Maura Magazine

Take a Bow

How the Pretty in Pink soundtrack and John Hughes almost made the Smiths rock stars in America

[The following article was published in the February 2013 issue of Maura magazine, an app-based publication founded by Maura Johnston. The app is no longer published, but I offer the text of my article here. The image is of the “cover” page as it appeared in the magazine’s app.]

My girlfriend Theresa and I are Gen-Xers of the same vintage, and we both love the Smiths, particularly epigrammatic sad-bastard demigod Morrissey. Though we see many concerts together, a scheduling quirk meant we recently wound up attending two separate concert dates on Moz’s current tour.

I saw Morrissey’s show at Radio City Music Hall last October, near the start of the tour. Theresa caught him three months later at the Brooklyn Academy of Music—just a couple of weeks before the 53-year-old Pope of Mope announced the postponement of several tour dates due to, appropriately enough, a bleeding ulcer.

Notwithstanding this encroaching ailment, the Brooklyn show Theresa caught in January was widely agreed to be the better one among Morrissey’s New York City dates. For one thing, he was in a rare good mood—delighted to be making his Brooklyn debut and remarking upon it several times from the stage. For another, Moz had improved his setlist since I saw him in October, selecting better solo cuts (“November Spawned a Monster”) and swapping in crowd-pleasing Smiths chestnuts like “How Soon Is Now?” and—critically, from Theresa’s perspective—“Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want.”

“That was the first Smiths song I ever heard,” Theresa gushed, recounting her shocked delight at hearing the baroque, mandolin-inflected Italianate ballad at the Brooklyn show. “Reminded me of being 14 and hearing it in my Mom’s car after I bought the Pretty in Pink soundtrack cassette.”

“Me too, come to think of it,” I replied, jealous. I’m almost positive “Please, Please” was the first Smiths song I ever heard. And it was undoubtedly the first Smiths song I ever owned—on that same Pretty in Pink album.

Our conversation inspired me to pull my dusty CD of Pretty in Pink off the shelf and reminisce about the spring of 1986. This act of nostalgia didn’t just make me wistful. Thinking about all that happened in music in the half-decade that followed, I actually felt regretful for Morrissey, guitarist Johnny Marr and the rest of the band.

I came to the belated conclusion that the biggest mistake the Smiths ever made wasn’t breaking up—given how much the foursome came to loathe each other, that was inevitable. It was breaking up in 1987. John Hughes almost made them rock gods.

The pioneering work of Hughes, the teen-sympathetic filmmaker who helped define the 1980s, has been well-chronicled by my fellow Gen-X critics and needn’t be recounted again. There have also been encomiums written about his ear for, and smart use of, music in his films. In 2009, on the occasion of Hughes’s premature death at age 59, the 1985 Simple Minds song “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” from his movie The Breakfast Club soundtracked many a broadcast tribute.

What has gone somewhat less remarked is how pivotal Hughes was in helping to break what became known as alternative rock in America—effectively serving as a bridge between what was known in the first half of the decade as postpunk or new wave and what would be called alt-rock or indie rock by the ’90s.

Pretty in Pink, named for the Psychedelic Furs’ classic new wave rock song, was the third chapter in the Hughes–penned and produced triptych of Molly Ringwald films and the first not directed by him (handled instead by the workmanlike Howard Deutch). It’s arguably the weakest of those films, though it has its partisans. What’s inarguable is that its soundtrack had a longer shelf life than the film did.

The Pink soundtrack was released in the winter of 1986, just ahead of the movie, and by spring was a Top Five, gold-selling album; it rode the charts for more than half a year. To a large extent, the album’s strong sales were the result of its biggest hit, the gushy, lovelorn Top Five smash by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, “If You Leave” (No. 4, 1986). But OMD’s hit doesn’t entirely explain the soundtrack’s success.

