In 1979 The Pretenders released their first three singles.
The lyrics of the second single, ‘Kid’, are still stuck in my mind 40 years on.
“Kid you’ve changed your mood, you’ve gone all sad, so I feel sad too. But you won’t cry, I know angry tears are too dear, you won’t let them go.”‘Kid’ by Chrissie Hynde
Chrissie Hynde’s vocal alongside the irresistible Dave Edmunds-style rock and roll guitar intro (listen to ‘Girls Talk’, also released in 1979) drew me into the song’s story. Alongside the lyrics a fresh, country-style guitar solo confirmed that I was hearing something new. That captivating, open guitar sound was clearly based on influences such as Edmunds, Nick Lowe and Hank Marvin and it seemed that it was being invigorated for the 1980s. And, for the first time to my ears, there were lyrics from a female perspective that actually meant something to the seventeen year old me. It was a sound that was going to define an era, copied by later 80s hit-makers such as Aztec Camera, Prefab Sprout and The Smiths. So while my Art Foundation student friends were falling over themselves to prove which of them was the biggest Bowie fan, I was off into the new decade with The Pretenders.
Bowie might have been cool and out there on his own, but he was old. Later, when my friends inevitably made their graduations from Bowie to Morrissey, I wasn’t impressed. The suffocating chart music of the mostly dreary 1970s was all a pocket-money dependent teenager like me had to listen to. The charts were dominated by Glam Rock, novelty songs and Abba. Punk crashed in around 1976 (while I was a couple of years too young to care) but was quickly fading by the end of the decade and being usurped by more mainstream New Wave bands. Electronica was glimmering ahead. Meanwhile I dabbled in Ska, Motown, blues and country rock looking for a place to connect. I toyed a bit with Paul Weller’s Surrey mod-coolness, even joining old school friends for weekend forays into metal but for me, a seventies-into-eighties art student, the connection I was looking for would come through upcoming, more uncategorizable artists: The Clash, Kate Bush, U2 and The Pretenders.
For me Chrissie Hynde’s band had the edge. (Not The Edge, he’s in U2). Of course I wasn’t to know that Chrissie was a big Bowie fan – I can’t tell now whether that would’ve affected her status in my young mind – but Bowie had been exotically English for her in the early seventies and he was boring to me in the late. Alongside Chrissie, The Pretenders’ originator, song writer, lead vocalist and guitarist, were an untamed, experimental bunch of three young friends from Hereford: The versatile and highly influential James Honeyman Scott (Jimmy Scott) on lead guitar and keyboard, Pete Farndon on bass and, eventually, Martin Chambers on drums. They had some experience, having played together before meeting Chrissie. A line up who could turn its hands to progressive sound-art collages and to tempting, tuneful, hit-making melodies. Chrissie’s fascinating lyrics were given a bleeding edge by Jimmy’s jangling, bright solos and modern flourishes.
In 1983, five years after The Pretenders formed, The Smiths had emerged from the Manchester scene, taking the pop world by storm with their first single ‘Hand in Glove’. By now other bands were copying the distinctively 1980s guitar sound I recognised from the 1979 hits ‘Stop Your Sobbing’, ‘Kid’ and ‘Brass in Pocket’ but it was Morrissey’s wordy, indifferent, un-rock-like style which was eclipsing everything that went before. I had to admit he was something else. But of course The Smiths’ sound owed as much to Johnny Marr’s bright and jangly guitar as it did to Morrissey’s lyrics and motley delivery. And at that very early time, Marr owed his sound to George Harrison, Neil Young and Jimmy Scott. (Following Jimmy’s death, Johnny Marr even became a Pretender, for a 1987 tour in South America.)
Perhaps in the beginning it was the alluring enigma of ‘Kid’ that sweet-talked me in. I’ve always been fascinated by words. Was Chrissie Hynde’s one sided conversation with a child? Did she have a child? Or maybe she was singing to a younger sibling? Or a lover? I didn’t care enough to really want to know the answer, but through my late teens I aspired to be the kind of woman Chrissie appeared to me to be. Bearing in mind that I’d never seen her interviewed or even watched a music video, to me she appeared beguiling but distant. Rock-chick-beautiful, but clearly much too innovative and ambitious to just be a rock-chick. Managing to look as though you weren’t trying was what I aspired to more than anything, and Chrissie looked as if she wasn’t trying. Nothing could be further than the truth. She’d been trying her heart out while I was still in nursery.
