Counterbalance No. 161: ‘Pretenders’

The 161st most acclaimed album of all time is going to use its arms. It’s going to use its legs. It’s going to use its style. It’s going to use its sidestep. A New Wave statement of purpose is this week's Counterbalance.
The Pretenders

Mendelsohn: I’ve been waiting patiently for this record, Klinger. The Pretenders’ self-titled debut represents the first real example of a female rocker on the Great List. No disrespect to Aretha Franklin, Joni Mitchell, or Carole King, but Chrissie Hynde is the real deal when it comes to true blue rock ‘n’ roll. It may be the Pretenders, but this is her show. And what a show it is. Hynde successfully found a way to merge rock from both sides of the pond and hit it big in the US and the UK. But even more than that, it seems that Ms. Hynde was somehow involved in all sorts of rock ‘n’ roll of cultural events until she hit it big with the Pretenders.

In doing research for this week’s discussion I found out that Hynde, an Akron, Ohio native (big ups to the armpit of my home state — that’s better than Earth’s rectum. Right, Windsor?), is the Forrest Gump of rock ‘n’ roll, having been present at or somehow influencing the course of rock history for the duration of the 1970s. Check it out: Hynde was on the campus of Kent State during the shootings; was in a band with Mark Mothersbaugh (who later started Devo); went to London and tried to marry a young Sid Vicious (future Sex Pistols “bassist”) in order to get her green card; worked in a famous clothing store run by Malcolm McLaren (future Sex Pistols “manager”); tried to start a band with Mick Jones (future member of the Clash); and even had a baby with the Kinks’ Ray Davies. And that’s not even half of it.

What’s more impressive, Klinger: Hynde’s uncanny run through rock history or the Pretenders debut record?

Klinger: Well, you’ve completely neglected to mention her marriage to Simple Minds’ Jim Kerr, and I suspect listening to him complain about that Breakfast Club song for years on end might have been her most impressive feat of all. But if I have to answer your question, Mendelsohn, it’s pretty clear that it’s the album that solidifies her place in rock history. Without the critical — and commercial — success of Pretenders, she might have made for the subject of a fascinating documentary instead of the Hall of Famer she is today.

And that commercial success shouldn’t be discounted. Today we think of the Pretenders as a New Wave band (I’m pretty sure “Brass in Pocket” gets way more Sirius XM play on First Wave than it does on 80s on 8), and as such we might think of them as a proto-alterna-group. But this album made the Top 10 in the US, which is no small accomplishment for a group that kicks off with a song that’s not only brutally sexually frank but also makes several explicit references to Cleveland.

Mendelsohn: And a reference to Howard the Duck. That movie, by the way, holds a special place in my prepubescent heart due to four words: full-frontal duck nudity. In this case, Hynde was referring to the comic book, since Howard the Duck also lived in Cleveland (and the movie wasn’t released until 1986).

I like the fact that you brought up the Pretender’s commercial success. These days, for the most part, commercial success is anathema for music critics. That being said, the music industry has changed greatly over the past 30 years as pre-fabricated music, written by the same three people or production groups for over-stylized fashion racks, has become the norm. Ugly is a four-letter word and homely looks won’t get you out of the local bar scene.

I’m not calling Hynde homely — she cultivated a nearly flawless rock chic(k) look — but she wasn’t the stunner like Blondie’s Debbie Harry. And why am I rambling on about the Pretenders style instead of their music? Well, the band hit at that right moment when the music video as about to change the way the masses received their daily allowance of rock. Not only were the Pretenders the perfect amalgamation of punk, New Wave, and pop rock, but they also benefited from having the right look at the right time (lessons learned from working for McLaren?), undoubtedly helping to push their commercial success.

It helps to be able to write some solid music as well, a skill Hynde seems to have in spades — especially considering the success of “Brass In Pocket”, “Stop Your Sobbing”, and “Kid” on both sides of the pond.

Klinger: Well, I’d just as soon not get involved in a ranking of the rock ‘n’ roll superbabes, except to say that the common thread among the critically acclaimed pop women seems to be that none of them ever come across as flirting with the audience. Harry, Hynde, Mitchell, Nico — they’re staring you down and putting up with none of your puppy-doggery. Does this imply that there is some sex-negative bias among rock critics? (I suspect they prefer Carole King to Carly Simon based at least in part on the album covers.) Or is someone like Chrissie Hynde just so tough that she can flaunt her sexuality (as on, say, “Tattooed Love Boys”, which I’ll confess unnerved tweenage Klinger a bit) in a way that makes any critical chin-stroking academic? There’s a whole dissertation in there somewhere, one that I’m going to leave to someone else.

Keeping things focused on the music, Pretenders is a very good album that could have been truly great if not for, let’s face it, a few flaws. I appreciate the innovations the band brings to the table — breaking into 3/4 time on “The Phone Call” goes a long way toward accelerating the tension, and the 5/4 beat of “Tattooed Love Boys” means that the tension on that track never really dies down. Credit drummer Martin Chambers for that, most likely, but navigating those tricky time signatures requires a concentrated group effort, especially as the band trades off leads with lead guitarist James Honeyman-Scott. But side two gets bogged down with a few songs that stay at least a couple minutes past their welcome (although the dubbishy “Private Life” comes closest to meriting its extended run time), and the instrumental “Space Invader” gets awfully close to filler. I recognize that I’m quibbling a bit, especially when we’re talking about a group that can follow a cover of the Kinks “Stop Your Sobbing” with a song like “Kid”, which is at least as good.

Mendelsohn: I think we are in that territory where the albums we will be talking about for the foreseeable future will be very good but never truly great. Let’s face it, as good as Hynde and the Pretenders were, they are not game changers. Hynde took the rock music she loved — the Stooges, the Kinks, the Clash — and just put her spin on it. Her take is refreshing simply because we are finally provided rock from the female perspective. The frank sexuality on the album is nothing new but because it comes from a woman, it becomes that much more edgy, and in the end, helps prop up a less-than-perfect record.

I’m not going to disagree too hard about the filler comment — except maybe to say that “Space Invader” is one of the highlights of this album for me. I have a thing for instrumental jams, though. The album’s greatest successes are the three-minute power-pop songs that act as sign posts between the extended numbers that don’t really have any place on the record. Had this album been 30 minutes long and full of those luscious bursts of rock, I think we might have seen the Pretenders much higher on the Great List.

Klinger: I can certainly see that, and I don’t want to discredit the moments of splendor throughout the album. Of course, when we talk about the music from this punk/post-punk/New Wave/whatever era, the stuff that has endured has generally come from the groups who were most likely to fully embrace their roots and the music that came before them. That was true of the Clash, true of the Ramones, and true of the Pretenders. Hynde, the story goes, chose bassist Pete Farndon because he didn’t play with a pick, giving his playing a smoother, more traditional feel compared to the more aggressive punk stylings. It’s that attention to detail that also informs the group’s songwriting approach, enabling them to move from slinky grooves like “Brass in Pocket” to edgier numbers like “Up the Neck”.

And ultimately it needs to be about the music first and foremost. Even amid all of the think-pieces about Women in Rock and image-making and sex-positivity and open letters to Hannah Montana, the only thing that really matters is whether the music that’s being created has the power to endure. With the deaths of Farndon and Honeyman-Scott in tragically rapid succession, it was all but impossible for the Pretenders to maintain the momentum that was built up by that first clutch of albums. But there are enough incredible moments here to ensure their permanent place in the canon, and give us hope that more young girls might look to Chrissie Hynde as someone to pattern their own careers after.