Pingers are so synonymous with contemporary nightlife that it’s difficult to imagine a night out without a sea of planet-sized eyeballs under strobes, grinding jaws and the inevitable “you having a good night?” chat in the crisp air of a smoking area.
The birth point of ecstasy in British music is usually credited to acid house and the second summer of love: a cemented vision of kids sweating and vibrating in clubs, fields and warehouses in 1988, united by universal empathy and mind-popping sounds. However, in 1981, a couple of 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 are touring in its entirety 40 years on.
The duo of Dave Ball and Marc Almond were in a strange position. Initially creating dark, brooding electronic music with a nod to Suicide, merging paranoid lyrics with a touch of melodic flair, their debut single “A Man Can Get Lost” had effectively bombed. However, the b-side, “Memorabilia” – which merges a strutting disco bass line with a futuristic proto acid-techno beat – was having a life of its own.
“Memorabilia got to about number 99 in the charts,” laughs Ball today. “But the clubs picked up on it. In NME or Sounds they had a chart for the Danceteria in New York and we were in it. Our label saw this and thought: ‘why is this weird little duo from Leeds that no one's heard of suddenly getting played in one of the hippest clubs in New York?’ So I think they thought: ‘we’ll give them another chance’.”
That second chance turned out to be the number one smash, “Tainted Love”, which rocketed the pair to pop stardom.
“Marc couldn't get on a bus without the conductor asking for his autograph,” recalls Ball. When the opportunity to go to New York to record their debut with Mike Thorne was offered, they leaped at it. “You could be totally anonymous there,” recalls Ball. The pair quickly threw themselves into the city, 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 mirrored itself at every turn.”
The pair went to Studio 54 on their first night and Almond ingested a mystery concoction of drugs, leaving him in a pickle. He was rescued by some girls and a few nights later met one of them at the after hours club Berlin. She would soon become known as Cindy Ecstasy. “She would change both my life and Dave’s profoundly,” Almond wrote in his 1999 autobiography Tainted Life. Her name was on account of having a very rare supply of pure ecstasy, which she introduced to Ball and Almond. “It was like nothing else I'd ever had,” recalls Ball.
So early was this ecstasy use that it was still 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 American military did so during the Cold War. When it was resynthesized by Alexander Shulgin in 1965 - after he had a life-changing experience on mescaline and wanted to explore more with mind-altering drugs - it gained a new lease of life.
In 1977, Shulgin introduced it to psychologist Leo Zeff, who became evangelical about its therapeutic potential and recommended it to thousands of professionals across the US, who quickly did the same. It largely remained in medical circles until 1983, when the market potential was realised by a cocaine-dealing cartel from Texas who set up a major distribution operation.
This means the pills Cindy Ecstasy was supplying to Soft Cell and their circle of NYC party friends in 1981 were likely sourced via a medical professional. “Hardly anyone knows about it,” she told Almond at the time, according to his book. “I’m one of the only dealers and there is only one supplier – it all comes through just one person.” Almond recalled his first hit as being “the best drug experience I had ever had. After that night I wanted to do ecstasy again and again.” And they did.
But what impact did this have on Soft Cell’s music? Ecstasy use had been circling in some left-field discos and gay clubs stretching from Chicago’s the Warehouse to NYC’s Paradise Garage, but did this meeting of Northern lads and Cindy Ecstasy result in the first ever E album? The opening synth pulses of “Frustration” could easily be a groove someone like the Happy Mondays would lock into many years later. And while the closing “Say Hello, Wave Goodbye” is ostensibly a synth ballad, it is also a song of profound beauty and emotional resonance that instils a gently creeping warm rush akin to ecstasy.
Almond isn’t keen on ecstasy talk these days, but in Tainted Life he recalled: “It wasn’t long before both of us would come into the studio still mildly buzzing from a previous night’s hit. Soon after it wasn’t long before we were taking it in the studio, especially in the mixing stage.” Ball suggests this side has been played up a little. “Stevo [Pearce, Soft Cell’s then-manager] used to spread that myth saying the whole album was done on ecstasy,” he says.
In reality, ecstasy is more of a background character to NSEC. Creating a party atmosphere around an album of material that had largely already been written. There are audible links to the drug, though, with Almond stating the sighs heard in the background of “Seedy Films”, courtesy of Josephine Warden, are ecstasy-fuelled moans.
However, it was what the duo did next that completed their transition to making music on ecstasy, about ecstasy, and for taking ecstasy to. The remix of “Memorabilia” that came out in 1982 from the aptly titled Non-Stop Ecstatic Dancing is unquestionably E music. Stretched out to seven glistening minutes on the single release, 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 shut our eyes and watch our love materialise.”
Ball and Almond weren’t the only lads from the North of England out in New York at this time, falling in love with E, disco, clubbing and the city itself. New Order and A Certain Ratio had almost exact mirror experiences in 1981 and ‘82, with New Order undergoing a profound musical transition there. This became clear on 1983’s Power, Corruption and Lies, even featuring a track entitled “Ecstasy”.
Soft Cell brought pills to the UK to spread the joy for a small, select, circle of people for the next few years. Two of the ensuing decade’s biggest pop stars, Boy George and George Michael, were experimenting with the drug long before its boom and supposed impact on British music (although it would take Michael several years before he made his acid house pop banger “Freedom! '90”). Notable shipments began coming in by 1985. That same year, the first British article on the drug appeared in The Face and clubs like Taboo became E hotspots. In 1986, the UK hit peak E discovery, as DJs came back from Ibiza with tales, tunes and tablets. Club culture, then, exploded hand-in-hand with ecstasy.
By 1988, New Order were playing 10,000 capacity venues to bug-eyed fans and retreating to Ibiza to make an acid house-inspired album. Meanwhile, Ball was working with Psychic TV on Jack the Tab, an album that has been described (with much debate) as the first acid house album.
So, is there a link between Soft Cell’s New York ecstasy adventures in 1981 and the trajectory of British electronic, pop and rave music throughout the ensuing decade? Yes and no. Soft Cell clearly influenced a tone and style that was heavily mirrored, but ecstasy requires everyone on the same level. Its real impact would come at a time when there were enough people experiencing E together for it to transcend into something universal and influential. In many ways, Soft Cell were so ahead of their time exploring this terrain that, while pioneering, there was little opportunity for people to be immediately influenced or shaped by the culture enveloping it because they couldn’t access the same chemical head space or lived experiences.
However, the strongest and most defined link that connects it all, from Soft Cell’s gritty synth pop to acid house’s squelchy 303 groove, is people falling under the spell of sounds that came blasting out of predominately Black gay clubs in NYC, Chicago and Detroit, at a time when some acid house ravers weren’t boshing anything more potent than Calpol.
“New York was a whirlwind,” Almond now summarises, as he recalls being mesmerised by the sounds of Patrick Cowley and Grace Jones surging through world-beating sound systems. “If life is measured in our collection of experiences, then that trip had so many.”
Dates and tickets for Soft Cell’s ‘Non Stop Erotic Cabaret 40th Anniversary Tour’ can be found here.