Why ‘Pretty In Pink’ is ground zero for the college rock explosion

As Rockin’ the Suburbs fans are well aware, Jim Lenahan’s knowledge of alternative music begins and ends with the bands R.E.M. deemed worthy of covering. But he got his first dose of college rock listening to movie soundtracks from 1980s John Hughes movies. He isn’t alone.

While college rock lasted the entire decade, its route to mainstream popularity and rebranding as alternative or indie rock can be traced to the half a dozen soundtracks associated with movie king of Chicago.

The majority of movies written by and especially directed by John Hughes remain enduring classics of suburban teenage angst.

A wonderful common thread throughout each movie has characters coming of age to the cream of 1980s underground music. Nascent inklings of soundtrack greatness were already present on “If You Were Here” by The Thompson Twins from the Sixteen Candles  compilation. The still-giant Simple Minds hit “Don’t You Forget About Me” that opened and closed The Breakfast Club was a sweet introduction to that band’s extensive catalogue.

Great tunes are all over the underrated movies and soundtracks of She’s Having a Baby and Some Kind of Wonderful including early Love & Rockets. Anyone listening close enough throughout the decade received a college education in college rock just by following the soundtracks  coordinated for these perfectly written comedies.

Movies weren’t always so packed with tunes

As the dominance of 70s arena rock gave way to the rise of punk and new wave and skinny-tied MTV bands, movie soundtracks also reached a turning point. Mega-hit musical soundtracks like Grease and Saturday Night Fever were few and far between, so the powers-that-be eventually drifted to compiling soundtracks that were a hit-and-miss grab bag of a dozen artists jammed onto a platter that usually had little relation to the onscreen action.

Hiring superstars for big bucks just to produce a huge disappoint like Xanadu seemed a bad investment for studios. I know, the Xanadu soundtrack is AMAZING, but it’s far down the list when considering the reverence given other records by ELO and ONJ.

Consider “I’m Alive,” for example:

Many of the first entries into the kitchen sink method of soundtrack coordinating like Up The Creek were not that memorable but efforts like Heavy Metal and Fast Times at Ridgemont High found success because of the size and scope of bands involved. My secret favorites are the many with one or two Madonna hits combined with complete filler.

A bizarre look into early 1980s movie marketing:

Here’s a clean look at the best movie of its kind. Ever…

To this day, soundtracks compiled in this manner are tainted with excess filler, overplayed hits from dinosaur rock bands, and songs from bands that appear just because they share a label with the company releasing the record.

Even Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club have some questionable entries by Z-list artists.

Weird Science is the best of the lot from films directed by John Hughes, simply because General Public’s “Tenderness” and Oingo Boingo’s title track are included –both exquisitely perfect pop songs.

But when the Soundtrack to Pretty in Pink appeared, it was obvious something felt different about this one… and it provided a gateway for a specific generation to discover the absolute best in college rock at the time. A few examples of the bands that made it to the actual album:

  • New Order: “Shellshock”
  • The Smiths: “Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want”
  • The Psychedelic Furs: “Pretty In Pink”
  • Echo and the Bunnymen: “Bring On the Dancing Horses”

It’s not so much the specific songs but the fact that its appearance in the cold winter months of 1986 literally introduced these four bands to suburban kids from the flyover states for the first time. Small traces of The Cure and The Clash had started to filter through, but Pretty in Pink opened millions of new eyes to music mainly on the cassette decks of college kids and music nerds.

John Hughes didn’t direct the film, but convinced director Howie Deutch to ditch traditional theme music for his usual mix of new wave and post punk ditties giving the scenes a modern kick. INXS and Suzanne Vega have great cuts as well, with a few surprising covers filling out the album.

Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (OMD) had to write what ended up being their one hit wonder “If You Leave” in 24 hours expressly for a new ending to Pretty in Pinkused during the controversial “happy” ending. It was quickly shot after audiences were horrified by an original cut where protagonist Andie ended up with the boho loner Duckie.

