The Pretenders

If there had never been such a thing as Chrissie Hynde someone would certainly have needed to invent her: The Ohio born singer-songwriter and frontwoman of the Pretenders emerged from the teeming hothouse of late 1970′s London like Athena cracked forcefully from the skull of Zeus. Hynde the writer and performer was fully formed and completely wonderful — a distinctly feminine (and feminist) counterpoint to the nearly overwhelming crush of alpha-male performers ranging from Elvis Costello to Joe Strummer to Nick Lowe to the still-looming presence of ex-Pistol John Lydon, beginning the first stages of rebuilding his caustic social critique as Public Image Limited. Into this fraternity strode Hynde and her Pretenders, every bit as tough and self-possessed as their peers and taking a backseat to no one in terms of talent.[1] On the heels of her fantastic Lowe-produced cover of the Kinks’ classic “Stop Your Sobbing” (released as a single), Hynde proceeded to issue Pretenders, which remains to this date one of the most audacious and fascinating debuts in rock music history. That album established Hynde’s bonafides as a staggeringly artful tunesmith with a remarkable gift for pulling indelible choruses seemingly out of thin air, as well as burnishing an intelligent, pugnacious and utterly fearless “fuck with me at your peril” persona. Her lyrics were tough, funny, and intelligent, co-mingling the personal and political in a manner both deeply coded and highly sophisticated. A central tension in her writing emerged: Hynde did not gladly suffer fools, but the music industry was awash in a sea of capricious idiocy.

Then there is the matter of Hynde’s singing. Gifted with a keening alto and a uniquely brilliant flare for phrasing, she might not have even needed to be a great songwriter to be a great success. Hynde’s capacity to persuasively run the gamut from nails tough to crushingly vulnerable, sometimes in the span of a few seconds, places her in rarefied company amongst vocalists in the rock tradition. One could argue the list goes: Elvis Presley, John Lennon, Alex Chilton, Chrissie Hynde, and everyone else.

The Pretenders, in their first iteration, were musically inventive and dexterous, capable of easily switching gears from the charged up, angular attack of “Tattooed Love Boys” to the neo-soul of the hit single “Brass In Pocket.” Ballads like the gorgeously longing “Lovers Of Today” mixed intoxicatingly with mechanical-sounding and sexually frank tracks like “Up The Neck.” The following year’s Pretenders II was not as consistent start to finish but featured some of Hynde’s most memorable songs, and arguably the highs were higher than anything on the debut. On the basis of this two album opening salvo, the band appeared to be on a limitless trajectory. Would the Pretenders eventually be discussed in the same conversation with the Beatles or the Velvets? Nothing seemed impossible. This promise would go regrettably unfulfilled. The lineup turned out to be as ill-starred as they were gifted — guitarist James Honeyman-Scott and bassist Pete Farndon would both be dead by 1983 as a consequence of various drug related misadventure.

Understandably devastated, Hynde went about the gradual process of rebuilding a new lineup, working with stalwarts like the great former Rockpile guitarist Billy Bremner, Big Country’s Tony Butler, and Robbie McIntosh from Manfred Mann, and released 1983′s Learning to Crawl. The first half of that album was a magnificent tour de force — the equal of anything in the catalog. The fact that the second half founders a bit does little to mitigate Hynde’s remarkable achievement in picking up the pieces of a broken band and making it great again (also amidst a deeply charged and complicated series of events concerning her relationship with the Kinks’ Ray Davies, with whom she has a child). The first side of Learning To Crawl brings together, and arguably brings to a close, a lot of Hynde’s major thematic preoccupations. Songs like “Middle Of The Road,” “Time The Avenger” and “Show Me” brilliantly thread together the competing anxieties of professional ambition and integrity, romantic longing and estrangement, and the responsibilities of motherhood juxtaposed with the demands of an industry that seemingly mandates recklessness as a work requirement.

After Learning To Crawl, Hynde seemed in some ways to fade away, or at least that the 200-watt intensity that informed her early work was replaced by something a little less likely to burn down whole villages. 1986′s Get Close featured the terrific single “Don’t Get Me Wrong,” but little else up to her established standard, and after four more years Packed! was a solid, workmanlike effort led by the similarly good single “I’d Never Do That,” but it seemed fairly clear at this point that Hynde had largely chosen a path of stability as opposed to the debasements of life on the road.

