Had the Pretenders gone no further than their '84 CD "Learning To Crawl" (which almost happened) they would have accomplished a lot.
In the mid '70s, Ohio born Chrissie Hynde left the U.S. for London where she got a job writing for the New Music Express. By '78, she'd hooked up with Martin Chambers (drums), James Honeyman-Scott (guitar) and Pete Farndon (bass). Released in '80, the Pretender's self-titled debut featured the Kinks "Stop You Sobbing (written by Kink, Ray Davies)," the hit "Brass In Pocket" and the best Rocker on the CD "Mystery Achievement." "Pretenders II" had "Message Of Love," "I Go To Sleep" (another Ray Davies song - Hynde was living with him at the time) and "Talk Of The Town."
This is where the story takes an ironic twist. Bassist Farndon was rolling out of control due to drugs and alcohol. His playing was suffering to say the least. So it was decided to kick him out of the band. The next day (6/16/82), guitarist Honeyman-Scott died from a drug overdose. Farndon wasn't any luckier. A year later, he too succumbed to drugs.
Only Hynde and Chambers were left. They started working with Rockpile guitarist Billy Bremner and bassist Tony Butler. They produced "My City Was Gone" and "Back On The Chain Gang." Then Robbie McIntosh and his pal Malcolm Foster were installed on guitar and bass. This line-up the recorded the remaining tracks for the group's premier album "Learning To Crawl."
Band instability, a true Pretender's trait, surfaced again. Chambers was sacked but later returned. However, it wasn't long before McIntosh and Foster departed for good, replaced by Adam Seymour (guitar) and Andy Hobson (bass). The solid "Get Close" CD landed in '86 while the lukewarm "Packed" with "Never Do That" and "Sense Of Purpose" arrived four years later. Another four years passed before "Last Of The Independents," containing the emotional ballad "I'll Stand By You," hit the stores.
"Viva El Amour" released in '99 was one of their strongest CDs in years. "Human" was the first single but "Popstar" was the most Rockin' and had some great Hynde lyrics. "Loose Screw," with Reggae influences and solid songwriting, arrived in '02. A modest commercial success, the album was the group's last shot at notoriety for a couple of years.
In '05, the Pretenders were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Only Hynde and Chambers attended. In her acceptance speech, Hynde called out all the musicians who'd been in the group before making a special, if puzzling, tribute. "I know that the Pretenders have looked like a tribute band for the last 20 years. ... And we're paying tribute to James Honeyman Scott and Pete Farndon, without whom we wouldn't be here. And on the other hand, without us, they might have been here, but that's the way it works in Rock 'n' Roll."
Following the Hall of Fame ceremony the Pretenders toured and in '06 bassist Nick Wilkinson joined marking the first line-up change in over a decade. But more changes were in the offing. Keeping Wilkinson, Hynde rebuilt the group again with James Walbourne, Eric Heywood on guitars and legendary drummer Jim Keltner (though Chambers was the touring drummer). This line-up issued '08's "Break Up The Concrete," the Pretenders first studio album in six years.
The Pretenders celebrated the album's release with a set at New York's Highline Ballroom. Hynde and Chambers led the group through a 17-tune set that kicked-off with the album's lead single, "Boots Of Chinese Plastic."
The Pretenders were often tagged as "Chrissie Hynde's band." As time passed, the truer it became. The Pretenders' debut shows them in top form. "Brass In Pocket" got a lot of airplay but the other tracks were easily its equal. "Pretenders II" is only a slight step down. Maybe it is the old sophomore jinx. Crowning achievement, "Learning To Crawl," opens with "Middle Of The Road."
Since then, it's largely been hit or miss. "The Singles" captures many Pretenders' classics but omits some of the group's best songs including "My City Was Gone" and "Mystery Achievement." Maybe there wasn't room but there should have been.
That problem was finally resolved with the '06 arrival of the "Pirate Radio" box set, a complete chronicle of Hynde and the Pretenders' incredible career. The package includes all the group's hits and important tracks plus live cuts and demos (it opens with a demo of "Precious," which sounds great). The Reggae stuff is a bit of a sleeper but the rest is as potent as ever. The price may seem high (hey, its 81 songs!) but it's a great value.
"Break Up The Concrete" has The Pretenders going retro. Way retro. And that's where the album is most appealing whether they are plying Rockabilly ("Boots Of Chinese Plastic" and "Don't Cut Your Hair"), Bo Diddley (the title track) or dirty Blues ("Rosalee"). The other half of the set is not quite as engaging but is still has merit. "Don't Lose Faith In Me" comes off as a low-key "I'll Stand By You" while the pop perfect, mid-tempo acoustic ballad "Love's A Mystery" ("leaving evidence and clues") shows Hynde's vulnerability, as does the closing number, "One Thing Never Changed."
Gotta Haves: The Pretenders - 1980: The best known song from this album is "Brass In Pocket," a jangle Rocker with Hynde's sensual voice playing the title's double meaning to the hilt. It also has the power Rockers "Precious" and "Tattooed Love Boys." Hynde's plaintive vocals on "Kid" are exquisite. But the standout track is the muscular "Mystery Achievement." Great rhythm and drive. Again Hynde's vocals, both breathy and tough, are outstanding.
Learning To Crawl - 1984: From the ruins, the Pretenders rise. A rumbling bass riff drives the ode to Hynde's native Ohio, "My City Was Gone." "Back On The Chain Gang" sees the Pretenders returning to their jangle Rock roots complete with catchy "ooh" and "ah" backing vocals. The aggressive Rocker "Middle Of The Road" is hands down the best song. Hynde wraps things up with a harmonica bit that sounds like a wailing cat. The lyrics deal with getting older ("I got a kid, I'm 33"). At least she's not going quietly.