#155: The Pretenders, "Pretenders" (1979)

155 Pretenders.jpg

 “You ready, girls?” Chrissie Hynde calls out as she takes the stage. The lights dim as her fingerless lace gloves grab the mic.

On this November night in 1979, The Marquee on Wardour Street is packed—the Pretenders have outgrown the venue and the place is wall-to-wall leathered punks, sweaty fans, drunk onlookers. Adam Blake is lingering on the sidelines, happy just to be here. He met Hynde when his band opened for hers a few months before, and he can’t get her voice out of his mind. Since then, he’s gone to every show they’ve played during their month-long residency here.

"The bass and drums thumped and rumbled…it was a powerful sound, not like the neurotic trebly noise of punk at all. Out front, Chrissie was having problems with the monitors but you could hear this strange vibrato in her voice, this keening sound. It was something old and new. It bruised, and once heard, it stayed with you.”

– Adam Blake

Long before he became a rock journalist, Blake was eighteen and slightly obsessed. He’d bought their first single, and their second, and then sent Hynde a gushing fan letter asking if there were any chance his band might open for them again. By the time their third single, “Brass In Pocket,” was due for release, Blake couldn’t wait. He’d got it into his head that if he went to their record company in Covent Garden, he might be able to buy a copy before it hit the shops. It was a mad hope. But as we all know, the music gods are quick to indulge smitten teenagers. When he rang the bell at Real Records, not only was it answered—it was answered by Hynde herself. The whole band was upstairs in the middle of a meeting with their manager, Dave Hill.

Everyone stared as Blake stammered through his request.

“I’m so sorry to bother you,” he said sheepishly. “I was just hoping to get a copy of the new single.” He could see boxes of them stacked all around.

“What, are we supposed to just give you one?” Hill asked.

“No, no, of course not. I’ll pay for it,” Blake said, pulling a crumpled pound note from his pocket.

The manager reached into an open box and handed Blake the single. He even gave him change for the pound.

Mortified, relieved, Blake beat it out of there.

He didn’t expect to see her again.

But a few days later, a package arrived. Three singles, and a note written on the record company’s letterhead.

Nov 22. ’79 

Dear Adam

Wow—your letter makes me want to stay in this completely fucked up business. (I only realized it was you after Dave (manager) sold you a copy of the single.) I felt like a prick.

Your fab.

Love Chrissie

Do you want to support us at The Marquee 22 or 23? Let Dave Hill or myself know. Hope you do.

“To say this made me happy would be something of an understatement. It was one of the happiest moments of my life,” Blake recalls in The Pretenders: Chrissie Hynde and the Mystery Achievement.

And so, that night in 1979. His own band has just finished playing and—thank godthey didn’t fuck up too badly. Their friends and fans are in the audience still, and Blake is with them, watching the stagePete Farndon up there, Martin Chambers, James Honeyman-Scott, yes, yes, all of them, and Hynde. He notices her black lace gloves aren’t missing. Earlier, backstage, she was looking for thema gift from her mother, she’d said—a tiny piece of her real life that he glimpsed briefly, as if through a veil, through holes in lace and leather, like her voice, always saying more through what it conceals.

*

It’s a strange album, this first one, Pretenders. The first single, “Stop Your Sobbing,” is a jangly cover of a little-known ‘60s Kinks song; “Kid,” their second, is wistful and sweet; “Brass In Pocket” has an almost cabaret theatricality to it, a swish and swagger fit for velvet-curtained stages more than gritty rock clubs. One of their best and best-known songs, the bass-thumping “Mystery Achievement,” appears as the last song of the album and wasn’t even a single. Judging by these, you’d never know Pretenders is in large part a punk album. And a mixed one at that.

“Precious,” the first track, lays bare its punk roots. If you weren’t convinced, she tells you to fuck off before the song is over. Yes, it’s a bit ham-fisted—and it’s not a good song, not that punk is ever “good” when it’s goodbut we’re getting there. “Space Invaders,” an instrumental, is solid; reminiscent of Iggy Pop’s “Sixteen,” the only song he wrote alone on Lust For Life, two years prior. “Tattooed Love Boys” is a standout, a speedy romp pierced with lyrics she laughs through (I was a good time, yeah, I got pretty good). It might sound like sexual bravado if you didn’t know the song was about a Hell’s Angels gang bang. Lines like I shot my mouth off and you showed me what that hole was for are violent in their self-mockery, making for a cautionary tale of an entirely different kind, one that laughs in the face of women who fall for “the prestige and the glory” of running with the tough boys“Another human interest story / You are that.”