Hughes’s classic teen films weren’t automatic hit-album generators. In 1984, Sixteen Candles spawned a five-song soundtrack EP, which left out virtually all of the film’s best songs and didn’t chart. The soundtrack to The Breakfast Club only scraped the Billboard Top 20 despite having Simple Minds’ chart-topping smash on it; it eventually went gold, more slowly than Pink would, probably because the bulk of the disc consisted of instrumental score.

On the other side of the Hughes chronology from Pink, the 1986 summer blockbuster Ferris Bueller’s Day Off had no soundtrack. Hughes declined offers to put one together, due to the eclectic nature of Ferris’s songs. Besides, the film’s biggest “hit” was the Beatles’ classic cover of “Twist and Shout,” which re-charted thanks to the film (No. 2, 1964; No. 23, 1986) but, as a song by the biggest band ever, couldn’t be licensed for a soundtrack.

What made Pink unique wasn’t the fact that the film was music-inspired and named after a rock song; so was Sixteen Candles. It wasn’t spawning a big pop hit; Hughes’s Breakfast Club had done that, too. Rather, Pretty in Pink, the album, was singular for being coherent, forward-looking and sui generis, something more than a movie keepsake. Unlike all of the above collections of film music (released or not), it played as an album.

Hughes was out to capture a moment in forward-looking ’80s rock—this in a movie that could easily have leaned on rock and soul classics like Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness,” memorably lip-synced by Jon Cryer’s Duckie in the film. As chronicled in Susannah Gora’s book on the Brat Pack movies of the ’80s, You Couldn’t Ignore Me If You Tried, Hughes and soundtrack producer David Anderle pushed modern rock into the film over the objections of director Deutch.

“I don’t like this music,” Anderle recalls Deutch telling him. “I don’t get it.” And who could blame him—Hughes and Anderle weren’t offering up the frothy new-wave pop of Amy Heckerling’s Fast Times at Ridgmont High four years earlier, or even songs as anthemic as Simple Minds’ hit from Hughes’s previous film.

Hughes was looking to go deeper down the postpunk rabbit-hole, into the kind of post–New Romantic music U.S. audiences hadn’t fully embraced yet. To anyone unfamiliar with current teen culture, it was a tough sell. Years before Singles, Trainspotting and Garden State, the Pink soundtrack was, perhaps unwittingly, defining a pop mini-movement. At the risk of overstating the album’s greatness, Pink’s closest antecedent is probably the Jimmy Cliff–dominated soundtrack to Perry Henzell’s The Harder They Come (1972), which smoothed reggae’s path into America years before Bob Marley broke.

To be frank, roughly half of the Pink disc is decent but not all that brilliant. There’s a cover of Nik Kershaw’s new wave classic “Wouldn’t It Be Good” by a former Three Dog Night singer, Danny Hutton, that’s faithful but doesn’t eclipse the original. There’s a synth-funk track by Jesse Johnson, lead guitarist of The Time, that’s a shameless, watered-down Prince imitation (though a welcome sonic change-up). The INXS track, “Dot Wot You Do,” sounds like a leftover from their contemporaneous album Listen Like Thieves, which it probably was. Finally, as superb a song as “Pretty in Pink” is, the Furs’ rerecording of it for the soundtrack with more sax (in a failed attempt to make it a belated U.S. hit) doesn’t improve it any.

What makes the Pink soundtrack sort of remarkable is that even these weaker tracks are redeemed by the album’s coherence and sense of mission, wrought by artists who had yet to have a serious pop break in America. Suzanne Vega’s brooding “Left of Center” (with superb piano accompaniment by aging “angry young man” Joe Jackson) might as well be the all-time Molly Ringwald theme song—its sense of dislocation would have worked in any of Ringwald’s films with Hughes, especially The Breakfast Club. Echo and the Bunnymen’s “Bring on the Dancing Horses” manages to take their goth-pop more firmly into pop territory without betraying their sound at all.

Most important, the album possessed half of the four bands I consider the Holy Tetralogy of ’80s British Mope Rock: the Cure, Depeche Mode, New Order and the Smiths. The first two were absent—really a shame in the case of DM, who would’ve fit with the movie’s aching-love/tragic-beauty themes beautifully. But the soundtrack gave a serious boost in the U.S. to New Order, represented on the album with the twitchy, doom-dancey “Shellshock”; and, as noted earlier, the Smiths.

