If you were to believe the reviews that were written at the time of its release, you might be convinced that Pretenders represented a major advance in human civilization. Five-star reviews everywhere. #1 in the UK seconds after it hit the shelves. Today it’s a top-rated album on both AllMusic and Rolling Stone. Even that ornery prick Robert Christgau gave it an A-minus.
To borrow a phrase from Chrissie Hynde, don’t get me wrong—I think Pretenders is a pretty good début album. Chrissie clearly demonstrates the “It Factor” and a few of the songs are seriously fucking hot. Groundbreaking? Hardly. The songs are a combination of classic rock and early 60’s girl group with a touch of punk. Innovative? Not in the least. It might make my Top 10 Debut Albums List if I decided to bother with one, but it wouldn’t make my Top 100, 200 or 300 album list. Compared to début albums like Are You Experienced, In the Court of the Crimson King, The Doors, Definitely Maybe and Fresh Cream, Pretenders doesn’t even come close. It’s an album that shows promise and potential.
I’ve heard a couple of theories as to why this record has been consistently overrated since its release. NME blamed Melody Maker for advance-hyping the band in a lame attempt to become relevant again. That sounds partially credible since The Sex Pistols had taken advantage of the moguls’ obsession with discovering the next new thing and their ability to turn that new thing into a sure thing with intense advance publicity campaigns. The more plausible theory had to do with timing. The music on the airwaves at the dawn of the 80s was so overwhelmingly lifeless that people must have been desperate for something with a little kick. When you’ve elevated Blondie, The Police and The Cars to semi-legendary status, you are in desperate straits indeed.
What makes the whole thing work is Chrissie Hynde, a genuine American rust-belt rocker with muscle cars and bikers in her blood. After spending years wandering through the U.K. music scene going nowhere fast, events conspired to give her fifteen minutes of fame. She took full advantage of the opportunity in the long run by simply being herself: a strong woman with the courage to reveal vulnerabilities; a devotee of rock ‘n’ roll fundamentals; and a singer with exceptional expressive variation. In many ways she’s a traditionalist; in other ways a radical. At the core, though, she’s a woman who makes no apologies for being a woman and over the years has expressed what it feels like and means to be a woman better than any of those broads who make their living writing exceptionally dull books about womanhood.
Chrissie takes charge from the get-go with one of my favorite all-time female vocals in “Precious,” one of three songs on this album that are always on my fuck playlists. Alternating between hands-on-hips cockiness, cooing flirtatiousness, warm growls and tongue-in-the-ear whispering, the vocal performance on “Precious” is an instructional manual on how to seduce and keep the electric wires of sexual tension flowing with juice. And that description just covers the verses—the vocal in the middle eight adds the feel and variation of sexual play dynamics as she modulates her tones on the three double syllables of do-it-do-it-do-it. When she gets to the “fuck off” line, that’s just icing on the cake or the post-fuck cigarette.
After that stunning opener, the album takes a steep turn downhill. “The Phone Call” features a tedious power chord riff and an overuse of effects on Chrissie’s vocal, which is pretty much buried anyway. “Up The Neck” is a bit better, for at least Chrissie’s voice is clear and audible; however, the description of this sexual experience is pretty ugly, with sweaty lust turning to anger and violence. As an expert practitioner of the sadomasochistic arts, the kind of uncontrollable, undisciplined violence pictured here is as unacceptable as rape. I think Chrissie gets that, as the line “Bondage to lust, abuse of facility/Blackmailed emotions confuse the demon and devotee” indicates, but it’s such reprehensible behavior that I can hardly bear to listen to the song. To cap it off, I hate sweaty males. Once a guy drops a bead of perspiration on my skin, that sonofabitch is fucking gone!
“Tattooed Love Boys” is another miss for me, as the band keeps fumbling the beat, a major distraction to say the least. The lyrics are suggestive to the extreme, so you have no clear idea what the fuck is happening in the song. “Space Invader” is a waste of studio time, as it’s a filler instrumental by a barely average band.
While hardly a lyrical masterpiece, the band finally gets it together and kicks some serious ass in “The Wait.” Pete Farndon contributes with a few hot bass runs, Martin Chambers does a fine job with the sticks and Jimmy Honeyman-Scott plays one of his more lively lead solos. Chrissie works in semi-scat mode for the most part and the excitement she generates playing with syllables and phrasing. It’s a knockout performance.
In one of the greatest reclamation projects in human history, Chrissie manages to save one of Ray Davies’ worst songs from the cruel fate it completely deserved. When I first heard The Kinks’ “Stop Your Sobbing,” I rolled around on the floor in hysterical, convulsive laughter. The song is so fucking dumb and so fucking sexist that I could hardly believe my ears, and Ray’s delivery of the “Stop it, stop it” lines turns him into the epitome of silliness. I have to admire Chrissie Hynde for seeing the potential in the song, and even more for turning it into an acceptable bit of music. The gender change eliminates the sexist angle and more than makes up for the dearth of emotional intelligence communicated in Ray’s version. Perhaps Ray pursued Chrissie out of sheer gratitude for helping to wipe out memories of an embarrassing lapse in judgment.
“Kid” comes next, and though it’s a Pretenders fan favorite, I see it as a faded rehash of 60’s girl group music. I could go on a rant on how often the bands of this era simply recycled songs from earlier eras, but I’ll limit my bitching by simply pointing out that “Kid” recycles the “Angel Baby” pattern just like The Police did with the boring “Every Breath You Take” a few years later. “Private Life” is Chrissie’s venture into reggae, but even she admitted that Grace Jones’ version is better. The background vocals are hideous, the effects on Chrissie’s voice distracting and the song goes on far too long. I appreciate the sonic variation but little else.
It’s an entirely different story with “Brass in Pocket.” This is one of my favorite posing songs to open a scene because when I step into the bedroom in leather lingerie the line “I’ve got to have some of your attention, give it to me!” is the perfect accompaniment that gives me a sense of confidence and power. Chrissie’s vocal is as perfect as perfect gets, using a few softly delivered lines to lower the heat a bit so you don’t explode when she turns the flame up high. This is a song about a woman reaching for confidence, and in that sense, it’s one of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard.
“Lovers of Today” serves as the slow dance number on Pretenders, and hints at one theme that Chrissie would explore with more impact in the future: the tension between fear of rejection and the intense desire for closeness. The fade-out line, “No, I’ll never feel like a man in a man’s world,” is the simple truth that every woman I know has come to realize at one time or another: the macho male insistence that feelings represent weakness still dominates thinking in modern society. The only thing I regret is that it’s a fade-out line, for this is a much more perceptive and helpful observation than the “we can be guys, too” message that compromised Second Wave feminism. Equally useless is the Sponge Bob Toyota introduction to “Mystery Achievement,” a throwaway song that makes a poor choice for an album closer (though I do like the chorus).
Since Pretenders came out about a year and a half before my little goo-covered body entered the realm of the living, I wasn’t affected by all the hype that led up to and followed its release. My opinion is that the value of Pretenders comes down to one thing: it was the album that gave Chrissie Hynde her shot at a musical career, and that’s more than good enough for me.