The Pretenders: Their 10 greatest songs, from Kid to Don't Get Me Wrong

Forty years ago, the band achieved the comparatively rare achievement of topping the UK album and singles charts at the same time

Graeme Ross
Friday 17 January 2020 11:01 GMT
Chrissie Hynde at Latitude Festival
Chrissie Hynde at Latitude Festival (Getty)

I only recently caught up with last year’s Chrissie Hynde covers album Valve Bone Woe, undoubtedly a minor triumph for one of the finest and most inspirational frontwomen in rock.

The inevitable outcome, of course, was that it rekindled my interest in The Pretenders’ back catalogue, which in turn reminded me that it is now an unbelievable four decades since this great band first came to prominence. In fact, it is exactly 40 years ago that The Pretenders achieved the comparatively rare feat of topping the UK singles and albums charts simultaneously with the classic single “Brass in Pocket” and their terrific self-titled debut album.

Formed in 1978 by Hynde (from Akron, Ohio), guitarist James Honeyman-Scott, bassist Pete Farndon and drummer Martin Chambers (all of whom hailed from Hereford), The Pretenders quickly found their metier on their first two albums, expertly blending new wave and melodic rock, all topped off by Hynde’s talent as a songwriter and her distinctive, wavering voice, equal parts heartache and liquid gold. It helped, too, that she was effortlessly cool and exuded bags of attitude.

However, the first incarnation of The Pretenders was beset by tragedy, with the drugs-related deaths of Honeyman-Scott and Farndon in 1982 and 1983 respectively. Thereafter, Hynde employed a rotating cast of musicians and headed in a more pop-orientated direction while still retaining an edge. The result was some of the finest singles of the era. Over the ensuing years it became virtually impossible to separate Hynde and The Pretenders; for most people she is The Pretenders and will continue to be. A tour of America has recently been announced, so the franchise is still with us. Fingers crossed for some UK gigs, and perhaps some new material – but in the meantime, this is my pick of The Pretenders’ Ten Greatest Songs.

10) “Precious” (Pretenders, 1980)

The Pretenders seemingly arrived from nowhere, but Hynde had been around the UK punk scene for several years before hooking up with her three Hereford boys. The outcome is still generally considered to be one of the best debut albums of all time. With its power pop credentials and lashings of punk attitude, Pretenders chimed perfectly with the new decade’s musical landscape, and nowhere was this more apparent than on opening track “Precious”. The thrashed guitar intro takes us back to punk’s year zero of 1977 and the song has all the breathless rush of punk, although it soon heads off on a path of its own without losing any of its fiery intensity. Drawing on memories of her home town, Hynde established her “take no crap” persona from the get-go, putting her own inimitable stamp on proceedings with the song’s memorable four-letter kiss off.

9) “Alone” (Alone, 2016)

Alone came at a time when the Hynde swagger had been posted as missing for much too long – it had been eight years since the last Pretenders album, with only 2014’s solo album Stockholm sating her admirers. Originally envisaged as a solo project but eventually released by The Pretenders, Alone reinforced the perception that the band and Chrissie Hynde had long before become one and the same.

With sympathetic production by The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, Alone was an impressive collection, the opening talk-sung title track emphatically reasserting Hynde’s independence and ballsy persona. She’s at her best when she’s alone, she huskily informs us over a woozy arrangement of barrelhouse piano, Stax-style keyboards and bluesy Stones-like guitars – and what’s more, she likes it.

8) “Don’t Get Me Wrong” (Get Close, 1986)

Hynde has recently said she wrote “Don’t Get Me Wrong” for her friend John McEnroe, but don’t let that spoil your enjoyment of this exquisite example of her mastery of the radio-friendly song. A Bo Diddley-esque rhythm powers this self-deprecating love song told from the female perspective and, allied to a nifty video, “Don’t Get Me Wrong” cracked the top 10 on both sides of the Atlantic.

7) “I’ll Stand By You” (Last of the Independents, 1994)

A self-conscious attempt by Hynde to create an instant standard, right down to her choice of writing partners Tom Kelly and Billy Steinberg, who number “Eternal Flame” and “True Colours” in their list of achievements. She succeeded admirably with this epic lighters-in-the-air anthem. With its universal themes of love, loyalty and fortitude, this is a song so moving that it has survived covers by Girls Aloud and Rod Stewart as well as countless renditions on talent shows.

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6) “Mystery Achievement” (Pretenders, 1980)

Bringing the debut album to a barnstorming close is the mighty “Mystery Achievement”, a full-on, bass-driven rocker with trademark tremolo vocals from Hynde, powerhouse drumming from Chambers, and Honeyman-Scott demonstrating the full range of his virtuosity. The real mystery about this song may be what, exactly, is a Cuban Slide? However, four decades on, the track remains a stunning achievement.

5) “Middle of the Road” (Learning to Crawl, 1984)

The Pretenders’ third record and their first without Farndon and Honeyman-Scott was much better than anyone had a right to expect. There’s at least a handful of classics on the album, none more so than “Middle of the Road”, on which Hynde touches upon the trappings of fame and the passage of time while resolutely facing up to the demands of motherhood.

This is pure, basic, rootsy rock’n’roll at its best, with new guitarist Robbie McIntosh immediately putting his own mark on The Pretenders’ sound – and yes, that’s Hynde blowing up a storm on harmonica on the outro.

4) “Talk of the Town” (Pretenders ll, 1980)

Gossip and paranoia stalk this terrific power ballad, which boasts Byrds-influenced jangly guitars and a typically gorgeous, yearning vocal from Hynde. “Talk of the Town”, like many Hynde songs, is autobiographical, with Ray Davies thought to be the subject of her unrequited love – although they would eventually get together.

A follow-up single to “Brass in Pocket”, “Talk of the Town” peaked at number eight in the charts, and the UK’s only Pretenders tribute act took its title as their moniker.

3) “Kid” (Pretenders, 1980)

Coming hard on the heels of their debut single, a lovely cover of the Kinks’ “Stop Your Sobbing”, The Pretenders retained that record’s sixties vibe for follow-up hit “Kid”. The identity of the subject of Hynde’s love and devotion is never made clear, but pop doesn’t come much more perfect or evocative than this, with her achingly tender vocal and Honeyman-Scott’s tremendous soloing – a sublime hybrid of Duane Eddy and Roy Orbison – elevating the song to classic status.

2) “Back on the Chain Gang” (Learning to Crawl, 1984)

“Back on the Chain Gang” is both a moving elegy for Honeyman-Scott and a defiant statement from Hynde that, after the guitarist’s death and the departure of Pete Farndon in 1982 (he left the band before his death), The Pretenders were by no means finished. There’s a beautiful melody, chiming riffs aplenty from Billy Bremner and characteristically warm vocals from Hynde, who celebrates her own resilience on a song that was a hit single in 1982.

1) “Brass in Pocket” (Pretenders, 1980)

Yes, it’s one of those ubiquitous songs so familiar that you probably wouldn’t choose to play it at home very often, but when it comes on the radio or you inadvertently catch the video on the telly or YouTube, you can’t resist its funky swagger. Hynde’s bold and seductive vocal flipped rock’s traditional male posturing, with her dynamic band providing wonderfully assured backing. The ultimate Pretenders song and the prime example of Hynde’s flair for a winning melody and a catchy pop hook, “Brass in Pocket” became the first new number one of the 1980s and launched the band to almost overnight fame.

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