Monday, 10 January 2011

Soft Cell - Say Hello Wave Goodbye (1982/ No. 3/ 9 weeks/ Some Bizzare)


The arrival of Soft Cell into my world in 1981 is difficult to write about in some ways because it represents a point when I felt my understanding of pop music deepen, drifting further into frightening and ambiguous grown-up territory.

I think that that 'Tainted Love' must have been the most child-unfriendly number one for a long time. The sight of Soft Cell on Top of the Pops was a spectacle for which I was unprepared, and didn’t know how to process. With characters like Numan or Bowie there was clearly an element of dressing-up and costume, whereas the scowling likes of Kevin Rowland or Paul Weller looked like people you’d see on the street. But this weedy-looking character in bracelets and a black T-shirt without sleeves, he didn’t look like he was pleased to be on television, he didn’t look like he was enjoying dancing, but he didn’t look like he was particularly angry about something specific… Also, you could easily think that he was a woman, although he obviously wasn’t pretending to be one.

And then you noticed the other one, unsmiling, as stocky as the singer was spindly, looking morose, like somebody in a minor and taxing position of authority – a prison officer or a hospital orderly, say.

This wasn’t what pop stars were supposed to look like! But then again, to a boy who was overserious, solitary, weak and temperamental, there also seemed something rather uncomfortably personal about all of this.

And that was before I started to notice their song and their electronic music – clang! clang! And the singer’s voice was something rather slimy to listen to, not at all ingratiating the listener.

Wow, I love Soft Cell! They seem to be the group certain friends associate me with the most. Like a few bands of this time (The Beat, Altered Images), their career seems ideal to me – Don’t hang around too long, release a lot of singles, some of which everybody knows and some of which only pop people know but all of which are very good, knock out three very different albums, each of which show the same unique view of the world from a different angle, in three years.


A breakup song, and I can't imagine a more uneasy one. Its not showing us denial, anger, bargaining, sadness then acceptance, that's for sure. Instead, we get an internal view of a breathtakingly callous man, dumping a woman, tearing out her heart, then poking the empty cavity to make quite sure that she's dead. Marc Almond is playing a character here, adopting an unrelenting tone of sneering sarcasm, that he never makes sympathetic.

The all-electro instrumentation is vital to the understanding that the listener forms of the song. It's aiming for a cinematic sweep, but the lack of conventional orchestral arrangement gives it a made-up, inhuman and artificial, feel. Its quite funereally slow, dwelling on unpleasant feelings, rather than swiftly and gallantly moving on. The sweep comes in the washes of prolonged chords that dominate the single. The top notes are minimal, and so accentuated that they seem to form a commentary on the scene dramatised through the lyrics. The synth "beep beep!"s mock in the same way as Nelson the bully's mirthless "Haaaa Haaaa!"s in The Simpsons;

Standing in the door of the Pink Flamingo
crying in the rain (beep beep!)
It was a kind of so-so love
And I'm gonna to make sure
it never
happens again...
You and I
It had to be
The standing joke of the year (beep beep!)

It is a song, above all else, about control. The cinematic grandeur evoked by the song is a scene directed by the lover. The woman is given no voice, but told by the man who she is;

You were a sleep-around
A lost and found
And not for me I feeeeaaaar...


You're used to weeaaring less
And now your life's a mess
So insecure you see...

The man also presents a summary of the affair, making it seem as though he was always pandering to her delusions;

I tried to make it work
You in a cocktail skirt
and me in a suit
Well it just wasn't me...

Having told the woman how worthless she is, the director then assumes control, asserting and dictating;

I put up with all the scenes
And this is one scene
That's going to be played my way

And as he gives the instructions, his voice changes, moving from relentless sarcasm to prolonged pathos, dwelling on the emotions of the scene he's dictating;

Taaaaake... your hands... off meeeeeee - eeee!
IIIII... don't belong... to yoooooou, you see-i-ee-ee!
a look!
at my face
For the last time!
I nevah knew you!
You nevah knew me
Say hello goodbye
Say hello
wave goodbye

And then - Fuck me, there's another verse! And its yet more unpleasant. At six minutes this single really takes all the time that it needs to get under the listener's skin. The controlling man now sketches in some detail of the immediate scene;

Under the deep red light
I can see the makeup sliiiding down.

And adjusting it in a disagreeably condescending way;

Hey little girl, you will always make up
so take off that - unbecoming - frown

Some self-dramatising;

What about me? Well -
I'll find someone...

And then he tells her how shit she is again. Really, this song makes me want to cry, too...;

That's not going cheap!
in the sales (beep beep!)
A nice little housewife!
Who'll give me -
a steady life
and won't keep going
off the rails...

Another verse of this horrible scene might be unbearable. If he had more sense, the man ought to shut his mouth by now. But he can't resist saying one more line, and gives himself away, attempting a more reflective tone that soon sours into malice;

We've been involved
For quite a while now
And to keep you secret - has been hell!

Keeping her secret! That's not trying to make it work by anyone's standards!

There then follows the final farewell and walk away, a process that takes up the last two minutes of the single. One last director's note;

We're strangers meeting for the first time, okay?
Just smile and say hello
Say hello then wave goodbye

Ten "Goodbyes" then follow, including the would-be operatic;


- which still isn't the climax. The music, swelling up, holding notes for longer and longer, makes the listener visualise the camera movement as a mass ive panning shot that ends the scene, as the unfortunate dumped woman walks further and further away from The Pink Flamingo down the street. We hear a few terser and more sarcastic "good-bye"s from the singer, now that she's out of his earshot.

Fade out and fade away. Roll credits. You fear for both what's going to happen to her next, and for what he's going to do next.

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