tainted love first aids single

WATCH: The First Ever AIDS Charity Music Single was Incredibly Dark and Boldly Gay

When we think of charity singles, we usually think of the schmaltzy feel-good numbers released seemingly en masse in the mid-1980s. Some meant to guilt you into supporting the charity (like 1984’s regrettable “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” which, among a multitude of other sins, included the line “Well, tonight, thank God it’s them instead of you”). Others — like 1985’s “We Are The World” — combined a plea for support with vague warm-fuzzies to make listeners feel good.

But then there’s Coil’s cover of “Tainted Love” — the very first AIDS charity single, and it’s the very opposite of a warm-fuzzy. In fact, it’s dark, but it’s also bold and daring in how it depicts AIDS’ effect on men who have sex with men. Take a look:

Coil was formed by lovers Peter “Sleazy” Christopherson (formerly of Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV) and Jhonn Balance (also of Psychic TV); both men had been publicly out for some time: The Guardian referred to Coil as “possibly pop’s first openly gay duo”. Prior to Coil, Christopherson worked as a well-known graphic designer, working for the design firm Hipgnosis — he helped create the covers to the three self-titled Peter Gabriel albums and he also worked on Pink Floyd’s Animals and Wish You Were Here.

Technically, Coil’s single was the B-side to their Panic/Tainted Love EP, and “Tainted Love” got most of the attention. Not just because it’s a cover — Soft Cell’s hit version of Gloria Jones’ 1964 soul classic came out just a few years earlier — but because Coil’s version made the song explicitly about the AIDS crisis.

No longer a bouncy pop number, Coil turns the song into a tragic requiem punctuated by a loud klaxon. The vocals are heartbreaking, combining fear with love and grief, perfectly capturing the feel of someone singing to his lover, dying of a then relatively-unknown wasting disease.

The music video doubles down on the imagery. Religious symbols — images of Jesus’ sacred heart and the satyr god Pan seducing a young man — get synched to the klaxon; lead singer Jhonn Balance pours honey around a fly, trapping it in sweet hell; and a man spending his final days in a hospice gets visited by his lover (Balance) while getting progressively sicker and sicker, more and more medical equipment attached to his body. Eventually, a man — an angel or demon perhaps? — looks down on the dying man, smiling smugly before leaving. As Balance places a bouquet on the dying man’s grave, the sound of buzzing flies reminds us of sweetness and lethality of same-sex love in the ’80s.

Pretty dark. No wonder it was the very first music video put on permanent display by the Museum of Modern Art.

A title card at the end reads, “All profits from this record go to The Terrence Higgins Trust who provide counseling and information on AIDS.” The single and video came out in May 1985, beating the more famous (and traditionally schmaltzy) AIDS charity single “That’s What Friends Are For” by Dionne Warwick, Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight and Elton John by six months.

Soft Cell weren’t upset about this détournement of their biggest hit — or if they were, it certainly didn’t stop lead singer Marc Almond from appearing in the video. (He plays the angel/demon/jerk who visits the dying man in the hospital.) As it turns out, Marc Almond was a friend of the band, and even worked with them on the next two Coil albums, Horse Rotovator and Love’s Secret Domain.

“Tainted Love” would also open up a new career for Christopherson. It was the first music video he directed, and he’d go on to direct clips for artists as diverse as fellow industrial band Ministry, to experimental singer Diamanda Galas to the spunky pop of Hanson. In fact — this wasn’t even the only “Tainted Love” video he directed: He also did the 1991 video when the Soft Cell version reissued their popular cover.

That said, Christopherson’s most infamous music video work was the never officially released Broken, a collaboration with Nine Inch Nails. The Broken short film was bootlegged so often, and considered so violent and disturbing that rumors began that it was an actual snuff film (it’s not).

Of course, Christopherson wasn’t the only person who worked on “Tainted Love” to be a huge influence outside of the world of industrial music. The single was co-produced with Clint Ruin — one of J.G. Thirlwell’s many aliases. If you’re an industrial fan, you’ll know him for his work as Foetus — but if you’re a fan of cartoons, you’ll know him as the scorer of hits Archer and The Venture Brothers.

Nor was this Coil’s only foray into AIDS activism. They also scored the documentary The Gay Man’s Guide to Safer Sex, produced by the Terrence Higgins Trust. The 1992 film got a lot of play in the United Kingdom — a screening of a 1997 re-edit sold out! — and the award-winning film is still available on DVD.

  • Purple_Zebra

    First off………if you remake a song that isn’t broken, you better do it better. This sucked on a multitude of levels and the filter of time has done nothing to change that level of suckiness.