It was Hank Williams who sang “I’ll never make it out of this world alive,” but it was the Pretenders who went to the trouble of determining just how much hell a group could endure without actually giving up. In 1980, Ohio expat Chrissie Hynde was the mind, muscle and heart of a superlative London quartet that married her forthright sexuality and independence to inarguably great music, vaporizing stereotypes rock women had been expected to accept.
After several brilliant singles (starting with an unforgettable Nick Lowe-produced Kinks cover, “Stop Your Sobbing”), the long-awaited and absolutely classic Pretenders (produced by Chris Thomas) proved that the 45s were only the beginning. The band’s several strengths — Hynde’s husky voice and sexually forthright persona, drummer Martin Chambers’ intricately syncopated (but never effete) rock rhythms, James Honeyman Scott’s blazing, inventive guitar work — give numbers like “Tattooed Love Boys,” “Mystery Achievement,” “Kid,” “Brass in Pocket” and “Stop Your Sobbing” (the last three were pre-LP singles) instantly identifiable character and obvious rock excitement.
Mind-boggling success caught the Pretenders short of material, and producing a follow-up proved no small challenge. Eighteen months of touring left little time for writing or recording; the stopgap EP compiles both sides of two singles and a live version of “Precious.” The record’s fine as a placeholder, but was rendered redundant when both A-sides turned up on the second album. The two B-sides, “Porcelain” and “Cuban Slide,” appeared on the bonus disc of the 2007 Rhino reissue of Pretenders, along with two other B-sides, “Swinging London” and “Nervous but Shy.” The disc also includes an early version of “Tequila” (not the Champs instrumental but a Hynde original that would not see official release until 1994), demos of several first-album songs, live tracks, a cover of ? and the Mysterians’ “I Need Somebody,” a song loosely based on and incorporating a bit of the Troggs’ “I Can’t Control Myself” and a bizarre rendition of “Stop Your Sobbing” over the music of Khachaturian’s “Sabre Dance.”
Pretenders II would have been a real stiff, creatively speaking, were it not for those selfsame 45 cuts (“Message of Love” and “Talk of the Town”), the latter being one of the best things the band has ever done. Only a handful of the other ten tunes match the first album’s quality, with selfconsciousness and repetition marring Hynde’s writing and performance. An air of uncertainty — whether to play up the overstated arena-scaled side or explore restrained ballads and more complex, subtle arrangements — stymied them, and resulted in a confusion of conflicting directions. The Rhino reissue of Pretenders II includes a demo of “Talk of the Town,” a guitar-focused version of “I Go to Sleep” and the single mix of “Day After Day.” The bonus disc offers also 15 songs from a superb 1981 performance at the Santa Monica Civic Center, most of which had been released on a promo album. (Cassette collectors may be interested in a US tape pairing the first two albums.)
Then things started going very wrong. Scott died of a drug overdose in 1982, bassist Pete Farndon left and subsequently followed Scott’s fatal lead. Hynde had a kid; the band hit the skids. In 1982, the Pretenders released only one 45: “Back on the Chain Gang” b/w “My City Was Gone,” with Rockpile’s Billy Bremner guesting on guitar and future Big Countryman Tony Butler on bass. The band’s output the following year also amounted to one fine single, the wistful, sentimental “2000 Miles.”
Rather than the rattled, self-pitying record many expected, Learning to Crawl was a remarkable return to prime form. A revitalized Hynde and Chambers lead two new Pretenders through a collection of characteristic songs, including all three aforementioned single sides and such new grippers as “Middle of the Road” and “Time the Avenger,” which are equal to anything she had previously written or recorded. The only thing lacking is Chambers’ percussive complexity, replaced here by sturdy beats that are nothing special. But free of the misjudgment that ankled the second album, Hynde and the Pretenders again display mettle and talent. The Rhino single-disc reissue includes three demos, another take on Hynde’s “Tequila,” Chambers’ “Fast or Slow (The Law’s the Law)” and live versions of “My City Was Gone” and Barrett Strong’s “Money (That’s What I Want).”
Unrelated to the music, but typical of the inescapable private life drama that seems intrinsic to the band, Hynde then took time off to marry Simple Minds’ singer Jim Kerr and tend to two children, forcing another long wait between records. When the Pretenders returned to action in 1986 with the disappointing Get Close, Chambers (and everyone else, save for guitarist Robbie McIntosh) was gone, although he does appear on an ill-advised cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Room Full of Mirrors.” The new lineup includes ex-Haircut One Hundred drummer Blair Cunningham, but the record relies on session players (including Bernie Worrell, Carlos Alomar and Simon Phillips) and contains only two sentimental love songs (“Don’t Get Me Wrong” and “My Baby”) and Meg Keene’s haunting ballad “Hymn to Her” — all released as singles — to recommend it. The Rhino reissue offers alternate or remixed versions of three of the album’s songs, the B-side “World Within Worlds,” and live versions of “Don’t Get Me Wrong” and Learning to Crawl’s “Thumbelina.”
