The most unique interpretation of Tainted Love: Coil

Tainted Love is a song most people, if not all people, know. It was originally performed by Gloria Jones, but only became a mainstream hit when synthpop duo Soft Cell (including Marc Almond on vocals) covered the song in 1981. The cover, which appeared on the brilliant Soft Cell album "Non-stop erotic cabaret" (without any images, the music just breathes the hidden sleazy atmosphere of the Soho red light district and contains several brilliant songs), was synth-driven. Danceable yet very original due to using a synth, electronic noises. Add Marc Almond’s vocals, varying from torched to sleazy, on top… and you had one of the most iconic songs of the eighties.

Suddenly "Tainted Love" became a worldwide classic, and since that moment (1981) the song has been covered by so many artists that it ranks amongst the most frequently covered songs ever. Marilyn Manson made a decent but not too special cover in the first half of the past decade, Belgian dance band Milk Inc made a disco-like version of it, and the list of bands and artists who covered it is a lot lot longer. The song has been performed in a whole range of different styles, from soul to pop, from dance to synthpop, from metal to coldwave, … But as much as I love Soft Cell’s version, the version which leaves the deepest impact has to be the 1985 release by Coil. Before continueing to read, here is a

WARNING: the cover is very bleak and the atmosphere of the cover is eerie and cold, almost like a funeral. People sensitive to such sombre music may prefer to stop reading here. I felt it was my obligation to include this warning.

Coil was a unique band overall. It was one of those bands who experimented with the boundaries of music. Their sound being too alienating for the mainstream crowd, but too brilliant and renewing not to be highly influential in the alternative scene. Coil was a UK based electronic music duo with two fixed members: John "Jhonn" Balance and Peter "Sleazy" Christopherson. A long list of other artists contributed but these two guys really were the core of Coil and the only permanent members during the band’s existance from 1982 until 2004. The band was too diverse to categorise, leading to a whole list of musical styles applied to them: noise, avant-garde, coldwave, synthpop, electro, industrial, drone, … A band too diverse to just categorise. The band was way too special to reach the mainstream crowds but they were so influential on the alternative scene that in a whole range of genres, some artists will include Coil amongst their inspirations. The band existed over 20 years but, the final 5 years of their existance aside, rarely if ever performed live, which added to the fog of mystery surrounding the band.

The sound of the band thus is very hard to describe but generally they tried to confuse their audience and create a chaotic, sometimes apocalyptic or unsettled, soundscape. Their influences were not necessarily other musicians: Coil were heavily influenced by occultism, alchemy, spirituality…. and cited, amongst others, Marquis de Sade and Aleister Crowley as inspirations. It was also known that a sort of ritual drug consumption was done during recordings, probably to add to the special surreal soundscapes they wanted to create.

"Tainted Love/Panic" was a double single released in 1985 and was a landmark in musical history. While AIDS and HIV have been widely discussed and taken out of the taboo atmosphere since Freddie Mercury’s death shocked the world in the early nineties, the disease was highly taboo in the eighties. In 1985 Coil recorded and released this cover of Tainted Love with the intention to donate the earnings to AIDS research. It was the first time ever in music history that profits were donated to AIDS related charity, as the band stuck to their intentions and donated all money earned from the record to the Terrence Higgins Trust, an AIDS charity. "Nothing special", some may say, but again: this was 1985, several years before openly debating AIDS became accepted. Back then it was taboo. Thus, Coil made a bit of music history here with this first ever release whose profits were donated to an AIDS related organisation. The cover sounds cold, eerie and has the sad atmosphere of a funeral, the video is eerie and shows a sick near-dying patient in a hospital along with some occult symbolism. Maybe though such a sombre atmosphere was just fitting given the purpose of the release being donating money to AIDS charity. It is quite hard to make a song linked to AIDS and make it sound happy and danceable. The cold, sombre atmosphere suited just perfectly. The version is almost 6 minutes in length and so sombre and cold that it is by far the most unique version of Tainted Love, sounding dramatically different from all other covers recorded before (and after).

If asked how to describe this cover… Well, imagine a distant church bell tolling briefly, announcing an unsettling feeling that sinks in, then a few synths slowly come in. The sound of the synths is cold, eerie, sombre, and the bell toll sounds are repeated regularly. Only now and then a dramatic percussion-esque sound comes from the synths, if you listen by ear phone those bits are like a hammer knocking against your ears due to the stark contrast with the slow, chillingly cold synths throughout the song. The singing is done on a monotome, almost emotionless tone, almost like someone reciting an eerie poem in a very monotome sombre sounding voice. Only towards the end of the song there would be a bit of easily noticeable variation in tone, but this monotome vocal suits the monotome synths very well. Both sound cold, eerie and very sombre. It all fits together very well. It creates an atmosphere that sounds more sombre than the average funeral mass, but at the same time theme, sound, vocals and video form such a good combination that the sadness of the song is no longer the main thing (at least not to me, but it may be different for very sensitive people): the perfection of how this all fits together, the extremely precisely performed details of it all, … At this point I really felt this song was entrancing and fascinating in its perfection.

Most Tainted Love covers are quite short, this version takes 5:55 minutes on CD, and almost 7 minutes in the promo video.

John Balance featured in the video, Christopherson directed. Marc Almond, who made "Tainted Love" so famous due to his Soft Cell version, also briefly occurs in the video, which is as sombre as the song. A patient in a hospital is taken towards his bed in a wheelchair, and when the song moves on he gets sicker and sicker. I believe, although not sure, in the end the character died or is at least comatose. A few moments stand out in the video, which I will cite here while mentioning the minute and second within the video:

– beginning of the video: a sort of yellow sticky, almost glue-like substance is shown, while you hear the buzzing of insects on the background before the music kicks off. No idea what the glue-like substance could be refering to.

– seconds 0:15 to 0:18 display two black and white pictures of the sun, in this format this is considered an occult symbol.

– seconds 0:25 to 0:30 : the mysterious yellow substance is poured on a surface. No idea what this refers to.

The next moments you see an ill person driven through hospital corridors in a wheelchair. A few black and white drawings pass, but it it very unclear what is shown as they are showing for less than a second.

– 1:00 to 1:12 : the person is being put to bed, while again vague black and white drawings flash by. The only one I could clearly identify is the face of a young woman, the other one was too abstract for me to decipher.

– 2:27 to 2:32 : two black and white images flash by. The one is clearly a close up of the total drawing that is shown next. It displays a demon-like creature holding a book and handing it over to a hard-to-recognise human or other entity.

The yellow substance is repeatedly shown briefly meanwhile, with insects sitting next to it.

– 3:27 : as the second time the chorus is read, you see the ill patient in dire state, needing an oxygen mask to breathe. In the seconds after a rare visitor passes by, I believe this was the role played by Marc Almond of Soft Cell.

– 4:18 : the ill person is laying on the bed, totally covered by a blanket. This suggest he has passed away or is in extremely poor health, such as a coma. A sign "quarantine ; do not enter" is on the door of the person’s hospital room.

– 4:21 : a drawing is briefly shown of a weird entity which looks mostly like a sphynx drawn in ancient Egyptian style. Less than two seconds later a very unclear image is shown, it seems (but I am unsure) to be a close-up of a painting but it is too unclear to say for sure.

– 4:44 : we see someone outside of the now empty bad, collecting the blankets. Has the person in the bed somehow managed to fight back against his illness? Or, maybe more likely, is someone preparing the bed for a next patient after the ill person was taken away?

– 5:10 to 5:15 : two occult symbols are shown. One looks like a geometric form with 6 angles, however no tradition shape. The second one is one of the forms in which the Eye of Providence (the All Seeing Eye) is sometimes displayed. The latter is a symbol widely used by Freemasons and Illuminati and probably also by occult organisations. The first one is, if I am not wrong, the unicursal hexagram, a common symbol of Thelema. However, I am not entirely sure.

– 5:34 to 5:37 : the words "Love is the law , love under will" are displayed. This is one of the most famous passages from the "Book of Law" written by notorious occultist Aleister Crowley. Crowley was associated with several occult organisations and practised "magick" which deliberately spelled as such to distinguish it from the common interpretation of "magic". "The Book of Law" is one of the most famous occult writings ever, the title has a Latin variant called "Liber AL vel Legis". It is believed to be the central sacred text of the Thelema. Crowley wrote it in Egypt in a few hours time (sessions combined) and says co-authorship goes to a spiritual entity called Aiwass. The book contains 3 chapters, each was written in hour time. The famous quote which was partially used in the Coil video states:

"Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.
Love is the law, love under will.
Every man and every woman is a star."

It has clearly been pointed out that Crowley and occultism in general heavily influenced Coil’s two permanent members.

– Finally, at the end of the music video, a tombstone is shown, where the vocalist puts flowers next to the grave. This indicates the ill person we saw earlier in the video has passed away.

For sure how it is simply undeniable that this video entrances for those who are not too overwhelmed by sensitive images. The whole song has an eerie, cold atmosphere, both the music, the monotome vocals, the hospital scenes, … And why do we see the Crowley quote, the all-seeing eye, the demon-like creature, … pass by? It adds to the thick layer of mystery surrounding the song, and adds to the fascinating aspect.

As said, this song isn’t for anyone. It is way too dark and sombre to recommend it to someone who is easily upset by scary or sensitive images. And even if very eerie images do not scare you, you can appreciate this cover only if you approach music with an open mind, allowing to move the boundaries of music.

