It feels like I don’t need to spend much time introducing The Pretenders. While the band might not fall into the “rock legends” column, a small, random sample of people under 30 had heard of them when I asked. Given that, I want to spend more time picking through things about the band that people maybe don’t know. For instance, raise your hand if you knew The Pretenders put out an album in 2016.
I’ll get to all that, but I should also start by acknowledging that I have only ever owned The Singles, a States-side, sum-of-their-career sort of release that included the bands’ most famous hits. I definitely have some favorites, but I didn’t appreciate the full stupidity of the Desert Island Disc concept until I sat down one recent morning to name a Top 5 from The Singles (in the event you follow me on twitter and spotted that tweet, yeah, this is where it came from). Even after I throw out (what I call) the dross – e.g., “Back on the Chain Gang” and that cover of “I Got You Babe” the Pretenders lead singer, Chrissie Hynde, put out with that dude from UB40 (sorry, UB40 feat. Chrissy Hynde) – the only thing I’m confident about is that whatever I landed on for a Top 5 would change from day to day.
For today, though, I’ll go with “Kid,” “Talk of the Town,” "Day After Day,” “Message of Love” (I’m a percussion nut, and I love what they do on those last two), and…really struggling on this last one…shit, shit, shit, uh, let’s go with “Hymn to Her.” Rather than bore you with the songs that lost out (for today), I’ll just say there’s something about that song that feels like some combination of brave and liberating…even as I sense that it’s not so much a song for me (am I alone in reading that as a feminist anthem?).
Anyone at all familiar with The Pretenders oeuvre might have scanned that list and thought, “Dude? ‘Brass in Pocket’”? To answer to my own question, I’d call “Brass in Pocket” the quintessential “Pretenders song,” a tune that demonstrates how they liked their guitar to sound (back then), their talent for setting vignettes to music, and the wonderfully performative nature of Hynde’s voice. There’s a lot to dig into on that last detail, because I came to The Pretenders too early in my life to even form that thought. I remembered seeing them on MTV – “Talk of the Town” is the video that pops into my head when I think of “Pretenders” and “video” – and thinking to my young self that this isn’t music a boy is supposed to like. Hynde’s voice isn’t that great, for one, and (to stick with “young” and “male”) she’s not a traditional beauty or anything (mmm...taking it back now; smarter). And that video? Pure cheese. None of that mattered. Hynde emotes with incredible clarity; I swear she could make your heart ache just reading a dictionary. If there’s a universal appeal to their music, I think the center of it lingers around that idea.
After a full week of listening to three albums’ worth of music (Pretenders, Pretenders II, and Alone, the 2016 album alluded to up top), I’m left with one underlying question: where the hell do The Pretenders land when it comes to genre? Wikipedia’s page for the band lists them as “Rock, Punk Rock, New Wave” and, honestly, only the first of those feels like the right fit. Even then, how meaninglessly capacious is that word, “rock”? Does that tell a reader (and, later, a listener) what to expect when the needle drops? For what it’s worth, I’m not even sure I’d feel comfortable defining them according to an era – e.g., 1970s rock, or 1980s - in spite of the fact that that’s when they launched and found fame (surprisingly rapid fame, too); they don’t sound like some homage to the 50s or 60s, either, and all of that together gets at why I hear them as something of an evolutionary off-shoot in rock. Think koala bears or something, one of those animals that everyone likes.
Here’s where I want to detour into that 2016 album, Alone. When I started this volume, I didn’t know precisely how I’d frame it, or how deep I’d go on The Pretenders' body of work. It took only one listen to Alone to decide that I’d stop after that and the albums put out by the full, original band. Some of that grew from not caring much for what I’ll call their middle work (e.g. Learning to Crawl and Get Close, both of which have a surprising number of good tracks), but most of it came from how utterly arresting I find Alone (though kindly give my respects to all the later albums I opted to pass over; Same day UPDATE: I did finally listen to one of these, Breaking Up the Concrete, which, as it turns out, has a solid bar-band/honky-tonk vibe; so, yeah, guess that’s one for the future). It’s good enough to make sense of starting at the end. It wouldn’t take much to convince me that Alone is the band’s best work.
I think a lot of this comes from Hynde, one of the band’s two surviving members, along with Martin Chambers (drummer, backing vocals, etc.). Her voice has always possessed a quality of weariness (no, not in every song), but some tracks on Alone make it feel like wholly earned, as if she’s fully grown into it. The lyrical meditations of the title track, “Alone” (what is it with me and title tracks?), even the song’s theme, feel like a rock version of the lady’s famous “fuck you” in the spirit of "I Shall Wear Purple." I don’t bring up Hynde’s age to make a dig, or treat it like some novelty; I’m not so far behind her, for one, and only the young cling to the idea that everyone sucks when they get old besides. Getting old is about more than flagging energy and stiff joints: it’s also about a lifetime’s worth of wisdom. Age, as a physical situation and a state of mind, is what one makes of it.
