This is the eighth post in a yearlong series. Read about it here and see the list of all songs in the series here. A new post about a different song will be posted each Monday throughout 2016. You can listen to the songs in a Spotify playlist.
John Hughes’ “Pretty In Pink,” which turns 30 this upcoming weekend, gave audiences one of the most debated love triangles in all of pop culture. Andie (Molly Ringwald) falls for rich kid Blane (Andrew McCarthy), much to the dismay of her BFF Duckie (Jon Cryer), who is obsessed with her. Andie ends up with Blane, but fans argue over this the same fervency as “Star Wars” nerds argue over who shot first (Han, obvi) or who Rey’s parents are (hopefully not Jar Jar).
The movie’s ending shows all the characters at prom, as Duckie dances with a nameless character played by Kristy Swanson. Andie, free of any guilt for not sharing Duckie’s feelings, finds Blane outside and they kiss in front of his car. And all this happens with Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark’s “If You Leave” playing in the background.
OMD wrote the song specifically for “Pretty In Pink,” and in less than 24 hours. When Hughes originally approached OMD’s Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys to write a song for the final scene of the movie, the duo submitted “Goddess of Love.” But the original ending had Andie picking Duckie over Blane, and test audiences balked. Hughes reassembled the cast to shoot a new ending — Andrew McCarthy totally looks like he’s wearing a wig in that last scene — and a new song had to be written. The new prom scene was shot with the prom-goers dancing to Simple Minds’ “Don’t You (Forget About Me),” which had been the prominent song from Hughes’ 1985 film, “The Breakfast Club.” Thus, whatever OMD sent Hughes as the new song would have to be 120 beats per minute to match the rhythm of dancing prom attendees.
“We worked until 4 a.m. writing a rough version and sent a motorbike to Paramount,” McCluskey told Songfacts. “John heard it, liked it, and our manager phoned us at 8 a.m. and told us to go back in and mix it. That’s how ‘If You Leave’ happened.”
The song’s prominence in one of Hughes’ biggest movies helped make it OMD’s biggest hit in America. “To many Americans, we are a one hit wonder, even though we had several other hits,” McCluskey said. “Nothing as big as ‘If You Leave.’ It’s a blessing to have such a big hit, but a shame that it overshadows so many other good songs for the US audience. We have many European fans who hate the song.”
A 2013 New York Times Magazine profile on McCluskey and Humphreys offers insight as to why diehard OMD fans would resent the song: “All these years later, the ‘If You Leave’ aftermath feels a little radioactive for McCluskey and Humphreys. This was when making music to satisfy their own youthful curiosities finally and irrevocably gave way to making music for whoever signed the checks. Not coincidentally, their partnership crumbled, and even now they are reluctant to get into the details.”
In other words, the fans who loved “Electricity” and “So In Love” resented that this song got all the attention and ultimately led to the demise of what had been an innovative electronic band. If the song hadn’t been on a John Hughes soundtrack, it still could have been a radio hit. It certainly fit in nicely with the pop music of 1986. But if the song hadn’t been in “Pretty In Pink,” then the band would not have had to produce it on such a short turnaround. Maybe it would be a very different song, or maybe it would never have been written at all.
Any band who has covered “If You Leave” presumably had the flexibility that OMD did not have. For starters, these bands probably didn’t have to crank out the song in 24 hours. They also weren’t beholden to record it at 120 beats per minute. They also had the benefit of hindsight, knowing the role this song played in the Hughes canon.
The 2001 parody “Not Another Teen Movie” celebrated and skewered a whole host of teen movies in the same way that the “Scary Movie” franchises had roasted horror movies. Hughes’ movies received most of the attention, and the homages were not at all subtle: all the characters attended a school called… John Hughes High. The movie’s soundtrack had the same lack of of subtlety, as it featured iconic ’80s songs covered by alternative and pop-punk bands of the late ’90s and early ’00s (including Stabbing Westward’s cover of “Bizarre Love Triangle.”) Good Charlotte appeared in the movie as the band playing prom. The band played a few songs, but of course, it played “If You Leave.” Good Charlotte’s “If You Leave” sounds exactly what you’d expect it to sound like. The tempo is a bit faster than OMD’s, the guitars are crunchy, the drums are fast, and singer Joel Madden sounds more forceful than McCluskey or Humphreys ever did. This cover, like the rest of the “Not Another Teen Movie” soundtrack, appropriately encapsulate what many teens were listening to in 2001 the way that “Pretty In Pink” encapsulated — and dictated — what teens listened to in 1986.
