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Love & Ecstatic Dancing: Soft Cell & Human League Go Long
Ian Wade , June 20th, 2022 09:18

Four decades ago Human League (as The League Unlimited Orchestra) and Soft Cell revolutionised the art of remixing and cemented the idea of the remix album in the public consciousness, says Ian Wade

There had been dance remix albums before. A recent recce to see what the first of these was concluded that The B-52s' Party Mix! was the originator of the phenomenon. The first person to remix an album's worth of material solely to make it sound up to date, with little or no dancing in mind, was Harry Nilsson's Pandemonium Ballet in 1971. Remixing entire albums was pretty much baked into the practice of dub in the 1970s and it was UB40 who brought the arcane practice of King Tubby and Lee Perry to the attention of the UK mainstream with Present Arms In Dub also in 1981.

However Soft Cell’s Non-Stop Ecstatic Dancing and The Human League – or should I say The League Unlimited Orchestra – with Love And Dancing, released within weeks of each other, were the first big ones, and for a variety of reasons, the two that showed what was possible with the format.

Soft Cell had always been a band who felt at home in the world of the extended version. The duo’s 12"s were very different enterprises compared to their singles. It was as if they knew that if fans were going to buy all the formats, then it was only fair to offer something different. The 'Tainted Love/ Where Did Our Love Go' medley, for instance. 'Tainted Love' in its original two-and-a-half-minute incarnation was almost TikTok short – a radio-friendly blast that didn’t outstay its welcome and yet as regards the dancefloors, and the sort of places that would play Soft Cell, those two-and-a-half minutes were frustratingly brief, so why not glue that to a cover of the Supremes' 'Where Did Our Love Go' and allow for regional futurists to luxuriate in a bit of length? Soft Cell mucked about with the fabric of time when they recorded the longer versions of 'What' and 'Torch' and they even threw a rant into 'Bedsitter'.

The origin of the 12" is a contentious issue with any number of contenders for the first. But as a DJ-friendly means of playing an extended song for the dancefloor, the institution dates back to 1975, when Salsoul Records offered 'Ten Percent' by Double Exposure as the first commercially released 12" single, after attempts by Tom Moulton and engineer Jose Rodriguez to put more continuous dance music on a single disc. Another one of the firsts was Donna Summer’s 'Love To Love You Baby', which saw its full near-17 minutes issued as a one-sided DJ-only affair, and due to the technology, a 12" could be cut louder than a conventional album, so DJs not wanting the rest of the album now had the key tools at their disposal. As any DJ will tell you, if you’ve got people on the dancefloor, then you want to keep them there. After realising this, canny mixers would reswizzle the dynamics of an original recording – either emphasising the bass or drums, or breaking it down in order to build it up to create a "musical journey".

Although they were primarily a DJ-only promotional tool for serious discos, or a limited self-pressed edition allowing for a unique enhancement at certain rave-ups, the commercial aspects soon appealed to record companies and by the end of the seventies, 12" versions were being released everywhere and not just by the traditional dance-adjacent acts such as Chic, Evelyn Champagne King or McFadden & Whitehead. Lengthier mixes of tracks such as 'No More Tears', the duet between Barbra Streisand and Donna Summer were expanded to a beyond-human-endurance 16 minutes, The Sugarhill Gang’s 'Rapper’s Delight' clocked in at a quarter of an hour and so on. Wings issued Macca’s first foray into the format with 'Goodnight Tonight'; The Rolling Stones, too, with a lengthy version of 'Miss You' made for dancefloors; and the longer mix of Rod Stewart’s 'Do Ya Think I’m Sexy' helped make it one of his biggest-sellers worldwide. Old duffers who had disco down as awful or faggy, were soon lining up to take advantage of the format in order to take their music to new places. DJs spinning a whole new style sprung from the format, 12" versions would fill out their entire sets.

By the time of the early eighties, the increasing interest in electronic music and club culture saw acts turn to the format in order to work on the dancefloor. Not only was the format a handy marketing device, it added new flavours into DJ sets which had rinsed their fair share of Kraftwerk and Moroder, as well allowing acts to translate to different audiences. In 1979 the early contenders for introducing non-disco acts to the dancefloor via a 12" remix were Sparks’ 'Beat The Clock', the double vinyl-locked groove of 'Pop Muzik' by M, the dub-out of Flying Lizards' 'Money' and Visage’s 'Fade To Grey'.

But by 1981 the trend had gone big with 12" remixes by Duran Duran - often referred to as Night Versions – allowing for older siblings to throw shapes to top ten hits that were focused on younger kids, a trick also used by their “rivals” Spandau Ballet. The Human League’s 'Sound Of The Crowd' arrived that April, essentially some hectic bangs and crashes that were, most importantly, danceable, and aided by the RED label that they’d adopted to show it was a ‘club’ facing release, helped the group break the Top 20 for the first time. The follow-up 'Love Action/ Hard Times' was stickered as containing over 20 minutes of music for a snipsome £1.49.

The magic of Soft Cell’s 12" versions was down to one key factor – Dave Ball would construct the longer versions first and then edit them down into a handy radio version. This was a far more practical state of affairs, where it was a case of deciding what would have to be left out, rather than trying to inflate something with extraneous cowbells and breakdowns. They approached the track as a whole piece of work from the off, way before the general public got a whiff of it. The 12" versions were what got the ball rolling for the duo in nightclubs here and in America, an environment more befitting to them than the pop charts if anything. For a fuller experience of the Soft Cell sound at length, the Keychains And Snowstorms box set from 2018 collects all the Phonogram originals together on one disc, and is a trip in itself.

