I sat down to write this hours ago but I was overcome with waves of weariness and went and took a nap instead. Anyway – I am back up off the mat and ready to talk music.
Disc 1167 is… Self-Titled
Year of Release: 1980
What’s up with the Cover? Band shot. Bassist Pete Farndon is standing a bit apart from his bandmates for some reason. I think he is going for “edgy cool” but it comes off as “angry nerd.” The other two guys manage to land “affable banker” and “sketchy producer.” The “edgy cool” market Farndon was looking for has been thoroughly cornered by Chrissie Hynde.
How I Came To Know It: I grew up with this album on the radio, but I didn’t buy it until I got a deal on a boxed set of the Pretenders first five albums.
How It Stacks Up: I have five Pretenders albums. Of those five, the Pretenders self-titled debut comes in at…second, just behind “Learning to Crawl”.
Ratings: 4 stars
It is fitting that the Pretenders released their first album in 1980; it is the perfect mix of experimental seventies rock and the glitz and polish of the decade to come.
Chrissie Hynde is the right ambassador for this journey as well. She is sexy, but it is a tough sexy; the kind whose love boys have tattoos (which in 1980 was a lot edgier than it is now). When her boyfriends get down she doesn’t comfort them – she tells them to stop crying and get over it on a killer cover of the Kinks’ “Stop Your Sobbing”.
In addition to very strong Kinks influences (Hynde is a huge fan) there is more than a bit of Patti Smith in Hynde’s delivery. Both women have deep voices, and like Smith, Hynde has a punk-poet delivery to her songs, sometimes jumping the beat with a frantic pace and sometimes singing in an almost spoken word style, floating above the beat, but always mindful of it.
The music overall has a similar forward-leaning energy. This is pretty polished rock and roll, but there are punk sensibilities lodged within it that give it energy mixed with a New Wave jump and the soul or rock and roll.
To mix this stuff together well requires a tight and talented band, and the Pretenders have exactly that. Martin Chambers keeps a frenetic pace on the drums, always riding on the edge of losing control. James Honeyman Scott’s guitar is wise enough to recognize that Hynde’s vocals are the centerpiece of the sound, but when called upon he delivers a wicked lick. I particularly love his work on “The Wait,” mixing in the chk-chk-chk of deadened strings with a killer walk-down riff that gives the song its power.
The record started a bit rough for me, but it was more a matter of personal taste. The opening track “Precious” is strongly punk and it is followed by the similarly rough around the edges “Phone Call,” which again shows many Kinks elements, including the short sharp guitar barks at the front of the beat. These songs are full of grit, but I like the Pretenders a bit more where they are working in a bit of melodic smooth to counterbalance all the jump.
This is a minor criticism, however, on a record that grows on me with every listen. From “Up the Neck” at track three through to the end, I was continually impressed, and also surprised with the sheer number of sonic choices they make without ever losing the core of their sound. There are hand claps, spoken word, multiple guitar effects and even a bit of doo wop background singing from the boys, who “ooh and aah” on “Up The Neck” in a way worthy of a sixties vocal trio. On the instrumental “Space Invaders” they manage to make a mix stoner groove rock song with video game sounds to good effect.
It is rare to see this kind of bravery on a first album, and I’m happy that in 1980 the Soulless Record Execs were still taking chances with bands willing to try something a little different. They were even rewarded with the Pretenders’ most timeless hit “Brass in Pocket”. I’ve heard this song a thousand times, but it is so good it has never worn out its welcome. Hearing it lodged artfully among a collection of other great songs, each of which lifts its neighbours up, makes it even better.
And on that happy note, it is time to move on to the next album in the CD Odyssey. What will it be? I don’t even know that…yet.
Best tracks: Up the Neck, Tattooed Love Boys, The Wait, Stop Your Sobbing, Brass in Pocket