Wednesday, 17 October 2018

The Pretenders

The Pretenders - punk or new wave?....

Pretenders (1980)

The Pretenders were late arrivals on the "punk" scene, and were far more of a "new wave" band, with guitarists and a drummer who had been around a bit, one with a bit of a rockabilly image and a hard as nails female singer who had also been around the block a bit, so to speak. Ex-rock journalist Chrissie Hynde added her unique, rather odd, not particularly strong voice to a 60s-influenced rock/new wave sound to make them a very recognisable band and one that successfully cross-over into the mainstream charts and daytime radio air-play. Hynde also had a strange habit of enunciating  her "w's" and "v's" (like "world as "vurld" on Precious). She also does it on "your place in this vurld" on the next album's Talk Of The Town. Never quite understood why, she is from Akron, Ohio, not Germany, India or Pakistan.
The album's opener, the frantic, punky riff-driven Precious is something that is pretty hard to categorise, to be honest. Hynde mumbles out some of her lyrics, blathering on about "shitting bricks" before that quite unique guitar sound breaks back in. Her vocals are even more incomprehensible on the similarly frenetic and infuriatingly catchy The Wait. If anyone can tell me what the song is all about I would love to know. Either way it has a great, infectious sound to it with some excellent drums from Martin ChambersThe Phone Call has a bit of a Siouxsie & The Banshees riff sound about it throughout, and the drums too, thinking about it. Up The Neck has a laid back, middle ground rock sound and a strong guitar riff mid-song. Again, that "post punk" guitar riff style is used quite a lot. 

Space Invaders is a chugging, slightly unnecessary instrumental tapping in to the contemporary trend for playing the titular video game in pubs complete with noises from that game at the end.

There are four hit singles on here - the cover of The Kinks' singalong 60s number, Stop Your Sobbing; the tuneful Duane Eddy guitar-influenced Kid; the number one and ever-so-slightly irritating Brass In Pocket and the fast, rocky Tattooed Love Boys. All these were worthy hits and are memorable within the context of this album, as indeed is Private Life, six minutes of reggae-influenced moaning at her lover from Hynde. It was later covered, memorably, by Grace Jones with a "proper" reggae backing by Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare and this version met with Hynde's enthusiastic approval. She felt it far bettered her original saying that it was how she originally wanted it to sound.

Lovers Of Today is a lengthy, beautiful new wave rock ballad with Hynde's best vocal from the album. Mystery Achievement is another five minute track with a seductive guitar-drum intro and another convincing vocal. Again, it has that new wave rock ballad style typical of the era. Funny how, after the supposed punk ethos of nothing over a frantic two and a half minutes long, bands went back to recording five and six minute mid-paced rocky workouts in no time at all. Nice bass, guitar and drum instrumental part in the middle that would have been unheard of at punk's height three years earlier. An impressive debut from a band who would, however,  go on to produce several competent, but rarely truly outstanding albums. It never actually got any better than this in terms of overall album quality.

Pretenders II (1981)
After a pretty impressive and successful debut album, as was often the way in the fast-paced era of punk-new wave, the pressure was immediately on to come up with a second album. So many bands suffered from this and ended up with a hastily-released second album that would have been better if they had waited a while and upped the quality control a little. The Pretenders certainly suffered from this malaise, as did The Jam and The Police.                               
The Adultress is a chugging, uninspired start to proceedings. It sounds muffled, with tired guitar riffs and a lazy vocal. All the vigour of the previous album seems to have been lost. Even the production sounds half-baked. Poor sound, indistinct guitar and drums. Bad Boys Get Spanked tries to recreate some of the vitality of a few months earlier, but again the production leaves some thing to be desired. A punky attack and some embarrassing "saucy" lyrics are not enough to save it really. Message Of Love lifts things up a little, an energetic drum intro and guitar riff but again, this is a track that I have always felt never quite makes it. It was released as a single but was only an average seller. It is ok, though, certainly better than the first two tracks. It sounds more like the sort of material that was so successful on the first album. The cover of The KinksI Go To Sleep is a good one, though. Slow and romantic, with a nice horn part and Parisian-sounding guitar note after the title line is sung.

