Living in the ‘80s

Tainted Love returns to the early MTV era with renditions of hit songs and retro fashions

For some people, the 1980s were a joke. Ten years of greed, materialism, bad fashion and—gasp!—no Internet, which Al Gore was still in the process of inventing. But for those of us who grew up in the 1980s, there were a lot of good things about that time, particularly the music.

It was inevitable—after all, the ‘50s, the ‘60s and the ‘70s have all been revisited through hit song collections, movies and retro fashion. Now it’s the ‘80s’ turn.

In the past five years, new wave acts that found commercial success during that time, such as Missing Persons, the Go-Gos and Culture Club, have reunited and gone on tours. Movies such as The Wedding Singer, Grosse Pointe Blank and Romy & Michele’s High School Reunion were set in or were influenced by the era. Radio stations with all-'80s formats have popped up around the country. Even fashion magazines herald the return of such ‘80s fashion staples as shoulder pads, geometric designs and clothes in day-glo colors.

That’s good news for the members of Tainted Love, since the band seems to have picked up on the nostalgia vibe way before it got big. The Bay Area septet has been playing ‘80s dance hits for several years now, regularly performing to packed clubs in Seattle, Portland, San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco and the Lake Tahoe area.

The band borrows its name from Soft Cell’s 1982 international hit, “Tainted Love,” which was a cover of Gloria Jones’ soul-tinged song of the mid-1960s.

Drummer Doug Carlson co-founded Tainted Love with former guitarist Eric Schramm on New Year’s Day four years ago. Carlson said the two listed about eight pages worth of ‘80s songs they wanted to perform live and set out looking for people to join the group. After three months, they had a band in place and played their first gig opening for glam-goth act Gene Loves Jezebel at the DNA Lounge in San Francisco.

The band members—Carlson, vocalists Jack Herndon, Brett Abramson and John Walter, bassist Jamie Browne, keyboardist Steve Moon and guitarist Billy Shen—are in their 30s, so they remember the decade well. Carlson said he grew up on ‘80s music and is happy to be entertaining crowds and making money while playing material he loves.

Tainted Love’s repertoire features over 50 dance hits. Some of the songs they play include “99 Luft Balloons” by Nena, “Safety Dance” by Men Without Hats and their namesake, “Tainted Love.”

Carlson said that while he thinks there were some good songs from the ‘60s and the ‘70s, the music of the ‘80s was different from the music of other decades.

“I don’t know if it was the political climate or what, but the songs seemed so unique and, to me, more interesting,” he said. “Synthesizers had been invented, [as well as] drum machines, and production techniques were a little further developed than they were in the [decades] before that. I think it was a very interesting combination. People had a lot of interesting things to write about.”

A large number of the bands whose songs Tainted Love performs can be categorized as one-hit wonders. Carlson said each decade has had its share of flash-in-the-pan musical acts, but that doesn’t mean their songs weren’t any good.

“You take somebody like Tommy Tutone, who did ‘867-5309 (Jenny),’ and you know that’s a great piece of pop songwriting,” he said. “'Cars’ by Gary Numan—yeah, it may have had too many synthesizers and whatnot, but it definitely had a unique sound.”

He said that in his travels around the country, he has noticed more ‘80s programs on the radio.

“Maybe it’s just a flavor-of-the-month thing, but I think a lot of this material has passed the test of time, and people are going back to it, because maybe that was a good time in their life,” he said. “I think a lot of the stuff on the radio today is just so angry, and for the most part, most of the ['80s] material was not angry. It was happy. It was celebrating life. I think people miss that, and that’s why they’re going back to the older stuff.”

Carlson said that when he first started the band, he was picking songs more for his personal taste than what translated well to the audience. He said he loves anything by Devo and prefers more obscure new wave tunes, such as “Just a Gigolo” by Barbie & The Kens. But, he said, not all of this material goes over well with audiences.

“The way it works out is, primarily we’re a dance band. Whenever we play material that’s a little too slow or a little left-of-center, they just stop and stare at us. The whole thing fails,” he said.

Thus, the band sticks to more accessible dance hits of the time, occasionally adding a new song to keep things fresh. Carlson said some of the songs that seem to get the most response are “Centerfold” by J. Geils Band, “Come on Eileen” by Dexy’s Midnight Runners, “Jessie’s Girl” by Rick Springfield, “Kids in America” by Kim Wilde and “Walking on Sunshine” by Katrina and the Waves.

In addition to reproducing the ‘80s sound, the band’s on-stage wear represents the fashions of the time. Some of their costumes will remind audiences of pop music figures such as Devo, Duran Duran and Adam Ant. Carlson said that when the band plays for corporate parties, the members will tone down the dress a bit. But for club shows, the band gets wackier.

“I have several different outfits that I’ve accumulated over the years, but we all have our little thing that we do,” he said. “We found that the vinyl stuff translates well under the lights. That skin-tight vinyl clothing, which is not very comfortable, does look good.”

Carlson said he’s noticed that more stores and mail-order catalogues are selling ‘80s-inspired clothing, and more fans are starting to dress up for the shows.

“When we first started out, it was really hard to find clothes that looked ‘80s enough, and now it’s everywhere,” he said. “The fans are starting to wear it. They show up with tight vinyls on and other types of clothing that depict that era.”

Carlson said he could go on another five years playing with Tainted Love, but beyond that would be stretching things a bit. He said everybody in the band has his or her own projects and personal aspirations. Brett Abramson is a voice-over artist and gets regular work in the Bay Area. John Walters has another band and wants to compose music for TV and movies.

The band is finishing up a double live CD, which was recorded in San Francisco at a show at Bimbo’s several months ago. They have released a collection of ‘80s tunes on CD and are working on recording a second one. They are also considering a small tour of the East Coast.

With so many ‘80s bands getting back together and touring, Carlson said he’s hoping to get a gig opening for one of these reunited acts. He thinks that one day, the band will get its shot, but so far, it hasn’t happened.

“For whatever reason, I think a lot of these bands just don’t want something they consider a parody. [They think] it might cheapen their whole thing," he said. "The way we represent the music—the band plays it very well. The singers stay true to the record. We certainly don’t do it tongue-in-cheek in any sort of way. We try to honor the material."