The 'Pretty In Pink' Soundtrack Was a Gateway to Alt-Pop and Proletarian Revolution
Yes... the John Hughes film is as weighty as that sounds!
The early 80s provided a cavalcade of wonderful pop singles. By the middle of the decade however, things started to feel a bit stale. Party animals like Duran Duran had gone down the cocaine-induced dumper, hair metal was in the ascendency and Madonna was now dealing with mature subjects rather than the strictly fun stuff. Sure, there were moments of magical madness, but otherwise the time was a yawning interregnum of boredom.
Amid the desiccated morsels falling from pop's once bountiful table however, one thing stood out: the soundtrack to Pretty In Pink. As a 13-year-old I was desperately seeking something smart, something with substance, something youthful that was a bit cooler than Howard Jones. And the John Hughes-curated soundtrack of a film, inspired by the Psychedelic Furs song of the same name, provided it in abundance. I didn't know it yet, but my music taste was about to radically change – and eventually so too would my politics.
The Psychedelic Furs, for the uninitiated, aren't really psychedelic at all. Formed by the brothers Butler in 1977, the London art rock six-piece emerged as part of a scene that would retrospectively be called post-punk. Rasping vocalist Richard Butler somehow sounded exactly like Bowie and Johnny Rotten at the same time – I was mesmerised and fell deeply in love with their snarling racket. I went trawling backwards buying the band's catalogue from back to front with saved up dinner money. The original version of "Pretty In Pink" eventually turned up on the 1981 album Talk Talk Talk, and while it sounds similar to the OST version, it's sleazier and more wheezy.
They looked mean too, decked out in leather and shades, gaunt as greyhounds with wild manes of punk hair. It then came to pass that other bands on the soundtrack didn't just sound great, they looked great too. New Order, who performed "Shell-Shock", sang irresistibly about alienation while looking like Baader Meinhof members who'd half-inched some peroxide from the chemical factory they just bombed. And Echo and the Bunnymen were skinny, clean shaven malcontents with vertiginous, backcombed hair dos, singing abstract nonsense about bringing dancing horses to the party "headless and all alone". What could it all mean? These bands said something to me about my life that Kenny Loggins didn't.
Hughes wrote and produced Pretty In Pink, but he wasn't actually the director (that was Howard Deutch apparently). Nevertheless it feels every bit as much a Hughes film as The Breakfast Club or Sixteen Candles. That's partly because all three star Molly Ringwald, the Brat Pack's own ginger princess and cynosure of the mid-80s teen romcom. Ringwald, in fact, went to Hughes with the Furs song and said he should do something with it.
"He took [the song] away, listened to it, and wrote Pretty In Pink," Butler told Mojo in 2010, "which totally got the whole thing wrong. It was nothing like the spirit of the song at all." Apparently the track was really "about a girl who kinda sleeps around, and thinks it's really cool and thinks everybody really likes her, but they really don't. She's just being used. It's quite scathing."
Pretty In Pink is typical of Hughes in that it deals with class and social structure, with the American high school as microcosm. The Breakfast Club famously takes "a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess and a criminal" and puts them in detention, while Pretty In Pink is a sexual collision between the Haves with the Have Nots. It extols the virtues of making your own clothes with a sewing machine and buying $15 thrift store shoes while demonstrating how soulless and oppressive the high school aristocracy are. James Spader in white chinos, parading around the school smoking and getting away with it because he probably owns it, is the hardiest and most dastardly toff. He has all the best (and nastiest) lines too, telling his best friend Blaine (yes Blaine) that he has a "hard on for trash". He refers charmingly to Molly Ringwald's character Andie as a "little piece of low grade ass". As a posh pantomime bully, Spader steals the show.
This class dichotomy allows for plenty of songs on the soundtrack about social alienation, and sticking with this thematic division, Hughes quite rightly picked Nik Kershaw's "Wouldn't It Be Good" for a scene ("Wouldn't it be good to be on your side? / grass is always greener over there"). For whatever reason, they couldn't get the licence from RCA, meaning there's an atrocious counterfeit version instead. The only other misfire is the omission of "Try A Little Tenderness" by Otis Redding from the LP – which soundtracks the most memorable scene from the film, featuring some grade-A showing off from John Cryer's the Duck Man.
As luck would have it, The Smiths' "Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want" is also on the soundtrack. The band's succinct, romantic ode to pessimism plays during some seriously hardcore bedroom moping by the Duck Man, who is tragically infatuated with best friend Andie but can't summon the courage to tell her. The musical piece-de-resistance, though, is OMD's "If You Leave", which might just be the Wirral synth pop duo's finest moment. It's so good the director uses it for a whole eight minutes during the finale. Interestingly, OMD had earmarked another of their songs for the film, but test audiences responded badly to an alternate ending. "If You Leave" was then apparently written and turned around in a day before the boys went off on their holidays. The experience no doubt stood Andy McCluskey in good stead years later when he tossed off songs for Atomic Kitten and Gary Barlow.
The soundtrack to Pretty In Pink taught me that there was a whole universe of interesting alternative music out there that could be about abstraction and alienation, and didn't have to be about saving the planet like Bono was trying to do. It also taught me that prom queens were more likely to go out with rich boys called Blaine than camp show offs called Duckie, although that was just school. But perhaps most significantly of all, it planted the seeds of socialism, which would take time to grow. I didn't see all of this at the time, but not having a pot to piss in myself, I certainly identified with the poorer protagonists over the fledgling yuppies.
As a Brit, it feels like no coincidence that Pretty In Pink hit cinemas in 1986, the same year as the financial Big Bang, when the UK's Conservative Party deregulated the banks. Read through that lens, Hughes was presciently warning us about the perils of unchecked capitalism and massive inequality. Note the two lectures featured in the film are on the Russian Revolution and President Roosevelt's regulatory 1933 Emergency Banking Act. And what about when Duckie attacks Steff in the hall? It could just be a schoolboy scrap, or more likely it is a symbolic overthrowing of the ruling classes by the proletariat.
If Hughes wasn't a card-carrying pinko, then he was at least left of centre. We know this because Suzanne Vega's "Left of Center" is on the soundtrack. Okay so "Left of Center" might actually be a love song about admiring someone from a distance, but there's surely an implicit political message. What Suzanne is really saying is this: 'If you want me / You can find me / left of centre / off of the strip ... Oh and by the way / Death to fascism and freedom to the people!'
Wherever Hughes positioned himself on the political spectrum, there can be little doubt he was the Brat Pack Marx, and Pretty In Pink is his Das Kapital. The message is loud and clear: No War but Class War.
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