I loved ‘Kid’. It seemed an appropriate, un-frilly, grown up woman’s song and was the Pretenders’ second single in 1979. The first, ‘Stop your Sobbing’ was an old Kinks song written by Ray Davies. Those two singles didn’t make the UK chart top 30. But their third, ‘Brass in Pocket’, which hit the charts at the end of the year, was the one that got them really noticed. In the 1970s when few of us had the opportunity to see music videos, we had to make do with mostly lip-synced BBC-selected performances once a week on ‘Top of the Pops’. MTV Europe wasn’t launched until 1987. MTV UK not until ten years later. Over all these past 40 years it has never occurred to me to search out the ‘Kid’ music video. Such was the strength and power of that song in my memory, watching the video seemed irrelevant. Like having read a book and not wanting to see the subsequent film for fear of spoiling the book. At the time actually purchasing music was a big event that required some sacrifice. A 7 inch vinyl single was never cost effective enough for my meagre earnings so I sacrificially waited for the album. My wage packet contained just £4.91 for a Saturday’s work. It took me longer than a week to save up for The Pretenders’ self titled debut album in 1980! But my reward was TWELVE songs that belonged to me. To be seventeen and own so much power! It was giddy-ing. In January 1980 my vindication came as ‘Brass in Pocket’ hit Number 1 in the UK. Now everyone was a Pretenders fan.
Back home in my room with my precious album on the record player, the assault of the initial tracks (‘Precious’, ‘The Phone Call’ and ‘Up the Neck’) made for a challenging opening few minutes for a naive teenager in 1979. ‘Precious’ is a sweary attack of a song while ‘The Phone Call’ jars and crashes with its harsh opening statement and minimal lyrics part-spoken and distorted. The sounds of a UK payphone’s ringing tone and ‘pips’ were collaged over the distinctive lead guitar. Hearing it now still conjures up the unromantic, vile smell and atmosphere of a British public telephone box of the era and the panic as time runs down, the money runs out and the ‘pips’ let you know you’re about to be cruelly ‘cut off’. But then Chrissie was a punk rocker so maybe that was part of what she was going for. Next on Side One is ‘Up the Neck’ with its new-to-me poetic combinations of words and phrases, more sweetly sung with backing vocals; it’s the first song on the album with anything like a normal pop time signature. But still that lead guitar trails off to somewhere that possibly surprised the player. ‘Tattooed Love Boys’ would be pure punk aggression if not for the sparkling, jangly, Jimmy Scott guitar flourishes; then comes ‘Space Invader’, an another instrumental, collaged with familiar, electronic sounds of the video game. It offers a relatively melodic interlude before ‘The Wait’, another crashing, shouty track overlaid with sounds of panting. So that’s already six tracks of revelationary new sounds and ideas blustering my seventeen year old brain.
‘Stop Your Sobbing’, saved till last on side one of the album first appeared on the Kinks’ debut album in 1964. Ray Davies also wrote ‘I Go To Sleep’ which appeared on Pretenders II in 1981. Chrissie was well aware of the Kinks long before landing up in London. Her teenaged friends back home in Ohio had helped introduced her to new music, the mid-west having some of the best radio in sixties America. Ohio also had the advantage of seeing touring bands early, as they tried out their sets on the ‘hayseeds’ before playing in any major city. (Later, Chrissie and Ray began a relationship which produced their daughter, Natalie.) Chrissie’s exceptional musical education shows up in the set list of ‘The Pretenders’. Flip over the vinyl and the first song on side two is ‘Kid’, followed by ‘Private Life’ (which became a hit for Grace Jones in the same year), the Number 1 hit ‘Brass in Pocket’, ‘Lovers of Today’ and finally ‘Mystery Achievement’. Twelve tracks to play loud as instructed by a nonsensical sentence printed on the album’s inner sleeve: “This album has a longer running time than most average LP’s, therefore to achieve maximum effect PLAY THIS ALBUM LOUD”. I didn’t know what it meant but I did play it loud.