Hynde’s infamous attitude is something that comes across in interviews and lyrics alike. While not always as acerbic as those above, a good number of tracks on Pretenders are Hynde telling someone to shut up, even when it’s sung sweetly. “Stop Your Sobbing” is a cuter version of the sentiment in “Private Life” (“I just feel pity when you lie, contempt when you cry / Your private life drama, baby, leave me out”). Crying features in at least two other songs, though her response is more of a lament than a complaint. There is perhaps nothing more common among women than being dragged into the fucked up inner lives of men, and thus perhaps no better thing to rail against. She sings “no” and “stop” a lot on this album, most often in response to someone else’s tears.

The force of the first side of the album continues through “The Wait,” with its fast-paced bass line, heavy breathing, and lyrics that are impossible to keep up with. Her jackhammer delivery and lyrical asides are done to great effect in that one. But it’s not always a smooth ride. Hynde invokes that same style in “The Phone Call,” where it makes for a somewhat unpleasant, paranoid soundscape. Any harmony is further distorted by changes in time signature that make it sound a bit like a prog track—say “Cygnus X-1” on Rush’s A Farewell to Kingsbut artlessly done. It’s an almost disturbing sound, one that, like the atonal drone of “Precious,” makes you start to wonder whether the band knows the first fucking thing about how to write a tune. The same can be said for “Up The Neck,” a slower song that almost grates on the ears because you expect a chord change to smooth things out but it never comes. Hynde wrote in her 2015 memoir Reckless: My Life as a Pretender that her distinctive time signatures were due to her inability to count and her “amusia” was caused by an inability to hear. We can assume this is hyperbole; she can hear, it’s just that she sometimes decides not to.

It’s choices like this that make at least half the album rankle. “Private Life,” a slow one with a reggae beat, has something going for it; Grace Jones’s version was a Top 40 hit a year later. But one choice Jones made with it that the Pretenders didn’t is to cut out the Greek chorus that keeps repeating “Stop!” It’s a small thing, perhaps. But there are many, and they undermine the album—an album that might otherwise be known instead for the strength of “Mystery Achievement,” an instant classic that perfectly encapsulates what made the Pretenders memorable and Chrissie Hynde legendary. “Mystery Achievement” is indeed what it says, on this album at least. It formulates a direct line to what is perhaps their greatest song, “Back on the Chain Gang,” though that song doesn’t come around until their third album, after the band had already lost two of its original four members to drug overdoses.

No, you’d never know Pretenders was actually a punk album, or half a punk album, or a half decent album, let alone one that deserves to be among the greatest of all time. At least I never knew that. The album came out before I was born; punk had become a thing for rich suburban skater boys by the time it found me. Rock was something I loved dearly but it was associated with my dad’s generation, or at least his radio stations; I knew all the songs, but from the outside. I found Pretenders at the used record shopunscratched, miraculouslyone day when I was ditching school. I thought it was a big score. I already knew the red leather jacketed woman on the cover by name—knew she was an icon, knew her ambition and her longing and her haunting voice. Eighteen years old in 1999, I handed over a crumpled bill like Adam Blake did twenty years earlier, and went home to put needle to vinyl and press my ear against her soul.

Though I still have it, I don’t remember the album from then. I only listened to it once. It was all over the place; I couldn’t tell what it was. Yes, it had range. But the music only confused me. I had other icons to pay attention to, anyway—more legible ones. I had riot grrl and Courtney Love and a slew of female-fronted indie bands more or less my age. I forgot about the album and the woman behind it for twenty years.

What made me dust the album off, so to speak, is something vague. I have this strange desire lately to know more about the women I once took for granted, the original icons behind the ones of my generation. What was it that made them iconic in the first place? Was it really the music? Was it something else?

*

When eighteen-year-old Adam Blake had met twenty-eight-year-old Chrissie Hynde, she was on her first tour with her first band; as he put it, “Then, she was just a writer wannabe who had somehow got sidelined by punk, despite having been right in the thick of it from the very beginning.”