At the risk of insulting Morrissey and Marr, when “Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want” appears as the Pink album’s last track—a wounded, resigned sigh right after Echo and the Bunnymen—it’s as if the song has finally fulfilled its mission. (How hard was John Hughes pimping “Please, Please” in 1986? Enough to include an instrumental cover of it by the Dream Academy in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, released just months later, during a major, romantic montage sequence.)

Morrissey and Marr’s soaring ballad originated as a B-side on the 1984 Smiths single “William, It Was Really Nothing.” It was later buried on a pair of canonical singles-collecting Smiths compilations—the U.K.-only Hatful of Hollow (1984) and, much later, the U.S.-originating double album Louder Than Bombs (1987).

In England, by 1986, the Smiths were already indie-pop demigods—they’d racked up a half-dozen Top 40 U.K. hits since making their 1983 debut on the Rough Trade label with “Hand in Glove.” But in America, where college radio was still on the rise and commercial alternative radio was zygotic, the Smiths were virtually nowhere, other than late-night MTV and the bedrooms of the hippest, most Anglophilic teenagers. For American audiences new to the Smiths (like 15-year-old Theresa and me), “Please, Please’s” placement at the end of Pink soundtrack was a revelation.

Pretty in Pink landed a few months before the Smiths released their classic third album The Queen Is Dead, which would finally give them a major profile with the U.S. rock press. It didn’t, however, get them on major radio stations. By the end of 1986, the Smiths had yet to score a hit on our Hot 100 pop chart.

Actually, the Smiths have never appeared on the Hot 100, either before or after 1986. It’s difficult to overstate how bizarre this is—major rock acts of their stature, no matter how left-field, generally manage to appear on Billboard’s barometer of hits at least once, on the lower rungs of the chart. Even Frank Zappa, the Ramones and the Flaming Lips have scored low-ranking Hot 100 hits. The Smiths join a small club—its most prominent members are the Velvet Underground, Tom Waits, the Sex Pistols and the Pixies—of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame–worthy acts never to score even one moderate U.S. pop hit.

How could a band this catchy (catchier than almost any of the above examples, save perhaps the ahead-of-their-time Pixies) miss our charts entirely? The answer for the Smiths’ lack of U.S. crossover is quite simple: They left the scene just one year too early. They missed the start of the alternative-rock explosion by mere months.

Through 1986, the Holy Tetralogy of U.K. Mope Rock had a near-hitless ratio of U.S. success. Only Depeche Mode had sneaked onto U.S. radio, with the dancey “People Are People” (No. 13, 1985). Considering DM didn’t come close to the U.S. Top 40 for half a decade after that early one-off hit, it has to be regarded as a fluke. The Cure and New Order were totally hitless on the Hot 100 through ’86.

The dam burst in 1987. The Cure reached the U.S. Top 40 for the first time with “Just Like Heaven”; by year’s end, they’d have two gold albums in America. The same month “Just Like Heaven” hit the charts, New Order made their Hot 100 debut with “True Faith,” also a Top 40 hit, which spurred their Substance album to gold. Depeche Mode scored their first two gold U.S. albums in late 1986 and 1987, even though their singles “Strangelove,” “Never Let Me Down Again” and “Behind the Wheel” were only modest pop-radio hits. Even Echo and the Bunnymen, who never went gold or scored a pop hit in America, came out in 1987 with a self-titled album (led by the single “Lips Like Sugar”) that came within one rung of breaking the U.S. album chart’s Top 50.

It was a good year for American alt-rock, too: 1987 saw R.E.M. (whose guitarist Peter Buck might as well have been jangle-rock kin to the Smiths’ Johnny Marr) score their first Top 10 hit with “The One I Love.” Like the Cure and Depeche Mode, R.E.M. earned their first two gold albums that year. Even neo-folkie Suzanne Vega scored a massive Top Five hit in ’87 with the child-abuse tale “Luka,” which quickly turned her Solitude Standing album gold, then platinum.