Bird Of Paradise is a nice song, with an attractive ambience and delivery, but it jus sounds so dense and muffled. The production on this album is really extremely poor. It spoiled what was potentially a good track here, I feel. 
Talk Of The Town was a good single. A snappy melody and 60s style guitar sound, together with a strong vocal from Chrissie Hynde. A classic early eighties new wave single. Takes me right back hearing it. Chrissie's voice is back to its seductive timbre that so characterised the first album. Instantly recognisable. She still enunciates her 'w's" as 'v''s though! Pack It Up quotes tennis bad boy (and a friend of Hynde's) John McEnroe at the beginning - "you guys are the pits of the world" and accompanied by a hard rock riff, Chrissie tells of live on the road in and out of hotels and living out of a suitcase. It has a rock appeal if you just turn it up and forget the bad sound. (By the way, this is supposed to be a remastered edition. Maybe it is simply that nothing can be done with the album, so poorly was it recorded in the first place). The final rant by Chrissie at her departed lover are quite amusing.

The white reggae of Waste Not Want Not is my favourite track on the album. It sounds good, in comparison to much of the rest of it, has a great vibe. bass and drum sound and a beguiling vocal from Chrissie. It is this album's Private LifeDay After Day is back to the realms of just ok and not much more. Nothing wrong with it, but nothing special either. Actually, listening to it again,  I quite like it, but it just doesn't have that "something" about it. The same applies to Jealous Dogs, with its trite lyrics about "rolling over and begging". Come on Chrissie, you can do better than this. All pretty lazy. After a few more listens, though, I feel I have been a bit harsh and these two tracks are not too bad, I just can't get away from the bad sound.

The English Roses, with some nice bass, and the frantic, horn-driven Louie Louie (not a cover of The Kingsmen's hit) bring it back up a bit to end on a high point, but as I have mentioned again and again throughout this review the poor sound on the album simply affects one's whole outlook on it. It just feels half-cooked to me in many ways. I felt that way in 1981 when I first bought it and time hasn't changed my opinion, unfortunately. 

** The "bonus material" "demo" version of Talk Of The Town is, pointedly, far superior in sound quality. This is how the whole album should have sounded. Also, the "guitar version" of I Go To Sleep is a better version, in my opinion.

Learning To Crawl (1983)

After the tragic loss of Pete Farndon and James Honeyman-Scott from the band’s original line-up, Chrissie Hynde hired some more musicians and somehow got herself together and, remarkably, came up with this impressive album. Personally, I find it much superior to the muffled, patchy Pretenders II.
Middle Of The Road kicks off the album with a real power and rock vibrancy. The first thing you notice is how much improved the sound is on this album from the muffled one on Pretenders II. Due to this and the level of attack on the song, you feel The Pretenders are back, alive and kicking. The hit single, the appositely-titled Back On The Chain Gang is also truly excellent, with an addictive, catchy riff and a singalong chorus. It is one of their best ever singles. It sounds awful to say, but this line up sounds much better than the original one (maybe it is just the production). If any further proof were needed about the fuller, warmer sound on this album it comes with the rocking Time The Avenger with its excellent pounding drums and rumbling bass. It has to be said, however, that Watching The Clothes (about sitting in a launderette) is not the best song they ever did. Its lyrics are wryly amusing though, about “delicates” and “final rinse”. Show Me is melodic and solid, though, and gets things back on track.

Thumbelina is a quirky, upbeat rhythmic rockabilly-zydeco beat song that appears to be written for Chrissie Hynde’s daughter in places, but there are darker parts to it as well, as is often the case with Pretenders songs, a cynicism about the human condition is never far from the surface. 

This is continued in the bleak outlook of My City Was Gone, about Hynde returning to Ohio, sung over an insistent bass and drum chugging rhythm. It is one of the best cuts on the album. The bass and drum connection is taut and solid here from original drummer Martin Chambers and new bassist Malcolm Foster.

The Atlantic soul classic Thin Line Between Love And Hate is covered impressively. Hynde’s voice is excellent on this one. 
I Hurt You is a heavy chugger with a muscular riff. 2000 Miles has been somewhat hijacked as a Christmas song, due to its mentions of the festive day, so, for that reason I never play it outside of that time of year. Chrissie Hynde actually wrote it after the loss of Honeyman-Scott. You know, I think I prefer this album and the next one, Get Close, to the more critically-acclaimed first two. They are both excellent albums and sound much better too.

