Monday, May 24, 2010

Pretenders- self-titled (Sire Records, 1980)

Having carried on the Pretenders for close to three decades as a quasi-solo act, Chrissie Hynde has had a fine career and left us with a number of outstanding, even classic songs. For my money, Hynde has the best singing voice in the history of rock, and she’s a kick-ass guitarist and gifted songwriter to boot. But what’s unfortunate is that few people remember the original Pretenders, a far different group from the one that gave us “Don’t Get Me Wrong” or “I’ll Stand By You”. For before Hynde became the queen of American adult contemporary rock, she was fronting one of the greatest bands to come out of the English punk/new wave scene of the late 1970s. Drug abuse literally killed this band, and after two excellent albums Hynde was left to pick up the pieces and carry on. Even a huge Hynde fan like me has to admit: without James Honeyman-Scott and Pete Farndon, the Pretenders were never truly the same.

Lead guitarist Honeyman-Scott died of a drug overdose on June 16th, 1982. Just two days prior, bassist Farndon had been kicked out of the band for excessive drug use. He too would OD, passing away in April of ’83. It’s impossible to know for sure how different later Pretenders recordings would have sounded if both men had lived, and it’s probably pointless to even wonder. Instead we can just be grateful for the two albums and one EP the original Pretenders did leave behind. In particular, that debut is a stone cold classic. There are plenty of bands out there with the longevity to have produced decades’ worth of material, and most of them would gladly trade all that quantity for one album as quality as the Pretenders’ first.

Formed in 1978, the Pretenders were comprised of Akron, Ohio expatriate Hynde and three Englishmen: Honeyman-Scott, Farndon, and drummer Gerry Mackleduff. Martin Chambers soon took over on drums, cementing the classic lineup that would play on the first two Pretenders albums. While not a “punk rock” album per se, the Pretenders’ debut is way punkier than a lot of records from that same era that are considered punk. What it has going for it, still, is that it captures one of the finest and most unique bands of its time at its very best. There are elements of punk and new wave in the mix for sure, but in a lot of ways it’s just straight-up rock n’ roll and pop – imagine a female-fronted ‘70s Rolling Stones with Television’s guitar stylings and The Who’s bass lines. Hynde’s voice hasn’t faltered with age, but back then she had the attitude, and she had a proper rock n’ roll band behind her to synch with all that sex and sass that came so effortlessly out of her mouth. Has there ever been a person in rock who was cooler than the 1980 version of Chrissie Hynde? No way! Yet this was no one-woman-show, as the band’s inspired playing (especially Honeyman-Scott’s outside-the-box guitar work) lifts legitimately great material to an even higher level. The record somehow manages to sound both distinctly late ‘70s-ish and completely timeless, reminding us that what made the new wave movement so great was not a particular sound but rather an explosion of talent and creativity. Long after the world has lost interest in the countless imitators, copyists, and third-rate knockoffs that cashed in on the new wave jackpot, people will still be listening to, and loving, the sterling slab of originality that is the first Pretenders LP.

“Brass in Pocket”, for good reason, has been in heavy rotation on at least one radio format since the day it was released. What’s baffling, though, is that classic rock playlists don’t include even more songs from Pretenders. Nearly every track on the record could have been a hit, and even the five-minute-plus “deep cuts” had the stuff to forever rule AOR radio. Perhaps the best two songs on the album, “Precious” and “Kid”, could not be more different – the former a smoldering fuck-you to closed-minded middle America, the latter a beautiful, vulnerable pop song completely devoid of irony or attitude. And while “Precious”, with its driving beat and off-the-charts ‘tude, is the tone-setter for this album and this band, “Kid” is probably the greatest Pretenders song ever - its melody infectious, Hynde’s vocal poignant and mesmerizing, and Honeyman-Scott’s guitar lines as flawless and pristine as a summer sunset. In the same vein, and just as lovely, is a remarkable cover of The Kinks’ “Stop Your Sobbing”, another high mark in the remarkable singing career of Chrissie Hynde.

What’s so pleasing about Pretenders is that songs like “Kid” and “Stop Your Sobbing”, so unlike anything else on the record, nonetheless manage to fit in perfectly. The group tries a little bit of everything, and it all falls into place smoothly. You want clanging, edgy new wave (“The Phone Call”)? You want “musicianship” to rival Rush (“Space Invader”)? You got it! While so much of the critically acclaimed femme-punk of the new wave era was either unlistenable rubbish (The Slits) or not even remotely punk (Patti Smith), “Tattooed Love Boys” is the real deal, brash and street-smart and power-packed to the end. “Private Life” is what The Police would have sounded like if they’d been any good. Built on one of the catchiest bass lines ever committed to tape, “Mystery Achievement” is a satisfying, slow-building epic of a rock song, and to this day the vocal gives me chills.

Anything that would have been considered “gimmicky” about the Pretenders in 1980 is irrelevant today. In our current social climate, there’s nothing revolutionary or even provocative about a female musician playing against traditional gender roles or espousing sexual frankness. Yet Pretenders, a full 30 years after its release, sounds as great as it ever did. Critics who pegged Hynde as some sort of feminist agenda-pusher were overanalyzing big-time. She never saw herself as a “woman in rock”. She was a person who rocked. Her greatness came not from her gender, but from her talent, charisma, and attitude. Her lyrics were sharp, honest, and bold. Her songs were well-crafted, unique, and impossible to get out of your head, especially after repeated listens. Her voice was as beautiful as anyone’s yet as tough as they came. All of that talent is evident on anything she’s ever recorded for the Pretenders, yet it shines brightest on this great first LP. It is not just one of the best debut albums ever, but also one of the greatest all-time rock albums, period. Respect!

-Josh Rutledge

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