“Don’t Get Me Wrong” and “My Baby” also appear on The Singles, an essential career retrospective containing all of the band’s English A-sides from 1979 to 1986, plus Hynde’s winning duet with UB40 on a reggae rendition of “I Got You Babe.”
Although Hynde sags dangerously close to self-parody on Side 2 of Packed!, her amazing voice does manage to breathe a little life into the Pretenders’ stiffening body. Subtle production (plus keyboards) by Mitchell Froom and skilled studio work by Cunningham, Bremner and others free Hynde to give the songs her all. Unfortunately, many of the melodies are rewrites; worse, the lyrics lack focus and intensity. Even when narrating the end of her marriage, Hynde’s pain is reduced to bland phrases and simple clichés. Other than a dreamy cover of Hendrix’s “May This Be Love,” the album’s most affecting tunes — “Let’s Make a Pact” and “When Will I See You” (co-written by Johnny Marr) — find their strength in emotional maturity, expressing love without resorting to bravado.
Following another long gap, Last of the Independents — with Chambers back in the fold after most of a decade — gamely puts in for a recharge, but the haphazard mix of punchdrunk rockers, glossy power ballads (the obvious and sappy “I’ll Stand by You”) and a handsome cover of Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young” (parental lullaby? misguided pretension? self-amused irony?) isn’t the ticket home. Dealing with the hired-gun devils of California factory songwriting may help pay the mortgage, but it’s no way to regain creative momentum. And with unsettling lyrics like the notorious “He hit me with his belt/His tears were all I felt” (“977”), “Bring on the revolution/I wanna die for something” (“Revolution”) and an ode to “Tequila,” Hynde sounds like she’s sliding off an emotional cliff with no brakes. She even makes a hash of feminism: both the overheated “I’m a Mother” and “Money Talk” proclaim that power flows from the barrel of her sex organs. Now that’s progress.
An acoustic career retrospective from a veteran band going nowhere is a dead cert indicator of a creative gas gauge aimed at empty, yet the Pretenders actually get good mileage from the form. Recorded live and seated before an invited audience in a London studio with the Last of the Independents band (Chambers, ex-Katydids guitarist Adam Seymour, ex-Primitives bassist Andy Hobson), a string quartet and a percussionist, The Isle of View benefits from both the songs’ familiarity and their refreshing rearrangements. Wisely restricting the last two studio records to a quota of one song each and Get Close to two, Hynde runs through some of her very best, drawing most heavily from The Pretenders. As comfortable as Hynde has always been with rock’s power, turning down the heat allows her to reach a new vocal peak. “Back on the Chain Gang,” “Lovers of Today,” a semi-electric “2000 Miles,” a harmonium-accompanied reading of “Hymn to Her” and a stately rendition of “Kid” are especially affecting. Even Packed! ‘s “Sense of Purpose” is a joy. Hynde also does a sensitive turn on Ray Davies’ “I Go to Sleep,” but amateur-hour piano by Blur’s Damon Albarn chops(ticks) the dreamy song into little pieces. And given the oblong lyrical cadences of “Private Life” and “The Phone Call,” opening them up in this way only serves to reveal their structural potholes.
On “Popstar,” the opening track of ¡Viva el Amor!, Hynde’s warnings to an ex about his current flame’s ambitions could be read as a backhand to Pretenders fans who’ve drifted away from the group since the ‘80s: “So your girlfriend wants to be a popstar / Probably just to spite me / Well, she thinks it’s so easy to get to the top / But a girl like that, she won’t know where to stop … They don’t make ‘em like they used to / You should have just stuck with me.” From that sour start, though, the album takes off with one great tune after another. Whether playing rockers like “Nails in the Road,” “Dragway 42” and “Legalise Me,” ballads like “From the Heart Down,” “Biker,” and “One More Time,” or more brooding songs like “Samurai,” the musicians on this album (the same lineup from the last two albums/tours) deliver finely wrought, sensitive performances. Stephen Hague and Stephen Street split the production, without much difference in their approaches. Hynde, who wrote or co-wrote nearly all the album’s songs (the only outside selections being the Divinyls’ “Human” and Silvio Rodriguez’s “Rabo de Nube,” sung in the original Spanish), is in excellent voice throughout; her high notes on “One More Time,” in particular, show that her pipes have lost none of their range or elasticity. ¡Viva el Amor! doesn’t include anything that rocks out with the ferocity of “Precious,” “Tattooed Love Boys,” or “Middle of the Road,” but it’s easily the Pretenders’ most consistent, satisfying album since Learning to Crawl.
