The Pretenders
Strongest album: The Pretenders
Must to avoid: Get Close

Chrissie Hynde has a great story about how the band got its name. It seems that she'd been hanging out with some racist skinhead bikers and one of the bikers wanted to share with her his favorite song. He took her out to a shed, making sure that none of his friends were around, and played her Sam Cooke singing "The Great Pretender". As far as band naming goes, that story takes top prize, doesn't it? Hynde owed as much to classic soul as much as punk, an influence that would become more apparent as her career progressed. Alas, her career hasn't exactly followed an upward curve, though she's still capable of a good single or two. Perhaps this is due to the fact that the Pretenders are no longer a real working band, but function rather as back-up musicians for Hynde's songs. After the tragic deaths of guitarist James Honeymoon-Scott and bassist Peter Farndon in the early '80s (both were addicted to heroin), only drummer Martin Chambers remained of the original line-up. My suggestion is to buy the first album and the 1987 Singles collection, and proceed from there with caution.

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Pretenders (1980) *****

A perfect debut, it not only shows great promise but also delivers the goods. I suppose I've got to get this out of the way, so I'll start by saying this: Hynde obliterates any barriers that stand in the way of females rocking out. This may be the first real "rock" album (as in loud guitars, meaning Aretha doesn't count) by a woman that stands on equal footing with any rock album by a man. Not rock with an "art" tag qualifier (Patti Smith), or a mannered pop that evades emotional directness (Debbie Harry). Other than certain key lyric moments ("maybe I'm going to have a baby") and the times when you fall in love with her amazing voice, you don't notice and don't care that she possesses a vagina. Let's talk about that voice, shall we? Soulful, husky, sensual yet not "sexy", deftly switching from bitchy putdowns to motherly tenderness within a moment's notice. She's got a lot of competition, but for my money she may be the best vocalist in rock'n'roll. She transforms "Stop Your Sobbing", an early Kinks obscurity, from formulaic cloyingness to an irresistable plea. Out of the hundreds (no, thousands) of Kinks covers, this may be the best one I've heard. She announces in "Brass In Pocket" that she's "special", and you pity the fool who doesn't give her the time of day. "Kid" builds to a powerful, lashing bridge....but you already know the singles, right? The band plays a lot punkier than the singles or their subsequent work would suggest, with Honeymoon-Scott's meaty guitar both flashy and to the point. He digs up some crunchy, pounding riffs and doesn't waste too much time soloing. I can't understand a word of "The Phone Call", but wow, what driving rock'n'roll it is. The urgency of "Mystery Achievement", boasting a great bass-line, ends the album on a high point - but they're damn near all high points, aren't they? At the end of "Lovers Of Today", Hynde moans "I'll never be a man in a man's world", which captures her predicament as a woman in testorene-dominated rock, but the rest of the album refutes any gender limitations, loudly. One of the (the?) best debut albums of all time, sometimes I think it perfectly encapsulates everything you need for great rock'n'roll.

Reader Comments

Samuel Day Fassbinder,

This is the only Pretenders album I've heard with songs that aren't in 4/4 time, which is what makes it so good.

Extended Play (1981) ***1/2

A stopgap release in order to satisfy hungry fans during the long wait (a year and a half! Ah, the days....) between the first and second album, it contains the 1980 singles "Message Of Love" and "Talk Of The Town", both excellent, and both of which were repeated on the second album. The B-sides unavailable elsewhere are well worth your time, however - except for the pointless "Porcelain". "Cuban Slide" sounds pretty much like what you'd expect from the title, and demonstrates the band's mastery of complex but primitively driving rythms. The live version of "Precious" almost eclipses the studio version - when she gets to the "fuck off" part, the crowd lets out a huge roar. And that's it: a five song EP with four good songs, which constitutes an 80% success rate. If you don't feel like spending good money on the second album (for which you have good reasons), track this down instead. Plus it has more good songs on it than any of the post-Learning To Crawl albums combined. And it's an EP, so it ought to be pretty cheap.

Pretenders II (1981) ***

Hynde never produced another album half as striking as the debut. A lengthy world tour left them short on material, and Honeymoon-Scott and Farndon's playing suffers from their debilitating addictions. "Talk Of The Town" stands as one of their best singles, an impassioned plea that anyone who's ever had a crush from afar can't help but be moved by. The way she cries, "I need you" jolts a good song into greatness. Other than that, only the other single "Message Of Love" and the life-on-the-road "Pack It Up" compare to the first album. Ray Davies' "I Go To Sleep" might send you there, paling in comparison to the first album's Kinks cover. "Day By Day" sports strong playing but sounds half-written, basically a riff than a complete song. "The Adultress" suffers for the opposite reason. And "Bad Boys Get Spanked" is flat-out embarrassing, especially in contrast to Hynde's assuredness on the debut. Not terrible by any means, simply ordinary.