If you love easily accessible music, with a clear rhytm and structure, making you feel happy, and nice to dance to: forget about it.
If you love complex, very experimental music with mysterious elements all over the place: you are likely to love this song and its video.

Coil itself was a band with an air of mystery. Their fascination for alchemy, chaos, occultism etc was widely known, their drug use widely documented. The songs were so hard to categorise that linking to Coil to one specific genre is simply impossible.

Coil also gained notoriety live despite rarely performing at all. After a few performances in 1983, the band did not perform live anymore until 1999. Guest contributors would join Balance and Christopherson on stage. Their live performances were, this should not surprise you, atypical and surreal. The band wore very strange suits on stage, strange images were shown on the background, and fog machines had to create an eerie atmosphere. Shows were often chaotic due to alcohol abuse. Balance died in 2004. For one who had such a special career, his death was remarkably sensationless: at home he fell and landed in a way that was fatal. The band was disbanded at that moment since it was clear Coil could never be Coil without Christopherson and Balance. The death of Balance, also caused the end of Coil and concluded a 22 years long career in which the band broke boundaries musically, alienated and fascinated the crowds, and wrote musical history with the first ever donation of sales profits to an AIDS charity. The legacy of the band continues.

In November 2010, Christopherson died as well. He died in his sleep in Bangkok and left the mortal world in the Buddhist tradition: the ashes being shattered across the water of a river. Both permanent members of the band have died, but the legacy lives on. Their influence may have been mainly in the alternative scene, but it did influence many musicians from a wide range of musical styles.

Small PS: the museum of Modern Art in New York, who have a collection of iconic videos which they display, purchased Coil’s "Tainted Love" video as first item in their meanwhile quite impressive catalogue. A bigger recognition to this piece of art is hardly possible to think of.

I thank Wikipedia and a short entry on Coil in "Oor’s Popencyclopedie" to trigger my interest in the band and made me realise what epic cover this band has made. Analysing and deciphering the video of the song was quite hard, and I can only hope my interpretations are somewhat correct. Some images shown were too vague for me to claim a certain correct analysis, probably the band were the only ones who knew the exact meaning of using those occult symbols in the video. But it’s never wrong to retain a bit of mystery…

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About thepathslesstravelled

An Aspie who has had a lifelong fascination with travelling, discovering new cultures and discovering new ways of life, and with a strange attraction to the less known and often forgotten places in the world. And very obsessed with sports and music.
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5 Responses to The most unique interpretation of Tainted Love: Coil

  1. Uncle moonman says:

    Great article! I remember reading that according to Coil Marc Almond,s visitor was in fact Azrael the angel of death calling to collect the soul of the patient…

  2. vert says:

    Neat video! The glue-stuff looks like honey to me (as in, you catch more flies with honey). And the fully shrouded man reads as dead – was he lying on a metal table for autopsy? And then the camera went through the window at the line about ‘time to pack my things and go’. The Egyptian image was fast, but might have been Anubis.

  3. I too think the glue-esque stuff is honey, because an insect would not be attracted to it otherwise if it were not some very sweet smell and taste. I think the video follows the last phase of a terminally ill patient, from the moment he enters emergency follow up to the moment he has died and goes for autopsy. I must say that I am insufficiently educated on Egyptian mythology and Greek mythology to comment on the symbols used in the video that refer to those ; but keep in mind Coil were very much into the occult and into “magick” and were very interested in Aleister Crowley. Crowley used a lot of Greek and Egyptian mythology in his work, which is why The Book Of The Law is almost impossible to understand if you don’t know anything about those (I tried to decipher it but it is too hard). The screens “Love is the law, love under will” refer to Crowley and Thelema too as it comes right out of the Book of the Law. The Egyptian and Greek symbols are for sure related to occultism too or used in occult works, otherwise Coil probably would not have used them. It is a pity I am not more educated on these subjects to be able to fully understand and explain it. But it adds to the mysteriousness of the video. The one symbol I can easily recognise is the all-seeing eye. The others are a mystery to me, sadly enough. I hope someone can explain me someday.

    Interesting interpretation on Marc Almond and the angel of death … Never thought of it that way, but it would make sense. Where did you read/hear of this interpretation?

    Pity both guys from Coil have passed, they could have made so much more beautiful music, and answer all those questions on why those symbols are used. Also, it is unclear where copyrights lie, so that makes re-issues of their older albums very hard. Quite unlikely we’ll ever see their Tainted Love version in a CD store anytime soon. I think Ape of Naples is the one album still easy to order in a record store.

  4. i remember the original by Gloria Jones, it was nt Black music and White America did not accept her so her genius version sort of disappeared in the between black and white such a shame

  5. magus418 says:

    Reblogged this on sea-swoon and commented:
    a real decent synopsis and analysis of COIL’s video, “tainted love.”

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