Greatest Hits combines all but three of the tracks from The Singles with five cuts from Last of the Independents and ¡Viva el Amor! and two UK Top 10 singles with Hynde on vocals: a cover of the Dusty Springfield hit “Breakfast in Bed” with UB40 and “Spiritual High (State of Independence),” recorded with the British electronica duo Moodswings.
Produced by ex-Comsat Angel Kevin Bacon and Jonathan Quarmby, Loose Screw shows the Pretenders trying their hands at reggae. “Time,” “Complex Person” and “Nothing Breaks Like a Heart” all move to Jamaican rhythms and skanking guitar riffs, with dub-style keyboards and percussion effects burbling in the margins. Other tracks, such as “You Know Who Your Friends Are” and “The Losing,” blend more subtle reggae touches into the Pretenders’ familiar style. Holding onto the same band for a third studio album (a first for Hynde) and continuing her songwriting partnership with Adam Seymour, she delivers “Lie to Me,” “Kinda Nice, I Like It” and “Clean Up Woman” with an angry, recriminating tone — perhaps reflecting her separation from second husband Lucho Brieva. Although the album’s lone cover, “Walk Like a Panther,” was written (with help from Jarvis Cocker) and recorded by the British group The All Seeing I, three years before Loose Screw’s release, its lyrics still could be read as a thinly veiled swipe: “Miguel has set up home with a woman half my age / A half-wit in a leotard stands on my stage.” In the string-section-enhanced ”I Should Of,” though, Hynde focuses on her own role in the breakup (“When we made love / Sometimes it was great / Just once or twice / I would’ve called it second-rate / Anyway, the days passed by in peace / I never thought you needed more release”) before letting her tough exterior crack: “I should have, I should have / I could have, I could have…Oh fuck, I really miss you.” Loose Screw is another solid addition to the Pretenders’ canon.
Pirate Radio is a four-CD plus DVD (of British TV appearances) boxed set career retrospective with demos and other rarities fleshing out an extensive best-of.
Loose Screw and ¡Viva el Amor! could not be confused with anything recorded by the original Pretenders, but they are mature, confident albums full of good songs. Nevertheless, apparently deciding that her band and music were settling into a too-comfortable rut, Hynde decided to shake things up. She recorded Break Up the Concrete with an all-new set of musicians, including guitarist James Walbourne (ex-Pernice Brothers), pedal steel guitarist Eric Heywood (a frequent contributor to recordings by Son Volt, Joe Henry, the Jayhawks and others) and bassist Nick Wilkinson (formerly of New Zealand’s Alpaca Brothers). Although Chambers remains in the band, health prevented him from playing on Break Up the Concrete; studio vet Jim Keltner handled drumming duties. Hynde also decided to record her new songs (plus a cover of “Rosalee,” a tune from Akron contemporaries the Numbers Band) with a country-influenced sound.
After the richly detailed production of the last two Pretenders albums, Break Up the Concrete’s ramshackle performances and dry sound are unsettling. (One might argue that rock ‘n’ roll is supposed to be unsettling, but not for its shortcomings.) Much of the disc sounds as if it’s being played by a honky-tonk bar band at soundcheck — complete with all the problems that effort should root out. Keltner’s drums sound like cardboard boxes on many of the tracks, and the low end is so lacking that a listener might wonder if Wilkinson even showed up. Trying for a raw, loose sound, the Pretenders just come across as sloppy. On about half the tracks, Hynde’s grasp of pitch is tenuous. She blurts the title line of “Don’t Cut Your Hair” rather than singing it, and delivers the chorus of “Almost Perfect” with a lazy, nasal tone that’s downright embarrassing to hear from a singer of her stature. The unfocused songwriting here underscores the extent of Adam Seymour’s prior role as Hynde’s co-writer. On “Almost Perfect,” the singer catalogues a potential lover’s dysfunctional attributes, balancing them against his endowment (“Autistic, repetitious / People-phobically suspicious / With an oversized schlong”). For good measure, she adds the hoary sexist joke, “A lady who has two black eyes / Is not the best one to advise / She’s already been told twice.” “Boots of Chinese Plastic” (the most frenetic performance the Pretenders have recorded since the ’80s), ”Love’s a Mystery,” “The Last Ride,” and the title track, which revisits the construction-run-amok theme of “My City Was Gone” (“We was so busy worrying ‘bout them dropping the bomb / We didn’t notice where our enemy was really coming from”) over a jumpy Bo Diddley groove, maracas and all, are the best songs on this disappointing album. (Different special editions append new versions of older Pretenders songs, remade in Break Up the Concrete’s countrified style. Another special edition CD includes an insert of seed-impregnated paper to encourage the planting of a flower garden.)