Review Summary: An American army brat and three english guys bring punk rock to America via hard rock tunes and imaginative pop as well. Its all Pretenders, but even more so the Chrissie Hynde Show. Yes, shes special. And on this groundbreaking debut she proves it.
In 1980 in America, Rock n Roll was in a state of change. With the old guard of British bands such as The Who and Led Zeppelin quickly fading off the radar and The Rolling Stones breathing one last gasp before beginning a steady decline that would last for the next decade to come (at least), it seemed new voices for the rock fan masses were being tossed around at random without much method to the madness. With punk never really catching on or causing a stir on these shores as of yet, and bands such as The Clash, Jam, and Elvis Costello and The Attractions viewed as a curiosity and a passing fancy by most mainstream music listeners, we were treated to the likes of bands such as The Cars, B-52's, Devo, and The Knack to see us more adventurous rock n roll types through. Not bad, perhaps. Bands that played guitar, had some tuneful songs and a new sound, but certainly not bands that would lead the way of a new day rising in mainstream rock or make a significant impact on the underground where things often get started. What America needed to help bust down the new music doors was a band bearing guitars played loud, hard, a little fast and a little brash, and all wrapped up in an easy to swallow pill that would excite those looking for a new start, but not alienate those who were still holding true to times gone past.
Enter The Pretenders. Formed in 1978 by guitarist Chrissie Hynde, a young American rock journalist turned punk after moving to England in 1973 upon finishing college, Hynde would put this band together after spending five years hanging on and hanging out in the newly burgeoning London punk scene and coming into close contact with the likes of Mick Jones from The Clash, Malcom McClaren, and Sid Vicious, among others, and a brief stint in the notorious punk band The Moors Murderers. Soaking it all in and blending it with her own unique vocal style and musical sensibilities, Hynde along with guitarist James Honeymoon-Scott, bassist Pete Farndon, and drummer Martin Chambers would go into the studio with producers Nick Lowe and Chris Thomas and churn out a big piece of the bridge that would help the past of rock n roll seamlessly meet its future in what would be one of the highest regarded debut albums ever in all of rock.
Kicking things off with a blast of punk inspired heat, the album get's started with Hynde front and center leading the band through the sexually charged "Precious". No wilting flower, its obvious from the start Hynde is not your average girl playing pretty girl music in a cute little rock band. Much more Patti Smith then Stevie Nicks, Hynde smolders and burns from the very start on this cut and establishes the tone for the entire album before the first verse is even over. Never crass in its innuendos or even in the emphatic cry of "*** Off" near the end of the song, Precious storms along in a way that grabs you from the start and doesn't let go. Its propulsive beat addicting, its melody strong, and its punk roots on full display, the listener doesn't have a chance to question what it is, punk or otherwise. Hitting like a freight train, we just know its good. And we're happy to go along for the ride.
After the noisy, pseudo instrumental "The Phone Call", which is basically two and a half minutes of noisy, propulsive jamming with some interesting flourishes, comes the very conventional "Up The Neck". With Hynde's smooth vocals front and center and some nice melodic guitar work, this song of sexual lust and desire is as daring a song as one was likely to find in 1980 or anytime, for that matter. "Lust turns to anger / A kiss to a slug / Something was sticky on your shag rug / Look at the tile / I remember the way he groaned and moved with an animal skill / I rubbed my face in the sweat that ran down his chest / It was all very run of the mill / But I noticed his scent started to change somehow / His face went berserk and the veins bulged on his brow / I said baby, oh sweetheart" Subtle without being vague and obvious without being obnoxious, Hynde treats these bold lyrics as just a matter of fact, and the band plays it the same way. A conventional pop/rock song in new music clothes with lyrics no decent woman would even think, "Up The Neck" sounds exactly like what it is. A dirty love song for a new generation of desperate lovers. Or at least music lovers.
As if what had come previous was just a tepid warm up however, on the next track, the brash and wild to this date "Tattooed Love Boys", Chrissie shows she's not afraid to be a proud rock n roll slut and makes no apologies for it. Behind the chiming guitar work of Honeymoon-Scott and driving force of the pumped up rhythm section of Farndon and Chambers, Hynde asserts herself here like few women in mainstream rock ever had up to this point, and challenges you to knock the rock n roll chip off her shoulder with lyrics such as "I tore my knees up getting to you / Because I needed to find out what that thing was about" and "I shot my mouth off / And you showed me what that hole was for". Certainly not the territory of the mainstream rock woman of the day, these kinds of statements by a female singer leading an all male band of rough punk style players would certainly not go down easily for the American masses. But this Ohio born songstress and her band would help change the rules and perception of what was mainstream for good with this song and album, as they would show themselves on the rest of the record to be not one trick punk rock ponies, but a well rounded rock n roll band that does not just one thing well, but like the old guard which was passing away right before them, did all things well. The Pretenders didn't come to destroy rock n roll like the punks before them or of the day, but help to restore rock n roll to what it once was. And they would spend the rest of the album completing the job.
After the interesting but ultimately throwaway instrumental "Space Invaders" and infectious slash and burn of the oblique rocker "The Wait", comes the first real turn of the record in the now classic cover of the old Kinks hit "Stop Your Sobbing". Improving on the original without ripping the guts out of it, the song blossoms in the compassionate and capable vocals of Hynde and the smooth jingle jangle accompaniment of her band, with Honeymoon-Scott and company providing a decidedly un-punk like pop melody to tie it all up. Following this with the mid tempo pop of "Kid", a tender balled written by Hynde for her then love interest Honeymoon-Scott, and the talk-sing low key "get out of my face you emo bastard", harmony heavy, guitar driven "Private Life", it becomes clear this is a well rounded rock n roll band with more on it's mind then punk inspired playing and spitting out brash lyrics. And as if to leave no doubt to this fact, the infectious hit single "Brass In Pocket" makes an appearance next that finds singer Hynde proclaiming in no uncertain terms her distinct uniqueness with cries of "I'm special, so special / I got to have some of your attention". And we are more then happy to oblige.
The Pretenders was an album very much in the right place at the right time in the course of rock n roll history. With punk old news in much of Europe, and American punk still very much a thing of the underground in 1980 and dismissed outright by the mainstream, this album and band gave a rock n roll community something new and bold to embrace without feeling like they had to give up what they once loved. Infectious, groundbreaking, spirited, conventional and new, The Pretenders self titled debut stands as a landmark rock n roll album that helped drag the underground of 1970's punk kicking and screaming into the overground. Equal parts Sex Pistols, Beatles, The Who, Patti Smith, perhaps a little Stones, and with an originality and perspective all it's own, The Pretenders is a must have in any rock fans collection of music. Young, old, punk, or otherwise.