It’s the summer of 1982. Blade Runner, E.T., and Poltergeist are playing in theaters. Lawnchair Larry soars sixteen thousand feet above Long Beach, California in a lawn chair attached to industrial-sized weather balloons. Three quarters of a million people gather in Central Park to protest nuclear weapons. And Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love” enters the Top 10 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100; it will stay on that chart for a record-breaking forty-three weeks straight.
Let’s rewind a couple of years: Soft Cell were a synth-pop new-wave duo from Leeds, England who had started making music together in 1977 when they met at university. After releasing an EP and a few poorly-received singles, the band was pressured by their record label to make one more single in an attempt for chart success. They decided to record a soul tune that they had been performing as part of their live sets for a while. It was a cover of Gloria Jones’s “Tainted Love,” which had originally been released in May of 1965 as a B-side to another of her singles.
In 1965, Gloria Jones was nineteen years old, five years into a music career singing gospel, pop, and Motown soul. Although her version of “Tainted Love” didn’t get much recognition in 1965 (the A-side of the release turned out to be a flop), Jones went on to have an incredible career in the entertainment industry. She performed in plays, wrote and produced countless Motown hits for singers like Marvin Gaye and The Supremes, sang backup for famous musicians like the glam-rock band T. Rex (she was the girlfriend of lead singer Marc Bolan), and continued to release albums through the early ’80s.
Gloria Jones’s original is powerful and soulful, driven by a swinging beat and electric guitars, backed with Motown horns. It’s the story of a woman whose relationship went sour, a spurned lover reclaiming power and rejecting the man that hurt her. Jones belts her song with a throaty diva’s voice, spitting out her lyrics with more spite and disdain than anger. It makes you want to break up with your no-good man. However, for all its ’60s-soul bombast, “Tainted Love” always had a little bit of a warped edge to it, something not quite wholesome. Jones herself (the daughter of a minister of the Church of God in Christ) didn’t really like the song or its title, once saying, “I felt it was vulgar and just wasn’t proper.” She didn’t want her recording of the track to be released, but her record company put it out anyway.
Twenty years later, Soft Cell took this vulgarity and ran with it. The jumpy synth bassline, Marc Almond’s thin and nervy vocals, and the band’s eccentric, eyelinered look all gave the track an extra dose of intentional sleaze. It’s a song for wearing leather and making bad decisions, for neon-lit nights and sordid clubs: “Touch me baby, tainted love.” This version has had a lasting influence, from boosting the mainstream popularity of synth-pop to inspiring even more covers and being sampled by Rihanna and The Veronicas. Few people know that the Soft Cell song isn’t the original, let alone that it’s a cover of a talented and prolific soul artist from the 1960s.
So how did an oddball electronic duo of nerdy English boys come to cover a soul jam from a 1960s American singer? The missing link is a British DJ named Richard Searling. On a trip to America in 1973, he found a copy of Jones’s “Tainted Love” and brought it back with him. At the time, “Northern soul” was a popular and growing genre of British club music: heavier and often lesser-known soul songs from American artists in the ’60s that came to achieve popularity in Northern England. Searling played “Tainted Love” at several of his Northern soul clubs, boosting its underground fame until Jones ended up re-recording the song in 1976. Marc Almond and Dave Ball of Soft Cell had heard the song in those clubs, and as big fans of T. Rex, they had seen Gloria Jones sing with the band and already knew of her music. Almond, the singer, related to the track’s scorn and cynicism about love. It was a natural choice to cover in their concerts, and when they needed to record a successful single, the song’s driving and catchy tune combined with the exciting new sound of Soft Cell’s synth made for a hit.
The first Soft Cell version of the song was a 12 inch single, a medley of “Tainted Love” and another soul classic, The Supremes’ “Where Did Our Love Go.” At almost nine minutes long, this track creates a barren and strange world full of synthesizer and percussion, transitioning between the two songs with a two-minute-long instrumental interlude. The cover of The Supremes is a bizarre marriage of a poppy love tune with a dark new-wave sound; while entertaining to hear, it’s clear why “Tainted Love” by itself became the hit. The short version that Soft Cell put on their 1981 album Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret is snappier, louder, more propulsive than their 12 inch release, and people loved it. “Tainted Love” was the top-selling single in the UK in 1981.
The story of white artists covering and stealing songs by Black American musicians is an old and complicated one: although the covers have usually come from a place of admiration, credit has rarely been given where credit is due. In so much of music history, white people have gained success by taking songs and even whole music genres from Black people, who are given no recognition. For example: Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love,” which was a ripoff of Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon’s “You Need Love;” countless white musicians’ covers of Chuck Berry songs; and basically Elvis’s whole career. Soft Cell and “Tainted Love” follow this storyline. Although Jones used to occasionally join Marc Almond and Dave Ball on stage to sing “Tainted Love,” she didn’t gain any fame from the new hype surrounding her song, despite the fact that she was in many ways responsible for Soft Cell’s career. While knowing her name and recognizing her music and accomplishments doesn’t fix anything, it can begin to break the pattern.
There’s yet another layer to the cultural role of “Tainted Love.” As the song grew in popularity, it began to take on a different interpretation.
In the summer of 1982, the first mainstream front-page story about AIDS was published in the LA Times. Through the 1980s and beyond, AIDS ravaged the gay community (among others), while those affected were villainized and the government failed to adequately address the epidemic. Almond, who was gay but pressured by his record company to keep that a secret, said of “Tainted Love” that “as the track hit the American charts, it took on this other meaning.” The alternate reading of the title “Tainted Love” and the conflicted, scared grief in the song’s lyrics made it a fitting representation of the AIDS crisis. In fact, the first-ever benefit single for AIDS was a cover of the song that the experimental electro-pop band Coil released in 1985.
Just as Gloria Jones inspired Soft Cell, they, in turn, influenced a generation of new-wave and alternative bands, from the Pet Shop Boys to Nine Inch Nails. “Tainted Love” has traveled across the ocean and back, across decades, and across genres. It’s been covered several times over, used in commercials and movies, and it continues to be a ’80s classic.
In 2018, Jones told Dutch radio program Top 2000, “If I had known that Tainted Love had been a hit in England when I was a teenager, I would have gone there, and they would have given me a career. But no one ever told me that it was a hit over there. I never knew.” When “Tainted Love” took off, it left behind Gloria Jones, the original source of its soul. She lives in the background behind her dozens of production credits, behind the stars she supported with her voice, and behind one of the greatest pop songs of the 1980s. Although Soft Cell did great justice to the song with their brilliant and influential reinterpretation, justice was not given to the woman who laid their path.