“If You Leave” by OMD, and how a song stays with you

St. Alban's Cathedral churchyard at sunset, November 2011

From the minor synthesizer chords to the spare, languid notes floating on the top, there is a haunting feel I get in my bones when I listen to the Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (OMD) song “Walking on Air.” It turns out that what I feel is at least partly intentional. The song’s “initial inspiration [came] from the house that Andy [McCluskey, OMD singer/songwriter] was living in at the time[,] which was over 500 years old.” For me, the lyrics paint an indelible, shadowy memory, a longing for a time that has passed, and for someone who was once beloved but is no longer there:

No footsteps on the stair tonight
No cigarettes for me to light
No heavy scented clothes
To fall to the floor
But I’ll hear you calling when you’re not there
You’re walking on air

We all have songs like this in our memories, the ones that stick around somewhere in our head. We may not be conscious of these memories on a daily basis, as they can be buried in the deep recesses of our minds. However, an event or other memory can cause the right dominoes to fall, bringing the song forward and out of the dark. Where old things we have simply forgotten through the passage of time, or those we preferred to forget, these memories suddenly get a spotlight.
I was in college in the late 1990s. Like most kids then, I was enjoying this brand-new thing called email. I was used to modem speed, so high-speed internet in my dorm room and the library seemed like sorcery at first. Besides all of that, when everyone else was up late at night having a normal college social life, I was asleep.
My nonexistent social life was a consequence of chronic illness and fatigue. My waking hours were occupied by classes, my part-time job that turned almost full-time and that I could never see was consuming too much of my life, or late night studying alone. I think I really thought then that by the way I was living, I could outwit the illness that had affected every part of my life since I was 12. I presumed that there must be a light at the end of the tunnel, that one day all this hard work would lead to a happy life and some rest. There was never a kind hand on my shoulder, anyone that suggested that maybe I shouldn’t be pushing myself that hard.
I was in graduate school at the start of the 2000s, rooming with a high school friend who was the musical director of an a capella group. One night, he was listening to “If You Leave.” I recognized the melody because it was one of those songs that came on the radio every so often. I had no clue who performed it, though. I guessed that it was probably from ‘80s New Wave and it was by a British band. We probably got into an argument over which band it was. My roommate kept insisting it was by Orchestral Manuevers [sic] in the Dark, as the artist was marked on the mp3 he had downloaded. This was the age of Napster, remember. I got a copy off him, and away I went.

The lyrics, the chord progressions, the saxophone solo: all of it made for a lasting emotional impression. It’s a really sad song, bolstered by soaring vocals, and set to seemingly buoyantly happy music, keys to a template the band often uses to great effect. (See the video for “Don’t Go,” and bring tissues.) The lyrics of “If You Leave” conjure up a heart-wrenching high school scene in my head. I must have played that one song hundreds, probably thousands of times on repeat that first year. It’s a wonder that my roommate didn’t complain or bang on the wall separating our bedrooms to tell me to knock it off already.

Why did this particular song resonate with me at that time of my life? It didn’t have anything to do with a romantic breakup, as I hadn’t had a serious boyfriend yet. On a superficial level, I can see now that it reflected my feelings of being so socially disconnected from what that period of life looked like for everyone else. The majority of my friends were off to postgraduate school in the big city, distant both physically and emotionally. They were well on their way, headed for the seemingly guaranteed, financially stable professional lives our penny-pinching immigrant parents wanted for us. Pretty soon, most of them were getting married and having kids. All the while, how I could perceive myself as anything but standing still?
Even though I had dreamt to do so, I didn’t go away for graduate school. Chronic illness makes you feel unsafe, scared, and unsure of whether you’ll be able to get out of bed the next morning. I thought I figured out a way to exert some kind of control: I had sketched out what I thought was what I wanted to do with my life and how I would get there. My anticipated Ph.D. was the linchpin of my future plans: I was going to run my own lab and be a biology professor. I wanted to teach and inspire the students coming up, as I had been inspired by my own teachers.
On a balmy June night in Tokyo in 2001, I met Simon Le Bon of Duran Duran after a show at the famed Shibuya-AX. Any anxiety that I might have had walking up to him melted away and disappeared as he spoke to me so kindly. It felt like magic. I wish I had known then that something significant had just happened. Something that would foreshadow what was to come for me.
When I returned home, I continued to struggle through my physical and mental exhaustion. I tried to maintain positivity about my plan. I had a signed, framed photo of John Taylor on my nightstand. The more that I looked at his face, I could not escape the small but niggling feeling that something wasn’t quite right. But I didn’t know what it was.

