For several years now, I’ve been on what feels like a one-woman mission to keep the Pretenders flag flying. Despite continuing to release solid albums and playing live, the band isn’t getting the respect they are due. Sure, they’ve received many accolades over their 40-year career, ones that any group would be happy to have: The band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2005. Rolling Stone lists their first LP, Pretenders, as the #13 Best Debut Album of All Time, the 20th Best Album of the ’80s, and it occupies the 155th spot on the magazine’s list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time (2012 version). Chrissie Hynde was number 7 on VH1’s 1999 series “100 Greatest Women in Rock and Roll“, and number 63 on Rolling Stone’s “Greatest Songwriters of All Time.” And yet.
There are no documentary series about the group, as there are for Linda Ronstadt, the Bee Gees, or the Velvet Underground, for example (Kenny G gets a documentary, but the Pretenders don’t?!?). There are no tribute albums, no 33-1/3 books — in general, no reassessment and appreciation by the culture at large.
One reason the Pretenders may have fallen out of favor in recent years is the regrettable remarks made by Hynde during the promotion of her memoir, Reckless, in 2015. Her comments were in response to a Sunday Times reporter’s questions about a brief but harrowing chapter in the book, which recounts the story of the 21-year-old Hynde’s sexual assault at the hands of a motorcycle gang she refers to as the “Heavy Bikers”. Ever the combative interviewee, she implied (and indeed says as much in the book) that the assault was her fault. Then she doubled down and seemed to blame all women who are raped:
“Come on! That’s just common sense. You know, if you don’t want to entice a rapist, don’t wear high heels so you can’t run from him. If you’re wearing something that says ‘Come and f*** me’, you’d better be good on your feet. I don’t think I’m saying anything controversial, am I?”
Oof. This was not the kind of reassessment I was hoping for. That was the moment my fave became my problematic fave, and I can only assume other fans had a similar struggle reconciling their allegiance to the band in light of this episode.
Unfortunately, those antiquated and tone-deaf comments obscured the fact that the Pretenders, especially in their early incarnation, still occupy an important place in rock history. Rhino’s release of the 40th Anniversary Deluxe Edition of the group’s first two albums, Pretenders (1980) and Pretenders II (1981), puts the focus back on the original foursome.
Each collection comprises three CDs and a 20-page booklet. The first CD contains the original album (plus B-sides, in the Pretenders box). The other two discs feature demos, rarities, and live recordings contemporary to their respective albums. Each three-CD edition is available singly or as a bundled pair. In addition to the CD sets, each LP reissue is available by itself on limited edition colored vinyl.
These sorts of reissues are geared toward the superfans, those of us whose collections must be complete. Speaking as a member of the target audience, they deliver. Even though I’ve heard most of these tracks over the years, it’s nice to have them all in one place. The real value of the Anniversary Edition for me, though, is in its physicality. Each set is housed in a 12-inch book, with the albums’ original artwork on front and back. Each edition’s graphic design is color-coordinated, with black and white for the first album and blue and black for the second. The booklets are printed on substantial glossy stock and peppered with previously unpublished archival photos, session outtakes, and performance shots. As an objet d’art, the whole package feels — dare I say it — precious.
As for the music, original producer Chris Thomas has overseen the remastering of the albums and does so with a light touch. It’s hardly fair to compare the remastered CDs with my original vinyl pressings since those suffered the indignity of being played on a Radio Shack turntable in the ’80s. So I got out the 2006 box set Pirate Radio (also on Rhino) and had a listen. The changes are subtle, but the sound is more “roomy”, with distinct space between the individual instruments. The overall feel is warm and “live”, giving a sensation of intimacy and immediacy to these 40-year-old recordings.
The editions are advertised as being “curated by Chrissie Hynde”, and contain very deep cuts like “Do I Love You” and “I Need Somebody”, which solidify the band’s Motown and garage-rock bonafides. The Pretenders edition features a live set from the band’s first US tour in March 1980. The live recording on Pretenders II is the blistering show from the Santa Monica Civic just 18 months later, in which they are even tighter and more muscular, capturing the original lineup at the height of their powers.
British rock journalist Will Hodgkinson does a fine job giving an overview and history of the Pretenders in the booklets. His liner notes are sympathetic, but there is no information that longtime devotees don’t already know. He gets the lyrics wrong in a couple of places, which will be noted by nit-picky fans (ahem). I wish some of the text had been written by Hynde and/or Martin Chambers, as they might offer more insight into the recordings.
All in all, these 40th Anniversary Deluxe Editions provide a rich trove of material for Pretenders completists to pour over while we wait for that documentary.