Pretenders. The Pretenders.
1980, Sire. Producer: Chris Thomas; Nick Lowe.
IN A NUTSHELL: Aggressive, melodic, unusual punky pop rock that sounds unlike anything else. Chrissie Hynde’s vocals and James Honeyman-Scott’s guitar work shine on an album that combines power and sweetness and grit and beauty. The band moves from jangle pop to tough punk to slow-dance grace, and never sounds like a copy of anything else.
If you’ve read this blog before, you’re very aware of what I’m about to type in the sentence after the next one. If you haven’t read it before, the next sentence may be the last of mine you’ll ever read. In this blog about records and music, I write just as much about me and my life as I do about the records and the music.
It’s kind of a weird thing to do – a private citizen who’s accomplished nothing noteworthy to anyone outside a few friends and family1 documenting things that have happened in my life. Who really cares? I’m a huge fan of rock music autobiographies2, and what makes them interesting is the fact that the people writing them have done something terrific, moving, outstanding … something that has typically touched the lives of millions, and reading their words can offer insight into their work.
I, however, have not done anything even remotely similar. The closest I’ve come to reaching millions is the time one of my funny phone calls made it on the air on WEEI radio’s old afternoon feature the “Weiner Whiner Line” back in the early ’00s3. And (much like this blog) hardly anyone even knew it was me who did it.
So why do I write so much about a bunch of mundane memories, stories so insignificant that very often the other persons featured in them have only a vague remembrance of the events I describe? It’s partially because I have a super-inflated ego, a borderline delusional sense of my own level of importance in the world, which demands I impart upon any unwitting reader an amplified version of all the characteristics that make up my “self.”
But that’s only part of the reason. It’s mainly because this music has always connected with me on a deep level. Music informs my life and helps me make sense of it. There’s a soundtrack playing inside my head while I make my way through my life and, just like a movie soundtrack, it’s full of songs that color the events and enhance my feelings. My experiences are inextricably bound to the music that plays in my head during them, so I can’t really discuss the music I love without also discussing my life events that go with that music. It would be like displaying a black and white rendering of a work by Monet: you’d get the idea, but it wouldn’t really be the same. (Given Monet’s abilities vis-a-vis mine, a closer analogy might be watching an infomercial with the sound off.)
So music is part of all aspects of my life, both the good and the bad. This means I’ve written about some pretty unsavory characteristics of myself – or rather, my past selves. I’ve changed a lot over the years. But the music has remained with me. In these posts I’ve talked about my past problems with alcohol and self-control, my past intolerance of others and flat-out bigotry, my nerdiness, and – maybe most embarrassing of all – my love for albums that aren’t very good. However, there are parts of my life that I won’t write about. I don’t write directly about individuals in my family, or other people I know. I try to refrain from writing about how wonderful I am – I figure that will come through on its own. I’m also not going to write about sex4.
I’m not a prude, and consider myself pretty “sex positive,” as they say, but my thoughts on the topic are not something I want to broadcast to the world at large, nor do I think I can write well about it. However, this creates a problem for me when writing about music, as music does relate to all aspects of my life, so …
A big issue with writing about sex is the fact that discussing attraction and romance in a thoughtful, respectful manner is a precarious ledge along which to travel, and as a heterosexual male, one stray word from my own personal unskilled hands could easily send the piece off a sheer cliff into a glorified version of a “Letter to Penthouse Forum5.” Additionally, this blog is about rock/pop music, which has always been aimed directly at the teen market. So, even songs I didn’t hear as a teen can frequently stir teenage-based thoughts and emotions, and it is simply a fact that teenage feelings of attraction are different than what adults feel. In trying to delve back into those teenage feelings and document what I find, I risk coming up with nothing more than “That chick was hot!” and “I figure I’ll never touch a breast.”
But yet, I want to write about all these records honestly.
Anyway, look: some music, and some musicians, I do associate with feelings of physical attraction, and most of those associations are from a time in my life when I was in my teens and early twenties, and – at the risk of sounding like a sexist jerk judging women like livestock at the Farm Show – even though I am now approaching 50 and no longer base my opinions of these artists (who are now approaching 70) on what they looked like, I still can remember what I once felt, and songs from that era can still generate these feelings. To boil it all down: when I hear an old song by Heart today, there’s still a part of me that thinks “Man, those two are hot!!” (To be fair to myself, there’s an even larger part that thinks, “Man, this song is awesome6!!) So I’d like to write a little bit about sex and music – without discussing sex and without sounding sexist. In only about three sentences, too, since I’ve already wasted all these words on a rambling (though not particularly digressive) caveat. I’ll be as careful as possible so I don’t drop off that cliff.