What we are left with in the main is a relatively small catalog from one of rock and roll’s greatest voices, both literally and figuratively. It is no genius assertion to suggest that women in rock and roll face a unique challenge from an industry and critical community only too quick to slot them into convenient categories and stereotypes: the hyper feminist activist, the coquettish pin up, the beautiful, fractured lost soul who needs so badly to be saved, the manic pixie dream girl. In becoming not only one of the crucial female voices, but one of the crucial voices overall in the history of rock and roll, Chrissie Hynde somehow achieved the seemingly impossible, navigating these insane cultural pit falls by sheer dint of will and transcendent talent. Chrissie Hynde can be mean without being cruel, sentimental without being trite, desperate without being crazy. She can express Mick Jagger-like appetites without seeming sensational. She can express the overwhelming love borne from motherhood in one sentence, and the overwhelming lust borne from being a grown woman with a sex drive in the next. She is a hero and an inspiration for all that alone, to say nothing for the fifteen or so stone classics she entered into the canon.

Here’s ten of them. Many of these are rock radio staples and for good reason — they were brilliant when they were released and have only grown more wonderful with vintage. A few are lesser known but would be worthy of a similar esteem. Only one dates past Learning To Crawl, but don’t discount the possibility of Hynde surfacing with a late career masterpiece or two. Or that is, bet against her at your own risk.

[1] The sense that Hynde emerged out of nowhere was palpable but largely illusory. She had been kicking around the London scene for years, playing in certain bands and even scoring a gig writing for NME. At one time she nearly formed a band with eventual Clash Guitarist Mick Jones — the mind reels uncontrollably at the possibilities.

10. “Don’t Get Me Wrong” (from Get Close)

A vintage sounding holdover from Hynes’s middle-period record Get Close, “Don’t Get Me Wrong” remains an impeccable confection featuring a quasi-Bo Diddley riff and a lilting melody over which Hynde sings with heartening optimism: “Don’t get me wrong / If I’m looking kind of dazzled / I see neon lights / whenever you walk by.” This is the starry-eyed romantic counterpoint to Hynde’s caustic inner cynic, a unique duality that has long heightened the intrigue of her writing.

9. “Time The Avenger” (from Learning To Crawl)

The overlooked third track on the Pretenders Learning to Crawl is a bass-driven cousin to the first album’s “Mystery Achievement,” a slow-burning critique of the corrupt and privileged meeting their final reckoning. The exhilarating ersatz funk is not too terribly far from the Attractions hyper-caffeinated take on Motown circa Get Happy, but best of all is the lyrics, which lay out a veritable Biblical plague of cruel outcomes to the song’s unfortunate target, before exploding into a glorious chorus delighting in the karmic vengeance soon to be meted out.

8. “Pack It Up” (from Pretenders II)

By the time she recorded “Pack It Up,” Hynde had essentially come to know all of the ugly compromises and hypocrisies inherent in fellow artists, industry hands and other scenesters on the make. And though none were mentioned by name, few were spared in this crushing, unforgettable critique of the music world she was once a part of: “I see your dog got shot / well, hell never mind / That’s show biz big boy / You’ve got to be cruel to be kind.” This was perhaps the first explicit indication that Hynde could not see herself deeply involved in the music industry cesspool too much longer. “I’m burning every bridge,” she promises, and on the hilarious outro she sounds pretty damned determined on that point: “Furthermore, I don’t like your trousers / your appalling taste in women / and what about your mind? / and your insipid record collection.” One of rock music’s most brutal dressing downs this side of “Positively 4th Street.”

7. “2000 Miles” (from Learning to Crawl)

Most people think of Christmas as a time when families and friends come together to share a mutual experience of community and happiness. “2000 Miles” is not a song for these folks. This is a song for those people who, for reasons within or without their control, are estranged from the ones that they love best. Even worse, they have to make the most of a sad Christmas when, for all of the wishing in the world, everyone won’t be together. It’s a remarkably heartrending song, with an aching Johnny Marr-esque riff which Hynde makes ever more poignant in her lyrical reading — a tiny self-portrait hanging in a house in the loveliest, most melancholy of snow globes.

6. “Kid” (from Pretenders)

The devastating “Kid” combines a gorgeous Roy Orbison-style melody with a complicated narrative seemingly addressing at first a lover in distress and later Hynde’s actual child, whose beautiful insolence has sadly brought the singer’s hand. There is arguably no precedent in rock and roll to this painful admission of the terrifying perplex that is the oppositional world of motherhood and rock stardom.