Learning To Crawl (1984) ****

A return to form after a couple of years in which Honeymoon-Scott and Farndon both died, Hynde rises from the ashes to produce an excellent album and some classic singles. "Back On The Chain Gang" may be their finest moment, with Hynde actually writing a song that stands up to then-lover Ray Davies' nostalgiac best. "Time The Avenger" and "Watching The Clothes" also employ a Ray Davies influence to good effect in a couple of poundingly jaunty rockers. "I'm not the kind I used to be/I've got a kid I'm 33 baby" from "Middle Of The Road" always stops me in my tracks. Hynde shows she knows how to handle a classic soul ballad on "The Thin Line Between Love And Hate". The rest is good, displaying a maturity that happens to you when you witness a death in the family, with a likable jangle replacing the first two albums' punky punch. And Rush Limbaugh notwithstanding, "My City Was Gone" has a great bassline (and an anti-capitalist message that's pretty ironic considering its later use).

Get Close (1986) **

Instead of a comeback, Learning To Crawl might have served as the last hurrah of greatness. Other than a couple of pseudo-funk numbers like "Dance", which won't make you, the Pretenders assay bland jangly guitar-pop with some listless ballads. That said, the single "Don't Get Me Wrong" is prime Hynde, and the soulful ballad "Hymn To Her" also makes a strong impression. Other than that, I don't have a lot to say; the songs basically bleed into a uniform mush. "How Much Did You Get For Your Soul?" chastises black musicians for selling out, which I suppose is pretty gutsy in a world in which Rod Stewart gets shit but nobody dares criticize Aretha Franklin for putting out bad records past her prime, but the message is confused and might be borderline offensive depending upon your mood (or PC-tude). Aside from two good songs (both of which are on the Singlescollection), there isn't much memorable here.

The Singles (1987) ****1/2

Hynde had enough great moments after the debut to make this a great compilation, with only 3 songs overlapping Pretenders. It contains nearly everything you need to hear from the band post-1980, especially since it contains half of Learning To Crawl. One of the best singles compilations from the '80s, it establishes her as a major songwriter. Except for the limp "I Go To Sleep", and the riff-in-search-of-a-song "Day By Day", all of side one is flat-out great (for those of you with CD players, side one of the tape/vinyl configuration starts with "Stop Your Sobbing" and ends with "Back On The Chain Gang" - talk about a perfect bookend!). Side Two's a bit shakier - placing all those slow ballads back to back is a mistake - but still has more great moments than most bands achieve in an entire career. As a bonus, you get a nifty little Hynde duet with UB40 of "I Got You Babe". It's enough to make you forget (or at least forgive) all the weaker Pretenders albums out there.

Packed! (1990)

I've seen this around fairly cheap, but never picked it up. I don't believe it had any hits on it, and if it's anything like the two records surrounding it, only for hardcore fans. Could be Learning To Crawl, though, since I haven't heard it.

The Last Of The Independents (1994) **1/2

After a long layoff, Hynde rocks harder and acts bitchier than she has in a decade, making this album superficially gratifying. The problem is, the rocking sounds forced and sometimes silly ("I'm A Mother"). "Night In My Veins" is strong, and the single "I'll Stand By You" is another classic ballad, if rather schlocky. Hynde proclaims that she needs "something to die for" in the refrain of "Revolution", which is vague and vapid but refreshingly political, and delivers an okay "Forever Young" that's nowhere near as good as, gulp, Rod Stewart's. Hynde's new back-up band (which is all the Pretenders are by now, excepting founding member Martin Chambers) are bland and undistinct hacks, at least from this impression. So what you basically get is a coupla decent singles and a bunch of kindofokay halfhearted filler. Hynde has the type of voice that almost puts some of this stuff over, but despite what anyone tells you, a good voice alone cannot carry an entire album without good material. After this, Hynde delivered that refuge of washed-up rock stars, the unplugged album, 1995's Isle Of View. How much did you get for your soul, Chrissie?

Viva El Amor! (1999)

The latest release by Chrissie & backup band.

Reader Comments

Samuel Fassbinder,

I liked the Pretenders' album "Viva El Amor." All new stuff, no cover tunes. The rock that characterized "Learning to Crawl" is back, absent the excessive synthesizer use that didn't work with "Last of the Independents." There are lots of good musical hooks sprinkled throughout the album. Lyrical sarcasm is at the high level reached by the younger Elvis Costello, esp. "Popstar," a satire on Hollywood stars, "Nails in the Road," and "Who's Who," rebuking egoists, and "Baby's Breath," a rejection song. There are soft tunes on this album, but musically some of them are like Beatles' tunes ("From the Heart Down"). No, this isn't an album as thought-provoking as "Learning to Crawl," but it is a return to old Chrissie Hynde form.

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