The 2000 compilation album “Isn’t She Still…: The ‘Pretty in Pink’ Soundtrack Revisited” featured covers of all the songs on the soundtrack. Tom Racer’s cover of “If You Leave” sounds very similar to the Good Charlotte version that would appear on the “Not Another Teen Movie” soundtrack a year later. The similarities between the two covers is not surprising, as both pop-punk bands decided to take the song and do a straight-forward pop-punk version of it. The two discernable differences are that the Tom Racer vocals are somewhat softer and the guitars are heavier and crunchier. Some of the other covers on the compilation are more nuanced, including a slowed-down bare cover of New Order’s “Shellshock” by The Arrogants.
Nada Surf’s cover of “If You Leave” appeared in a season one episode of “The O.C.” On the surface, “The O.C.” was a soap opera for teenagers that had really good music (including Placebo’s cover of “Running Up That Hill”). But at its best, “The O.C.” was a show about relationships, whether the characters are related by biology, romance, or another bond. In the first season, socially awkward Seth (Adam Brody) was in a love triangle with popular girly girl Summer (Rachel Bilson) and nerdy bookworm Anna (Samaire Armstrong). What elevated this love triangle beyond a normal teenage TV love triangle was how smartly it was presented. Seth’s hemming and hawing reflected how any teenager with newly acquired self-possession would behave in the situation. Anna and Seth fizzled in part because he couldn’t get over Summer. Seth and Anna remained friends, though she later decided to move back to Pittsburgh. As a teenager. In the middle of the school year. As one does.
Nada Surf’s slowed-down “If You Leave” played in the background as Seth chased after Anna in the airport so he could say goodbye. The downbeat version of “If You Leave” not only perfectly evoked the love triangle from “Pretty In Pink,” but also recast that triad. The Nada Surf cover of “If You Leave” is as soft as the Good Charlotte version is loud. Nada Surf’s Matthew Caws delivers quiet vocals over soft drums and subdued guitars. Good Charlotte’s Madden sang the lyrics as if he were a petulant brat throwing a tantrum in the middle of a store. But Caws sang with a tenderness that resonates wonderfully with the scene in which Seth begs Anna to stay. That Anna doesn’t just dismiss him is a testament to her character. That, and the fact that the scene would be less heartfelt if Anna just flipped the bird and said, “Get bent, loser.”
Musician and producer Rafter Roberts recorded a cover of “If You Leave” under his performing name, Rafter. The song appeared on the compilation album “Guilt by Association: Vol. 2,” released in 2008. It’s a slower than OMD’s version, and unlike the other covers, the Rafter version sounds decade-agnostic. There’s a ’60s pop song vibe to it, reminiscent of The Troggs’ “With a Girl Like You.” There’s a brief horn in there, but for the most part, the most dominant sounds are the percussion and handclaps. While it sounds scaled back compared to the other covers, Rafter’s “If You Leave” is not plain or basic. There are several great subtleties throughout the track, particularly the female back-up singers joining over the handclaps.
“If You Leave” is considered a classic to many pop culture enthusiasts, myself included, but I freely admit that my soft spot for this song is purely because of its placement in a John Hughes movie. In the overall OMD canon, though, I would not rank this as the best song. But what is a band’s “best” song is purely subjective, of course. I have often said the band’s best song is “Electricity,” but maybe I’m just saying that because my friend Chris Ewen often plays it at his “Heroes” dance nights. But that’s how many of us approach music: we often like or dislike what we do in part because of the associations we have with the song. The association with “The O.C.” is a huge reason as to why I love the Nada Surf version.
And that’s perfectly OK.