop Art inspired performance clip, Almond and Ball pose and preen as Lichtenstein and Warhol inspired sets showcase the post-modern ideal of the band's beliefs. Attempting a mixture of Burt Bacharach time-changes and Tony Hatch melody machinations, this cover of an obscure H. B Barnum song is both celebratory and sentimental, a chance to mix the melancholy with the merry to evoke a throwback ideal to a more innocent time in music. The visual elements are similarly suggestive. Complete with British cult mainstay Mari Wilson (herself an artist paying homage to Petula Clark and Julie London) and a few ironic icons, (Marilyn Monroe, Andy himself) the video is a delightful detour into the strange domain of 60s cultural cross referencing, something that became part and parcel of the pop music scene in the 80s.

"Say Hello, Wave Goodbye" – perhaps the clearest example of an aural masterpiece the band ever created, this sensational sentimental send-off to an uncontrollable lover is as beautiful a piece of music ever to come out of the synth pop dynamic. Anthemic, beatific and just a wee bit melodramatic, the soaring chorus is matched by the clear-cut storytelling of the verse to paint a painful, plaintive portrait of passion dying and a relationship in free fall. When Almond shrieks "Take your hands off me/ I don't belong to you, you see" he may be invoking a traditional response to an infatuated flame, but the unbridled feeling he brings to the line turns something trite into an amazing show of empowerment and freedom. Of all the lost classic moments in the discography of Soft Cell, this is the song that should have saved them from single success status in the annals of the American music scene.

"Sex Dwarf" –(Credits) since it's such a wonderful song, Sanctuary obviously decided to flesh out the running time of the DVD by adding the entire album mix of "Sex Dwarf" as the musical signature over the closing credits of the compilation and – in an innovative move – the technical acknowledgments for the disc itself. While it's no substitute for the original scandalous video, having this mischievous music here, in its entirety and newly rematered (see below) is a nice touch.

Only taking us up to the release of the group's second album, The Art of Falling Apart, the Non-Stop Exotic Video Show is only a small sneak peek into the creative canon of this remarkable band. Missing are other majestic moments from their sonic output, tunes like "Where The Heart Is", "Numbers", "Loving You – Hating Me" and "Soul Inside". The perception that Soft Cell stopped after "Tainted Love" is more than eradicated by this set, but Sanctuary could have completed their treasured treatment of this legendary act by including all the Soft Cell video they could find. Watching the band mature, fracture and eventually implode would have filled out the visual narrative of the group's history quite well. As it stands, the Non-Stop Exotic Video Show is an entertaining time capsule, a chance to see music video in its infancy mixed with the amazing musicianship of David Ball and Marc Almond. The non-performance segments, mostly spoken directly to the camera, are drool if drunken stupidity, the band and their cohorts cracking up and wise on film. But it's enlightening to see snippets of their individual personalities (Dave as a innocent imp with a hidden sense of danger, Marc as the drama queen pixie with a penchant for the risqué) even if they are so rapid you'd start to blink and miss them. As a digital reconfiguration of this fan favorite video compilation collection, Soft Cell's Non-Stop Exotic Video Show is a strangely compelling glimpse into the early 80s and its new wave/romantic realities.

The Video:
Since most of the clips are actual "videos", taped in studios with simple sets, the transfer is superb. On occasion, like with "Frustration", "Torch" or "Tainted Love", film is used and the results are far more flat and grainy. Still, these minor defects add a strange, ethereal quality to the image that makes them even more evocative. Overall, the 1.33:1 full screen print is near-pristine and incredibly colorful. And for something forged with the technology of 24 years ago, it looks remarkably good.

The Audio:
Sanctuary understands that the audio elements of a music video collection are equally as important as the visual representation, and the Dolby Digital 5.1 remix of Non-Stop Exotic Video Show's soundtrack is amazing. The superior aural attributes given to the songs, the sense of space and ambience will have you reliving these tunes for the first time. From the deep bottom burbles during "Bedsitter" to the wounded wail of the trumpet during "Torch", much of the material here has never sounded this good, even in compact disc remasters.

The Extras:
The most depressing aspect of this DVD release is the complete lack of bonus material. Many who walk into this release not knowing much about the band will be equally baffled by the lack of background information on this disc. Still, for giving us fans a chance to own this collection on a far more permanent platform one can forgive the bare bones presentation.

Final Thoughts: While in college, during the summer of 1981, I went back to my hometown of Chicago on some manner of family vacation the specifics of which I have long since forgotten. As I wandered into Wax Trax Records – back then a music store as well as a fledgling label – I made a beeline to the import 45s and immediately began perusing the bins for XTC singles I didn't own. Some sloppy pub rock played in the background as I continued my hunt for any elusive musical holy grail. Then something startling happened. As I held a copy of "Making Plans for Nigel" in my hands (containing the special edition sleeve complete with bonus board game) I was transfixed. The music playing around me was ethereal and passionate, the singer sinking sentiment into every syllable he uttered. As I looked up at the video monitor I saw a strange, small man in a black body suit performing his heart out, claiming that he didn't belong to anyone in particular and that it was time for him to depart. I could not believe what I was hearing. It was so beautiful and yet so completely different than the punk and pop I was always listening to, that I was immediately thrown off-guard. The artist, indeed, was Soft Cell and the song was the wonderful "Say Hello, Wave Goodbye". Pooling my cash, I picked up the album and a few 12" remixes to carry back to campus (and the radio show I DJ'ed during the week) and my personal love affair with the band officially began. Over the years, I have championed this act to anyone who will listen, and now I have a new weapon in my aesthetic assault. If you've only heard "Tainted Love", you've only witnessed a small portion of Soft Cell's power. Though incomplete career wise, the Non-Stop Exotic Video Show is a brilliant introduction to this remarkable band and a sensational souvenir of some of the best synth pop ever to grace the airwaves. Give it a chance and you too will instantly fall in love with this forgotten force in electronic music.

Want more Gibron Goodness? Come to Bill's TINSEL TORN REBORN Blog (Updated Frequently) and Enjoy! Click Here






Highly Recommended

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