5. “Middle Of The Road” (from Learning to Crawl)

The lead track from Learning To Crawl is a killer garage style rocker in which Hynde makes utterly apparent that she has lost nothing off her fastball in the period required to reconstitute the Pretenders. To the contrary, this is one of the great rockers in the catalog — a litany of the villainous industry flacks who would compel Hynde both into a more radio friendly (MOR) sound as well as into their chosen lifestyle of excess fueled decadence. Hynde, for the record, will have nothing to do with it: “I’m not the kind I used to be / I gotta kid / I’m 33″ she memorably avers, shaking off her previous party girl image with the assurance of one who knows that edgy and grown up are not mutually exclusive propositions.

4. “Mystery Achievement” (from Pretenders)

Amongst the superior highlights of the extraordinary first Pretenders album, “Mystery Achievement” is a bass-driven marvel that resolves almost startlingly into one of the most addictive rock choruses ever heard. It’s a bit like going from the majestic black and white of first hour of The Wizard of Oz only to arrive at the magnificent color of the second act. There are few things more exciting in the experience of rock music fandom than hearing Chrissie Hynde slowly turn a seemingly pedestrian melody into something you will never forget. “Mystery Achievement” is the apotheosis of this strange alchemy; the kind of trick that Robert Pollard at his absolute best can carry off, and very few others.

3. “Back On The Chain Gang” (from Learning to Crawl)

In the run up to Learning to Crawl, the magnitude of loss in Hynde’s life is difficult to calibrate. Fraught personal relationships alongside the death of two of her former bandmates made for an atmosphere of mourning and profound regret. “Back On The Chain Gang,” nominally an ode to James Honeyman-Scott, weds an unforgettable melody and a gorgeous, chiming Byrds-style riff to one of the saddest meditations on loss in the rock music tradition. “I saw a picture of you,” she reflects to her long gone friend, “those were the happiest days of my life.”

2. “Tattooed Love Boys” (from Pretenders)

The frenetic, angular guitar driven “Tattooed Love Boys” is a singular moment in British new wave, even as rendered by a tough girl from Ohio. Everything here is surprising. The off-kilter rhythms, the offhand references to casual sex (“You showed me what that hole is for”) and perhaps most importantly the vicious dismissiveness with which Hynde’s seemingly regards her erstwhile paramours. Thirteen years after “Under My Thumb,” here finally is the female rebuke, a mocking, triumphal song essentially reducing the titular Tattooed Love Boys to objects of whimsy and pleasure.

1. “Talk Of The Town” (from Pretenders II)

The moving centerpiece of the second Pretenders album is a strikingly lovely commingling of fear, gossip, hopeful ambition and longing despair all played out over an unforgettably efficient two minutes and 43 seconds of near perfect melodicism and surpassing craft. Beginning with the great opening epigram “Such a drag / to want something sometimes” this is an anthem of restrained yearning and interrupted love — providing a nearly Victorian anxiety to the repressed feelings of adoration that cannot be given full voice. When Hynde sings “you’ve changed / your place in this world” over a soaring chorus, it feels at once triumphant and defeated. She may be addressing herself, her estranged lover or both. Either way, the poignant hitch in her voice suggests that the changes in question may well be necessary but will not be experienced without a great deal of grief as part of the transition.

Comments (26)
  1. “Message of Love”


  2. Where’s Precious?

  3. “Tatooed Love Boys” is irrepressible. I will say thanks also for keeping “Back in the Chain Gang” and “2000 miles” on the list, which if you were trolling you really would have left off. I wonder where the gang will be on “Brass in Pocket”?

  4. Umm… what about “I’ll Stand By You”?

    • Great song…maybe it was left off because it was such a huge hit.

    • I’d say that “I’ll Stand By You” has the same place in The Pretenders catalogue that “Wild, Wild, Life” has in Talking Heads’. Both singles are commercial hits several years removed from what is widely concieved as the prime of either groups career. And while neither song is a drastic departure from the band’s earlier dicography, they are less adventurous, perhaps more conscious of corporate radio, than the bands eariler singles. Not that there’s anything wrong with accessibility.