Get Close (1986)

The Pretenders went through more trauma and changes in a few years than many bands go through in a lifetime. Chrissie Hynde, of course, was the one constant. It was her band. Despite losing two talented guitarists from the line-up that recorded their first two new wave/rock albums, she recovered, hired some more gunslingers and produced an excellent album in Learning To Crawl in 1984. By 1986, she was without even loyal old drummer Martin Chambers for this album, who she fired after his drumming deteriorated, and had a new guitarist in Robbie McIntosh and various session men like bassist Bruce Thomas from Elvis Costello’s Attractions. She had grown up by now and some of the material was mellower, more drawn from the voice of experience, but it was still very much her unique sound. The album is just slghtly blighted, as all mid-eighties albums were, by contemporary musical trends - basically synthesisers all over the place. They do appear on quite a few of the tracks, but the album is still guitar-driven and also runs on proper rock sounds, thank goodness. It was probably the last album from The Pretenders as a relevant band, to be honest, though. Anything produced after this would have a tinge of nostalgia about it.
Anyway, to the music. My Baby has an acoustic beginning but soon merges into a classic Pretenders slowed down rock groove. Full of drums and bass and, thankfully, few eighties stylings, despite some ubiguitous synthesisers in the background eventually. At least the drums are “proper” drums. There is a classic Pretenders guitar riff near the end too. When I Change My Life has a Byrds-style jangly riff and a wistful, floaty vocal from Hynde. It has a nice subtle, melodic bassy feel to it.

Light Of The Town is a mid-paced, slow riffy number with more genuine drums and a nice laid-back but solid feel to it. 
Dance! sees the first of the funky tracks that would characterise this album. It is a real departure from the band’s trademark new-wavey sound. To be honest, it is refreshing to hear a change in their sound. I love this track. There is some great guitar on it too. Tradition Of Love is another slow burner, with some distinct innovative Eastern tones to its vocal inflections, while Don't Get Me Wrong was a big hit single. It is lively, melodic and catchy. 

I Remember You has slight echoes of earlier Pretenders in places, but has a gentle Motown-reggae style beat and a sensual vocal. As mentioned earlier, funkiness was a feature of this album compared to the three previous ones. How Much Did You Get For Your Soul? is an insistent, funky, clavinet and guitar-driven number that sounds great and shows the group diversifying somewhat. Eighties synthesisers unfortunately make an appearance, but that was, as I said earlier, a sign of the times. Hip/hop sampling vocals are in there, as if it were a Style Council track, along with some Talking Heads-style guitar. 

Chill Factor is a solid, organ and drum driven more archetypal Pretenders song, with hints of Elvis Costello & The Attractions. Hymn To Her is a beautiful, uplifting, gently anthemic (as the title suggests) hymnal song. For me, it has influences from Dylan’s Forever Young (a song the group covered). Something about the phrasing, the grandiose rise at the end of the verses, the majesty of it. It is a truly great track. It contains one of Chrissie Hynde’s best ever vocals. Great stuff. Jimi Hendrix's Room Full Of Mirrors is covered funkily and convincingly.

A thing that hits you about this album is just how much better the sound quality is compared to, say, the muffled mess that was Pretenders II. It really is a most underrated album.

Break Up The Concrete (2008)

After their first four albums, The Pretenders hung around for many years, releasing several Pretenders-by-numbers albums that I paid no attention to. This one, from 2008, was marketed along with their Greatest Hits album as a double CD and actually, it isn't at all bad. Without Martin Chambers on drums for the first time (he returned for the next one), Chrissie Hynde mined her bluesy seams, mixed it with bits of loose, lively rockabilly, melodic country rock and Americana and came up with a short (thirty six minutes) album that, although it doesn't particularly stick in the mind, individual track-wise, is a perfectly enjoyable listen. I stuck it on recently several times in a row, so there you go. 
It is probably the rootsiest offering in her canon and Chrissie wears her influences boldly on her leather sleeve.

Standing In the Doorway (2021)

This is a truly lovely album from Chrissie Hynde (credited as such), as she covers nine Bob Dylan tracks with mainly her acoustic guitar, a bit of subtle percussion here snd there and her evocative voice. Chrissie has chosen all slow, thoughtful and mainly romantic songs on the whole and they all, without fail, would seem tailor-made for her. Don’t expect any Pretenders-style rock, however. This is a beautifully peaceful affair. 

The highlights are a beautiful rendition of one of my all-time favourites in Love Minus Zero-No Limits; an absolutely top-notch rendering of Blind Willie McTell that, for me, outdoes Dylan’s version; Don’t Fall Apart On Me Tonight; Sweetheart Like You and the always moving Every Grain Of Sand. 

All the tracks are good, to be honest. I know a lot of people see albums of Dylan covers as supposedly sacrilegious, but not me - I find that often other artists bring out the best in the songs and Chrissie Hynde certainly does here. She gives what is clearly a labour of love a whole lot of it. Top effort. 

Related posts :-
Bob Dylan
The Jam
The Kinks

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