Jesus of Cool: John Hughes, Sixteen Candles, and a Kiss … of Death

Written by Jesus of Cool, Music

If you were a GenXer coming of age in the 1980s, moviegoing meant heavy doses of Harrison Ford, too much Tom Cruise, an occasional journey into the unhinged eraserhead of David Lynch…and multitudes of Molly Ringwald. John Hughes’ hugely successful teen flicks were hit-and-miss in quality — with the exception of Sixteen Candles and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, they all play better in the memory than they do in real time. Still, without them we might never have grown to loathe the Brat Pack — and Hughes did manage to give some early-career screen time to several young people who went on to more interesting acting careers (John Cusack, Alan Ruck and Gina Gershon, to name a few).

What’s more, Hughes introduced millions of teenage girls to a series of bands that, up to that point, had been the exclusive property of those girls’ older siblings. In case anyone needs a refresher:

[kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/UAn8lu3C9IE" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

(Maybe if Jim Kerr had spent more time with Chrissie and the kids that year, he wouldn’t have seemed so uncomfortable stepping around those toys. And maybe the marriage would have lasted longer.)

For Simple Minds, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, and the Psychedelic Furs, Hughes’ films provided commercial success like they’d never known — and a curse they apparently never saw coming. The trouble was, once those bands became beloved among the big-hair-and-Benetton set, most of those older siblings no longer wanted anything to do with them. And teenage girls have a way of growing up — and out of the music they loved in high school.

Each band, a favorite on college and alternative radio, reached a peak of public recognition with its soundtrack hit — and within a couple years of that hit, each band had begun a descent into oblivion from which it never recovered. It’s a classic quandary, really: The cult favorites who score a hit, “graduate” to pop radio, lose their initial audience of indie snobs who go off in search of the Next Little Thing — and then discover that when they next decide to follow the out-of-the-mainstream muse that had previously kept them off the charts, there’s no one left listening to them. The pop-radio vortex has swallowed many a promising band whose career builds to a sudden hit, leaving their early work forgotten and imposing an impossibly high standard on their future music. For these three bands in the ’80s, riding the John Hughes juggernaut made that transition all the more daunting.

Simple Minds: “Don’t You (Forget About Me)”

Simple Minds are a perfect case in point. They weren’t Hughes’ first choice to record “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” for The Breakfast Club — Bryan Ferry was. But when Ferry turned him down flat, Hughes and songwriter/producer Keith Forsey looked to the next best option: a band that frequently made quite Roxy-ish music. Simple Minds had gained steadily in popularity in the UK during the early ’80s, without really breaking through to Frankie- or Wham!-like success, with music that combined edgy, jagged guitar parts with synth-driven bombast, oblique lyrics and Jim Kerr’s dramatic vocals.

Kerr was famously ambivalent about recording “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” — and why not? Once Forsey had smoothed out the band’s edges and replaced them with an Edge-y jangle that sat just below 37 layers of synths, Simple Minds sounded pretty much like U2 (if U2 ever deigned to sing a song with lyrics as ludicrous as “I won’t harm you or touch your defenses/Vanity, insecurity/Don’t you forget about me/I’ll be alone, dancing you know it baby/Going to take you apart/I’ll put us back together at heart, baby”).

As the single raced up the charts and Kerr’s arms flailed all over MTV, the sound of vinyl smashing into college-radio dustbins was just as deafening as those “Hey, hey, hey, HEY”s. No more airplay for former mainstays like “Promised You A Miracle,” “Up On The Catwalk” or “Speed Your Love To Me.” Seemingly embarrassed just as much by the song’s success as he had been by singing it in the first place, Kerr groused publicly every chance he got — but still managed to cash those paychecks, not sensing the backlash-to-be.

Simple Minds had returned to the studio in early 1985, shifting from Folsey to Jimmy Iovine and finding themselves working at cross purposes — to consolidate their sudden success while distancing themselves as much as possible from the artistic compromises that had gotten them there. The result was Once Upon A Time, a mainstream rock album that contained a trio of MTV and radio hits (“Alive And Kicking,” “Sanctify Yourself” and “All The Things She Said”). All three were welcome pop-radio staples of 1986, but the album didn’t return the band to the good graces of critics and other tastemakers, among whom Iovine’s pumped-up production and Kerr’s dramatics signaled nothing so much as “sellout.”

Next came…does anybody remember anymore? A “live” album featuring way too many overdubs, followed by Kerr’s attempt to restore his indie cred by radicalizing the band on Street Fighting Years. That album fell almost comically flat, losing the band its mainstream audience while failing to win back college radio — despite gestures including an album cover that aped those of the group’s early albums. By 1990 Simple Minds’ lineup had become a revolving door of session players surrounding Kerr and guitarist Charlie Burchill; and though a couple of minor hits surfaced during the early ’90s, Kerr & Co. had largely sunk into obscurity, trailed by a caterwauling “As you walk on by/Will you call my name…Or will you walk away?”

Psychedelic Furs: “Pretty In Pink”

The Psychedelic Furs had a pretty good thing going by 1986, with a classic ’80s career trajectory: English boys score early success with a charismatically gruff lead singer and snarling, new-wavish music not too far removed from John Lydon, then ease into mainstream success as the Pistols imitations wear off, the guitar-based lineup incorporates some synths, and the singer’s romantic heart is revealed. Richard Butler’s achievement up to that point was to retain a measure of indie cred once he had discovered his proclivity for ballads such as “Love My Way” and “The Ghost In You”; he did so mostly via his distinctive, raspy and heavily accented voice, and lyrics that were oblique enough to appeal to both the romantic young girls and the cynical older guys in the KROQ coalition.

