Like a good single, a terrible one reveals itself after airplay and forbearance. I don’t want to hate songs; to do so would shake ever-sensitive follicles, and styling gel is expensive. I promise my readers that my list will when possible eschew obvious selections. Songs beloved by colleagues and songs to which I’m supposed to genuflect will get my full hurricane-force winds, but it doesn’t mean that I won’t take shots at a jukebox hero overplayed when I was at a college bar drinking a cranberry vodka in a plastic thimble-sized cup.
OMD’s “If You Leave”
PEAK CHART POSITION: #4 in March 1986
An enterprising young critic could pitch a 33 1/3 book on the Pretty in Pink soundtrack. Released in the spring of 1986, the album served as a introduction to the alleged sumptuousness of college rock for millions of teens. Auspicious timing too, for several of the acts collected were just making beachheads on the American charts. You wanted electro pop crossed with hi-NRG and the first stirring of freestyle? There was New Order’s “Shellshock.” Histrionic romance? Echo and the Bunnymen’s “Bring on the Dancing Horses.” Misrerabilist lullaby? The Smiths’ “Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want,” one of its two appearances in a John Hughes film released that quarter (it serves as instrumental accompaniment for Cameron’s I-want-to-vanish-in-a-Seurat-painting moment in the Art Institute of Chicago in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off). Intentional misspelling of a word to signify funk credentials? INXS offered “Do Wot You Do.” Psychedelic Furs’ garish re-recording of the cruel-glorious 1981 tune after which Hughes named his film? Check. And don’t scowl at Jesse Johnson’s inclusion: all things Prince still got MTV play, even former things Prince.
Yet another of what former pop critic Neil Tennant would call (poking fun at himself) a nauseating synth-pop act, Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark enjoyed a modest American college radio profile thanks to their string of British hits, including four consecutive top tens at the height of New Pop. I’m not a fan, but “Joan of Arc” and “Enola Gay” never fail to get me nodding, and I appreciate the tension between the austerity of the arrangements and the purploid articulation of singer-leader Andrew McCluskey; Architecture & Morality represented them at their peak. In 1985, “So in Love” became their first single to reach the American top forty. Hughes and his musical directors couldn’t have better timed the release of “If You Leave.”
If only the song didn’t suck. Characterized by a paranoid if not hysterical overstatement, the High Reagan Era of 1985-1986 saw many former DIY and DIY-esque bands record and mix their music and style their hair and pad their shoulders as if every track were meant to be performed before thousands at Wembley and the Meadowlands. For every Tears For Fears who triumphed in these new settings, a Simple Minds, Thompson Twins, and Spandau Ballet succumbed to what the age demanded; even a band like Heart whose antecedents and career trajectory had been quite different turned Liberace for the sake of MTV play. OMD’s “If You Leave” is the synth pop equivalent, a love theme appropriate to Pretty in Pink the film’s absurd demands. Thanks to his hip tastes, John Hughes could exploit the tonal and sexual variants of college rock for the sake of re-animating a mossy Cinderella reprise; Pretty in Pink felt different because former Eagles and Irene Cara didn’t incarnate Andie’s secret desires. In 1986, a young woman as intelligent and bullshit-free as Andie had to fall in love with simpy future George W. Bush campaign bundlers like Andrew McCarthy’s Blaine. Meanwhile her best pal Duckie (Jon Cryer) wasn’t allowed to be gay but was allowed to overact heterosexual longing (the late Harry Dean Stanton as Ringwald’s ne’er-do-well dad is like a flashlight in search of truth).
To give “If You Leave” its due, McCluskey and his cohorts remember their New Pop tutelage: an effective use of strings, probably synthesized, maximized to mirror the tumult of the adolescent heart. The use of a pause in “You always said we’d still be friends…someday” has a gay subtext that a more courageous Hughes would have used to deepen Duckie’s character (what a different movie it would’ve been if the gay boy had been in love with the proto-yuppie). Gradually, however, as I wrote in 2012 during my first pass at knocking “If You Leave,” the annoyances become menaces. I’m particularly repelled by a bass fillip at the end of verses, and the drum sound. McCluskey honors that overstatement. A better singer might have done more with “Seven years spent under the bridge like time standing still,” but I doubt it. And the DON’T LOOK BAAAAACK, preceded by lots of gulps, throws me out of the song, out on the street.
And OMD didn’t look back. They scored a couple more hits, saw their 1988 comp go gold. “If You Leave” is widely loved, and I accept I’m an outlier. But I regard their earlier singles with more affection. I would’ve accepted “So in Love” as the Grand John Hughes ballad. Or Suzanne Vega’s “Left of Center,” which I haven’t even mentioned yet and to which I could devote six hundred words.