These newly-minted Stateside hits were certainly postpunk and vaguely “new wave,” but they were all darker than anything from MTV’s first five years. By 1988, the Psychedelic Furs would finally make the U.S. Top 40. By 1989, Depeche Mode would return to the U.S. Top 40 with “Personal Jesus,” and the Cure would very nearly top the chart (“Love Song,” No. 2, 1989).

This three-year period of crossover makes Pretty in Pink and John Hughes look especially prescient. When New Order, Vega, Echo and the Furs appeared on the Pink soundtrack in 1986, none had ever made the Hot 100 before. Throw in OMD, who had made the Top 40 prior to Pink (“So in Love,” No. 23, 1985) but only broke into the U.S. Top Five with their Pink single “If You Leave”; and INXS, whose “What You Need” became their first U.S. Top 10 hit just weeks after Pink dropped. That’s six acts that Pink, directly or indirectly, helped make bigger in America—more than half the album.

And then there were the Smiths—the artists behind the Pink album’s last and best track. What were they doing in the epochal alt-rock crossover year of 1987?

They were splitting up—with their final album, Strangeways, Here We Come, already recorded and in the can.

When Strangeways landed in September 1987, it reached No. 55 in America, their best performance here to date, and spawned their first regular-rotation video on MTV, “Girlfriend in a Coma.” Given the chart performance of their U.K. and U.S. alt-rock peers, it seems inarguable that one further album—or at the very least, another six months’ worth of promotion and touring behind the last album they did manage—would have made them stars in America.

In late 1988, Billboard magazine launched its Modern Rock chart, an acknowledgment of alt-rock’s fast-growing commercial prowess. By this point, Morrissey was a solo act. Had the Modern Rock chart existed in early 1986, the songs of Pretty in Pink would have dominated it for months.

The chart’s first No. 1, in September 1988, was Siouxsie and the Banshees’ “Peek-a-Boo”—another stalwart goth-pop act that had patiently waited for American teenagers to move past New Romantic pop. Within months, the Modern Rock chart became the playground of New Order, Depeche Mode and the Cure, all now considered alt-pop gods in America. Each took a turn at No. 1 on the new chart alongside R.E.M., Vega and INXS. Most of these acts entered the 1990s as platinum-level album-sellers in America.

It must be said that the newly solo Morrissey did exceedingly well on the Modern Rock chart, too—nine Top 10s from 1989 to 1994, including two No. 1s (1992’s “Tomorrow” and 1994’s “The More You Ignore Me, the Closer I Get”). But to this day, Morrissey has no platinum albums to his name. Two of his solo discs, Viva Hate and Bona Drag, were certified gold in America; each took more than five years to reach that sales mark. The Smiths have three U.S. gold albums—The Queen Is Dead, Louder Than Bombs and Strangeways, Here We Come—all of which were certified more than three years after the group’s breakup. Again, nothing platinum.

Would the Smiths have done better if Morrissey and Marr could have hung together just a bit longer? Were they irredeemably British for our tastes? Morrissey seems content with the career he has, and the sizeable theaters he’s able to play in America. Marr, too, attests to being satisfied with the muses he’s followed since the Smiths’ breakup (including a brief, best-selling late-’00s stint in Modest Mouse). On the other hand, these are men who, at the Smiths’ height, titled a compilation album The World Won’t Listen in open frustration at their inability to become stadium-fillers.

Listening to “Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want” with nearly three decades’ hindsight, you’re left wondering what the song’s two writers—particularly its avowedly celibate singer—really want: love? contentment? hits? And yet—even as you wish the Smiths were accorded the legendary status they deserve—when you, alt-rocking Gen-X American, listen to the final droplets of mandolin fade out at the end of Pretty in Pink, you feel a part of a club. Its members are you, the late John Hughes, and the other half-million Americans who understand.