I remember being grossed out by Cher’s sexy costumes on the old Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour TV show. I was not yet 10, and whenever she came out to sing (and make fun of Sonny) with her belly exposed, or in skin-tight dresses, I was horrified. By middle school, disco music was in full swing, and despite the often blatant sexual nature of the songs, I was clueless about their meanings and didn’t think much about the general attractiveness of the singers7. The middle school years were also the era of Blondie, a band with songs I liked but with a singer whose attractiveness – once again – I didn’t really think that much about8. Sometime around 8th grade, the pop-music TV showcase Solid Gold debuted, airing locally in my town just before Saturday Night Live, and it featured The Solid Gold Dancers, who … well, I’ll not venture further out onto the ledge: suffice it to say things were changing with me, and I tried not to miss an episode.
As I’ve mentioned often in this blog, MTV was a big turning point in my musical appreciation. It launched in August of 1981, coinciding with my freshman year of high school – which was right about the time I also started noticing things about girls and women (including The Solid Gold Dancers) that I’d never considered before. In those early MTV years, the channel played songs I liked sung by women who were cute, but that I didn’t find particularly attractive. They also played songs I didn’t particularly like sung by women I found rather … captivating, let’s say. There were also a few videos of songs by women that my 14 year old self just couldn’t fit into its tiny little concept of men and women and attraction – even though – confusingly – I found them rather attractive just because they were making music.
And then there was Chrissie Hynde, of The Pretenders.
The Pretenders had several videos in rotation on MTV in 1981 and 1982, and all of them featured lots of shots of the band playing, including leader Chrissie Hynde strumming that guitar and singing. To that point in my life, I could have easily pointed out girls and women that I considered “pretty,” but Chrissie Hynde didn’t look like those people. She wasn’t ugly, but she seemed tough and dangerous, like she didn’t give a damn whether I thought she was pretty or not. I couldn’t take my eyes off her. And she played that guitar, and sang so sweetly, but at times with such force and such emotion, on lyrics that were direct, not demure, that were at times shocking to a naive 14-year old boy from small town Pennsylvania.
The band’s biggest hit video to that point was “Brass In Pocket,” and it featured Hynde acting as a waitress in a diner, serving the rest of the band members and their girlfriends. I hated that video. I didn’t want to see her act, I wanted to see her SING and PLAY! When she acted, she was just another person on TV. When she sang and played, she was CHRISSIE HYNDE. I found her compelling, but I couldn’t really explain why. I’d figure it out soon enough.
Chrissie Hynde has always been the leader of The Pretenders: chief songwriter, singer, and rhythm guitarist. The band has had some tragic setbacks, including firing original bassist Pete Farndon in 1982 due to heroin abuse, followed two days later by original guitarist James Honeyman-Scott’s death from a cocaine overdose9. Farndon himself died a year later. The band has had lots of lineup changes, but Chrissie Hynde has always been there. And the album Pretenders had the first, and most memorable, lineup.
This was another album that I originally found in my oldest sister’s collection – however not in the milk crate full of vinyl, where I discovered so many other records. Pretenders was on a cassette she owned. I had seen it but hadn’t played it, until dawned on me one day that this was the band I’d fallen in lust with on MTV. Then I played it a lot. I also have a memory of listening to it with my sister while she drove me around in her sweet ’64 red mustang. She eventually moved to California and took the cassette with her, but she sent me a copy for a birthday present.
The album immediately announces itself, and Chrissie Hynde, with the raucous and raunchy “Precious.”
Four drum stick clicks, a little background chatter and that driving guitar riff begins. The bass kicks in around 10 seconds, and the band is off and flying. Hynde’s voice is tough but sweet on a song that doesn’t really have much of a melody, and at times is almost a rap. If you’ve read Hynde’s recent autobiography, you know that she had a pretty violent life as a young woman in Cleveland, associating with biker gangs and doing way too many drugs. “Precious” is about her escape from Cleveland; while others stayed, as she states in one of the most famous “f-bombs” in rock history, she had to “fuck off.” The Pretenders’ songs often have unconventional structures and time signatures, and “Precious” doesn’t hew to the typical “verse-chorus-bridge” pop song format, but just charges ahead. It’s fast and direct, and James Honeyman-Scott’s guitar is unusual, with effects such as the flanging, featured at 0:44. It’s a perfect first song for a first album.
“The Phone Call” is up next, and it’s got an unusual sound, too.
For one thing, it’s in the time signature of 7/4 (with an extra 6/4 measure before the chorus (if you will)) which is odd enough, but switches to 4/4 (with stray 2/4 bars every fourth bar, for good measure 10) in the instrumental section. It all creates a cool, noisey, aggressive sound within which all those extra beats are barely noticeable. This is a testament to excellent drummer Martin Chambers, who handles it all with no problem whatsoever. I never knew what the barely audible, again mostly melody-less vocals were singing about, but I believe they are also about Hynde having to get the hell out of Cleveland to save her life. It’s evidence of the band’s, and Hynde’s confidence, that she’d place two such unusual songs 1-2 on the first record. It makes a listener wonder what’s coming next. And next up are two songs that have always blown me away.
The first is “Up the Neck.” And it features the inimitable guitar sounds of James Honeyman-Scott.