      Look, after I got into the first few Pretenders albums a few years ago, I stumbled onto “I’ll Stand By You” for the first time in years and was somewhat surprised to see it was a Pretenders song. Hearing Chrissie’s vocals, it totally makes sense, but before that I would have never guessed that would have been produced by the same group that did “Tattooed Love Boys.” I like the song, it’s on my ipad, but I swear to god, I used to confuse it with “What’s Up.”

      “I’ll Stand By You” is a good song, a nice 90′s love ballad, but this list reflects the fact that Chrissie wrote plenty of great songs that you will never mistake for a 4 Non-Blondes song. Definitely deserves a spot on the top ten “Best ‘Bryan Adams’ Songs That Are Better Than Any Actual Bryan Adams Song,” but not here.

  5. There were a ton of strong female musicians at the time that the Pretenders came out doing interesting things – and many of them were not as conservative as Chrissie Hynde. The Slits, X-Ray Spex, The Raincoats, Siouxsie and the Banshees … you make it sound like she was the only girl playing music in London at the time.

  6. The insouciant Honeyman-Scott solo in Kid is my favourite all-time Pretenders moment.

  7. No Precious?!

  8. missing: Bad Boys get Spanked, Precious, The Wait

  9. Wow. You succeed in putting 2 of the worst songs from their first album on their “best of” list: “Mystery Achievement”, and “Kid”. I think that for the rest it’s a very solid album, in particular the entire A-side, and “Private Life” is the highlight of the B-side. In my humble opinion, of course.

  10. Very excited to check this out based on the mentions of Lowe and Costello (the latter’s is my desert-island discography). But, before I plunge in, I’ve got to ask: did you really call Elvis Costello an alpha male?

  11. “Message of Love.”

  12. The New one that isn’t out yet, Or ” Revolution” powerful tune!

  13. Message of Love and Private Lives have to be in there. MOL is maybe their best ever, and Private Lives is what drew me and many others to them in the first place. But great overview of someone who obviously loves and appreciates their work over the years.

  14. Just last week heard “Middle of the Road” driving to work. With the very first drum intro, cranked it up
    and started moving to a Pretenders favorite. The guy driving behind eventually pulled alongside to make a left turn and gave me “the finger” . . . a “THUMBS UP” and then drove away. He didn’t know what I was listening to but knew it was damn good!

  15. Always sad when people leave off her later stuff like Criminal, How do I miss you, Every Mother’s Son, Night in My Veins, Dragway 42, Samurai, From the Heart Down, Fools Must Die, The Losing, Boots of Chinese Plastic, One Thing Never Changed and Almost Perfect. She is still special. She is releasing a record in 2013.

  16. Man, it’s almost as if The Pretenders didn’t have anymore than 3 albums.

  17. I’m so pleased to know she’s still recording and writing, because she is (amongst so many things) humble about her songwriting and guitar playing and I was worried she was going to stop. I wrote about The Pretenders’ first album at Then Play Long yesterday and the more I thought about it, the more unprecedented that album is; it can’t help but cast a shadow on the rest of the albums, as great as they are…

  18. Up The Neck from their first record (almost as good as Tattooed….).
    Anyhow, 1980 was definitely a great year for interesting women in pop/rock: Marianne Faithfull’s Broken English album was huge that year; B-52s, Blondie, Abba, Diana Ross, Kate Bush all riding high (at least in the UK and down under); Siouxsie and Banshees, Grace Jones, Holly and the Italians, Young Marble Giants threatening; Toyah and Flying Lizards doing great singles. But Hynde and the Pretenders debut bossed everything: an amazing record, powerful but with incredible range.

  19. I loved them and Chrissie (joined the fan club! Saw the original line up!) but just can’t see ‘Talk of The Town’ at #1. It has to be ‘Kid’ or ‘Back On The Chain Gang’

  20. Samauri is missing for sure!!

  21. The Bracys by and large nail another Best Of list…well done!

    Talk of the Town is the only choice for #1, so fair play for that. I would put 2000 miles right behind it. I’d also find somewhere for Stop Your Sobbing and I’m also a sucker for How Do I Miss You from late era Pretenders. Minor quibbles, though.

  22. “Message of Love” should be at or near the top. “Day After Day” is also amazing.

  23. This is a good list but the writer of this article obviously has NEVER listened to the excellent Last of the Independents CD! It has 3 of my favorite Pretenders songs on it: Love Colours, Night in My Veins, and Hollywood Perfume.

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