This month, to celebrate the Internet’s unbridled love for wallowing in nostalgia and even greater relishing of talking about why certain cultural artifacts are horrible, Sound of the City presents First Worsts, a series in which our writers remember the first time… they ever hated a song enough to call it The Worst. (And to be fair, we’re also going to see how these songs have stood the test of time.)
THE SONG: OMD, “If You Leave.”
THE YEAR: 1986.
THE REASON: Hysterical at every level.
Like John the Baptist but cleaner and maybe funnier, polymath John Hughes prepared preteens buying Mr. Mister and Starship records for the Good News of college rock, to which older siblings had already been exposed. The soundtrack to The Breakfast Club produced a Keith “Hot Stuff” Forsey-penned tune called “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” that Bryan Ferry, with his usual exemplary taste, rejected. Everyone knows what happened next: Simple Minds landed their first and last American No. 1 hit and singer Jim Kerry got to out-Bono Bono before Bono did the same thing a couple years later.
As omnipresent and vile as “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” was, its parent album had loads of filler that has remained largely unheard since the days when G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero dominated afterschool TV watching. But the Pretty in Pink soundtrack was real manna. For the first time, the music reflected the tumult in the hearts of the characters instead of being applied like skin grafts. It was conceivable that Molly Ringwald’s Andie would listen to New Order’s “Shellshock” at older pal Iona (Annie Potts)’s recommendation; it’s easy to imagine Andie, desolate at the thought of never being moneyed enough for boring rich dude Blaine (Andrew McCarthy, dazed, as if he were looking to party with Bret Easton Ellis at the prom), filling mix tapes with Suzanne Vega and Smiths songs, the latter aestheticizing her misery, the former beseeching her to accept loserdom (euphemistically called “left of center” here) with a wry grin. She wasn’t alone. To show how left-of-center INXS could be, they misspelled a key word in their white-funk obscurity “Do Wot You Do.” But of course Andie got off better than Duckie (Jon Cryer), a ridiculous creation who codes as gay but gets no Blaine to crush on.
“If You Leave,” an American top five in the spring of ’86, encapsulates the perplexities of one of the most frustrating and overrated teen films ever. Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark, the synth-pop duo responsible for intermittent flashes of excellence like “Enola Gay” and two songs devoted to “Joan of Arc,” had made their U.S. breakthrough the previous year with “So in Love,” a breathless electronic ballad baited with a strange gargoyle effect and Andy McCluskey’s mucous-y vocal timbre. I didn’t hear it until years later. All we got in heavy rotation was “If You Leave,” and even then it represented the nadir of synth pop; this song was massive in part because OMD wanted it to sound as huge as Mr. Mister. “If You Leave” starts promisingly: the string section, whether sampled or live, saws away then does this little flourish at the end of a bar that’s like the sound of Andie or Duckie’s trembling hearts. The lyrics are admirably straightforward—and, again, parse only if Duckie’s singing them.
Gradually the annoyances become menaces. The parts are garish, overstated; it’s a cluttered mix. The drums, mixed to sound like someone’s hitting a trash can lid with a brick, lack a bottom end. OMD add a gross fillip to the syrupy bass that was prominent on Thompson Twins’ immortal “Hold Me Now”: the synthesized equivalent of slapping it. But the song’s biggest culprit is McCluskey, pushing beyond his physical and emotional range. Crooning like a mulleted Sinatra, tugging at vowels like they’re gum stuck under a shoe, he leaves no mystery, no space in which listeners can project their own longings. A smarter performer would have whizzed past one of the worst lyrical howlers ever penned; instead, McCluskey savors each word of “Seven years spent under the bridge like time standing still” as if mulling over the idea of adding “and we’re through the fire as it cuts like a knife straight to my heart.” Surrendering to the drama, he wails DON’T LOOK BAAAAHHCK over the outro with the confidence of a man who swallowed a Fairlight sampler.
SO HOW IS IT NOW?
The best thing that could be said about “If You Leave” is that its ubiquity kept Psychedelic Furs’ desecration of their 1981 classic from clawing into the top forty. And I still prefer Mr. Mister’s “Is It Love.”