"If You Leave"

Like most teenagers, my loyalty to recording artists was fleeting. One week I championed Haysi Fantayzee, the next it'd been pushed aside for Martha and the Muffins. Only a precious few—the Smiths, Bow Wow Wow—made the cut for more than two albums.

Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark surpassed them all. Beginning with Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (a marriage of their first two British LPs) in 1980, the Liverpool synth-pop duo remained in my favor for an unheard-of five years. One of my favorite memories is walking alone on a Delaware beach at twilight, the wistful "Souvenir" wafting through cheap headphones. The first time I dared testing my fake ID at a rock club was to see their 1984 Junk Culture tour.

These memories won't strike a chord with most folks. If the average American recognizes the letters OMD, it's for one reason: their 1986 Top Ten single from the Pretty in Pink soundtrack, "If You Leave." Or, as I remember it, the song that ruined them.

I'd love to pin their downfall on John Hughes. The year before, "Don't You Forget About Me" from The Breakfast Club heralded the demise of Simple Minds. After one taste of American success they'd transformed into vapid arena rockers. But my dismissal of OMD wasn't just sour grapes over their newfound popularity. "If You Leave" was the first song by the duo I genuinely disliked. Compared to their previous Top 40 entry, 1985's "So in Love," it felt anemic. The synthesizer textures and programmed beats that just a year earlier still sounded innovative now tasted as flat and bland as matzoh.

The pickings get pretty slim after "If You Leave" on the recent best-of The OMD Singles (Virgin): the chugging "(Forever) Live and Die"; "Dreaming," a brilliant hook desperately in search of a whole song. The '90s material, following the departure of Paul Humphreys, fares even worse.

But another new release inspired me to stop programming only tracks 1 ("Electricity") through 10 ("So in Love") and revisit no. 11. The Rhino/Cheap Date compilation In Their Eyes: '90s Teen Bands vs. '80s Teen Movies showcases youngsters like Ben Lee, the Donnas, and the Rondelles tackling tunes etched on the collective memories of Generation X. The members of Springfield, Oregon, quartet Marigold hadn't even begun to exhibit secondary sexual characteristics when Pretty in Pink premiered, yet their reading of "If You Leave" ranks among the disc's high points.

I always bristled at how . . . tentative the original version felt. Hearing Jacob Arnold's turn with the same lyric, stupid me finally realized that's exactly what OMD singer Andy McCluskey was aiming for. The song's protagonist can't make a clean break, nor can he retain the object of his affection. Recast in a sparse rock reading, complete with slide guitar, the melody's charms still shine. "If You Leave" isn't pedestrian. It's a contemporary standard, casting a universal sentiment in a tune just distinctive enough to be memorable yet still leaving room for interpretation.

Marigold has been camping out in Seattle this month, working on demos for its forthcoming debut album with Ken Stringfellow (the Posies) and Scott McCaughey (Minus 5/Young Fresh Fellows); its choice of producers underscores the band's innate understanding of what distinguishes classic songcraft. The other night, band members dropped by for dinner, and afterwards we popped Heathers in the VCR. "God, was high school really like that in the '80s?" asked one of the boys after an especially cruel cafeteria scene.

"No," I admitted. "It was more like a John Hughes movie." You were never as cool as you thought, and things were simpler than they seemed. Screw nostalgia. Sometimes you just need time and distance to get a perspective on what really matters.

 
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