Last of the Independents: A Pretenders Retrospective
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Whether we consider Pretenders as a group or only as the vehicle for Chrissie Hynde’s career, few acts have achieved as consistent an output over an almost forty-year career. The style of the music has largely been consistent in style, but the relentless quality of the albums has been breathtaking. Making this playlist was difficult because, album by album, there were no obvious choices of which songs should be highlighted over others. It’s an interesting aspect that some of their greatest hits were their weakest or cover songs (which I tend to leave out to focus on original material), so this list will be different than the typical Pretenders hit list, looking a bit more like a Deep Dive. If you like what you hear, I heartily encourage you to explore the albums properly and take them in as they were meant to be heard.
The Phone Call
Brass in Pocket
Message of Love
Birds of Paradise
Talk of the Town
Waste Not Want Not
Day After Day
Middle of the Road
Time the Avenger
My City Was Gone
Tradition of Love
Hymn to Her
Sense of Purpose
Night in My Veins
I’ll Stand by You
Nails in the Road
One More Time
Lie to Me
I Should Of
Clean Up Woman
Boots of Chinese Plastic (YouTube only)
Love’s A Mystery (YouTube only)
Adding the Blue
Let’s Get Lost
The Man You Are
I must admit my appreciation of Pretenders was a slow build. When I was starting to seriously explore music for the first time and developing my tastes their hits didn’t get much attention from me. I knew and liked their older songs and eventually picked up and enjoyed their singles compilation in the late ‘80s, but it wasn’t until the past ten years that I’ve gone back and listened to their full albums and discovered what an incredible band they are.
Precious; The Phone Call; Kid; Brass in Pocket; Mystery Achievement \ Pretenders (1979)
Christine Hynde was born in Akron, Ohio. Her early life was marked by an uncanny, Chauncey Gardner-like knack for being in places of significant timing. Her independent streak led to her eschewing the typical high school lifestyle in place of seeing rock shows in Cleveland and exploring hippie inspired interests such as Eastern mysticism and vegetarianism. She attended Kent State University to study arts and was there during the shooting of anti-Vietnam protesters by the Ohio National Guard in 1970, of which Neil Young would write the song “Ohio” for supergroup, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. She performed in bands including one with Mark Mothersbaugh, who would shortly thereafter form one of America’s most seminal, post-punk/new wave acts, Devo.
In 1973, at the age of 22, she moved to London and after a couple of brief jobs, including writing for music magazine, New Musical Express, she began working at an avant garde clothing shop on the King’s Road called ‘SEX.’ The shop was the outlet for designer Vivienne Westwood and was operated with her boyfriend, Malcolm McLaren. SEX would become ground zero for the birth of the punk style and McLaran would assemble The Sex Pistols in order to promote the shop. Hynde didn’t seem to take up the punk aesthetic but moved comfortably within the scene, being friends with and at times trying to start or join bands with those that would go on to form The Clash, The Damned, and Generation X.
By 1978, Chrissie had returned to Cleveland for a spell, spent time in Paris, and was back in London full of frustration at having a front row seat to the exploding new music scene but unable to participate. She got Dave Hill, owner of a small indie label, to help her with debts and the cost of recording some demos, which were good enough to encourage him to help her put a band together. She joined with bassist Pete Farndon and together they recruited James Honeyman-Scott on guitar and Martin Chambers on drums. The named themselves Pretenders after the Sam Cooke song, “The Great Pretender.”
Perhaps those bands that, for one reason or another, didn’t end up with Chrissie Hynde within their fold might have regretted it. Though given her independent nature, she likely ended up in the best situation with Pretenders. As the primary songwriter, she quickly proved adept at writing great songs and, accompanied with her solid band, started an assault on the UK charts. The first single, produced by Nick Lowe, was a cover of The Kinks’ “Stop Your Sobbing,” and reached #33. The next two, originals, were “Kid” which went to #34 and then “Brass in Pocket” (co-written with Honeyman-Scott) which went to #1 just as their first, self-titled album was released in the UK in December 1979.
All three singles would be included on the album and gave ample evidence of how great the album was, going to #1 in the UK and #9 in the US. It was punk spirited but not as raw or aggressive, wasn’t quite strong enough for power pop, but unique enough to be set apart from the standard rock and pop of the time. It was catchy, balanced with hook-filled melodies and rhythms, and delivered one amazing song after another, each with its own personality.
There was an over-abundance of incredible modern rock songs on the album that it easily ranks as one of the best of the modern rock genre. “Tattooed Love Boys” (which appears in the profile on Women in Modern Rock) moved with an almost breathless energy, as did “The Wait.” Hynde and the band also proved adept at the slower tunes, as shown in “Lovers of Today” as well as “Private Life,” which was soon after covered by Grace Jones (whose version was also in the Women in Modern Rock profile). What was evident on the album was the musicianship and tight cohesion of the band, heard no better than on “Mystery Achievement.” The way the band moved between melody and rhythm-driven songs made for a fully engaging album.
Finally, there were the standout tracks that even today get regular attention. “Precious” had such punk attitude and, with Hynde’s snarling profanity and sexual references, made the song instantly exhilarating and dangerous. Honeyman-Scott’s guitar work and Farndon’s basslines made the song an elixir of punk and new wave. “Brass in Pocket” couldn’t have been more different, such that it challenged the idea that it came from the same band or album. Subtle and intoxicating, Hynde still delivered attitude but with a panache and a wink, where the innuendo revealed the confidence underpinned with yearning in which the song was founded both musically and lyrically. A simple rhythm allowed Hynde’s restrained vocal and Honeyman-Scott’s strumming guitar, the signature sound of the song, to make it the memorable and #1 song it became.
Message of Love; Birds of Paradise; Talk of the Town; Waste Not Want Not; Day After Day \ Pretenders II (1981)
Pretenders issued the second album in August 1981, almost two years after the debut which, in those days, was a larger gap than normal, especially for a new band. No matter, the band picked-up where the first album left off, so much so that it was simply titled, Pretenders II. If it had taken some time for Chrissie to write another batch of songs, it was worth the wait given the stellar collection the album revealed.
Like the first, the album opened with another snarling, punky song, “The Adultress,” followed by cowboy swagger in “Bad Boys Get Spanked.” Strong as those songs were, it was the third song, “Message of Love,” where the band hit its stride with another ultra-catchy blend of rhythm and melody. Similar to “Brass in Pocket” the vocals and the strumming guitar played against a hypnotizing drum and bass beat, gave the band another hit as it reached #11 in the UK. It followed the initial single, “Talk of the Town,” originally released on an EP prior to the album and which cracked the top ten. It was another change in sound, mixing swirling guitars, a tight pop melody, and plaintive, understated vocals from Chrissie.
In that regard the album was as varied as the first but didn’t quite match the sheer excellence start to finish as the debut, but still provided another batch of outstanding tracks. Hynde was in a relationship with the legendary Ray Davies of mod-rockers, The Kinks. They would have a daughter together in 1983, and on this second album there would be a second Kinks cover, this time of the sublime “I Go to Sleep.” Hynde took the stripped down original and with the band gave it an intoxicating mix of piano, faraway, resonant drums, and an aching, emotionally strained vocal (check out Sia’s version, from 2008, which was clearly based on the Pretenders’ version). It would bring the band their third top ten single in the UK. The album had were more lovely ballads like “Birds of Paradise” and the coy “Waste Not Want Not” (which reminds of Elvis Costello’s “Watching the Detectives”) and rockers in the aggressive style of the first album such as “Pack It Up” and “Day After Day.”
Pretenders were riding high after two fantastic albums to start their career, with the second cracking the top ten in the UK as well as the US, despite none of the singles charting stateside. Their storybook career, however, took a crashing tumble when, as it so often did, drugs took their toll. Pete Farndon was fired from the band in June 1982 for his abuse, but it was Honeyman-Scott that would die from cocaine just two days later. Ten months later Farndon drowned in his bathtub while on heroin. Hynde and Chambers suddenly found themselves, in the midst of recording the next album, with only half their band.
Middle of the Road; Time the Avenger; Show Me; My City Was Gone \ Learning to Crawl (1984)
It’s downright impressive then, that in January 1984, Pretenders re-emerged with another very strong album – this time not self-titled and likely a reflection on the band’s need to rebuild. Farndon and Honeyman-Scott were replaced first with a variety of guest players that included Paul Carrack (Squeeze, Roxy Music) before Robbie McIntosh (guitar) and Malcolm Foster (drums) completed the lineup.
