In Ten Tracks: Pretenders

In Ten Tracks is a selection of tracks that have meaning to me and have stuck with me through the years, appearing frequently on mix tapes and playlists. Not necessarily stuff you’ll find on an artist’s Greatest Hits collection.

Mystery Achievement  The first Pretenders album, released in 1980 was like a severe kick in the head. Chrissie Hynde and her boys strode into the punk and rock arena with a sneer of self-righteous indolence and proceeded to tear it up. But Hynde, the stepchild of Iggy Pop and Keith Richards, wasn’t a one-trick pony. She wrote songs that ran the gamut from hardcore rave-ups to tender pop ballads to seductive reggae, and her voice cut through the mix like a gamma knife. Nowhere does this all come together any better than on the album’s final track. With Martin Chambers’ always muscular drums beating a steady march that is joined by Pete Farndon’s driving bass. Chrissie’s voice floats above it all, culminating in a gorgeous chorus with vocal overdubs. Her guitar crunches on top of the rhythm section and sets up James Honeyman-Scott’s nuclear guitar work. Then there’s a breakdown followed by a final round of the chorus. Pretenders is that rare album that ends as strongly as it began and as soon as it ends you want to hear the entire album again. 

Cuban Slide  In “Mystery Achievement” Hynde sings “I just want to get out on the floor and do the Cuban slide,” which sounds like a reference to a dance. But listeners had to wait until the single of the centerpiece song from Pretenders II, “Talk of the Town” came out to find out what she was talking about. “Cuban Slide” is the B side, a reverb-laden slab of Bo Diddley beat that the band cooks into something really special. The lyrics are minimal, about Chrissie unable to do a dance that the object of her adoration does easily. The chorus (I-yi-yi-yi wanna dance/but my feet won’t let me) manages to evoke the proper Cuban feel without descending into any kind of imitation or appropriation. The track is essential because it makes you realize just how special this group was at this moment in time.

The Adultress  Pretenders II was a little more diverse than its predecessor both in terms of lyrics and style. Hynde’s romanticism became florid on tracks like “English Roses” and “I Go To Sleep”, but the record opened with this punchy track that immediately reminded everyone what they loved so much about the first album. I can still remember being in the record store the day the album came in and the boxes were opened by the store clerk and this song came bursting out of the speakers. “I’m the adultress/But I didn’t want to be/I’m convenient/And I make good tea.” As always we wonder how much of the song is autobiographical–her lyrics are so biting and honest –‘look at the spinster/coming down off the shelf/she’s in love and she hates herself.” Meanwhile Chambers, Farndon and Honeyman-Scott burn with hunger that has in no way lessened since the first album.

Waste Not Want Not  This is Pretenders II‘s reggae offering, and it’s just as great as the first record’s “Private Life” even though as far as I can tell it really gets no love, barely if ever mentioned in reviews of the album. A soapbox screed against the excess and environmental waste of consumerism that foreshadows themes found on Learning to Crawl (especially “Middle of the Road”) and the vegan lifestyle Hynde would later embrace. Farndon’s deep bass hits you right in the chest here and the guitars are subdued, leaving the sparks to Chrissie’s fiery sermon, complete with Biblical references. 

In the Sticks This non-album B-side of “Louie Louie” is somewhere between a country instrumental and a California surf tune, and it’s a reminder that the original Pretenders were a real band that related to each other musically like all the greatest rock outfits. It’s also a fond farewell to Farndon and Honeyman-Scott, both of whom died after the Pretenders II tour: Honeyman-Scott in 1982 and Farndon in 1983 after being fired from the band due to drug issues. 

Middle of the Road By the end of 1983 Chrissie had a new Pretenders lineup that was ready to go. After releasing “Back on the Chain Gang,” recorded with a pickup band, “Middle of the Road” became the album Learning to Crawl‘s second single and the first to feature Hynde, Chambers, Robbie McIntosh, and Malcolm Foster. I saw the group twice on this tour and I can assure you that as a live band they were the equal of the originals (I saw that band on the Pretenders II tour). “Middle of the Road” blistered with Hynde’s trademark swagger and an incredible cat yowl near the end of the song followed by a harmonica solo. “I’m not the cat I used to be” she sang, “I got a kid/I’m thirty-three,” but you’d never know it from this track.

Show Me Being a mother definitely softened Chrissie’s stance in some ways, but don’t forget that she already had a romantic, sentimental streak a mile wide. “Show Me” isn’t your typical mom song, though, and the band still finds an energetic groove while we marvel yet again at the way Chrissie Hynde has always been able to craft a melody and then sing the hell out of it. Favorite lyric: “Welcome here from outer space/the milky way is still in your eyes/You found yourself a hopeless case/One who’s seeking perfection on Earth or some kind of rebirth.”

Watching the Clothes Another barn-burner that could have easily come off the debut album–musically and lyrically. Yeah, it seems like a fairly trivial song about doing laundry, but it’s actually where Chrissie apparently contemplates the meaning of life and the shitshow that living in a capitalistic society was becoming: “I been kissing ass/trying to keep it clean/serving the middle class/yeah it’s a clean routine.” Neither Karl Marx nor Joe Strummer could have said it better.

Sense of Purpose  The Pretenders story has been divided into three acts: two amazingly consistent albums that burned as bright as any rock music ever had, followed by tragedy (I). A return that no one could have expected and an album that displayed a bit more maturity and a very near return to former glory. (II) The rest (III). Beginning with the Get Close album it was clear that The Pretenders existed in name only and would forthwith be used to denote Chrissie Hynde with a random group of musicians. There were still good songs but, let’s face it, it didn’t seem like the Pretenders. Except on this 1995 release, Isle of View, an acoustic live performance of some of the group’s best songs. Martin Chambers (who had been away since Hynde sacked him during the Get Close sessions) has rejoined and became a permanent member. “Sense of Purpose” from the album Packed!(1990) is a classic Hynde song and it gets a sensitive reading here which jells so much better than the original album version. The rest of the disc is pretty great too and was also released as a DVD.

Night In My Veins 1994’s Last of the Independents was the best album under the Pretenders banner in a while, and this song really brought back the feel of the original band with Chrissie admitting that, in many ways, she’d never change. When she sings “It feels good/it’s alright/even if it’s just the night in my veins” it feels just like when you heard “Kid” or “The Wait” for the first time. The song was a minor hit in the US, and the return of Martin Chambers, one of rock’s great drummers, surely didn’t hurt.

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