Friday, May 1, 2009

Pretenders 1: Pretenders

This is one of the best debut albums of all time. From start to finish Pretenders delivers on the promise of Chrissie Hynde, who’d left Akron to be a rock critic in London and formed the Pretenders as an outlet for her unique energy and Kinks fixation. These songs are alternatively angry and tender, giving girl guitar players an icon to emulate, and giving the guys reason to keep up their chops. From Mariah to Sheryl to Shania and even Madonna and Gwen, today’s so-called divas and artists need to appreciate the doors Chrissie kicked down for them. She’s as important a female rock influence as Joni Mitchell.
The band was incredible. James Honeyman-Scott was an incredibly lyrical, inventive guitarist and songwriter, taking the best elements of English punk and Townshend windmilling. Plus, he wore great cowboy shirts.
Pete Farndon kept the bottom on a Rickenbacker (or Fender) bass, throwing in a melody here and there to work right off the other guys. Plus, he had a pompadour to put the Stray Cats to shame, and he’d probably glass you in a pub brawl.
Martin Chambers was—and still is—capable of playing everything from rimshot ballads to careening locomotives, and few other drummers could keep up with Chrissie’s 7/4 and 9/4 changes. Plus, he had great sideburns. (Note the use of past tense with the exception of the drummer; after only the second album Farndon would be kicked out for his heroin use, and Honeyman-Scott died two days later from his own. Farndon lived another ten months.)
And the songs: “Precious” is a classic kick-off (and kiss-off), and there’s barely a moment to breathe before “The Phone Call”, one of several songs with garbled words and stumbly meter. “Up The Neck” seems to be about bondage or an overdose, but “Tattooed Love Boys” is almost definitely about bondage. “Space Invader” is an instrumental complete with Atari effects at the end, crashing right into “The Wait”. “Stop Your Sobbing” was their first single, and the definitive version of the Kinks song.
After all that side two is almost relaxing. “Kid” will forever be linked with the video clip on the merry-go-round, to go along with the low guitar line that anchors the song and the daring key change in the middle. “Private Life” is pretty good spooky reggae for a bunch of white kids. “Brass In Pocket” is probably their most famous song, and if you don’t think you know it, that’s because you think it’s called “I’m Special”. “Lovers Of Today” seems tame at first, but those guitars at the end paint on several layers of ache. The big payoff comes at the end, with the pounding drums, driving bass, machine gun guitars and echoey vocals on “Mystery Achievement”.
Some of these songs had already been issued as singles, and it’s another testament to the power of Pretenders that it holds together nonetheless. While they had their moments, none of the later albums lived up to the promise of the first. Once Chrissie was the only Pretender left, the band’s name became all too apt. Though she did the right thing by getting Martin back behind the kit in the ‘90s, the debut is still the reason why you care in the first place.
Rhino kindly remastered and expanded the album to two discs in the 21st century, with a pile of demos, live tracks and such key B-sides as “Cuban Slide” and “Porcelain”. Most but not all of these extras made to the deluxe three-disc expansion fifteen years later. This time the five B-sides were added to first disc after the album proper, while the second disc was loaded with demos, including some previously unreleased songs, and the performances from two BBC appearances. (One surprise is “Do I Love You”, a pre-Pretenders Ronettes cover recorded with Steve Jones and Paul Cook of the Sex Pistols.) A live BBC performance kicks off the third disc, followed by a more complete recording of a Boston show that had been a promo disc and Record Store Day extra. All in all, a stellar album made that much better. Unless this was your third or fourth time buying it.

The Pretenders Pretenders (1980)—5
2006 expanded, remastered CD: same as 1980, plus 16 extra tracks
40th Anniversary Deluxe Edition: same as 1980, plus 43 extra tracks


  1. Speaking of the Kinks:
    Enjoy the site, your taste, and reviews. Lack of any of the brilliant Kinks albums spanning '65-'71 or 72 seems to me a pretty glaring hole, though. Check 'em out, if you're so inclined. Based on the other stuff you like, I can't imagine you won't love them.

  2. Thank you! Truth be told, it took me a long time to "get" the Kinks, and I'm still not sure I completely do. However, I will put them on the pile of things to get to.

  3. I hated my first exposure to this album. A Philadelphia radio station incessantly played two singles by female singers. One was by a long forgotten local group named Johnny’s Dance Band. The other was “Brass in Pocket”. I really couldn’t stand hearing that riff over and over again. But then I heard “Mystery Achievement”, I was instantly sucked in.
    This album is a no-brainer 5 if there ever was one. Not enough has been written about the role of producer Chris Thomas in shaping the Pretenders’ sound. The first such evidence is “Stop Your Sobbing”, which is the anomaly on the album. Nick Lowe produced it beautifully, but he took more of a Phil Spector approach. Another thing to do is compare its B-side, the original version of “The Wait”, with the album version. Thomas brought much more power to the song.
    Of course, production isn’t performance. “Space Invader” proves that the band wasn’t just Chrissie’s backup group. Their musicianship was key. Of course, her vocals and lyrics are at the center. She’s capable of moving from sneering sarcasm(“Precious”) to tender vulnerability (“Lovers of Today”) without ever sounding hoarse. She’s one of THE best singers in rock.
    I should say that I think you misinterpret a couple of lyrics. “Up the Neck” (inspired by her guitar!) is just about a so-so sexual encounter, not bondage. “Tattooed Love Boys” isn’t about bondage, either. It’s an account of Chrissie’s real life gang rape by bikers. The Pretenders’ most harrowing song, with the possible exception of “977”.

    Even if you’ve got a Pretenders’ hit collection, every rock fan needs this in a collection.