This is why their Non-Stop Ecstatic Dancing is such a masterpiece. You’re hearing the songs in their full glory – no one has trimmed them down. That said, a remix album is now (and was often in the past) a fan-pleasing exercise where absence of new product means the hasty gathering of a stopgap round-up of unreleased bits and bobs thrown out there with a sense of ‘Will this do?’ And yet there is no suggestion of that attitude here. The ecstatic element is a nod to the fact that Marc & Dave reswizzled elements of their debut in New York while under the influence of the then-new drug ecstasy. Which makes for a slightly more Soft Cell explanation than the originally envisioned second album made with Donald Fagen which was thwarted by disputes with his label, leaving the duo with one week to come up with an album.

The anecdote of how MDMA turned Soft Cell on one is magnificent in itself, with Marc recalling that the first time he took it was under the administration of Cindy Ecstasy, the pair of them listened to The Cure’s 'All Cats Are Grey' in the studio and he understood the magic powers of the drug. It’s her rap on the remix of 'Memorabilia' that elevates the original into dancefloor catnip.

Ultimately, apart from being pretty amazing in its own right, the benefit of Non-Stop Ecstatic Dancing was to allow the band to go off and focus on their own individual projects for a bit – Marc with Marc & The Mambas and Dave with his girlfriend – before reconvening rather than go totally doolally. Although they did go completely doolally, one wonders what sort of album The Art Of Falling Apart might have sounded like if they’d not had that break.

In the case of League Unlimited Orchestra’s Love And Dancing, it was another aspect of New York culture that had inspired producer Martin Rushent to muck about with the tracks off Dare. Wowed by the work of Grandmaster Flash, Rushent decided to see what he could create with his own technology. Taking seven tracks from Dare, plus period appropriate b-side Hard Times (although one could argue that 'Hard Times' had every right to be on the album), he took the music to a whole new piece. Having an album reworked by a single producer is rarer than you’d think – although Richard X’s Foxbase Beta for Saint Etienne, Mad Professor’s No Protection for Massive Attack, Crooked Man’s Crooked Machine for Róisín Murphy and Adrian Sherwood’s Echo Dek for Primal Scream are other notable examples.

Even though Rushent was fairly ahead with new technology, Love And Dancing was constructed almost pre-sampler. He created vocal effects by cutting up portions of the Dare tapes and manually gluing them back together. In total, over 2,600 edits feature on the album.

It was also another move made out of necessity for The Human League, after finding themselves actually selling some records: both 'Don’t You Want Me' and Dare shifted over a million copies each in the UK alone, and there was little left to keep their new fans sated. A reissue of 1978’s relatively austere 'Being Boiled' reached No.6 in early 1982 showing that the band could score a hit with almost anything.

Philip Oakey wasn’t initially wild about the remix album idea. Having always been a keen supporter of not coming across as a rip-off – when he reluctantly conceded to Virgin releasing 'Don’t You Want Me' as the fourth single off Dare, he insisted that the package contain a free poster. He insisted that Love And Dancing be a low-price release. He has since gone on record to rave about how much he loves the album and how innovative it was, telling this site: “We were kind of like the first commercial pop dub group.”

When the album was released, the League were part way through a world tour, playing territories newly opened up to them due to their overnight success. One of these countries was America, which took 'Don’t You Want Me' to its heart, making it a summer number one on the Billboard Hot 100. Love And Dancing was a handy stopgap to new fans worldwide, especially important given how notoriously picky the group were about making Dare’s follow-up, 1984’s Hysteria.

The legacy of Love And Dancing proved it was possible to make new out of old, and also paved the way for other acts to utilise the 12" remix. Cassette versions of albums by Thompson Twins and Paul Young among others featured full-length remix albums on the b-side, Eurythmics (or rather RCA) pushed Touch out again as a remix album, Howard Jones issued his own, mysteriously popular, 12" collection. Frankie Goes To Hollywood became masters of utilising the 12" form, as the significantly different 16-minute Sex Mix of 'Relax' showed, and the ongoing campaign of terrific remixes that accompanied 'Two Tribes’ reign at the top of the charts. Before you knew it, you had albums such as Madonna’s You Can Dance and Pet Shop Boys’ Disco, that felt like they were not just chucked out to please the punters, but gave new dimension and aesthetic to their catalogues.

Love And Dancing’s influence can still be felt today. While most remix albums have a mayfly-span in the charts, Love And Dancing spent an entire year on the lists. It had been something of a pet project for Martin Rushent, who’d looked into making a live instrumentation version of the album. As he said: “Dare’s good, but Love And Dancing broke the mould and kicked off the whole modern dance scene. There isn’t one effect or trick that you hear in any genre of modern dance music that you won’t find on Love And Dancing.

“It is for others to judge its importance in the musical firmament. I am very proud of it and hear the effects and tricks copied a myriad of times. So, it clearly had/has influence.”

Love And Dancing and Non-Stop Ecstatic Dancing. Without these two albums, we probably wouldn't have dance music or the remix single quite as we have them today.