Get out the kleenex…

While some viewers were mesmerized by Molly Ringworm’s heroic journey to finish a DIY pink dress in time for prom — yet all for the sake of ubiquitous romantic leading man at that time Andrew McCarthy — most of us were drawn to the crushing reality that we’re all really just Jon Cryer. I’d argue Duckie’s realization he’ll never nail the godmother of all indie pixie dream girls is what makes the movie transcend generations. The forced Hollywood ending only makes it more painfully true to real life.

Duckie explains:

I know from picking up discarded popcorn tins during my ushering days to look closely at the end credits for the rolling list of music in the film. Many times the actually soundtrack released in stores paled in comparison to the more complete list of every song heard during the film. Pretty in Pink has a frustrating amount of music obvious to viewers watching the live action, but these tracks were absent from the soundtrack.

The most obvious one is “Try A Little Tenderness” — heard live in a record store at the movie’s most iconic moment. Duckie performs an unforgettably perfect lip-sync dance to this Otis Redding gem for Ringworm and Annie Potts. Their characters are nonplussed. Moviegoers were mesmerized. It’s a defining moment, a scene unmatched to this day.

New Order is heard two other times but the tracks are absent from the soundtrack album. Eventually my store-bought soundtrack just wasn’t complete enough for me. I spent the early part of 1986 tracking down other albums by the bands in the movie while putting endless listens of John Cougar and John Mellencamp on the back burner.

And then there were The Rave-Ups

Featured for almost two entire songs during an infamous bar scene where Andrew Dice Clay works as a bouncer, The Rave-Ups stuck in my head mainly because I saw the movie so many times during work breaks.  Where was this country-tinged band with the catchy hooks stuck in the smoky background from? Why did their songs mesmerize and fascinate me so?

Check out “Positively Lost Me” mixed to the front of this famous scene:

I had to track down the debut album from The Rave-Ups in a tiny Newark, Delaware record store. I’ll always remember walking up the stairs and finding it. The cover resonates to this day in its homemade quality. All the tracks are strong, lead singer/songwriter Jimmer Podrasky clever language and southern drawl a great compliment to the alt-country-punky ditties. “In My Gremlin” and “Class Tramp” are good entry points for Rockin’ The Suburbs fans.

Years later I tracked down Jimmer Podrasky after a solo gig in a seedy Hollywood bar. He didn’t feel like talking until I told him I snuck in a funny cigarette. The meeting still ranks in my top three musician encounters — just behind a nice chat with Eddie Vedder during Lollapalooza 1992; and shooting the breeze with Eddie Money after a gig in Toledo, Ohio standing in the bathroom of an Italian restaurant.

It just beats out waiting in line to speak to Rush before a 1984 concert in a Richfield, Ohio. That magical and rare encounter got cut short when Kyle Kretzinger’s mom got busted trying to sneak a picture from behind a car. Rush expressly forbid any pictures of their faces but were glad to answer questions like “Are you playing Toledo soon?”

I told Podrasky how The Rave-Ups’ first album changed the trajectory of my musical fandom and Town and Country ranks as an unheralded classic. Like most songwriters, he just viewed it as one step on a long journey to now. But even if Podrasky doesn’t admit it, his band remains an extremely memorable part of a soundtrack that marked the beginning of college rock appreciation for millions of fledgling music lovers.

James “Echo Park Jimmy” Petrillo  lives in Los Angeles and is a friend of Jim Lenahan and to Rockin’ the Suburbs, especially that one time when he was a really good friend.

4 thoughts on “Why ‘Pretty In Pink’ is ground zero for the college rock explosion

  1. Great post — I think it’s worth noting that the Furs cleaned up version of “Pretty In Pink” on the soundtrack was somewhat controversial with their hardcore fans. It never bothered me. They made four of the best records of the early 80s — my favorites were Forever Now and Mirror Moves.

    It is interesting that after the soundtrack was a hit, the Furs rushed out Midnight To Midnight, which was the first of the three final studio albums didn’t connect with too many people . Richard Butler is touring under the Furs name, even though they haven’t put out a proper new record since 1991, which makes it easy to forget that they were once a very cutting-edge band.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *