To commemorate the 1000th British Number 1 album – the mighty Swings Both Ways by Britain’s finest – Mr Robbie Williams, Rob set the beastly theme of bringing a British Number 1 to Record Club. As my eyes ran down the list on Wikipedia, I became ever more acutely aware of just how much I have avoided the more popular end of the music business over the years – to such an extent that, even including the 10 or so Beatles albums I own (none of which are contenders for Record Club) my grand total languishes around the 3% figure. And of those 30 or so albums, many are by artists that have already been represented in our previous 58 meetings or are albums that have actually been brought already…or are rubbish! Thankfully, The Pretenders’ debut album is tremendous and was a British Number 1 and is by a band that has barely had a sniff of a mention at record club thus far.
Which, for me, is baffling. Not because we haven’t been talking about it at Record Club per se, but because it simply isn’t a record that gets talked about very much at all. The Pretenders seem to inhabit a kind of musical appreciation twilight zone – the singles are liked (but, perhaps, not revered – after all everyone fawns over Fairytale of New York these days, but 2000 Miles is a pretty amazing Xmas song too and barely gets a mention) and the albums are generally disregarded. Indeed, I only bought the debut album a couple of years ago, mainly because I love Brass In Pocket and felt that my collection was incomplete without it. But the album offers so much more than a couple of well known hits and a bunch of filler.
In fact the first six tracks of The Pretenders may have you thinking that someone at the record factory has slipped in a record by a different band altogether. The album kicks off with the high octane and really pretty nasty Precious (complete with one of the most convincing ‘fuck off’s I’ve ever heard on disc), through the staccato riffage of the exhilarating Tattooed Love Boys and the quite brilliant The Wait (which starts off sounding like the succeeding jangly Stop Your Sobbing but soon takes the listener somewhere much more dark and menacing and unexpected). Fourth track Space Invader is an eye opening instrumental that, considering its name, doesn’t sound dated at all. It’s a surprising start to the career of a band that went on to have a string of pop hits throughout the next decade and reflects a group that is brimful of ideas and punkish energy. The change in The Pretenders’ sound over time must also be partly due to the drug related deaths of two of the original four band members in 1982 – guitarist James Honeyman-Scott and bass player Pete Farndon. Perhaps they were the grit in The Pretenders’ oyster from which the subsequent pop pearls were formed.
Certainly, the band The Pretenders were to become can be much more clearly heard on the second side of the album – maybe this was where Chrissie Hynde was allowed to flex her song-writing muscles more fully – the compromise to side one’s bluster. As soon as the initial twangy guitar of Kid’s initial motif kicks off it is clear that The Pretenders are much more multi-faceted than the first side of the record suggests. As well as thrilling and raucous, the flip-side of the album shows that sweet and melodious also come easily. And that’s the thing….it all seems so effortless. Kid is a brilliant song in its own right but the fact that it is followed the brooding and smoky Private Life (surely Grace Jones’ most famous song) then the pure pop of the glistening Brass in Pocket and then the St Vincent blueprint of Lover’s of Today makes the variety of side 2 almost as unexpected as the hard-hitting nature of side 1. But The Pretenders see fit to round things off with a return to where they kicked things off. Mystery Achievement is a classic rocker and a fine and (unsurprisingly) unusual way to end an album.
For all its lack of convention (the sequencing, the swearing, the lack of a unified sound), The Pretenders works brilliantly and just goes to show that sometimes the music that rises to the top of the charts can also be challenging, unpredictable…and absolutely magnificent. Just need to go and check out those other 970 possibilities now! Maybe Celine Dion ain’t all that bad after all.
Rob listened: It was great to hear this for the first time. What a strange band The Pretenders were, or at least how strange they seemed then, when I was 8, and how oddly they fit into the pop landscape in hindsight. This record bristled and hustled and combined pop punk sheen with Chrissie Hynde’s uniquely cool tension. Loads to love about it. I’ll be keeping an eye on the second hand racks.
Graham Listened: Really odd that I have never listened to this album, or in fact any whole Pretenders album. Always liked the sound but never felt need to investigate further. Really an album of 2 halves, but each are cracking.