Archive for the ‘The Pretenders’ Category

(As noted in my first Essentials entry, this is an occasional series in which I spotlight albums that, in my estimation, everyone should experience at least once.)

As 1983 slipped into the Orwellian future of 1984, I was 18 and living the suburban commuter-college life. That meant living at home, obviously, and taking a bus to the Willow Grove Park Mall, where I transferred to another bus that then deposited me about a 10-minute walk from the campus. My Walkman clone helped my stay sane during those commutes, which could easily push 75 minutes.

I also worked part time as a movie-theater usher, though the hours frequently pushed into full-time territory – a good thing, as it was minimum-wage pay ($3.35/hour) and I had debts no honest man could pay…

I’ll skip the laundry list of additions to my musical library during that span, but suffice it to that much of the music dated to previous generations. One exception: the Jam’s Snap! collection, a double-LP-dose of enlightenment that I picked up on November 29th. Another: the Pretenders’ Learning to Crawl, which I bought on the day of its release, Tuesday January 17th – the same day that my winter/spring semester began.

Although still fronted by Chrissie Hynde, the Pretenders weren’t the same band that first turned my ear in 1979 and ’80 with “Brass in Pocket.” Guitarist James Honeyman-Scott, who was instrumental in shaping their sound, died at age 25 from a drug overdose in June 1982, a mere two days after bassist Pete Farndon was fired from the band due to his own drug problems. (He died 10 months later from them.)

A month after Honeyman-Scott’s passing, Hynde and drummer Martin Chambers recruited guitarist Billy Bremner (of Rockpile) and bassist Tony Butler (of Big Country) to back them on “Back on the Chain Gang” and “My City Was Gone,” which were released as a 45 in September of ’82. The A-side is a memorable statement of purpose in the face of tragedy. 

The flip side, to borrow from what Suzanne Whately wrote in the December 1982 issue of Record, “proves to be one of Hynde’s more interesting compositions. [T]he autobiographical account of the singer’s return to her native Ohio finds Hynde surveying the overbuilt and now-unfamiliar terrain while weighing her memories with quiet, revealing despair.” It’s a sentiment, I think, everyone can relate to.

Additional sessions saw Andrew Bodnar (of the Rumour) and Paul Carrack help out on a remarkable cover of the Persuasions’ “Thin Love Between Love and Hate”…

… before the Pretenders firmed up their new lineup with guitarist Robbie McIntosh and bassist Malcom Foster. The older I get, the more I identify with the lyrics of the opener, “Middle of the Road”: “The middle of the road is trying to find me/I’m standing in the middle of life with my plans behind me/Well I got a smile for everyone I meet/As long as you don’t try dragging my bay/Or dropping the bomb on my street.”

In short, Learning to Crawl was not as revolutionary an album as the band’s self-titled debut, and yet it was – in its way – revolutionary all the same. Hynde was within spitting distance of middle age, after all, and dealing with the demands of motherhood, to say nothing of the other hardships that adult life brings. Other rockers stumbled when integrating their changing realities into their art (see Pete Townshend’s All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes for one example), but she navigates the new terrain with aplomb – and even finds a way to turn washing one’s clothes into a working-class lament.

The album is also home to another song inspired by Honeyman-Scott’s death, “2000 Miles,” that has, in the decades since, become a staple of Christmastime playlists:

The track list:

 

Once upon a long ago, aka the late ