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Keychains and Snowstorms: The Soft Cell Story
09.28.2018
04:38 pm
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I’m a huge Soft Cell/Marc Almond fan and I have been ever since “Tainted Love” was a hit and their memorable 1982 Solid Gold TV appearance—where Marc beat the stage with a leather belt and generally camped it up bigtime—caused my father to become visibly agitated and angry. It was an incredibly subversive thing to see on such a goofy middle-of-the-road disco hits program—one that usually followed The Lawrence Welk Show or Hee-Haw on Saturday evenings, depending on where you lived—and I wholeheartedly approved.

From that point on, I had every Soft Cell album, EP, 12” remix, book, VHS, fan club issue, bootleg, you name it. I still have them all along with practically every Marc-related release, Dave Ball’s solo album, everything by The Grid and many things produced or remixed by Dave Ball. I even own the entire discography of Vicious Pink Phenomena. In short, I am not only qualified to properly evaluate their new career-summing box set Keychains and Snowstorms: The Soft Cell Story, I am squarely within the fanboy Venn diagram that this exhaustive compilation is meant to appeal to. Truly I am the target audience for this product by any metric.

Admittedly after the above preamble, it will probably come as no surprise to anyone who has read this far to find that I’m absolutely unashamedly nuts about this compilation. If you’ve only ever heard “Tainted Love” and are intrigued enough to still be reading, this box set might be for you. I’m admittedly biased but I think it’s the best thing I’ve heard all year. Let me count the ways…
 

 
Soft Cell were—and still are—practically unknown in America. However true that statement might be, everyone in this entire country aged nine to 99 knows “Tainted Love” as it’s still played on oldies radio and in drugstores, shopping malls and supermarkets nationwide on a daily, even hourly basis. It’s playing in a CVS or a Walgreens location somewhere in America—if not several of them—right this very second. “Tainted Love” has never left the outer periphery of popular awareness since it first hit the American top ten in 1982. That song has a uniquely ubiquitous pop culture persistence, a staying power rivaled only by the likes of something by Fleetwood Mac or the Beach Boys, even if virtually no one on this side of the Atlantic has ever heard a second song by the duo who recorded it or could name the group themselves. (The more culturally savvy might have noticed the heartbreaking use of quite a long swatch of “Say Hello, Wave Goodbye” in the big final scene of series two of Master of None.) Anyway, think of that as an opportunity. If you are looking for something “new” to listen to, look no further.

It’s TEN discs. Freaking TEN discs from a band who have only released four proper albums in their career and if you already own those albums—and every Soft Cell fan does—almost nothing from those albums is repeated here. (The exception is that their 2001 reunion album, the annoyingly overlooked Cruelty Without Beauty—one of the finest “comeback” albums I can think of—is excerpted heavily here with the strongest tracks present plus three great numbers left off the album that would have made it an even better release. As few heard this album, I agree with this approach. Those songs are worthy and should be heard.)

There is very little (none really) overlap with last year’s similarly packaged Marc Almond career box. Speaking of, the packaging is glossy, sturdy and first rate. The design, by Philip Marshall, is elegant and slick. The extended essay by Simon Price is terrific, even someone who has followed the duo from the start will find much new information and insight into the creation of their music and the insanity of being shoved to the forefront of the global music industry the way these two were. It’s a great story, well told and a thoroughly good read.
 

 
Here’s a rundown of what’s on each disc.

Disc #1 has each of the 12” extended versions of their Phonogram singles. With most acts, this sort of thing holds no interest for me, however with Soft Cell the opposite is true. Their extended mixes had additional verses, and new instrumentation. Ball didn’t merely slice and dice their music like everyone else, he resculpted it and redid it in a radically different fashion from the 7” and album versions. I tend to hate remixes and find them generally speaking pretty useless as a listener, but not here.

Disc #2 has the B-sides from these 12” singles. They might have only released three albums during their first incarnation, but they actually did release a fair amount of material during their brief run, issuing several extended EPs and their B-sides were never throwaways… (“Tainted Dub/Where Did Our Love Go?” which leads off this disc is included in the Spotify playlist below selected by yours truly, along with several more tracks from this disc. Note the two John Barry compositions—“You Only Live Twice” and “007 Theme”—and Barry’s obvious influence on Dave Ball and the Soft Cell sound.)

Disc #3 consists of new extended mixes of less obvious tracks by Ball that utilize, with rare exception, solely the original master tapes from the era. I didn’t expect to like this disc as much as I did, but I did like it, very much. It also made a lot of sense in the overall sequencing of the set. It might seem like a daft comparison but the way the music is broken down into its component parts and reassembled throughout this entire set reminds me of Yabby You’s Conquering Lion album in the way that the constant repetition of certain themes and phrases start to sound almost like a symphony of sorts. The mixes here sounds “analog” and not like something some smartass did on a laptop.
 

 
Disc #4 is the “curios” collection and includes the early classic “The Girl With the Patent Leather Face” along with things like their incredible “Hendrix Medley” (“Hey Joe”/“Purple Haze”/“Voodoo Chile” done ala Soft Cell will fry your mind) and the harrowing “Martin” based on the George Romero creepy loner vampire film. All of these, and the 7” edit of “Numbers”—AS IF a song based on a John Rechy novel was going to get played on the radio!!!—are included in the playlist below.

Disc #5 collects demos, early punky DIY experiments, some things recorded with MUTE’s Daniel Miller and their first release the Mutant Moments EP.

Disc #6 collects various radio sessions and the strongest tracks from their 2001 reunion album Cruelty Without Beauty. Also included are three additional tracks from those sessions that were not selected for the album, but perhaps should have been. “God Shaped Hole” is one of the best Soft Cell songs, period, so why was it left to languish on an obscure Some Bizarre compilation? (Listen for yourself as it’s included, along with their excellent cover of Frankie Valli’s “The Night,” in the playlist below.)
 

 
Much more after the jump…

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Posted by Richard Metzger
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09.28.2018
04:38 pm
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‘Trials of Eyeliner’: The massive new 10 CD Marc Almond box set is best of the season
11.15.2016
03:29 pm
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Photo: Damien de Blinkk

Let’s imagine, for the sake of argument, that there’s been a recent national (or even international) event so seismically disturbing that your entire worldview has crashed on the rocks of Reality Beach, a well-tended waterfront property under the maintenance of a bunch of mean-faced racist and xenophobic rich old white men in their 70s with much younger wives.

More than once, during particularly stressful times in my life, I’ve gone into a well-stocked record store to ask someone whose opinion I respected to recommend something by a non-mainstream artist who I might’ve missed, but whose work would blow my mind and draw me deep into its mystery, to move my head from the place it was in to someplace else. It almost doesn’t matter where. Makes sense, right? The power of music. A therapy of sorts. A diversion. A solace. A form of self-medication. Prayer, even.

Can’t be anything frivolous. It has to transport you. Change your mood. Change your mind. Transform you. It must be magical. Holy. It’s got to move you from here to there.

The “correct” response to my record store query might be something like “Well, have you gone through a Sun Ra phase yet?” “Do you have the Faust box set?” or recommending both of these Big Youth anthologies.

My prescription for what psychically ails you? Do take me up on this sage advice, I promise you my rock snob reader that it will work: Trials Of Eyeliner: Anthology 1979-2016, the newly released and truly magnificent 10-CD, 189 track anthology of the life’s work of Marc Almond.

Trials of Eyeliner, I reckon is one of the most essential box sets of the day, an all-killer, no-filler jam-packed to the bursting point celebration of one of our greatest living vocalists, a singular talent who will never be equaled or topped in the niche that he created for himself as the ultimate gay torch singer/diva. And this is the definitive study of Marc Almond’s work, chosen by the artist himself, with singles, deep cuts and unreleased numbers from his collaborations with David Ball in Soft Cell, the Marc and the Mambas/Willing Sinners/La Magia period with Anni Hogan, solo work and duets with the likes of Siouxsie Sioux, Saint Etienne’s Sarah Cracknell, Jimmy Sommerville, Gene Pitney and PJ Proby. Packaged in a slick, glossy box with a copiously annotated hardback book, it’s a luxurious item, but one with a very reasonable price (around $80-90). Want something to lose yourself in musically? This is it.
 

Photo by Pierre et Gilles

I’ve been a massive Marc Almond fan for pretty much the span of his entire career, from the first Soft Cell album onward and I have to say that there are few disappointments, in terms of tracks not included on Trials of Eyeliner, although I can still think of a few dozen off the top of my head. These 10 CDs make a very, very clear—and as far as I am concerned unequivocal and definitive—musical argument that Marc Almond is one of the greatest artists of our age, a one-of-a-kind vocal talent who will probably be ranked alongside of Frank Sinatra, Nick Cave, Scott Walker, Jacques Brel, Edith Piaf and even Judy Garland by future generations of musical historians for a unique ability to breathe life, but also unutterable grief into a sad song. His decidedly homoerotic artform also compares to French poet and revolutionary Jean Genet, but I believe Marc Almond will ultimately achieve a stature far greater than Sartre’s “Saint Genet” as a pioneering gay artist of the 20th century when all’s said and done.

And I gotta say, I can only imagine what Marc Almond himself thought when he got his own copy of Trials of Eyeliner. He must’ve been fucking pleased. All in one place like this? It’s a staggering accomplishment.

Here’s a sampling of some of my favorite things on Trials of Eyeliner. Truth be told, I love pretty much everything on it.

The quintessance of Marc Almond’s artistry is on display here in his heart-breaking performance of Charles Aznavour’s “What Makes a Man a Man?”
 
Much more Marc after the jump…

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Posted by Richard Metzger
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11.15.2016
03:29 pm
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Lights, camera, SLEAZE: Marc Almond, this is your life
05.11.2015
04:01 pm
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First Third Books, the London and Paris-based publisher of deluxe coffee table books devoted to counterculture (like Sheila Rock’s Punk +) and extremely in-depth celebrations of particular groups and performers (Felt, Saint Etienne, Genesis Breyer P-Orridge) are coming out with another of their beautiful monographs in June—this volume concentrating on the life and career of the great Marc Almond.

Marc Almond will be limited to 1300 copies worldwide, hand numbered and bound in purple fabric. There will be 300 copies of the standard edition priced at £40 and 1000 copies of a limited special edition for £60 that includes unreleased songs on a 7” single. The first 500 copies sold of the limited edition will also be signed by Marc.

Back in March, when the book was first announced, Almond remarked:

“Putting a book like this together is very difficult because it brings up all kind of emotions. But it’s important to me to paint an honest picture, which means that as well as the many wonderful memories, working on the book has also forced me to resurrect certain things I’d rather hoped had been consigned to history. But that’s great. It would be too easy to fall into the comfort zone of nostalgia. The book goes much further than that. The whole process has been bittersweet and yet cathartic. I’ve really enjoyed working on it and it looks fantastic.”

It does. It’s the ultimate Marc Almond coffee table book and the perfect companion to his hilariously bitchy autobiography, Tainted Life (Ever the diva, Almond settles a score in every chapter! Highly recommended if you like pop star tell-alls.)

As longtime readers of this blog know, I am a massive Marc Almond fan—I have been since I saw my father fuming mad after Soft Cell ruined his Saturday night by performing “Tainted Love” on the Solid Gold TV show—so I’m thrilled to be able to offer a selection of photos from this amazing book, along with Marc’s own captions, and some related videos.
 

Youth: In 1964, I was seven. The world was still in black-and-white, still very much post-war, still austere, with poor street lighting and simple foods. But much of my world revolved around television pop shows like Ready, Steady, Go!, Thank Your Lucky Stars and Juke Box Jury. One of my first pop memories was seeing Sandie Shaw barefoot on RSG! singing ‘(There’s) Always Something There To Remind Me’. I was always singing that song. I loved pop from a very early age.

 

Photo: Peter Ashworth

Non-Stop Subversion: This was our preferred cover for Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret but the record company thought it too menacing and subversive. Dave looks quite convincing in the role of switchblade-carrying psychotic!

“Martin” live on ‘The Tube’ in 1983

 
Much more Marc, after the jump…

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Posted by Richard Metzger
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05.11.2015
04:01 pm
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‘Cruelty Without Beauty’: Soft Cell’s criminally unknown 2002 reunion album
07.22.2014
10:43 pm
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Most of the time when a band reforms, the results are lackluster. A creative partnership that’s run its course isn’t easily resurrected for love nor money and usually it’s for the latter and not the former that most reunion albums and tours occur.

That’s the way that I normally feel, but when Marc Almond and David Ball decided to reform Soft Cell in 2001 I was very excited to see what they’d come up with after 18 years. They had worked together on a few thing in the years since Soft Cell split in 1984, so it wouldn’t be an issue of them looking backwards to the 80s or anything like that. The idea of a mature Soft Cell seemed vastly appealing.

The first thing they released was “God Shaped Hole,” a track that was a part of a 2001 Some Bizarre compilation album titled, I’d Rather Shout at a Returning Echo than Kid That Someone’s Listening. They went on to record their unfairly neglected Cruelty Without Beauty album, which came out in 2002 and toured the globe in support of it. Sadly ticket sales were poor and most of the US dates were cancelled. I was lucky enough to catch them at the Wiltern Theater in Los Angeles (which was packed) and they put on one hell of an amazing show that balanced the hits with the new material.

The lead single from Cruelty Without Beauty was “Monoculture,” an infectiously catchy, but sharply-pointed diatribe about the bland horror show that popular culture was becoming (and this is years before the Kardashians or Cupcake Wars...) The evil Ronald McDonald-type character seen in the video is Some Bizzare label boss and former Soft Cell manager Stevo Pearce.
 

 
More Soft Cell after the jump…

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Posted by Richard Metzger
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07.22.2014
10:43 pm
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The Rise and Fall of Soft Cell, New Wave’s sleaziest synthpop duo
12.02.2013
09:41 am
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The track was “Memorabilia” and I heard it nearly every time I was out in some club in the early 1980s. Between dances, there was small disagreement over the band’s name, who they were and where they came from. It varied depending who you talked to. Then came “Tainted Love” and suddenly everyone knew who they were: Marc Almond and Dave Ball of Soft Cell.

When this duo first appeared on Top of the Pops with their number one hit “Tainted Love” in 1981, the florid Wing-Commanders and Colonel Mustards of Tunbridge Wells thundered, “Who the hell is this woman? That can’t be a man, surely? I fought a war for this?” It certainly was a man, and those damned lucky blighters were watching Marc Almond give one of TOTP’s most memorable and thrilling performances.

Marc is the Poet Laureate of sleaze, and Dave its Schubert. Together they wrote songs that perfectly captured an underclass world of the disenfranchised, the sexually ambiguous, and the impoverished. 

When their debut album Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret came out on November 27th, 1981, I had to beg, steal and borrow a copy, and even wrote to Santa, bad Santa, for this delectable slice of vinyl. When it arrived, I played it endlessly. The NME may have hated it, but they were old, too old, and this was Year Zero for eighties music as far as I was concerned.

Just take a listen and you will hear why, as m’colleague Richard Metzger has previously written, Marc Almond:

”...is one of the truly great interpreters of song of our age. His distinctive voice, like Frank Sinatra’s, is instantly recognizable from the very first note.”

After Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret and Non Stop Ecstatic Dancing (arguably the UK’s first House record by a British band) came the richer and darker blooms The Art of Falling Apart and Last Night in Sodom, which only the most great and reckless talents could have produced. 

This documentary from the BBC series Young Guns traces the rise and fall of Soft Cell from student life in Leeds to the bright New York lights, and the seedy London back streets. Made in 2000, it has superb interviews form Marc Almond, Dave Ball, the band’s manager Stevo, and record execs.
 

 

Posted by Paul Gallagher
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12.02.2013
09:41 am
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Tainted Life (or sainted life?): Happy Birthday Marc Almond!
07.09.2013
01:22 pm
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Marc Almond is one of the truly great interpreters of song of our age. His distinctive voice, like Frank Sinatra’s, is instantly recognizable from the very first note. Almond’s subject matter often chooses to examine a seamier side of life than most people would be inclined to want to experience firsthand. In this way he is like Jean-Paul Sartre’s conception of “Saint” Jean Genet, a darkly sensual queer roué reporting back, musically in Almond’s case, from the sexual fringes, while alchemically transmuting squalor and sleaze into great and moving art.

I am a huge, huge fan. Marc occupies a special place in my (gutter) heart and in my record collection. His harrowing Torment & Toreros album would totally be in my top five of all time (I’ve written about it extensively here), while his Mother Fist and Her Five Daughters collection would hover just beyond the top ten, garning at least getting an “honorable mention” in this household.

And don’t even get me started about my love of Soft Cell…

Marc Almond turns 56 today.

Previously on Dangerous Minds:
Soundtrack for a Suicide: Marc Almond’s musical masterpiece, ‘Torment and Toreros’

‘A Lover Spurned’: French photographers Pierre et Gilles direct Marc Almond

Here’s a real Marc Almond gem, a powerful live rendition of Charles Aznavour’s deeply moving ballad about the life of a drag performer, “What Makes A Man A Man?” It’s one of Almond’s finest vocal performances, if you ask me. Taped at the Royal Festival Hall in 1992. Simply stunning:
 

Posted by Richard Metzger
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07.09.2013
01:22 pm
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‘Martin is a boy with problems’: Soft Cell sing of teenage vampire, 1983
12.10.2012
01:36 pm
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On a 12” record bundled as a free bonus with the initial release of the their Art of Falling Apart album in 1983, Soft Cell did a boffo extended Hendrix medley (trust me, it’s way, way better than you might think) and what producer Mike Thorne called “a monstrously over-the-top extravaganza” (one clocking in at 10:16) based on Martin, George Romero’s classic 1978 horror film about a teenage vampire on the loose in a Pittsburgh suburb.

In this incredible clip from The Tube, the synthpop duo perform an ass-kicking shorter take of the song. What I wouldn’t give to see a ten-minute version! (Actually I have, they did it during the encore of their show at the Wiltern Theater in 2002.)
 

Posted by Richard Metzger
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12.10.2012
01:36 pm
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Ghost Rider: Soft Cell and Jim Foetus cover Suicide, 1983

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Soft Cell (Marc Almond and David Ball) share the stage with Clint Ruin/Foetus/J.G. Thirlwell and squealing saxophonist Gary Barnacle for this excellent cover version of Suicide’s “Ghost Rider.”

Obviously Suicide would have been a huge influence on both Soft Cell and Thirwell, and they really tear it up here in this intense homage taped for the BBC in 1983. Listen loud.
 

Posted by Richard Metzger
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05.18.2012
06:52 pm
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Soft Cell’s Infamous ‘Sex Dwarf’ Video (NSFW)
03.28.2012
03:59 pm
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Directed by Tim Pope, Soft Cell’s Sex Dwarf video, released to promote their debut album, created quite a scandal in 1981. Claiming it was pornographic, British police actually confiscated copies of the video. It was banned from MTV at the time and has been banned from YouTube…though it pops up now and then.
 
The Sex Dwarf clip reminds me of the films of Jack Smith and The Kuchar Brothers, mashed up with Texas Chainsaw Massacre: a Bacchanalian group grope full of writhing bodies, hot flesh and a chainsaw. Enjoy it in all its sleazy glory. 
 

 
Tim Pope and Marc Almond discuss the making of “Sex Dwarf.”
 

Posted by Marc Campbell
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03.28.2012
03:59 pm
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Synth Britannia: One Nation Under a Moog
10.11.2009
06:43 pm
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Synth Britannia, the latest in BBC4’s (excellent) Britannia series airs on Friday October 16. Covering the synthpop explosion of the late seventies and early 80s, Synth Britannia features interviews with John Foxx, MUTE Record’s Daniel Miller, Gary Numan, Neil Tennant, Phil Oakey, Martin Gore, Bernard Sumner, Cabaret Voltaire, Vince Clarke, Martyn Ware, Midge Ure, Soft Cell, Kraftwerk, Throbbing Gristle and Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark. What a great line-up!

“In the late Seventies small pockets of electronic artists such as The Human League, Cabaret Voltaire and Throbbing Gristle were inspired by Kraftwerk and J G Ballard to dream of the sound of the future against the backdrop of bleak, high-rise Britain.

Gary Numan’s 1979 appearance on Top Of The Pops heralded the invention of synthpop, which would provide the soundtrack as Britain entered a new, ruthless era in the Eighties.

Depeche Mode, four lads from Basildon, came to embody the new sound, while post-punk bands such as Ultravox, Soft Cell, Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark and Yazoo took the synth from the pages of the NME and onto the front cover of Smash Hits.

By 1983 the Pet Shop Boys and New Order were pointing to where the future of electronic music lay—in dance.”

I’m looking forward to see this and glad to see that they included John Foxx. I’ve always felt he was unfairly obscure. Despite making some of the most vital electronic music of that time period, few know his music. The first three Ultravox albums, with Foxx on lead vocals, are some of the finest albums of the punk era, yet they weren’t strictly a punk band (violins? synthesizers?) and so undeservedly fell through the cultural cracks. I think Ultravox’s Ha!-Ha!-Ha! is THE great lost album of the punk years and I tell everyone who’ll listen to me they should hear it. It’s nothing short of amazing. When Foxx left the band, his sound became more stripped, down, colder, synthetic—more European than English, if you take my point.

Maybe I say this because Foxx’s solo album Metamatic was in my Walkman as I took a long train journey across Europe in 1983. It was the perfect soundtrack to looking out of a train window. Every time I hear his music it takes me right back to that time, especially this song, Underpass:


One group who probably won’t make it into Synth Britannia for obvious reasons, is Japan’s Yellow Magic Orchestra, although they were most certainly working on a parallel track. Here’s their video for Computer Games, from 1980:

Posted by Richard Metzger
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10.11.2009
06:43 pm
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