[16 November 2006]
If you were a certain age in the early ‘80s—say, old enough to be out of diapers—you had a crush on Chrissie Hynde. She was, for boys, sort of what Sid Vicious must have been like for girls, although she had the added virtues of being talented and attractive. She was also intimidating: no female singer in rock had ever mixed sweet and sass quite like this, a come-hither twinkle behind that black eyeliner, belied at every turn by a slag-off snarl.
Appropriately, Pretenders was released in January 1980, a swan song for the post-punk palace revolution that never quite panned out. This was an album that immediately demanded its own space, allowing a new band the chance to get its licks in before the eventual onslaught of a decade that, musically speaking, would become increasingly icy and arid. Wearing leather was not yet ironic (or necessarily nostalgic), synthesizers were still mostly on the sidelines, and music videos did not make or break a group: the very end of the 1970s and very beginning of the 1980s were very much transitional years, and it was in the afterglow of the punk rock apotheosis and the slow death of disco that The Pretenders staked their claim.
The almost inimitable alchemy of this band begins with the (obviously intentional?) irony of its name: nothing contrived or insincere here; this was, in fact, as real as it gets. Like any worthwhile act, they wore their myriad influences on their record sleeves, and took much of what they obviously admired and emulated, and built a new foundation that quickly became influential in its own right. It was refreshing, then, and almost miraculous, now, to consider a band that came equipped with attitude and not the posturing, songwriting craft without the all-things-to-all-people earnestness that undermines so many apprentice acts.
Pretenders managed that complicated trick of capturing its time while creating new territory, bringing to fruition the best elements of the incendiary but mostly unfulfilling (aesthetically speaking) music from the punk underground, yet oozing with prescient, almost elegiac overtones of what could have come but never did—for this band in particular and, arguably, rock music in general. As we now know too well, entirely too many bands made music that people listened to with their eyes all through the 1980s. MTV aside, in The Pretenders case, most of this self-fulfilling prophecy was sadly self-inflicted: the original line-up lasted just two albums before drug abuse—leading to two overdose deaths-took its inexorable toll.
The Pretenders caught fire in part because their collective urgencies had been smoldering in semi-obscurity; by the time circumstances brought them together they’d been working for years toward this moment—even if they didn’t fully understand their own power at this point. It is plausible that no other debut album (then and still) came seemingly from nowhere, with such focus and force, such competence and confidence. Only Jimi Hendrix comes immediately to mind as a newcomer whose first official recording signaled the immutable arrival of a genius, somehow already fully formed as a freshman. Suffice it to say, lightning like this strikes only a few times per generation. To be sure, there are plenty of notable bands that give no quarter and blaze their own paths, but it is rare, perhaps unprecedented, to engineer an opening statement this immediate and appealing, which still sounds fresh, edgy and enervating a quarter century later. In short, this is not simply one of the great debut albums; this is one of the great rock albums, period. Obviously, it could never again sound as visceral and derailing as it did in 1980, but it has aged unbelievably well (or better than well considering that nobody makes music like this anymore).
The Pretenders - Kid
That there are indelible songs on the debut, then, is beyond dispute: “Kid”, “Stop Your Sobbing”, and “Mystery Achievement” continue to ride the classic rock radio carousel and “Brass in Pocket” became a ubiquitous anthem, as much a mission statement as breakthrough single. But the hits are more a testimony to the ways in which Pretenders resonated (and resonates) with an enthusiastic audience; it is the ostensibly less known songs that, one by one, add up to a sum total that is pretty well perfect. It is so easy to listen to this record all the way through that it’s also easy to overlook that song by song there is not a sub-par moment. Just listen: the sheer array of styles celebrated is striking.
From the piss and vinegar F-Off attitude of the opening salvo, “Precious”, to the triumphant, all-cylinders closing statement, “Mystery Achievement”, the listener is treated to proto-punk, reggae, ballads (of both the badass and bittersweet sort), even an early excursion into the embellishing art of sampling, courtesy of the then-cutting edge snippet of arcade favorite “Space Invaders”: it is the cumulative effect of this relentless sonic assault that propels Pretenders into that other place. Hyperbole? Cue up “Lovers of Today” and listen to the anguish and vulnerability (that voice!) Hynde brings to bear, revealing the wounded and human heart pumping beneath the red leather jacket.
