The Pretenders, Chrissie Hynde and the Perfect Debut Album


On You Tube there’s a video from 2008 of Chrissie Hynde explaining to an autograph hunter respectfully, but in no uncertain terms, why he has no right to her time just because he’d ‘heard me on the radio’.  About a minute into the clip she says “If I saw a great author… I would not go over… I’ve already read his book, to me that’s fair play… I’m an ordinary person who sings in a rock band, I’m not a celebrity…”.

While I’m sure the fan was mortified afterwards, it’s hard to disagree with Hynde’s logic as for more than 30 years there has been little about her that can’t be found in the music – from “Back on the Chain Gang”’s poignant reflection on the deaths of original Pretenders Pete Farndon and Jimmy Honeyman-Scott to the lyric of “Never Do That”:

“You’re a master of illusion

You say you do – but you don’t

You think I will – I know I won’t”

Pretenders ‘Never Do That’, From ‘Packed’, WEA 1990

It’s that last line which is critical – it could only be written by someone who operates to their own clear moral code, one that’s not negotiable irrespective of your opinion. That strength of character is probably the reason that Hynde has been able to carry on following the loss of the band’s original guitarist and bass player in 1982 and 1983 respectively. That original Pretenders line up was one hell of a band – an impossibly tight rhythm section that played odd time because of Hynde’s ‘unique’ sense of rhythm, drummer Martin Chambers once commenting “…we had to reinterpret the counts. But once we made the adjustment …it became… the bedrock of Pretenders music”. The other key instrumental element was the interplay of Jimmy Honeyman-Scott’s lead guitar with Hynde’s thrashier rhythm. Scott’s style was unique, distinctive and melodic and a direct influence on the Smiths Johnny Marr, later a Pretender himself, who is on the record as saying that he used the solo from ‘Kid’ as a warm up for years.  Hynde acknowledged in interview that the band sound developed by the four of them together was so much a collaboration, ironically enough, that “…if one of us left the band …we’d have to change the name… the four of us [was] such a unique sound… it wasn’t just me… I didn’t sound anything like that before I met those guys…”. If you need a reminder here’s the video for ‘Kid’ from 1979.

And what a fantastic record that first Pretenders album was. Chris Thomas produced it sequencing the tracks to give the impression of a chronological narrative – opener ‘Precious’ deals with Hynde leaving Ohio in 1973 through to final track ‘Mystery Achievement’ a sort of ‘where next’ finale, commenting on the ridiculous need of the music industry to churn out awards as barely disguised marketing events.

Hynde’s vocals too are amazing, like a more conversational Ronnie Spector or Darlene Love singing with a band sound somewhere between melodic 60s beat group pop and late 70s punk aggression. It’s that yin/yang of the forthrightness of say ‘Tattooed Love Boys’ or ‘The Wait’, contrasting with the clear vulnerability in something like ‘Lovers of Today’. The songwriting quality never drops throughout from ‘Up the Neck’, through their first number one ‘Brass in Pocket’ to ‘Private Life’ memorably covered by Grace Jones.  Jones found a rather different, campy, menace in Hynde’s plea for an escape from a destructive relationship, but this ability to accommodate different treatments is a measure of the song’s quality. ‘Kid’ too was slowed down by Everything But the Girl to an almost hymnal pace, Tracey Thorn emphasising the sadness in the lyric through the change of pace.

As a debut album it’s surely right up there with ‘Horses’, ‘You Can’t Hide Your Love Forever’, ‘Velvet Underground & Nico’ and ‘the Ramones’ in that select group of near perfect opening statements where a band arrives with its sound in place. Released in January 1980, the album was followed a mere 4 months later by the single ‘Talk of the Town’ b/w ‘Cuban Slide’ surely one of the best arguments for the 7-inch single ever. The A-side somehow managed to capture the innocence and longing for the unattainable of the best of the 60s girl group records, showcasing a softer singing style for Hynde. Honeyman-Scott’s chorus guitar and the point where the band drop out leaving just the lead riff were also particularly effective. Garbage’s Shirley Manson has said that “During my adolescence Chrissie Hynde possibly saved my life” and given her quote of this song over the fade of ‘Special’ this is presumably one of the key pieces of evidence. Flip side ‘Cuban Slide’ is very different, but almost as good, harnessing a gritty ‘Bo-Diddley’ style riff overlaid with an abrasive guitar break and an ironic twist on the generic dance craze lyric, Hynde being unable to master the steps! Watch the band play ‘Talk of the Town’ on Top of the Pops here:

Second album, Pretenders II, followed a year later and while not as consistent as the debut it still managed to touch the heights on the likes of ‘Message of Love’, ‘English Roses’, ‘Birds of Paradise’ and the Ray Davies song ‘I Go To Sleep’. It remains a good record, but its finest moments tend to be more reflective, melancholic even, than the debut with Hynde’s singing voice settling into a now familiar softer, more conversational style. If the energy levels feel lower, then that is probably inevitable given the band’s touring schedule and the age old problem of your whole life to write your debut album and 18 months to produce a follow-up. The routines of touring had also increased the temptations from drugs that by 1982 were starting to become a problem. Hynde is understandably reluctant to dwell on the past but in 2000 gave an interesting interview to Canadian TV that touched on this period:

“Pete had really got strung out on smack… we had a band meeting and decided that Pete had to go, in fact Jimmy said that if Pete didn’t go he was going… and then two days after… I got a phone call… and Jimmy Scott was dead…”

Scott was 25 and Farndon himself was dead around 8 months later at the age of 28.  In the ‘Pirate Radio’ box set Hynde is quoted as saying that Scott’s death was pivotal:

“I felt I couldn’t let the music die when he did. We’d worked too hard to get it where it was. I thought I had to keep it going or it would seem like it was Jimmy’s fault that it had all ended.”

 To keep the band going Hynde hired session musicians for third album ‘Learning to Crawl’. Its troubled gestation meant that it felt too slick, too produced, the sheen tending to obscure the quality of some of the songs – including the likes of ‘Middle of the Road’ and ‘Show Me’. In truth ‘Learning to Crawl’ established a pattern – while all of the Pretenders albums can boast a few great tracks and that voice, the consistency of the early days did not completely return until 2008’s ‘Break Up The Concrete’. This fantastic record, insultingly marketed with a Greatest Hits collection in the UK, marked a surprising left turn into raw Americana and, on ‘Boots of Chinese Plastic’ rockabilly. If a ‘band du jour’ such as the Alabama Shakes had made it the critics would have rejoiced – but perhaps it is the burden of greatness from those perfect early records that makes it hard to accept an artist in a different musical context. Whatever the reason it’s a shame as ‘Break Up the Concrete’ suggests that Hynde has much left to say.

You can find the video for ‘Boots of Chinese Plastic’ here:

Phil Barnes

03 May 2013


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