To stick with that theme, Alone expands The Pretenders musical palette, and by quite a bit; it’s as if Hynde and Chambers (and maybe even the new guys) pulled inspiration from across the rock/pop spectrum in a way they simply couldn’t when they launched. “Alone” features heavier guitar than most of The Pretenders' earlier work, but, after leading with that, Alone closes with the sprinkling, layered synth-heavy “Holy Commotion.” In between the alpha and omega, you get tracks like the wistful, slide-guitar ballad “Let’s Get Lost,” and the loose, jangly “Chord Lord” (sorry, that one crap out early) a song that feels closer to earlier Pretenders tracks, but with noticeably leaner, and heavier recording (also, for what it’s worth, I like this song, which sounds pretty similar, like, a lot more). Immediately after that, you’ve got a track like “Blue Eyed Sky” (ugh, no link available...just look it up) a song that drips (to the untrained ear) with classic guitar instrumentation, laced with a nice airy organ to fill in the empty space. It’s not that The Pretenders couldn’t play something that delicate back in the day, but the entire mood of Alone feels like it exists in this wide open space made possible by a lifetime of royalties. It’s kinda goddamn cool for that, too.
It’s not wall-to-wall amazement or anything – I mean, how many albums are? – but, if I had to pick a least favorite song on Alone, it would be “Roadie Man” (eh, no video/audio, but what's the loss?) That song gets to my biggest, perhaps half-conceived, complaint about The Pretenders: as much as I like their music, I’m not always wild about their vocal arrangements. It’s not so much that it doesn’t fit, as it doesn’t add anything to the song. But that’s where the script flips back to those two original albums: there’s enough going on with “Roadie Man” musically for me to like it better than the “off” songs on Pretenders and Pretenders II. That raises an interesting argument, specifically, do I like the songs I like by The Pretenders just because they’re familiar?
It was “The Adultress,” the first track on Pretenders II, that prompted the question, but at least a half dozen songs make the counter-argument - i.e., do some songs leave me flat because I don't know them, or are they just flat? “Private Life” and “Mystery Achievement” from Pretenders, and “English Roses,” “Bad Boys Get Spanked” and “Birds of Paradise” from Pretenders II fall into that column, maybe regardless of their artistic merit, maybe not. And don’t get me started on their covers: their “Can’t Control Myself” (which covers The Troggs’ legendary original; you'll have to imagine The Pretenders' version) gets full marks for reconfiguring the song, but that’s about it, honestly.
Still, if loving music means celebrating the good and excusing the bad, I’ll stick to that. For instance, how did “The Wait” not make The Singles (to go out on a limb, but not being a single?), because that's a goddamn great song, but there’s so much more – among them, “Phone Call,” a sort of paranoid, conceptual masterpiece that makes the whole "punk rock" thing stand up, and one that broke through enough for me to know it, and “Tattooed Love Boys” (there is a brutal lyric in there that follows the line, “shooting off my mouth”…damn). “Lovers of Today” is pretty too, but most of what I liked on both (expanded) albums came from the “bonus bin” – think songs like “Porcelain” (is this a song about drunk puking?) or the demos for “Brass in Pocket” (fucking lovely) or “The Wait” or even the sad country ditty (and expanded version of “Tequila,” a song that appears to have shown on Last of the Independents,if briefly).
There’s some silly/fun stuff – see “Cuban Slide,” which sounds like “Hand Jive” – but the larger, and growing, argument in favor of The Pretenders is how much they’re growing what they can do musically, even today. In their fucking 50s (at a minimum). I wanted to touch on a bunch of other ideas – e.g., how their first album (Pretenders) made a couple “all-time great” albums lists, plus the brutally tragedy of the temporal year in which, literally, half the band died (one of them, James Honeyman-Scott, in the least rock ‘n’ roll way possible (e.g. cocaine allergy, basically)) – but the biggest idea is the idea of a band being a prisoner to their sound.
What I’m getting at there is the idea that Alone (and Breaking Up the Concrete) appeal(s) to me as much as they do precisely because they make a clean enough musical break from what came before. There, my notes on “Pack It Up” comes into play there: those read, “that chord progression familiar, but meh” (to which I added “nice fronty ending,” because it was). On a deeper level, though, four years separate Breaking Up the Concrete from Alone; by contrast, Pretenders and Pretenders II came out in 1980 in 1981, respectively, which means they all but tripped over each other. The band didn’t have time to breath, basically, but that’s not unusual in the music biz – see the creative spasm that The Beatles and The Rolling Stones tore through the early-to-mid-60s. The question, though, is it worth it?