Learning to Crawl was the first that I got to know Pretenders, and as a thirteen year-old just diving into the world of modern music, I found the band dull. Holding to my reputation of not often liking hit songs, I didn’t care for the single, “Back on the Chain Gang,” now one of Pretenders’ signature songs. I find it pleasant but uninspiring, and given the many better songs on this album, you won’t find it on this playlist. Regardless, the song went to #17 in the UK (worse, I must note, than their four prior singles) but was the first to reach the top ten in the US. I would have encouraged those that bought it to flip it over and listen to the fantastic B-side and album track, “My City Was Gone,” a groovy, bass-led blues tune that decried the demise of her hometown of Akron, Ohio.
The other big single on the album was the lead track, “Middle of the Road.” In this regard my young ear led me astray as I dismissed it as a throwback to the classic rock of the ‘70s and out of place with the exciting music of new wave and post-punk. I was wrong to dismiss it because over time I’ve come to love the song and appreciate its brilliance. From the drum intro, through its catchy guitar riff and harmonica solo and Hynde’s as-usually restrained but attitude-filled delivery, the song was a wonderful mix of modern rock infused with the soul of classic rock (Hynde acknowledged it was inspired by a Rolling Stones song, which makes sense). It was pure rhythm and energy and gave the band another hit, reaching #19 in the US (but only #81 in the UK).
The album had more ballads and mid-tempo pop songs, making it less aggressive and punky than its predecessors and more accessible. Songs like “Show Me,” “2000 Miles” (since become a Christmas classic) and a cover song, “Thin Line Between Love and Hate,” were all great songs. And then there was the tightly delivered, “Time the Avenger,” which continued the tradition of songs like “Mystery Achievement” and “Message of Love” and proved Pretenders the champions of a distinctive, rhythm-based modern rock that delivered phenomenal hooks. All this added up to another successful album, which was amazing given the band’s significant line-up change and tumult leading into it, and a period that also saw Chrissie split with Ray Davies after the birth of their daughter and marrying Jim Kerr of Simple Minds in 1984, with whom she had a second daughter in 1985. Pretenders’ success during this time was testimony to Hynde’s song writing capabilities, that held the band in stead. Learning to Crawl shifted Pretenders’ base of support more to the rock-friendly US, reaching #5 there while failing to crack the top ten in the UK, their first to come short of that threshold.
My Baby; Tradition of Love; Hymn to Her \ Get Close (1986)
By 1986, if there was ever a doubt, it was clear that Pretenders was Chrissie Hynde’s band. In 1985 she fired Martin Chambers as the drummer as she was unsatisfied with his playing, which left her as the only remaining original member of Pretenders. Chambers’ dismissal prompted the bassist, Malcom Foster, to also quit. Without a rhythm section she and Robbie McIntosh would record the next album with a series of guest players, including Carlos Alomar from David Bowie’s backing band. Hynde also joined with UB40 in 1985 to sing on a cover of Sonny and Cher’s theme song, “I Got You Babe,” which went to #1 in the UK and #28 in the US.
Same as the last album, the new LP, Get Close, was led by a very lukewarm single that still reached the top ten in the UK and the US. “Don’t Get Me Wrong” was simple pop, jauntily bouncing along a simple drum beat and light guitar and piano. The melody was plain and brought nothing interesting out of Hynde’s vocals. Hey, don’t get me wrong (yes, I went there), the song was pleasant and inoffensive (with a cute video in which Chrissie is interspersed with footage of the ‘60s British TV show, The Avengers), but for Pretenders it simply was a step down. Similarly, it went the same for much of the rest of the album though had saving graces.
The ballads were a cut above, “My Baby,” with its large sound, “Tradition of Love,” a mesmerizing mix of vocals and guitar, and the beautiful “Hymn to Her” added to the band’s growing repertoire of outstanding mid- to slow-tempo songs. Unfortunately the rockers gave us less rock and fell into the mid-80s formula of weak music. There were no tight, rhythm-rockers and a venture into R&B, “How Much Did You Get for Your Soul?” was simply terrible. Jim Kerr’s influence was apparent on songs like, “Light of the Moon,” which was not a good thing given Simple Minds were in a creative free-fall after their early ‘80s brilliance.
