The Story Behind the ‘First Ever Ecstasy Song’

Pingers are so synonymous with today’s nightlife that it’s hard to imagine a night out without a sea of ​​planet-sized eyeballs under flashes, squeaking jaws and the inevitable “have a good night?” chatting in the fresh air of a smoking room.

The birthplace of ecstasy in British music is usually attributed to acid house and the second summer of love: a cemented vision of children sweating and trembling in clubs, fields and warehouses in 1988, united by universal empathy and mind-blowing sounds. However, in 1981 a few young men from Leeds went to New York, discovered the drug in its infancy and recorded an album: Soft Cell’s Non-stop erotic cabaret. Which they tour with in its entirety 40 years later.

The duo of Dave Ball and Marc Almond found themselves in a strange position. Initially creating dark, brooding electronic music with a nod to Suicide, combining paranoid lyrics with a dash of melodic flair, their debut single “A Man Can Get Lost” was effectively bombed. However, the b-side, “Memorabilia” — which combines a strutting disco bassline with a futuristic proto-acid techno beat — took on a life of its own.

“Memorabilia reached about number 99 on the charts,” Ball laughs today. “But the clubs picked it up. In NME or Sounds they had a hit list for the Danceteria in New York and we were in it. Our label saw this and thought, ‘Why is this weird duo from Leeds that no one has heard of suddenly playing in one of New York’s hottest clubs?’ So I think they thought, ‘Let’s give them another chance’.”

That second chance turned out to be the number one hit, “Tainted Love,” which propelled the pair to pop stardom.

“Marc couldn’t get on a bus without the conductor asking for his autograph,” Ball recalled. When offered the opportunity to go to New York to record their debut with Mike Thorne, they jumped at it. “You could be completely anonymous there,” Ball recalls. The pair quickly threw themselves into town, bouncing from one club to the next. Almond, he tells me, loved “the anomaly” of New York. “The paradox of wealth and extreme poverty, morality and deprivation, it reflected itself at every turn.”

The pair went to Studio 54 on their first night and Almond ingested a mysterious concoction of drugs that left him in a pickle. He was rescued by some girls and a few nights later he met one of them in the after hours club Berlin. She would soon become known as Cindy Ecstasy. “She would profoundly change both my life and Dave’s,” Almond wrote in his 1999 autobiography spoiled life. Her name came from the fact that she had a very rare supply of pure ecstasy, which she introduced to Ball and Almond. “It was like nothing else I’d ever had,” Ball recalls.

This ecstasy use was so early that it was legal in America, and would remain so until 1985. MDMA was patented in 1912 by a German pharmaceutical company, but was not tested on humans until the US military did so during the Cold War. When it was resynthesized by Alexander Shulgin in 1965 – after he had a life-changing experience with mescaline and wanted to explore more with mind-altering drugs – it took on a new lease of life.

In 1977, Shulgin introduced it to psychologist Leo Zoff, who became evangelical about its therapeutic potential and recommended it to thousands of professionals in the US, who quickly did the same. It remained largely in medical circles until 1983, when its market potential was realized by a Texas cocaine cartel that set up a major distribution company.

This means that the pills that Cindy Ecstasy supplied to Soft Cell and their circle of NYC party friends in 1981 were likely obtained through a medical professional. “Almost no one knows about it,” she told Almond at the time, according to his book. “I’m one of the few dealers and there’s only one supplier – it’s all because of just one person.” Almond recalled his first hit as “the best drug experience I’ve ever had. After that night I wanted to ecstasy again and again.” And they did.

But what impact did this have on Soft Cell’s music? Some left-field discos and gay clubs, stretching from Chicago’s the Warehouse to NYC’s Paradise Garage, used ecstasy to circulate, but did this meeting of Northern lads and Cindy Ecstasy result in the very first E-album? The opening synth pulses of “Frustration” could easily be a groove that someone like the Happy Mondays would linger in many years later. And while the closing “Say Hello, Wave Goodbye” is ostensibly a synth ballad, it’s also a song of deep beauty and emotional resonance that induces a softly creeping warm rush akin to ecstasy.

Almond is not keen on ecstasy talk these days, but in spoiled life he recalled: “It wasn’t long before we both entered the studio, still a little buzzed from the previous night’s hit. Shortly after, it wasn’t long before we took it into the studio, especially in the mixing phase. Ball suggests that this side has played out a bit. “Stevo [Pearce, Soft Cell’s then-manager] used to spread that myth that the entire album was made on ecstasy,” he says.

In reality, ecstasy is more of a background character NSEC. Creating a party atmosphere around an album of material that was mostly already written. There are audible links to the drug, though, with Almond saying the sighs heard in the background of “Seedy Films,” courtesy of Josephine Warden, are ecstasy-fueled moans.

However, it was what the duo did next that completed their transition into making music on ecstasy, over ecstasy, and before taking ecstasy. The 1982 remix of “Memorabilia” of the appropriate title Non-stop ecstatic dancing is undoubtedly E-music. Stretched out to seven glittering minutes, the track — which Almond has called “the first acid house techno record ever” — even features a sultry rap from Cindy Ecstasy: “Let’s take a pill and close our eyes and watch our love come true.”

At the time, Ball and Almond weren’t the only guys from the north of England in New York who fell in love with E, disco, going out and the city itself. New Order and A Certain Ratio had almost exact mirror experiences in 1981 and ’82, with New Order going through a profound musical transition there. This became clear in 1983 Power, Corruption and Lies, even with a song titled “Ecstasy”.

Soft Cell brought pills to the UK to spread the joy to a small, select circle of people for years to come. Two of the biggest pop stars of the ensuing decade, Boy George and George Michael, experimented with the drug long before it took off and it was believed to have an impact on British music (although it would be several years before Michael’s acid house music began). pop smash hit ‘Freedom!’. 90″). Notable shipments started coming in in 1985. That same year, the first British article on the drug appeared in The face and clubs like Taboo became E-hotspots. The UK reached its peak E-discovery in 1986, when DJs returned from Ibiza with stories, tunes and tablets. Club culture then exploded hand in hand with ecstasy.

In 1988, New Order played in 10,000 fan-capacity venues and retreated to Ibiza to record an acid house-inspired album. Meanwhile, Ball worked with Psychic TV on Like the Tab, an album that has been described (with much discussion) as the first acid house album.

So, is there a connection between Soft Cell’s ecstasy adventures in New York in 1981 and the trajectory of British electronic, pop and rave music over the next decade? Yes and no. Soft Cell clearly influenced a tone and style that was highly mirrored, but ecstasy requires everyone to be on the same level. The real impact would come at a time when there were enough people experiencing E together to transcend it into something universal and influential. In many ways, Soft Cell was so ahead of their time in exploring this territory that, although they pioneered, there was little opportunity for people to be immediately influenced or shaped by the culture it enveloped, because they did not have access to the same chemical headroom or lived. experiences.

However, the strongest and most defined link connecting everything from Soft Cell’s gritty synth pop to the squelchy 303 groove of acid house is that people are captivated by sounds emanating from the predominantly black gay clubs in NYC, Chicago and Detroit. at a time when some acid house ravers suggested nothing more powerful than Calpol.

“New York was a whirlwind,” Almond now summarizes, recalling being mesmerized by the sounds of Patrick Cowley and Grace Jones thundering through world-famous sound systems. “If life is measured by our collection of experiences, then that journey has had so many.”


Dates and tickets for Soft Cell’s ‘Non Stop Erotic Cabaret 40th Anniversary Tour’ can be found here.

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