The Pretenders

In the late 1970’s, as a relief from a mindless form of torture known as disco, we were – again! – saved by England in the form of the so-called New Wave (Talking Heads, Blondie, Police, Elvis Costello, etc. Wow, what a great era that was.) One of the bands (sort of) from there was The Pretenders. (I say “sort of” because founding member/tough rock chick Chrissie Hynde is originally from Akron, Ohio.)

Hynde’s story is interesting. She went to England as much to escape the small-town, USA mentality as anything else. It’s not entirely clear to me that she had some particular career goal. So “getting away from” as much as “going to” perhaps. (She was attending Kent State University when students, including a friend of a friend, were gunned down during a protest. This tragic event, of course, memorialized in Neil Young’s “Ohio.”)

In any event, she wound up writing for the British paper New Musical Express whose existence predates rock n’ roll. For them she wrote – in her own words – “half-baked philosophical drivel and nonsensical tirades.” Or what today we might refer to as blogging. 😀

But it turned out that what she really wanted to do was not write about rockers, but be a rocker. (Don’t we all?) And so with a handful of tunes, she went in search of a band. I recall reading somewhere that she was in a music store and wondered out loud about finding a guitarist. One of the employees, James Honeyman-Scott leaped over the counter and said, basically, I’m your guy.

They pulled together a demo tape (remember tape?) and handed it to Chrissie’s friend, the ubiquitous singer/songwriter musician producer Nick Lowe who had already produced Elvis Costello‘s superb first three albums.

The demo included The Kinks’ “Stop Your Sobbing.” (Hynde was a big Kinks fan. A really big fan I would say because she later had a daughter by resident Kinks genius Ray Davies. Guess it didn’t work out because, to quote Costello, “she said drop dead and left with another guy.”)

Anyway, enough about their personal shit. The album The Pretenders came out in early 1980 and was a big FM hit. Of Hynde Madonna said, “She was amazing: the only woman I’d seen in performance where I thought, Yeah, she’s got balls, she’s awesome! . . . It gave me courage, inspiration, to see a woman with that kind of confidence in a man’s world.”

Here’s “Precious.” (Not me baby I’m too precious – fuck off!)

The single “Brass in Pocket,” actually came out before the album. I’ve always taken the song – one of my wife’s favorites – at face value. So a woman trying to get a guy’s attention so he knows how hot she is (or thinks she is).

But interestingly, Wikipedia says the lyrics describe the “singer about to have her first sexual encounter with a particular person, and is expressing her confidence that the experience will be successful.” Really? Because I don’t hear that at all. I mean sort of I guess. But really?

Anyway, here’s Chrissie from the video which somewhat supports my more prosaic interpretation. The customers are the guys in her band:

I saw The Pretenders open for the Stones in 2002 or 2003 on their 40 licks tour. They totally kicked ass. A fair number of people didn’t seem to know who they were and so wandered around looking for a hot dog or went for a pee or something. Too bad. Their loss.

Sometimes opening acts are totally worth it. The Stones have a long tradition of great openers (George Thorogood, B.B. King, Sheryl Crow, Stevie Wonder, Black Eyed Peas just to name a few). I’ve said before and I’ll say again it’s very often worth checking the opening act. They’re not there by accident.

Here’s a great, balls-out number, “Middle of the Road” which is always on my iPod Shuffle. Chrissie says the chords are similar to an old Stones song called “Empty Heart.” But it’s about her, what, early midlife crisis?:

The middle of the road is no private cul-de-sac
I can’t get from the cab to the curb
Without some little jerk on my back

Don’t harass me, can’t you tell
I’m going home, I’m tired as hell
I’m not the cat I used to be
I got a kid, I’m thirty-three
Bay-beh

The guy who introduces this says it’s “live from the studio,” I don’t know. In all likelihood it’s lip-synched. But regardless, it shows the band playing. Good energy in this one:

The Pretenders’ heyday lasted a while, till about the mid-Eighties.  Honeyman-Scott and bassist Pete Farndon succumbed to drug addiction within a few years of stardom. Hynde was the only consistent member with drummer Martin Chambers coming and going.

Chrissie released a solo album (Stockholm) in 2014 and wrote a memoir called Reckless: My Life as a Pretender which I will add to the list of Rock Books I Must Read. I’ve read a ton from the male perspective. Let’s hear the female side of things.

Wikipedia: In 2005, the Pretenders were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. During her acceptance speech, Hynde named and thanked all the replacement members of the group, then said:

“I know that the Pretenders have looked like a tribute band for the last 20 years. … And we’re paying tribute to James Honeyman-Scott and Pete Farndon, without whom we wouldn’t be here. And on the other hand, without us, they might have been here, but that’s the way it works in rock ‘n’ roll.”

21 thoughts on “The Pretenders

  1. Never really got into them album-wise but I think I’ll buy the debut. Like their poppy punk sound. New Wave is fantastic; I’ll have to post about Television’s Marquee Moon at some point. That is one heck of an album 😉

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    1. Yeah, that album is pretty legendary. I have Television on my to-post list as well. Go for it. If you happen to post sooner than me, if you don’t mind, I’ll just reblog yours (with attribution). and take the day off. 😀

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  2. First time this was posted, I didn’t listen to the songs posted but couldn’t get Chrissie Hynde’s voice out of my head. Got a chance today to listen to the videos posted and found out the song in my head was ‘Middle of the Road’. Terrific gutsy singer and great band. After all these years, Pretenders’ sounded like Punk rock to me so I googled – difference between New Wave and Punk. Seems there is a huge difference. Geez, sorry I asked. 😮 Great post. Thanks.

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    1. Yeah, who knows. Who even makes up these labels? 😀 Interestingly, Wikipedia lists the Pretenders as both! My own feel about this is that punk bands were less ‘schooled’ if you will. Just get out there and play, slash and burn. Maybe less melodic, more snotty, in-your-face and raw. So, think Sex Pistols, Clash and Ramones.

      And New Wave, which was on the heels of punk, was heavily influenced by it but tended to be more melodic. They also seemed to be better players. So think Talking Heads, Police, Elvis Costello, Blondie. (And I think the Clash straddled the line).

      That’s my sense of it. And yeah, the Pretenders were great. I have ‘Middle of the Road’ on my iPod. Gets me going every time.

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  3. Great. Thanks for the explanation of New Wave vs. Punk. It makes more sense to me now. Now I know the difference, I’ll make sure I pounce on someone next time someone says the Pretenders are a Punk band. 🙂 Yeah, agree. I still can hear ‘Middle of the Road’ in my head right now. Such a timeless band.

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    1. Hey, Harold. you found me. Didn’t realize you were looking.
      :- 0 Welcome. That’s the second Pretenders song I’ve been turned onto in the past couple of days. I’ll check it out. Thanks.

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