Soft Cell

Looking Back at Soft Cell's "Sex Dwarf," the Notorious Single that Never Was

Reflecting on the landmark cult record that rattled the News of the World and beyond on its release.
15 April 2016, 11:34am

"Isn't it nice /Sugar and spice /Luring disco dollies to a life of vice."

A huge electronically-manipulated chord growls, a synth wails like a siren and then there's Marc Almond's sinister intonation. His voice is a half-whisper, conspiratorial, that of a man telling terrible secrets in the dark. This is how "Sex Dwarf," the eighties synth duo Soft Cell's most famous single-that-never-was, begins. Now Universal will release the song on pink twelve-inch vinyl for Record Store Day on April 18th, a fitting reminder that this is perhaps one of the greatest prototype punk-techno tracks ever released, a record that paved the way for LCD Soundsystem, Hot Chip, Leftfield, Underworld, and other providers of rough-and-tumble maximalist techno thrills.

The track was first released on the band's Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret album in 1981. Never mind that this disk that also spawned transatlantic chart-gobbler "Tainted Love" and the much-loved ballad "Say Hello, Wave Goodbye," "Sex Dwarf" was its dark, grimy heart. It's a song that worked equally well as a picture-postcard of drowsy Soho afternoon dive bars, sex shops and porno cinemas in the eighties as it did an anthem for California industrial art-rockers Nine Inch Nails, or a bosh-bosh-bosh thriller for Scooter.

When I heard about the Record Store Day release I was excited, not just as a lifelong Marc Almond fan, but also a lifelong Soft Cell fan—and those two allegiances are not necessarily concomitant. Almond has moved away from the synths and the drum machines (for the most part) and become variously a torch singer, an interpreter of French chansoniers Jacques Brel and Charles Aznavour, and a purveyor of Russian folk music. The last time he performed "Sex Dwarf" in public was when Soft Cell reformed back in 2002. He has since stated on Twitter this it will never happen again—either another reformation of Soft Cell or live outing for the track. But "Sex Dwarf" lives on, a painting in Marc's attic that gets spikier, more raucous, more imbecilic, more fuck-you every year. And that is why we should celebrate it, even if its author will never sing it again.

Soft Cell have had a curious dual life in the public's consciousness since their drug-fuelled implosion in 1984, subsequent to their final album This Last Night in Sodom. Non-fans will bop to "Tainted Love" at their best friend's wedding, may be aware of "Say Hello, Wave Goodbye" and perhaps even "Bedsitter", at a push, and will tend to lump Almond and Dave Ball (his taciturn synth whizz co-founder) with the naff New Romantic likes of Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet.

But those who know, know how Soft Cell basically invented the synth duo template that was later half-inched by everyone from THUMP favourites Pet Shop Boys to Erasure to—God help us—Hurts. How they invented techno with the minimalist Sheffield bleep banger "Memorabilia" (which was featured on Matthew Styles' mix for Crosstown Rebels' Rebel Rave 4). How Almond's lyrics, epistles from the gutters that beatified addicts, strippers, compromised pop stars, desperate housewives, sexual compulsives and dealt with themes of love, murder, ecstasy and insanity blew pretty much all of his contemporaries out of the water bar Morrissey and Nick Cave. How Soft Cell did leather-clad S&M pop way before Essex Clearasil kids Depeche Mode took the template and ran with it, becoming a sort of Torture Garden-friendly U2 in the process. They know all this and more.

With Almond's theatrical use of make-up and leather stage outfits, it was perhaps inevitable that his band would become irretrievably associated with sleaze for some sections of the public in the eighties. Far from being effete, Almond, an eyeliner idol in the time of Thatcher, was as punk as John Lydon or the lads from Suicide (both of whom he has cited as influences), using his outré appearance and sneering performance to piss off an establishment that (as has since became apparent) hid its own guilty secrets behind a hypocritical wall of condemnatory projection. But "Sex Dwarf," a song that, ironically, satirises smutty 80's tabloid sensationalism didn't do the band any favours and arguably imprisoned the duo within a box labelled 'other' for the rest of its natural life.

The track's lyrics, which concern a notional "Sex Dwarf" set on "luring disco dollies to a life of vice," were inspired by a headline that Almond saw in the now-defunct News of the World. It's certainly one of Soft Cell's most bizarre confections, a strange tale of "looking to procure" before "making it with the dumb chauffeur" of a gold Rolls Royce. Ironically, after the band made a spoof video-nasty porno to promote the song which was copied by underhand means and sent out to the media, News of the World—along with every other paper in the country—reported on the story, prompting the police to raid Soft Cell's management's offices and scoop up every last tape.

When I spoke to Marc about the Record Store Day release for this piece he made it clear that he now regards Sex Dwarf as juvenilia "from a very bad time in my life," although he does like the way the new twelve-inch is presented and gives the release his blessing. But for the rest of us, the track is a prototype punk-house gift that keeps giving. Like the track "Martin" from their The Art of Falling Apart album (1983), "Sex Dwarf" is a wide-screen club thumper whose pitch-bending top synth line anticipates the sounds of the first rave records that were to follow a few years later, while its kooky backing vocals (reminiscent of the B52s) add an anarchic rawness that predates comparable LCD Soundsystem and hip-hop productions. And finally there is Marc's voice, shiny and hard as Yorkshire steel and our ringmaster as the track descending into sleaze-fuelled insanity. Indeed, "Sex Dwarf" is truly the sound of Soft Cell lying in the gutter and looking at the scars; at the same time, it is also a landmark of British electronica that richly deserves its cult status.

John Lucas is on Twitter