45 at 35: Soft Cell’s Say Hello, Wave Goodbye

It has one of the best opening lines, ever. 

“Standing in the door of the Pink Flamingo, crying in the rain.”

I never went to the Pink Flamingo, but if I had, I am sure I would’ve found someone in the doorway, desolate and desperate, wearing a cocktail skirt, sobbing uncontrollably in typically wet weather. And me in a suit, probably.

“That was Brewer Street, in the rain,” Marc Almond later said, “outside the pink piano bar where the drag artists used to sing, with the neon light from the Raymond Revue Bar reflected on the wet streets. It was what Non Stop Erotic Cabaret (NSEC) was about, what Soft Cell was about, what I was about.”

Released as the third single from Soft Cell’s epochal NSEC album, a venomous Valentine that reached No.3 in the UK charts the week beginning 14 February 1982, the sweeping melancholia of Say Hello, Wave Goodbye is, for me, unquestionably the provocative synth duo’s greatest song. And by saying that I mean, yes, better than even that ubiquitous wedding disco staple Tainted Love. Well, yes but even Torch was better than that one anyway.

It’s a reflection of a romance that has ended in gut-wrenching fashion. But Marc later revealed this isn’t a typical love story; it’s one that the protagonist is happy to have but there is a degree of shame in it, and “To keep you secret has been hell.” And if you hadn’t deduced that, with lines like “Under the deep red light, I can see the make-up sliding down,” the woman in question is a prostitute (and the man in a position of power such as a politician) then you really should hand in your Cellmates membership card immediately.

There’s a down at heel, defeated romanticism about the whole sorry affair. Rather than a song of loss, it is one of strength and clarity with Almond reflecting the perspective of a man who has had enough of his secret lady of the night: “I put up with all the scenes and this is one scene that’s going to be played my way.” There’s a degree of cruelty for not only does the MP want nothing to do with the scarlet woman, but should they meet in the future he wishes them to pretend they’re meeting for the first time, though such encounters should be brief, hence Say Hello, Wave Goodbye.

Musically, the track owes a considerable debt to Scott Walker’s kitchen sink dramas of the late ‘60s (superfan Marc even adopts Walker’s trademark tousled hair and impenetrable sunglasses in the vid), though with the typically suburban set-up replaced by a seedy Soho basement.

Over Ball‘s NED Synclavier II synth (oh, how I lurve them huge string swells) Almond’s vocals are brilliantly emotive yet his diction so clear (very ABBA) you can decipher much of the song’s meaning with minimal effort. It’s an unconventional angle on a lust story (“a so-so love”), an arrangement that has ended but it’s okay because it was embarrassing to begin with. It comes across as cold and almost unfeeling, but beneath the bravado of the narrator’s seemingly dismissive summation of the affair there is evidence of fragility caused by a femme fatale who comes across as way too much of a challenge for him. But he’s attracted to the drama and the power play anyway. 

This inherent conflict is reflected in David Ball’s electronic accompaniment, which manages to be both spartan and cold, and expansive and warm at the same time. Nowhere is this better epitomised than in the self-deluding line “We’re strangers meeting for the first time, ok? Just smile and say hello”, where the instrumental grows thin and bleak and dies out only to return in a huge rollercoaster wash, as Marc repeats the mantra “goodbye, goodBYE!”, willing himself to let go.

Bursting with passion, venom, vulnerability and resentment, the saga brilliantly and bitterly captures a complex set of emotions many of us have probably experienced at some point. Back then, the pain was all imagined. Thirty-five years on, you can wallow in proper melancholy all you like. Say Hello, Wave Goodbye is quite simply one of the most emotive recordings ever made, and not even a-Ha or David Gray’s cover versions can detract from that, nor, for that matter, Almond’s superfluous 1991 re-record. More bland than band then.

The promotional film for Say Hello, Wave Goodbye was certainly the band’s most camply theatrical. Tim Pope’s film begins a heartbroken bloke (the other half of Soft Cell, David Ball) arriving at the club, The Pink Flamingo, naturally, where he takes a seat and watches a woman (otherwise known as future reality TV star Eileen Daly, giving it the come-on) forlornly, presumably, the one he’s loved but is now walking away from.

Inside, Almond hold court and revels in his role as a romantic Scott Walker-style crooner as he takes us through the unfolding drama of the lyrics from a seat on the stage with the same woman Ball is longing for. Marc’s firm dismissal of the woman befits the angry nature of the song. This most dramatic of videos closes with the singer aptly waving goodbye while Ball leaves The Pink Flamingo behind, perhaps for the last time. Say goodbye.

Goodbye.

Steve Pafford

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