The album reached #6 in the UK but attained a lesser result of #25 in the US, the first of their albums not to reach the top ten. After the lead single “Hymn to Her” reached #8 in the UK but didn’t chart at all in the US, the next one, “My Baby,” didn’t chart in either major market. Like many bands of the early ‘80s, The Pretenders had some work to do in remaining relevant despite the returning popular interest in rock music during the second half of the decade.
Sense of Purpose \ Packed! (1990)
Pretenders got by over the next few years, offering a song to a James Bond movie, The Living Daylights (perhaps not the Bond movie an artist would want to be attached to, musically or cinematically), and through the release of a compilation, The Singles, that reached #6 in the UK and #69 in the US. By 1990 the world was focusing on grunge music and other forms of alternative rock, and the more straightforward sound of Pretenders was a tough sell.
1990’s album, Packed!, was again created amidst line-up changes. McIntosh left after the recording of Get Close, and things were looking encouraging when The Smiths’ guitarist extraordinaire, Johnny Marr, came aboard. However, that would be short-lived when disagreements with Hynde prompted him to decamp and join up with Matt Johnson in his act, The The as well as working with Bernard Sumner of New Order in Electronic. Joined by session musicians, including some that had played on Get Close, this album was more of a Hynde solo album than any prior Pretenders release.
The results were mixed. It wasn’t as objectionable as Get Close but neither was it at a level of the first three LPs. The personality of Pretenders, despite the consistency of Hynde as songwriter, was mostly lost and there were no singles commensurate with past releases. Ballads like “When Will I See You” were ok, but there were no rockers to get the juices flowing. “How Do I Miss You” had a nice little reggae vibe, and “Downtown-Akron” tried to find the tight rhythm rock of her songs past, but ultimately missed. The only truly great track from the album was “Sense of Purpose,” a nice mid-tempo pop-rock song that captured the engaging personality that Hynde’s vocals could deliver so often to great effect.
The album was the lowest charting thus far for Pretenders and none of the songs charted very well, or at all. A betting man would have written off Chrissie Hynde and her Pretenders brand at that point, but that would have been a foolish wager.
Night in My Veins; Money Talk; 977; Revolution; I’ll Stand by You \ Last of the Independents (1994)
A cover of 10cc’s “I’m Not in Love” was featured on the movie soundtrack to Indecent Proposal in 1993 and released as a single in 1994. Given Chrissie’s fantastic knack with covers from the past, you’d think it would have done well, but the mid-tempo cover of the very subdued original didn’t catch on. Likewise, two Hendrix covers, “May This Be Love” (on Packed!) and “Axis Bold as Love” (on the fantastic 1993 album, Stone Free: A Tribute to Jimi Hendrix) also showed quality but didn’t stir like her past covers.
So it was surprising when Pretenders’ next album, Last of the Independents, was a success musically and commercially. It drew from the punk spirit and modern rock sound of the early band, but with a mature update reflecting its’ forty-two year-old matriarch. The album also drew on a mix of ex-members and contributors from past albums, such as Martin Chambers, James Hood (who played on Packed!), and Robbie McIntosh. It also featured notable players such as Andy Rourke from The Smiths, Andy Hobson from The Primitives, and Ian Stanley from Tears from Fears. Adam Seymour also joined as a permanent member on guitar.
The album led with one of The Pretenders’ best rockers in a decade, “Hollywood Perfume,” followed by the lead single, “Night in My Veins” that drew from the same well as “Back on the Chain Gang” and “Don’t Get Me Wrong” but was delivered with greater energy and attitude, winning me over more than its predecessors. “Money Talk” harkened back to the vibe of the second album, and then “977” rolled out another exemplary Pretenders piano-ballad. “Revolution” was the kind of amazing, mid-tempo rocker in which the band had set the standard in the prior decade. The latter half of the album (now issued on CDs, album sides were a thing of the past) wasn’t as strong but included another standout ballad, “Stand by You.”
It was easily the strongest album by Pretenders since Learning to Crawl and was one of the best albums of the early ‘90s, which is saying something. It reached #8 in the UK, making it the band’s fourth top ten album, but surprisingly only reached #41 in the US, barely better than Packed!. “Stand by You” was the band’s seventh top ten single in the UK, while “Night in My Veins” only reached #25. Neither single did too well in the US with “Stand by You” peaking at #21. It was indicative that, as an aging act, Hynde and her band were going to struggle to attain the heights they’d enjoyed in the formative years.
Popstar; Nails in the Road; One More Time \ ¡Viva El Amor! (1999)
In the 1990s the ‘Unplugged’ show became the rage thanks to the MTV series, offering artists the chance to reinvent their discography in an acoustic and stripped down fashion. Though not part of that series, Pretenders toured in this fashion along with a string quartet, with one show captured during a live TV performance and released as an album in 1995, The Isle of View. The acoustic treatment truly revealed Hynde’s supreme talent in writing beautiful songs.
The Isle of View also allowed greater appreciation for Chrissie’s vocal talent. As the most distinctive and consistent element of the Pretenders’ sound, Hynde can be under-appreciated as a singer. Her nasal-toned sound, limited range, and mix of melody and spoken delivery can bely the strength, passion, and effectiveness of her singing. There isn’t a Pretenders song that is held back or harmed by her voice. Its strength and attitude can often give the impression she’s about to unleash in some multi-octave or piercing outbreak, which clearly isn’t in her repertoire, but the seeming potential for that against her actual delivery creates the sense of restraint, tension, and purpose that in turn give many songs an emotional punch. I’ve never been a fan of the bellowing singers of pop, R&B, and soul, and it’s a unique sounding and subtler singer like Chrissie Hynde that gives, to me, so much more to drink in. I’ve admittedly taken many years to fully appreciate her, but today just the first notes of her voice can bring me the warm rush of familiarity and gratitude for such talent.
In 1999, Hynde sang with Tom Jones on a cover of Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life” on Jones’ album, Reload, and then issued the next Pretenders album, ¡Viva El Amor!, which continued with the energy and quality of Last of the Independents. Again, an energetic and attitude-infused lead track, “Popstar,” showed Hynde hadn’t lost her swagger as she approached fifty. “Human” (another great cover song, this one from the band, Divinyls, that featured singer Chrissy Amphlett, a Hynde-like presence in the Australian music scene, though one that used sexuality more in her style, something Hynde rarely did) and “Nails in the Road” were more of the mid-tempo, hook-filled tracks that were consummate Pretenders. “One More Time” was yet another affecting blues-rock ballad, with as expressive a vocal as we could get from Chrissie.
The album’s cover was a photo of Hynde taken by Linda McCartney, who had recently passed away and in which Chrissie had led her memorial concert (she and McCartney were close friends). The album was also recorded by the most stable line-up for Pretenders since the second album. Chambers was back on drums, joining Seymour, and Andy Hobson was now full-time on bass. Despite the strength of the album it only reached #32 in the UK, again a new charting low point, and likewise in the US at #158. ¡Viva El Amor! was also the last Pretenders album to be released by a major label, being released by Warner after all prior albums had been issued by its sub-label, Sire, and with all subsequent releases coming out on different, independent labels.
Lie to Me; Complex Person; I Should Of; Clean Up Woman \ Loose Screw (2002)
Pretenders’ eighth album continued with the quality. For the first time an entire album was co-credited as Adam Seymour joined Hynde as the album’s author. The album was also performed by the same line-up with Chambers and Hobson, making it the first time since the first two LPs that had happened.
The album was quite laid back for a Pretenders LP, making it their most relaxing listen of all their albums. It started typically with one of their growling rockers, “Lie to Me,” but then settled into ballads and mid-tempo songs with a very melodic flow and the occasional reggae riff, such as on “Walk Like A Panther” (another solid cover song). Given the band’s strength for the downtempo songs, the album grooved from start to finish, yet was generally overlooked, once again becoming the lowest charting album of their career.
Boots of Chinese Plastic; Love’s A Mystery \ Break Up the Concrete (2008) – YouTube playlist only
Dark Sunglasses; Adding the Blue \ Stockholm (Hynde solo album) (2014)
Roadie Man; Gotta Wait; Let’s Get Lost; The Man You Are \ Alone (2016)
In 2005, Pretenders were inducted to the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame, with Hynde and Chambers accepting the honour while the current quartet performed. Chrissie acknowledged the varied line-up of the band over the years and paid tribute to fellow founding members, James Honeyman-Scott and Pete Farndon.
In 2008 came the next LP, Break Up the Concrete, a long six years after the prior release. Looking for a new sound Hynde recorded the album with all new personnel. It was only the third Pretenders album to not include Martin Chambers on drums. In the UK and Brazil it was issued as a double album along with a greatest hits disc (Blondie did similar with their 2014 LP, Ghosts of Download, which was packaged with the Blondie 4(0) Ever album). The album is difficult to find on streaming sites, though did get some chart success, peaking higher than the prior two. Unlike the laid back feel of Loose Screw, it rocked more and included rockabilly and country elements. “Boots of Chinese Plastic” rocked harder than almost anything ever released by Pretenders.
In 2014 Hynde issued the first album of her career under her own name. Stockholm was written and recorded in Sweden with many musicians from that country, primary among them Björn Yttling from the group, Peter, Bjorn & John, along with guests such as Neil Young and John McEnroe (yes, the tennis player, who plays guitar). It’s not clear why, after 35 years of recording under the Pretenders name she chose to dispense with it, but the album did depart somewhat from the Pretenders’ vibe, delivering a smoother and more pop sounding album. Songs like the single, “Dark Sunglasses,” had the same mid-tempo essence of a Pretenders song, and “Adding the Blue” (co-written with Joakim Åhlund of the Swedish band, Teddybears) is another fantastic ballad. I loved the album despite it receiving mixed reviews. I listened to it a lot and caught her solo tour that year, getting the chance to see her perform for the first time and launching me into a more heartfelt and appreciative exploration of the Pretenders catalogue.
Since then there has been one more album, Alone, in 2016 and under the Pretenders name, even though it was once again just Hynde along with hired hands. She wrote the album though co-credits go to Yttling on “Never Be Together” and from fellow Akronite, Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys, on two songs. Her experimentation and exploration of various rock sounds continued as the album covered more ground than traditional Pretenders albums. The lead song, the title track, was a blues-rocker, “Roadie Man” was a blues-country tune before getting into a tough rocker with “Gotta Wait.” “Never Be Together” showed the influence of Yttling as it sounded like a Peter, Bjorn and John song with its echoey, ‘60s-style vibe. The ballads were more stripped than we’d heard over the past twenty years, as on the lovely, “Let’s Get Lost,” a version of which has been issued with Neil Tennant from The Pet Shop Boys; though “The Man You Are” was filled out nicely into a broad, atmospheric feel.
Alone was another solid album from Hynde. The thing about her and Pretenders at this point, and really applies to everything released since the late ‘80s, is if you like her voice and the style of the band, there’s simply an incredibly vast and consistent body of work to explore. If her voice doesn’t jive with you and the band’s modern rock take doesn’t get the juices flowing, there’s likely very little that will make you take notice. It’s the subtler and semi-traditional rock sound of the band that brings that result. Interestingly, it has been the last couple of albums that offer the greatest opportunity to hear something different, a remarkable and admirable thing from an artist that has been at this for forty years.
When you consider the giants of rock and modern rock, I’d bet Pretenders wouldn’t immediately come to mind, despite the induction to the Hall of Fame. But when you think of them you undoubtedly think of Chrissie Hynde and the impressive list of songs and albums issued over the years. Hynde has been one of the most independent, outspoken, and pioneering women in modern rock history. As for Pretenders, modern rock fans will focus on the first few albums, pop fans on the third and fourth albums and Last of the Independents, and probably only the die-hard fans would delve much into anything after. Yet they are as important a contributor to the modern rock sound as there can be, born of an American ex-pat out of the London punk scene, Pretenders forged a smartly written, pure rock sound that eschewed the new wave, dark rock, and synth-pop styles of the post-punk era and paved the way for the guitar-rock bands of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. If you, like me, had Pretenders outside your radar aside from the hits, then reward yourself with a deeper exploration and discover album after album of great modern rock music.