James Honeyman Scott—whose guitar playing throughout announces the advent of a major talent that should have owned the ensuing decade—uncorks a solo that somehow manages to soar while remaining subdued, transporting emotion without the flash, substance without the shtick. Virtually every note he plays defines his less-is-more style, which is not an exercise in minimalism so much as the confident restraint of an artist who could speak for minutes but conveys it his own way in seconds. Importantly, his contributions are the very opposite of the much-maligned self-indulgence of the mid-‘70s prog rock the punks so scornfully (and gleefully) piled on, but also a million miles away from the sterile sheen and hair band histrionics that dominated the scene after he checked out. Need more evidence? Three words: “Tattooed Love Boys”. Of all the mini masterpieces that make up the album, this short blast of bliss might be its zenith: no other group at any other time could ever make a song that sounds like this (the music, the words, the vocals, the vibe. To listen again is cause to celebrate and mourn the senseless loss of Honeyman Scott: even if we are fortunate that he essentially distilled a career’s worth of talent into two classic albums, it’s simply a shame to ruminate on how much more he had to offer.
The Pretenders - Tattooed Love Boys
Incredibly, the follow-up album would likely occupy a more elevated place in the hearts and minds if not for the fact that it had an impossible act to follow. And yet, in many regards, Pretenders II is not only a worthy successor, it’s highest highs—of which there are several—are equal to anything from the first album. And, like the debut, it is not the tunes you hear on the radio that make this an essential addition to any serious and self-respecting rock fan’s collection. Certainly, “Message of Love”, “Talk of the Town” and “Day After Day” richly deserve their rotation on less imaginative DJ’s play lists, but even the first album doesn’t quite run the gamut from defiant (“The Adultress”) to ebullient (“Pack It Up”) to provocative (“Bad Boys Get Spanked”—another early and effective use of pop culture sampling, this time courtesy of the immortal Dirty Harry’s sound bite “You don’t listen do you asshole?”). And then there are the back-to-back beauties, “I Go to Sleep” (another Kinks cover, to match “Stop Your Sobbing” from the debut) and the melancholy longing of “Birds of Paradise”, where again Hynde lets her guard down and ponders “This is the life they say that dreams are made of/ I meant to write but dreams will outlive me…”
All the songs are strong and the band is sharp, stretching themselves (including tastefully subtle employment of brass on certain tracks, particularly the very un-punk French horn on the aforementioned “I Go to Sleep”): where Hynde and Honeyman Scott fairly dominated the first album, that versatility is evenly distributed on the sophomore effort. Martin Chambers (drums) and Pete Farndon (bass) keep the beat and (once more) lay the groundwork of a groove it would have been delightful to hear them develop in the years ahead. Check out the precision and assurance of “Waste Not Want Not”, a four-minute collusion of unifying effect that takes no prisoners and suffers neither fools nor apathy: “Talk, talk, talk, talk about the government/ And not a word about political favour/ Everything touched is my political choice/ The life you take is your political voice.”
The punk bravado and rock ‘n’ roll throat-grabbing is already light years behind, and this is yet another tantalizing intimation of what should have been. It wasn’t meant to be, and the glass will forever be half full because of the unconscionably early deaths of Honeyman Scott and Farndon. And still, the cup overflows, epitomized for posterity on the almost impossibly perfect “The English Roses”: this, as much as any worthy candidate on either album, is the song Hynde was meant to write, the song this band had to play. Here’s the thing: no one makes music like this now, obviously; more important, no one made music like this, ever.
Still not convinced? Thankfully the cup truly does overflow, as these restored releases get the remastered treatment-reason enough to snatch them up-but also contain generous, and revealing bonus tracks. Each album is a two-CD set, with the second disc full of demos and live tracks, including a healthy sampling of the band in fine form from a concert in late 1981, just before the dream ended.