His guitar riff alarm opens “Up The Neck,” and after 10 seconds he begins to play ascending notes that draw me right into the song. Pete Farndon’s simple, catchy bass joins Hynde’s vocals and by 22 seconds in, a perfect guitar pop song is under way. While she’s singing about what sounds to be a one night stand that turns violent, Honeyman-Scott’s guitar continues to produce little chiming flourishes that are unmistakably his, and unmistakably cool. Honeyman-Scott is one of those guitar players with a sound all his own, who you can identify simply by listening. Others in this category are Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ Mike Campbell, Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits, and Fleetwood Mac’s Lindsay Buckingham. At 1:15, when the ascending riff returns, he adds even more curlicues to it. It’s the perfect complement to Hynde’s sweet and aggressive (and suggestive: “the veins bulged on his … brow …”) vocals. He plays a coolly simple solo, as well. It’s a song I always listen to with enthusiasm that is only eclipsed on the album by the next song: “Tattooed Love Boys.”
I probably overuse the term “chiming” to describe a certain sound a guitar can make, but it perfectly describes Honeyman-Scott’s guitar riff on this song. His chimes begin a charging, aggressive song with snarling vocals and a crazy time signature of either 15/4, or 7/4 + [2 x 4/4] (if there’s a difference). That time signature gives the song a hiccuping, rough-edged sound that makes it far more compelling than it would be in a typical time signature, and Chambers again shines behind the drums. The extended guitar section, from about 1:18 to about 2:11, with its stops and starts and one-measure guitar solos, never fails to astonish me. I feel like I could happily listen to this song on a continuous loop.
One of the great aspects of early MTV was how the channel would reward a viewer for watching in long chunks of time. You knew that if you just watched long enough, and sat through enough bullshit and goofy crap (terms I use endearingly, as I enjoyed the bullshit and goofy crap, too) you’d get to see a a video you loved. For me, “Tattooed Love Boys” was such a video. And it wasn’t played frequently, so I had to watch a lot. (I HAD TO!) This video, with the band covered in sweat and manhandling their instruments, drove me crazy. It wasn’t just the playing: much of my fervor was due to Hynde’s performance – her wielding that guitar, dancing and moving, her voice, openly singing about a crazy, rough sexual experience involving what sounded like several men, in which she seemed to brag about, and take delight in, her role. In her recent autobiography, she has deflated my (and I hope everyone’s) fascination with the what-sounded-sexy-back-then lyrics by revealing that the song actually described a brutal gang rape by a group of bikers she thought were her friends, including a boyfriend. It’s still one of my all-time favorite songs, but I hear it differently now.
“The Wait” is another song that floors me every time, again with the crazy time signature, again one of my all-time favorites.
This is a song sung at a furious pace, with Hynde spitting out unintelligible lyrics about, well, something, I guess, scratching guitars in the verse, and a terrific walking bass line in the chorus by the under-appreciated Pete Farndon. At 1:47 a quiet, sultry bridge begins, then at 2:14 empties into another excellent guitar solo from Honeyman-Scott, finished off with Hynde’s grunt of approval at 2:47. It’s a song that makes me bounce around whenever I hear it.
Chrissie Hynde and The Pretenders don’t just play the crazy-rhythmed, furious punk songs. They also manage the typical pop song quite nicely, as evidenced by the wonderful “Kid.”
Along with great harmony vocals and a driving beat, what I love about this song is – once again – Honeyman-Scott’s incredible solo at 1:35, culminating in a lovely harmonic, and backed by Chambers’s tribal drums. The band also covers The Kinks’ “Stop Your Sobbing,” and serve up their big hit, “Brass In Pocket,” both excellent, straightforward pop pearls. There’s also the instrumental, video game-inspired “Space Invader,” featuring sounds from the old arcade game recorded when it was a newfangled thing! The songs “Private Life” and “Lovers of Today” are a pair that I never loved (although, as always, the guitar work in “Private Life” is top-notch) but tolerated so that I could get to the last song.
It’s a perfect song to end an incredible album. The drums and bass get the song pumping, and soon enough Hynde is singing mysterious lyrics and Honeyman-Scott is throwing in his signature sounds. At 3:00 the band plays an extended instrumental section, with echoing drums and guitars and then an incredibly cool solo that pulls out at 4:23 and breaks into a nifty, ringing two-note riff behind the vocals. It’s a song that demands repeated listening, and leaves the listener exhausted but satisfied by the very end.
Some lyrics from that last song, “Every day/ every nighttime I find/ Mystery Achievement/ you’re on my mind,” begin to describe what it’s like when you’re 13, 14, somewhere around that age, and you start to recognize something, some thing, you’ve never recognized before, even though you feel it must have been there all along. Maybe it was a face that inspired it, or a body, or a movie. For me, it was a singer in a band. I couldn’t explain it then, I can’t explain it now. The only thing I know for sure about it – even after all these years – is that it led me to a tremendous rock and roll record.
“The Phone Call”
“Up The Neck”
“Tattooed Love Boys”
“Stop Your Sobbing”
“Brass In Pocket”
“Lovers Of Today”