Ah, the sophomore slump, which can happen when an artist who spent their whole life writing their first album has only a few months to write the next. Invariably, the record they rush to release pales in comparison to the debut that made them famous. This second album, often written on a tour bus instead of a bedsit (and sounding like it), habitually falls short. After that—and if they’re lucky—the artist will get a chance to rebound with the third LP, and the sophomore effort will subsequently be relegated to the cut-out bins.
The Pretenders avoided the sophomore curse with Pretenders II (which is aptly named since it is nearly a song-for-song copy of their eponymous introductory collection). Still, the album is full of energy and verve. It features the band’s signature blend of rock swagger and pop tenderness and contains one of the finest pieces frontwoman Chrissie Hynde ever wrote. It stands amongst the band’s best LPs, but it has the sad distinction of being the last recording made by the original lineup before the untimely deaths of lead guitarist James Honeyman-Scott and bassist Pete Farndon in 1982 and 1983, respectively.
Before that—in 1981—the Pretenders were flying high from their debut’s success and were playing ever-larger venues on tour. Their manager, Dave Hill, was eager to strike while the iron was hot and release a follow-up. As Chrissie Hynde writes in her 2015 memoir, Reckless: “Dave Hill was panicking, desperate to get a second record out, but I didn’t have the songs written yet. I hadn’t had the time. I thought writing on the road would have happened, but it never does.”
They had found time to record a few tracks, including “Message of Love” and “Talk of the Town”, at Pathé Marconi Studios in Paris. These tunes (plus two new ones and a live recording of “Precious”) were released as the aptly named Extended Play stopgap EP in March 1981. Hynde felt their management had “jumped the gun” by releasing the new material. She explains, “We released it in the US and called it Extended Play to let the Yanks know that it wasn’t an album, but it was a mistake: they thought we’d gone soft in the head by releasing our much-anticipated second album, Extended Play, with only a handful of songs on it.”
In the UK, the four new tracks were released as singles (“Message of Love” and “Talk of the Town” were backed by “Porcelain” and “Cuban Slide”, respectively). So, by the time Pretenders II came out five months later, two of its best songs were already known to the band’s devotees. And those weren’t the only songs that had a ring of familiarity.
The album’s lead-off track, “The Adultress”, serves as an introduction. In contrast to how “Precious” (its counterpart from the first record) blasted out of the gate by name-checking the sights and sounds of Cleveland, making it one of the greatest opening salvos in rock, “The Adultress” replaces bravado with cynicism, boastfulness with world-weariness. Not every song sung in the first person is about the songwriter herself, and women songwriters often get unfairly pegged as confessional. Therefore, it’s unfair to say that this piece is about Hynde’s relationship with Ray Davies (who was married when he and Hynde began their romance), although it is often assumed to be. A muscular but plodding rocker, “The Adultress” also gets bogged down by lyrics that border on the ridiculous: “I stand accused of the worst crime in history”.
Next, “Bad Boys Get Spanked” echoes “Tattooed Love Boys” from Pretenders. “Bad Boys” trades in the same seedy milieu, but whereas “Love Boys” was urgent and dangerous — with its odd time signature and tight starts and stops— “Bad Boys” petulant vocal and whip-cracking sound effects are a little too on the nose, resulting in a sound calculated to shock.
“Message of Love” is the rare song that was fleshed out in the studio. Hynde typically brought completed tunes to the group; however, this time—according to drummer Martin Chambers —“she hadn’t really finished it and so we just… rehearsed it already set up in the studio, and it was on tape in two hours, basically.” It retains the immediacy of the studio and is brimming with ebullience. It shows that the band was just as at home with exuberance and joy as with angst and rebellion.
“I Go to Sleep”, the band’s second Ray Davies cover (a demo of the song was given to the Pretenders after they’d recorded “Stop Your Sobbing”), is rendered desperate and heartbreaking by Hynde’s torchy vocals and Honeyman-Scott’s reverberating electric guitar. The addition of a French horn lends it a timeless melancholy, too. Listen to the guitar-only outtake included on the expanded and remastered album, and you’ll see how much the brass instrument added to the composition.
