"We're paying tribute to James Honeyman-Scott and Pete Farndon," the Pretenders' Chrissie Hynde announced upon the band's induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2005, "without whom we wouldn't be here." Honeyman-Scott was the original guitarist for the group; Farnon the original bassist. Both met with tragic, early deaths because of drugs, which is probably why Hynde went on with the observation that, "on the other hand, without us, they might have been here, but that's the way it works in rock 'n' roll."
"That's the way it works in rock 'n' roll" is a sobering statement, especially in light of Amy Winehouse's premature death over this past weekend. The music industry has always had an unfortunate closeness with a drug-induced brand of hedonism that is often too easily laughed off. But the Pretenders (and Winehouse) show that fame and fortune often come at an unfortunate price. The vast waste of talent, the sheer fucking uselessness of these sorts of deaths, are both tragic and infuriating.
The Pretenders are a strange cross of the "burn fast and bright" kind of rock band, and the "elder statesmen" type that continue to release albums long after anyone's stopped paying attention. Half of the band's members were dead within three years of their first LP, and drummer Martin Chambers would soon after quit due to the emotional problems of losing those two members. But lead singer Chrissie Hynde has had a remarkably long and productive career that still continues. The Pretenders are one of those strange bands that still technically exist in some capacity even though they stopped being "The Pretenders" decades ago.
There's an old philosophical problem called the ship of Theseus - if you take Ship A, and start replacing it plank by plank, at what point is the ship no longer Ship A? Or can we still consider it the same object? It's the sort of question easily applicable to rock ensembles with rotating members. With very few exceptions, most bands fade away after a major change in lineup. Yet, to my surprise, the Pretenders' Learning to Crawl is quite a good album, even with only half the original band. So perhaps it might be worth paying attention after the switch sometimes, after all.
ARTIST OF THE WEEK: The Pretenders
WHAT I KNEW BEFORE: Very little to none. Some of the songs (especially "Brass in Pocket") sounded vaguely familiar, though I don't think the Pretenders is necessarily one of those bands that's achieved eternal radio ubiquity the way some other groups from that time period have.
MY LISTENING: I listened to Pretenders (1980) every day this week. I also listened to Pretenders II (1981) three times, and Learning to Crawl (1983) twice.
WHAT I LIKED: I think what I liked most about the Pretenders is how versatile they are - it's hard to really categorize them at all. You can sort of trace their influences back to some classic rock and also punk and maybe some new wave stuff, but they're also sort of anticipating some alternative rock that would come later in the 80s (The Smiths' Johnny Marr was a big fan of the Pretenders' guitar work). The Pretenders were a band that just happened to flower during a transition period in the musical world, and so they're standing with just one foot in a lot of camps.
But even apart from genre influences, the band is adept at jumping from hard rock to more melodic pop on the same album. Chryssie Hynde delivers the best iteration of "Fuck off!" in the history of music in "Precious," a fast-paced, loud-riff rock song. But we also see some tender, beautifully melodic pop ballads in songs like "Talk of the Town." She's unable to be categorized as the "wild female rocker" or the "emotional female singer," but she is a little bit of both.
The aforementioned James Honeyman-Scott's guitar work also keeps the songs interesting - half the time he's playing straight loud riffs, but then there's the jangly proto-R.E.M. guitar solo in "Kid," and the strange solo that fits perfectly with the mysterious aura of "Private Life." His guitar work is able to play off of Hynde's songwriting in just the right way; his work embellishes the songs without ever making him the focal point.
The Pretenders undoubtedly lost something when Honeyman-Scott passed away, but Learning to Crawl is a surprisingly solid album for all that, even if it's a bit more pop-heavy than its predecessors. "Middle of the Road" and "Back on the Chain Gang" are both solid hits, and "My City Was Gone" is one of the better songs I've heard about Ohio.
WHAT I DIDN'T LIKE:
Sometimes the Pretenders can be a bit corny. The whipping sound effects on "Bad Boys Get Spanked" (already an unfortunate title) are a bit over the top, and "2000 Miles," the group's Christmas song, is a too sweet for my taste.
But really, the Pretenders records I listened to were surprisingly consistent, with only one real dud ("Thin Line Between Love and Hate"). The band was adept enough at switching between several different styles, so things never really get stale, and Hynde's songwriting (and the songs she borrowed from then-boyfriend Ray Davies) are strong all the way through.
FURTHER EXPLORATION WOULD ENTAIL: The Pretenders have another six albums after Learning to Crawl, but no one seems to have much to say about them, and at some point they could probably be considered Hynde solo albums. I'll stick with these albums, thanks.
BEST SONG YOU'VE HEARD: "Brass in Pocket"
BEST SONG YOU HAVEN'T HEARD: "Space Invader"
This is far from one of their best songs, but I'm a sucker for instrumentals.
NEXT WEEK'S ARTIST: Queen