Classic Music Review: Pretenders

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Buy it for Chrissie.

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 kick ass rock and early 60’s girl group patterns. 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. Chrissie Hynde would fulfill that promise and potential; two of the other three would be dead in a couple of years.

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 do with timing. The music on the airwaves at the dawn of the 80’s 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 the definition of desperate.

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 fucking 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.

Just look at the fucking album cover and tell me who’s in charge!

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 on 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. “Precious” also demonstrates the fundamental weakness of Pretenders: Chrissie’s way more talented than the backing band. For the most part, they’re at their best when they manage not to interfere with her performance.

After that stunning opener, the album takes a steep turn downhill. “The Phone Call” features a really 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. Really, though, this song is about Chrissie Hynde in semi-scat mode 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 any potential in this piece of crap, 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 my 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. Chrissie’s vibrant display of emotional intelligence is diminished as a result. “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 my leather harness with my C’s exposed, silver nipple clamps, studded leather gauntlets, riding crop in my hand and my black thigh high boots with the few inches of skin between boot top and crotch glistening with wetness, the line “I’ve got to have some of your attention, give it to me!” is the perfect accompaniment! It may be a superfluous instruction to the viewer, who’s already either hard or dripping wet, but the line and the way Chrissie sings it fills me with a heightened sense of confidence and power. Her 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 has pretty much rendered feminism as useless as a turd. 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.

5 responses

  1. I gotta say I think you are, putting it mildly, extremely uncharitable about this album. While I agree in spirit about your general dismissal of music of the 80’s, this record was the one that turned me around that a woman could rock like…the Yardbirds, the Kinks, the Who, the Stones. Not Joan Jett, who I liked but saw more as a novelty than as a rock writer. The accusations of 60’s pastiche you throw at the Pretenders you don’t throw against Joan Jett? Really? Has Joan Jett ever written anything as timeless as Kid? Also, I strongly disagree that the Pretenders were somehow untalented except for Chrissie Hynde. James Honeyman-Scott is one of the most influential guitarists to emerge from the era. Hynde has said on many occasions that he brought out the melody in her, she caused him to play more aggressively. He created the sound we associate with her songs. Martin Chambers without a doubt is one of the most excellent drummers in rock. I will agree that the record is long and indulgent, yet that is part of it’s ragged, live glory. I was stunned by it when it came out – and it sounds better each year. She (and Patti Smith on Gloria – on Horses) were the woman rockers that I got. The difference with the 2 of them, for me, was the Pretenders had a group sound. As a guitarist, Honeyman-Scott is as important a voice to me as Hynde is as a writer.

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    1. Fair feedback. I think there are several differences between Joan Jett and The Pretenders, and one is creative ambition. Joan Jett’s a classic rocker with attitude, pure and simple. As long as Joan stays within her sweet spot, she’s very good; I can hardly imagine her going anywhere else—she knows her limitations. Chrissie Hynde is a more complex character with a broader set of talents, and yes, a much more talented songwriter, but like all artists who take more risks, she’s going to have her share of missteps. I think the critical response to the first album was over the top. I think some of their later albums had more range, though I would agree with you that Honeyman-Scott would have added more substance on lead guitar. I think Martin Chambers became more of a presence on Learning to Crawl, and I would agree that he is an excellent drummer.

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  2. Good points, but I think the reaction to the first album is warranted, partly because of the breadth of songwriting shown – as you would expect from so many years of writing behind it. I love Learning To Crawl, but, for me, I’ll take the throwaways on the first LP – i.e. Space Invader (which I actually love) over material like Watching The Clothes any day.

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