“Birds of Paradise” and “Talk of the Town” are the highlights of Pretenders II, as they prove that for all her hard rock posturing, Chrissie Hynde can write the hell out of a ballad. Specifically, the former is a meditation on innocence lost and the road not taken (as seen from the vantage point of someone who’s vaulted to stardom, became prey to the vagaries of fame, and wished for a simpler time, all the while knowing there is no way back). Written in epistolary form to a long-lost friend, the song is full of melancholic regret at the chasm separating the two. I still get chills at the drum break that precedes its turning point: “One time, when we took off our clothes / But you were cryin’” and then again as Pete Farndon’s countermelody underscores Hynde’s plaintive lyrics: “Please don’t forget / Do forgive me”.
If by some strange decree, I had to choose only one Pretenders song that I could listen to for the rest of my days, it would be “Talk of the Town” (a close second would be the live version of “Up the Neck” that’s a part of the extended and remastered release). The track was written about a fan Hynde saw on the band’s first tour. As she told the audience in a BBC Songwriters’ Circle show, “I had in mind this kid who used to stand outside the sound checks on our first tour . . . I never spoke to him. I remember that the last time I saw him, I just left him standing in the snow, I never had anything to say to him. I kind of wrote this for him, so, in the unlikely event that you’re watching this, I did think about you.”
Farndon’s driving bass, Honeyman-Scott’s ringing guitar, Chambers’ deft sticking on the ride cymbal, and Hynde’s natural vibrato all come together to form the perfect pop song, full of longing and hooks. “You’ve changed your place in this world” could be sung from the point of view of the fan hanging around the soundcheck or from by Hynde herself watching him watching her, knowing the distance between them would forever be too great.
Side two — if you’re listening on vinyl — gets bogged down with straight-ahead rockers that unfortunately lack the classic Pretenders sound (that of Honeyman-Scott’s melodic inventiveness mixed with Hynde’s provocative lyrics and unconventional song structure).
For instance, “Waste Not Want Not” is a reggae-flavored screed that “tells a story of a future that’s void / Of the beauty and the majesty that life on / Earth is meant to be”. Its counterpart on the first album, musically anyway, is “Private Life”, a laconic tale of emotional blackmail sung by a disaffected lover. Hynde’s lyrics are best when the personal is political, not when the political is painted in such broad strokes.
“Jealous Dogs” is another filler track, yet Side two is redeemed by the rollicking “Day After Day”: a road song that manages to circumvent the usual clichés. Then, there’s the wistful “The English Roses” and “Louie Louie” (a show-stopper that demonstrates the group’s facility at both honoring and eclipsing its 1963 namesake).
One of the things that make first records so great is the unwitting breaking of rules. A dissonant chord progression sounds daring and fresh because nobody ever told the novice songwriter they couldn’t put those two chords together. The time signature on “Tattooed Love Boys” (alternating bars of 7 and 8) sounds urgent and disorienting but wasn’t a deliberate choice. Instead, it’s just how Hynde heard the beat in her head.
The first Pretenders album is full of quirky and surprising rough edges, while Pretenders II has had some of those rough edges smoothed over, not unlike the album’s cover photo. “The second album cover caused a ruckus between me and Dave after someone at the record company airbrushed the cover photo. I hated how it looked so glossy and fake. But all the airbrushing in the world couldn’t conceal the green pallor of smack that had claimed the face of our soon-to-be-defeated bass player” (Reckless 293).
Farndon was fired from the band in June 1982 for his belligerence and heroin use, but it was Honeyman-Scott who was found dead two days after Farndon’s dismissal. Farndon himself would succumb to a drug overdose in April 1983. Pretenders II doesn’t match the splendor of its predecessor, but as a follow-up to a near-perfect debut, it’s hard to fault the odd misstep or overreach (especially when listening to it is a way to keep Pete and Jimmy alive). The worst a listener can do is skip a few tracks to get to the gems.
The punishing live set included in the extended re-release shows a band in full command of its powers, still having fun and still wanting it even as they were starting to implode. As a live touring band, they were unrivaled and could have had the world at their feet by the time of their third release. Ironically, they’d realize that potential with a new lineup on 1984’s Learning to Crawl, which was certified Platinum in the US, produced five Billboard hits, and remains the highest-charting album in their discography.
The Pretenders soldiered on in different incarnations over the years and produced many exemplary records. Yet, for original fans, Pretenders II will be remembered as something of a last hurrah. As Chrissie Hynde famously said in her Rock and Roll Hall of Fame acceptance speech, “We’re paying tribute to James Honeyman-Scott and Pete Farndon, without whom we wouldn’t be here. On the other hand, without us, they might have been here. But that’s the way it works in rock ‘n’ roll.”