A decade-defining hit with a history of iconic deaths, underground movements, and Oscar-winning failures.

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In 1981, Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love” was about to set new records and provide the soundtrack of the decade. The song is a genre-defining track which is the pinnacle of the electro-pop sound of the ’80s. It is instantly recognisable from the first second due to its unmissable heavy synth beat.

It would top the charts the world over, setting new records on both sides of the Atlantic. Yet, even before its release, it would see the birth of an underground movement and the death of an icon.

A top-selling failure

In 1964, whilst releasing family-friendly doo-wop records with The Four Preps, Ed Cobb was writing and producing R&B and soul records on the side. He is responsible for writing “Every Little Bit Hurts” for a sixteen-year-old Brenda Hollaway, which would go on to become a smash for Small Faces and the Spencer Davis Group.

Cobb had another potential hit in his back-pocket but he was looking for a youthful singer who could match the uptempo beat of the track.

At the same time, Gloria Jones had been making a name for herself since the age of fourteen, when she started performing in the gospel group The COGIC Singers alongside Billy Preston.

Knowing of Jones through her father’s work as a pastor, he invited her in to record his new track, “Tainted Love”.

The eighteen-year-old Jones turned up to the session with her mother and put down her version of “Tainted Love”, along with “Heartbeats Pt 1&2”.

The latter song would go on to chart success, eventually being made famous by Dusty Springfield but “Tainted Love” would struggle. Without much airplay, it was quickly dropped and Cobb would blame the uptempo beat for the failure.


The song would lay dormant for the next ten years before that uptempo beat would define an underground scene and then a whole decade.

The failure that would define a new scene

In the late 1960s, a new music scene in the United Kingdom (UK) started to emerge. As young people across the North of England were at the forefront of a cultural awakening, they were looking for new music to express themselves to.

The North of England had been the epicentre of the world’s first industrial revolution in the 1900s and by the late-1960s was filled with industrial towns, billowing out smoke from their factories. These towns would be the scene of another revolution — a musical one.

The grey backdrop would be soundtracked by the uptempo, stomping beats of the Motown sound from across the shore. Seeing a hard-working kindred spirit in the motor city of Detroit, local DJs would spin the hits of Motown for the young people of these towns who were flocking to all-night clubs to dance to the tunes.

As the scene progressed, DJs began to find and play more and more obscure records from the mid-60s, often picking up rare tracks that initially hadn’t sold on their release and giving them new life.

A unique genre in that nobody ever actually ‘recorded’ a Northern Soul song, the term would be retrospectively added to the 60s R&B or soul sound that was popular in these clubs. It was the heavy beats and fast tempos that made these songs ‘Northern Soul’.

Without new recordings, the scene was reliant on DJs searching for old, unique records. One of these DJs, Richard Searling, whilst on a trip to the United States (US), came across an unknown single called “Tainted Love” by a then-unknown singer, Gloria Jones.

He took the record back to the UK and the fast beat of the song which had been its initial problem served to be its success as it quickly became a staple of the scene.

It would become most synonymous with Wigan Casino, a Northern Soul club which was eventually voted by Billboard Magazine the best club in the world in 1978.


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Wigan Casino. Source: Manchester Evening News

When the owners of legendary nightclub Studio 54 called Russ Winstanley, who was running the northern soul all-nighters at Wigan Casino, to ask them their secret, he asked who were the celebrities that were giving the club its reputation.

Winstanley told him it wasn’t about celebrities but it was simply the music that people wanted to hear.

This wasn’t entirely true as two Wigan Casino regulars would take what they heard and put it at the top of the charts in seventeen different countries.

The second taste of disappointment

Disappointed by the lack of success of her own recordings, Gloria Jones turned to writing and producing for others. After a chance meeting with Pam Sawyer in the late ’60s, she secured a role at Motown creating hits for other artists.

Over the next few years, Jones would write songs for the top Motown artists of the day including Marvin Gaye and Diana Ross as well the grammy-nominated “If I Were Your Woman” for Gladys Knight.

Throughout this time, Jones had been performing with musical productions and it was in 1969 whilst on tour with Hair that she first met British glam-rock pioneer, Marc Bolan.

In 1972, Bolan and his band T-Rex were on tour in the US when he asked Jones to sing backing vocals. Shortly after joining the band, Jones and Bolan struck up a romantic relationship and they would have a child, Roland Bolan, three years later.


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Gloria Jones performing with T-Rex in 1976. Source: Wikicommons

At the same time, Jones’ original recording of “Tainted Love” was making waves in the Northern Soul scene and Marc Bolan recognised this. He encouraged Jones to record an updated version and capitalise on its popularity.

Jones hit the recording studio once again in 1976 with Bolan producing and created her Vixen album, containing a fresh recording of “Tainted Love”.

Once again, the song failed to chart for Jones.

Gloria Jones would never see the success that her song achieved and her name would become a footnote in its history. The song would become huge just five years later, but not before Jones going through unimaginable tragedy.

The death of an icon

Marc Bolan was on course to become one of the biggest selling artists ever in the UK, but it was his unique style and charisma that set him apart. Often compared to David Bowie, Bolan never had the chance to fulfil his potential as aged just twenty-nine, he would die in a car crash.

Due to a fear of dying early, Bolan never learned to drive so, tragically, it was his girlfriend, Gloria Jones, that was behind the wheel of the purple Mini that he infamously died in.

Driving home from a performance in London, Jones lost control of the car whilst coming over a bridge, hitting a steel fence post on Bolan’s passenger side, killing him almost instantly. Jones herself suffered a broken jaw and was lucky to leave the wreck alive.


Marc Bolan and Gloria Jones. Source: Ultimate Classic Rock

Marc Bolan’s legacy lives on today. At his peak, he was outselling Jimi Hendrix and The Who. With his flamboyant personality, he would be credited with creating glam-rock.

Top of the Pops, finally

Around the same time in the mid-70s, two young men from the seaside towns of Northern England were finding their identity in the Northern Soul scene. David Ball and Marc Almond were simultaneously taking in the sounds of US R&B and the German synths of Kraftwerk.

They would meet later at Leeds University to form Soft Cell.

Bringing together their two major influences, by 1981 Soft Cell had already had a modest hit with “Memorabilia” and were aiming to record their next underground success. They turned to their Northern Soul days and, in just forty-eight hours, recorded their electro-synth version of the song they grew up with, “Tainted Love”.


Soft Cell performing “Tainted Love” on Top of the Pops, 1981. Source: Sound of the Crowd

Their version would be the fastest-selling single of 1981 in the UK, eventually hitting number one in seventeen different countries and sitting in the US’ Billboard Top 100 for forty-three weeks, a Guinness World Record at the time.

It would be Soft Cell, not Gloria Jones, that would be credited as Marilyn Manson covered the track in 2001 and Rihanna sampled it for her 2006 hit, “SOS”.

Soft Cell would have a difficult relationship with the song, even refusing to play it at times, as, just like Gloria Jones, the song would be bigger than them.

An Oscar-winning ending

Gloria Jones returned to the US following the death of Marc Bolan. Although Bolan’s death was eventually ruled accidental, she left the UK despite being scheduled to appear in court on charges of dangerous driving.

She would release an album in tribute of Bolan’s life before eventually going back to her 1960s roots. She released an album with “Tainted Love” writer Ed Cobb and worked once again with Billy Preston on a COGIC Singers reunion which produced an album in 1984.

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Most recently, she poignantly featured in the oscar-winning 2013 documentary, 20 Feet From Stardom, which shone a light on the troubles and hard work of the life of backing singers who nearly made it on their own.