Speaking of oblique, John Hughes’ zeitgeist gene (and his ear for irony) must have been misfiring when he decided to build a Cinderella story around the Furs’ early UK hit “Pretty In Pink.” Originally on their second album Talk Talk Talk, from 1981, “Pretty In Pink” is a fairly nasty piece of work, about a girl who imagines she’s living a wildly romantic life with a series of boys who view her as a slut. “All of her lovers all talk of her notes and the flowers that they never sent/And wasn’t she easy/And isn’t she pretty in pink/The one who insists he was first in the line is the last to remember her name…” How, exactly, does Molly Ringwald fit into that?

With a shoehorn, apparently. Hardly in a position to turn down teendom’s favorite filmmaker when he has named his latest cash cow after their song, the Furs dutifully shuffled into the studio and remade “Pretty In Pink” into a record that, sonically if not lyrically, could hold up a mainstream teen romance. They toned down the jagged guitar parts and Butler allowed his snarl to creep into a bit of a croon, then they added some hooky horn parts and a couple layers of radio-friendly synth sheen. The result was a perfectly fine record — that got the Furs trashed roundly by critics and longtime fans for forsaking the song’s original intent, compromising their artistic blah-blah-blah and, of course, selling out. And pop radio didn’t even bite, as the record stalled just shy of the Top 40 (it did considerably better at album-rock radio).

The next newly recorded Furs song to appear, leading off their Midnight To Midnight album, was “Heartbreak Beat.” It was a great record, eminently lovable, all over MTV — and the only Furs single to reach the Top 40 in the US — but it veritably screamed “THIS IS THE FOLLOW-UP TO A JOHN HUGHES SOUNDTRACK HIT!!!” It felt at the time like the logical next step on Butler’s road to stardom; it was, in retrospect, as big a step as Butler was capable of making toward the mainstream, and after that he pretty much ran out of ideas. It only seems as though every Furs album since then has been a greatest-hits collection, but in reality the Furs kept going until 1991, through two albums that didn’t make much of a dent, then Butler broke up the band and created another short-lived entity called Love Spit Love. A tenure as a solo artist was followed by the inevitable reunion, and these days you’re likely to find an oldies band called the Psychedelic Furs playing one of those smaller or even (gasp) suburban clubs that faintly reek of Has-Been For Men. (sigh)

Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark: “If You Leave”

The Pretty In Pink soundtrack was a gift that kept on giving; honestly, is there a better collection out there of great ’80s acts performing not-their-best work? The Smiths, Echo & the Bunnymen, New Order, Suzanne Vega, INXS, Belouis Some (?) — all are represented, and Hughes (and the late, sorta-great A&M Records) must receive all requisite props for putting together such a cornucopia of goodness (even if Hughes did name one of the film’s main characters Ducky). Still, the breakout song from the soundtrack was OMD’s “If You Leave,” a Top-5 hit written specifically for the film that, remarkably, didn’t (and still doesn’t) sound at all out of place among the rest of the band’s output.

You can count on just a few fingers the bands who made consistently great music over a period of years while plugging almost nothing but synth keyboards into their amplifiers. OMD was one of them. By 1986 Paul Humphreys and Andy McCluskey (there were other band members, but OMD was always pitched as a duo) had piled up a string of successes both critical and commercial, beginning with singles like “Electricity” and “Enola Gay” and culminating (at least artistically) with arguably the finest synth-focused album of the decade, 1983’s Junk Culture. A key to their success was the fact that — unlike other techno-pop singers like the Human League’s Philip Oakey or Heaven 17’s Glenn Gregory, who rode the waves of electronically produced sound with vaguely robotic vocals — McCluskey brought an almost hyper-emotional quality to the genre. That human element came in particularly handy when OMD took aim at the pop charts with their 1985 album Crush, and scored with the melodramatic “So In Love” and the Humphreys-sung “Secret.”

OMD wrote “If You Leave” themselves, and Hughes couldn’t have ordered up a more perfect soundtrack single if he’d drunk-dialed Diane Warren. Overdramatic by half, slightly dumbed-down even from the gushy romanticism of “So In Love,” yet brilliant in its musical realization of the puppy-love mechanics of a Hughes film — “If You Leave” couldn’t miss and it didn’t, becoming one of the biggest singles of the year and driving the Pretty In Pink soundtrack into the Top 5 as well.

Sadly, the record’s timing could have been better for OMD. The band found itself short of inspiration and generally on its last legs when it came time to follow up “If You Leave”; the resulting album, The Pacific Age, sounded like an elegy with songs like “Forever Live And Die” and “We Love You.” In fact, it was; shortly after the album was released, the entire band (including Humphreys) bailed out, leaving McCluskey to go it alone through a few more albums (he kept the OMD name going) that made little to no impact.

Last year, however, the original OMD lineup re-teamed and embarked upon one of those trendy “classic albums live” tours, performing the entirety of their 1981 Architecture And Morality album at gigs across the UK. The response, by all accounts, was rapturous, and last I heard a new album is in the works. Godspeed, gentlemen; may your new material succeed artistically like that Tears For Fears reunion album of a few years back. And a couple new singles like “If You Leave” would be just…yeah, I’m going there…ducky.