Originally from Akron, Ohio, she once joined a band with Mark Mothersbaugh, an alliance that only lasted one gig (he later founded Devo). Eventually she made her way to London and got a job writing at London’s biggest music magazine, New Musical Express. Not long after, she quit so she could get a band together and started knocking around London’s punk scene, working at Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood's clothing store, SEX. At one point, she almost got Johnny Rotten, and then Sid Vicious, to marry her, for papers. For a little while she tried to start a band with Mick Jones, but soon changed her mind; she found him too fresh and innocent. McLaren set her up to play guitar in another band, but she was eventually asked to leave, and the group went on to become the Damned, the first punk band to make a record. Fresh-faced Mick Jones hit her up some time later and invited her to come hang out on tour with his new band the Clash. Of this period, she told Kurt Loder in a 1980 Rolling Stone interview, “I wanted to be in a band so bad. […] All the people I knew in town, they were all in bands. And there I was, like the real loser, you know?”

It’s hard not to identify. Hynde threw herself out there and had found the right place and the right time, yet nothing seemed to come of it. That’s everyone, really, until they finally make it, if they ever do.

Of course, little did she know then that her band would come out with a number one debut on the U.K. Albums Chart and would make it to the Billboard Top 10 in the U.S.—and that all this would come together less than a year after she got the band together. She dated and had a child with Ray Davies of the Kinks and two years later married don't-you-forget-about-him Jim Kerr of Simple Minds. In the ensuing four decades of her career, she has performed with pretty much everyone; she’s sung duets with Frank Sinatra, Ringo Starr, Emmylou Harris, INXS, even Bruce Willis; she’s collaborated and performed with Morrissey, UB40, Cher, the Black Keys, Incubus, Sheryl Crow, Tom Jones, and Johnny Marr, who was for a brief moment an official member of the band. It’s an epic career. Of course someone with a career like that is an icon. The thing that interests me, though, isn’t what she became. It’s what she was before any of that happened.

Before the band, before the punk scene even, was that gig she landed writing at NME. The first assignment she secured was to write a review of a Neil Diamond album. As she told it, “I just took the piss out of it. I was very sarcastic. I said, ‘This song sounds like an ad for an American small car.’ I just completely demolished this guy…” Despite the outcry from “all four Neil Diamond fans in Britain,” her editor was happy with the piece and gave her a bigger assignment—to interview Brian Eno.

It’s worth a read; she’s an incredible writer. In her conversation with him, Eno explained an interesting phenomenon. “I'm always prone to do things very quickly, which has distinct advantagesyou leave all the mistakes in, and the mistakes always become interesting. The Velvet Underground, for example, are the epitome of mistake-filled music, and it makes the music very subtle and beautiful. Any feature can be the most important one—as long as there is one important feature. There are so many bands who present you with a large number of well-done features, none of which are important.”

This conversation she had with Eno made me rethink my assessment of Pretenders. If there is one defining feature that makes the band and the album stand out, it’s Hynde’s voice: its strange vibrato, its keening sound. It bruised, and once heard, it stayed with you. As she wrote in her memoir, “Distinctive voices in rock are trained through years of many things: frustration, fear, loneliness, anger, insecurity, arrogance, narcissism, or just sheer perseveranceanything but a teacher.” Other than this distinctionperhaps a trifle, perhaps everything—who’s to say what they were?

Hynde herself certainly didn’t know. In the Rolling Stone writeup that named theirs number thirteen in the 100 Best Debut Albums of All Time, she’s quoted saying she was so embarrassed by “Brass in Pocket” that if it came on the radio at Woolworth’s, she’d run out of the store. The band formed in March of 1978 and their first single came out just months later, in January of 1979. They didn’t know what they were. They had no time to wait: they had a bandleader that wanted this so bad it hurt.

Madonna saw the Pretenders play in Central Park in 1980 and said, “She was amazing—the only woman I’d seen in performance where I thought, ‘Yeah, she’s got balls.’ [...] It gave me courage, inspiration, to see a woman with that kind of confidence in a man’s world.”

It’s funny, because the last line of the album’s penultimate song, “Lovers of Today,” is “No, I’ll never feel / Like a man in a man’s world.” What it takes to be iconic, maybe for anyone, but definitely for a woman, is to do it anyway, to open your mouth and show them what that hole is for.

—Melissa Mesku