The other night I was flipping through the channels on TV and I stumbled on a live performance of the Pretenders on PBS. Hearing songs that I haven’t listened to for a couple of years made me think how much this band meant to me back in high school. I know, I know, I’ve written a lot about music from my formative years, but that thrill of discovery and finding a band that you claim as yours is something that’s quite powerful for a young teenager. At my school the Pretenders were only really known for “Brass in Pocket,” and so when I wore my Pretenders t-shirt to school, I would often get quizzical looks from other kids who were trying to figure out why in the world anyone would like this band whose only hit was so, well, mainstream. I tried singing their praises to those who were skeptical of their rock cred, but it often fell on deaf ears to almost everyone but those who were my friends. Still, I thought Chrissie Hynde was a coolest girl in the world, James Honeyman-Scott a really formidable guitar player, Pete Farndon had great stage presence, and Martin Chambers was furious behind the drums – but looked like someone’s dad. Taken together, the band looked like two punks, a rocker, and a driving instructor (which Chambers was), but their sound was cohesive, bold, inventive, and full of promise.
Alas, the line-up of Hyde, Honeyman-Scott, Fardon, and Chambers didn’t last long. Drugs took the lives of two of the four members, but Hynde and Chambers were able to carry on to create songs that still rocked. And it’s the rock side of their music I want to spotlight on this mix. That’s because I will always see the Pretenders as a great rock act, and Chrissie Hynde as a real trailblazer for female rockers. Her style was punk, her lyric writing was transgressive at times, and her musical muse was Iggy Pop. In short, she’ s the tough chick who didn’t care that rock-n-roll was a man’s world; and it’s that insouciance toward the sausage factory of rock bands that made (and makes) her so damn appealing.
“Tatooed Love Boys,” the Pretenders (Download)
Talk about a blistering song! Hynde captures the sexual tension of youth and paints a rather lusty picture of unbridled sex in the lyrics — with the apex being “I shot my mouth off and you showed me what that hole is for.” The tempo is breakneck, and Honeyman-Scott really whips up some tasty licks. Overall, a classic song from an album that is also a classic.
“Porcelain,” the Pretenders (Download)
How to avoid the dreaded sophomore slump? Release an EP of strong material from your upcoming album and a couple of outtakes from your first. That’s exactly what the Pretenders did on Extended Play. “Porcelain” is almost an instrumental, and there’s a good song lurking in there, but the lyrics aren’t quite fully formed and don’t quite match the intensity of the music. Still, it’s a welcome rocker on an EP that contained two great new songs (well, new at the time), an absolutely terrific live performance of “Precious” that I hope one day will be released digitally.
“Louie Louie,” the Pretenders (Download)
When Pretenders II came out, I had already had my fill of “Talk of the Town” and “Message of Love.” I was hankering for some new stuff from the band that I hoped would match (or surpass) what they had produced thus far. Alas, Pretenders II is an uneven record, but it has enough strong songs that one can forgive the clunkers. “Louie Louie” is one of the more interesting songs on the album as the band incorporated a horn section, and lyrically the song is a kind of backwards glance at Hynde’s youth — with the classic “Louie Louie” serving as a lyrical punctuation marking the start and end of the murky vignettes in the verses.
“Time the Avenger,” the Pretenders (Download)
An apt title for a record that was certainly laced with a great deal of emotion. James Honeyman-Scott died in June 1982 from a drug overdose, and Pete Farndon died almost a year after that (April 1983) from, yes, a drug overdose. Hynde was in a relationship with Ray Davies, they had a kid together, and much of that loving and loss is evident on the songs that comprise Learning to Crawl. “Time the Avenger” isn’t really all that personal, but it reflects some great playing by the band — mostly notably Robbie McIntosh on guitar.
“Room Full of Mirrors,” the Pretenders (Download)
By the mid-’80s, Hynde was the only original member of the band left. Robbie McIntosh stayed on from Learning the Crawl to play on the album, but the new line-up was more gloss than rock. Yes, the Pretenders had a great amount of success with this record because it contained some of their biggest hits “Don’t Get Me Wrong” and “My Baby,” but they did save a little room in their rocker heart on this Jimi Hendrix cover.
“Hollywood Perfume,” the Pretenders (Download)
By the time Last of the Independents came out, I had pretty much lost hope that Chrissie would every really rock again, and while this album contains my least favorite song Hynde has ever penned (“I’ll Stand By You”) it leads with “Hollywood Perfume” a polished, but thumping rocker that reunited Hynde with Chambers — who left the band in 1986 citing that the death of his band mates had left him unenthusiastic about playing with the group.