A decade later, I was a music blogger for four different music outlets, and my words were being read around the world. I was offered a press pass to see OMD. The original lineup had reunited, and they were on their first US tour in over 15 years. At the time, I knew exactly one OMD song, and I was curious about their live performance. I wasn’t disappointed. At the worst points of my life, I have struggled with things most people take for granted like walking, so I was blown away by Andy McCluskey’s athleticism and endurance. Below is a video of “If You Leave” being performed at Terminal 5 in New York City on the same tour.

Pretty in Pink is one of my favorite movies, and I see it for much more than its teenage fluff most critics have faulted it for. Its message, about taking a risk out of your station in life, dropping pride and ego for something far greater than the conventional boxes that society puts us in, feels like a recurrent theme for my life. I’m a woman who isn’t quite Chinese and doesn’t and will never “look” 100% American, and I’m painfully aware of this. My mother hated that I wrote about music and stayed out to see late night shows, and that I traveled alone. Every step that I’ve taken after leaving the academic life has been subject to judgment and criticism from family and friends.
“If You Leave” was not the song originally intended for the end of the movie. Due to early test audiences unhappy with the original ending, it was reshot as the ending we all know and love. Andie follows Blane into a darkened parking lot. Clinch. Purse drop. Swoon. OMD’s song “Goddess of Love” no longer fit.
This left leaving McCluskey and Humphreys scrambling to write – and write quickly, I wish to add – another song suitable to Hughes and that would fit the new ending. They had just arrived in California, presumably intending to ease themselves into the time difference and before they started a North American tour with the Thompson Twins. Bashing out ideas for a new song on a piano wasn’t how the two would normally write but they were faced with no other choice. Within less than 2 days, one of the most iconic film songs of the 1980s was written and approved by Hughes. There’s more here about the song and its accidental success in this 2016 Entertainment Weekly article if you’re interested.
It has been many years since I first connected to “If You Leave.” I was then a 20-something still trying to find my adult footing. But I have finally cracked the code as to why it so deeply resonated with me. It all makes sense now. Any normality of my high school and college years were stolen by illness. For me, the time came and went as a blur, a series of unremarkable months and years punctuated by good grades and a multitude of honors and awards but not much else of note, except perhaps my unacknowledged unhappiness that I hid all too well.
I did not like the look of my future, the one that I had mapped out to ensure my conservative parents were happy with my life choices. Even now, I can still feel the presence of an existential dread that hung over me as a child, the all-too-real prospect of disappointing my deeply respected, world-renowed NASA physicist father. He had finally come around, accepting begrudgingly that I was studying something worthwhile that lived outside the physical sciences. Both my parents had careers in science, so I knew that there would have been a huge amount of disgust and shame leveled my way if I backed out. “Failure is not an option” is an unspoken Chinese mantra.
By the time I’d reached graduate school and found myself exhausted, I had arrived to that space that McCluskey called an “intense emotional impact” that I should have had years earlier. I was feeling the kind of angst at the end of high school that he said he intended to empathize with in the lyrics of “If You Leave.”
On lonely nights when I couldn’t explain or didn’t understand why I didn’t feel right, I welcomed “If You Leave” through an open door of my heart. I would cry ugly, blinding tears when I listened to it. On some subconscious level, I must have understood that it was expressing the kind of anguish inside me that I didn’t think I could articulate safely to anyone, even my friends.
I now have very different, much more positive associations with “If You Leave.” It is the reliable, comfortable sweater that always feels good on, the same metaphorical sweater I draped myself with when I was 21, when I felt incredibly alone and with no one around to soothe me. There is still a lingering sadness, but I understand where it’s coming from, so I can work with the sadness without it destroying me. I’ve seen the song performed live in different cities and four different countries now, and it always leads to rapturous audience reactions. The last time I saw OMD live, I was with a group of Swedish music industry types, loud and raucous men who I imagined were as excited that night about the band’s music as they had been years ago, holding the original vinyl and cassettes. There is no doubt that the legacy of “If You Leave,” as well as OMD’s catalogue, will burn bright for years to come.
The younger me would be mystified that Andy McCluskey is now a friend. He took a chance on my proposal that led to a series of compelling interview features. I’m proud that I was a part of that. When I interviewed Andy, he got to look back at 40 years of hard work and history that positively and emotionally affected so many people.
On the surface, the features looked like a natural progression from the music writing that I had done before, except that it wasn’t. I didn’t know straight away, but it was the start of a whole new life, where my happiness would become more important than anything else.

Photo at top was taken by me on the grounds of St. Alban’s Cathedral, England, days before my birthday in November 2011.

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