As a shop assistant in our local newsagents’, I had plenty of opportunity to learn the lyrics of my favourite pop songs. We’d nick a copy of ‘Smash Hits’ off the shelf and study the pages under the shop counter. I always wondered if they really were the actual original lyrics, as written by the song’s writer, or if someone at the magazine sat and listened to the songs and wrote down what they thought the lyrics were. Sometimes what I read didn’t sound much like what I was hearing. Frustratingly for me Chrissie’s vocal delivery wasn’t always as clear as I’d have liked so there was always a degree of blurring over the lyrics that we’d failed to make out. ‘Brass in Pocket’ was particularly indecipherable. I struggled hard to make out what Chrissie said she was ‘gonna use’ ‘to get your attention’. In our art studio my much more worldly girlfriend assured me that Chrissie was saying she was gonna use her ‘sassy’. I’d never heard the word ‘sassy’ before and I half believed that my friend was making it up, but she had older siblings so she was probably right and I went with it although it didn’t sound right to me. If ‘sassy’ was a word at all, wasn’t it an adjective? How could you ‘use’ an adjective? With no lyric sheet provided I couldn’t argue my point with any proof, so with Chrissie staring out of the album cover all red leather and black lace, daring me to argue with her poet’s licence, I reckoned ‘sassy’ must be it.
Whatever the words were, I just wanted to BE her. I wanted to be Chrissie. But I was an awkward, fresh-out-of-Sunday School girl. Correctly or incorrectly, sassy was never going to be for me. Chrissie was out of my league; a woman who at my age was backstage at a Cream gig, seeking out Eric Clapton to tell him he needed to hear BB King! I didn’t even have the confidence needed for dressing up. Brave for me was sewing a few patches on my jeans or denim jacket. Where Chrissie ran towards danger I would run away. For me adolescent confusion usually won the day, as I regularly chose to opt out rather than opt in. Yet, being a Foundation Studies art student I felt the pressure to aspire to a London art school. We had to be original to be anyone and I knew that after I’d have one chance to get into a London degree school or be forever left behind in the Shires. I didn’t dare risk it. So instead I saved all my Saturday wages for a Chrissie-look-a-like red leather jacket from the local Sunday market and disconsolately applied to the Shires. * *
Art School was fun while it lasted but it didn’t set me up for a lifetime of creativity. If anything it scared me off. Since graduating from Bristol Polytechnic in 1984 with my 2nd class Fine Art degree I’ve suffered with a debilitating fear of making art. Getting it wrong can still sometimes feel worse than not trying. Most of my art student years, 1978 to 82, saw the beginning and the end of my favourite band. During that time they produced two albums: Pretenders and Pretenders II; a North American EP, ‘Extended Play’; and a number of singles, but in 1981 Pete’s heroin use was causing the already stretched relationships within the band to creak. With their world tour finished, in early Summer 1982 Pete was let go. Then tragically, suddenly and so shockingly, Jimmy Scott died in his sleep from heart failure brought on by his cocaine use. I was staggered by the waste. In her autobiography ‘Reckless’ Chrissie says her (and their) story is a story of drug abuse. Describing how she carries the guilt, she expresses the feeling that Pete and Jimmy had been dragged into that story. Only Martin and Chrissie survive from those days as not long after Jimmy died Pete Farndon was found dead in his bath.
Things would never be quite the same again, although The Pretenders have continued to make music and tour. The various lineups over the years have produced another 15 albums, including three live albums and four compilations. Although I went to a lot of gigs in those days, somehow I never saw that original lineup play. But had I seen them back then I may well remember them differently now. Because their glory days were my glory days, they were all over in a flash. As Chrissie Hynde reflected in the 1984 single ‘Back on the Chain Gang, “I found a picture of you, those were the happiest days of my life.”
Thanks to Shaun Levin for his ‘Writing Map’ prompt, ‘A Song A Day’.