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.
While I strive to be objective in my reviews and avoid over-personalizing the interpretation of the poetry in the lyrics, there are times when that is simply impossible.
As people living in a world where personal identity is a fragile thing, many of us turn to music to validate who we think we are, the person we would like to become or who “the real person” is inside. Some people use music to confirm their status as intellectuals (jazz, classical and Radiohead fans are notorious for this); some use music to confirm their status as rebels against dull conformity (early rockers, punks, glam rockers); still others look for one group or artist to support to enable them to raise their status by being “different.”
We also use music and other art forms to increase our understanding of ourselves and the world around us. We can all name songs that expressed the thing we were feeling inside that we could never quite express, and when that happens, we deeply appreciate the artist who gave us that gift. Sometimes what we hear in the music or read in the poetry has a different meaning than what the artist had intended. That does not affect our appreciation of the artist, nor should it. For reasons we may not find in the text, the artist has touched something inside us and triggered a chain reaction of thought and emotion that is entirely personal and exquisitely liberating.
Once that happens, the meaning is permanently connected in our minds to the artist who was the catalyst behind the discovery of that meaning, and we attach a certain loyalty to that artist. In short, we identify with our artists with a passion that sometimes defies reason or explanation. This isn’t a bad thing as long as “fan” doesn’t become “fanatic” and the artist does not become the object of worship.
I feel very thankful that I have some kind of gene that refuses to see artists as superior human beings, but I can certainly relate to the intensity a great artist can arouse in the soul. There are certain songs that have expressed the person I wanted to be; in essence, the artist has provided me with a role model. Prince gave me Darling Nikki and Leonard Cohen gave me Suzanne to help me clarify my ideal of womanhood. However, they were not the role models themselves: they created characters I admired. The artist closest to a role model for me is Sade Adu, because she encapsulates many of the qualities that describe the person I would like to become.
She’s sensual. She’s not afraid to express love with passionate intensity and emotional honesty. She has presence, beauty and class. She has deep social consciousness and awareness of the world around her. She’s fucking hot!
My identification with Love Deluxe is predominantly personal and the meaning I attach to several of the songs is clearly independent of either Sade’s intent or the intent of her songwriting collaborators. In Love Deluxe, what I hear expressed is the deep sense of devotion that is at the heart of the kind of sexual philosophy that I practice, which, as my readers know, is what is referred to as sadomasochism.
BDSM is greatly misunderstood by the general public and even by many who claim to be practitioners, due to several distortions of its practice. The first comes from “cheap thrill” kink popularized in movies like 9 ½ Weeks and in books like Fifty Shades of Grey. The second source of misinformation arises from the fact that like other institutions in our society, males tend to dominate, and male domination literature is full of the misogyny that places the male at the center of the universe and leads to the exploitation of women with low self-esteem. The third source of misunderstanding comes from the women who figured out they could make a comfortable living playing to male fantasies of humiliation and take on the role of dominatrix to exploit people with deep psychological problems.
In my experience, BDSM is something very different. It is a form of unconditional love. It works at the deepest level of trust. It is a shared experience that requires total openness and honesty on every level so that there is no separation between the parties involved. This elimination of boundaries is critical because many of the practices of BDSM involve physical, psychological and emotional risk. Lovers who choose this path—and it must be deliberately and consciously chosen—recognize that dominance and submission are two forms of power, like yin and yang, equal in every way: each equally cherishes the body and soul of the other. The most common form of BDSM relationship (Mistress/slave, top/bottom, dominant/submissive, whatever you prefer) demands that both parties be completely devoted to one another and to helping each other realize their fullest potential as well as their deepest fantasies. When Sade sings “No Ordinary Love” to open the album, she expresses that kind of devotion: a devotion that requires no return but has no doubt it will be returned:
I gave you all the love I got.
I gave you more than I could give: I gave you love
I gave you all that I have inside,
And you took my love: you took my love.
Love Deluxe isn’t only about sexual forms of love, but about love for all human beings, regardless of station and especially those who are in most need of love. The next song, “Feel No Pain,” is a powerful, moving and insightful song about the personal humiliation and social degradation caused by long-term unemployment. Sade demands we take responsibility for helping people make a contribution to society, urging us, “Don’t let them stay home and listen to the blues.” Love them! Help them!
Sade returns to the subject of romantic devotion in “I Couldn’t Love You More,” expressing the sexual aspect of love honestly and directly: “I wouldn’t want to lay or ever love another.” The juxtaposition of such a beautiful love song with a song about a war criminal (“Like a Tattoo”) is both stunning and perceptive: we can’t deny the existence of evil in our world, but we also can’t deny the need to manifest the love and desire we feel inside. The genius of Love Deluxe owes a great deal to this woman who refuses to close her eyes to reality or deny herself the pleasure of romantic connection.
Sade is not only the name of the singer, it’s the name of the band as well, and what an outstanding group of professionals they are! The arrangements combine clarity with sensuousness, melding beautifully with the unique timbre of Sade’s voice. The song that best demonstrates the sensitivity of the arrangements and the professionalism of the musicians is “Kiss of Life,” another romantic masterpiece. Listen to the rich combination of Paul Denman on bass and Andrew Hale on piano as it is tempered by a long, bent note from Stuart Matthewman on the sax right before Sade begins her vocal. Then pay attention to the band (difficult to do when Sade is at the microphone!) as they support her emotional expression with subtle touches like soft pizzicato guitar to express her trembling joy. Most importantly, they never interfere with or overtake her vocal; even she turns her voice into an instrument in a short back-and-forth with the sax, balance is preserved.
“Kiss of Life” is rightfully paired with the equally sensuous “Cherish the Day.” The first song deals with of the moment of rebirth through love; the second with the power of commitment expressed as the desire to possess (“If you were mine, I wouldn’t want to go to heaven”) and the desire to be possessed (“You’re ruling the way I move”). Sade’s voice in “Kiss of Life” has tinges of the delight of a young girl in love; her voice on “Cherish the Day” is the voice of a woman driven by passion.
But even the power of love cannot blind us to the cruel reality of billions of people around the globe. “Pearls” expresses a level of empathy that is very difficult for the average person to achieve, in part because the average person would like to forget that places like war-torn Somalia even exist:
There is a woman in Somalia
Scraping for pearls on the roadside
There’s a force stronger than nature
Keeps her will alive
This is how she’s dying
She’s dyin’ to survive
Don’t know what she’s made of
I would like to be that brave
The string arrangement that opens “Pearls” always causes my tears to rise, as does the line “She lives in a world she didn’t choose” in the last verse.
“Bullet Proof Soul” deals with the risks of love: that the person you’re falling in love with is consumed with him or herself and views love as a power game. The value in the experience for the disappointed lover lies in the strengthening of the identity: “I came in like a lamb but I intend to leave like a lion.” Love Deluxe ends with the dreamy instrumental, “Mermaid,” allowing us a moment of reflection on the power of the music and the message that came before.
Love Deluxe will always be one of my favorite records in part because of its broad view of the human condition, the sensuous music and the character of the lead performer. More than that, it touched my soul and expressed emotions and beliefs that I’d never quite been able to articulate, and for that I am deeply grateful to Sade Adu. If you’d like to learn more about her, Tola Osiletu wrote a beautiful piece on this rather reclusive woman that I found very helpful in writing this review.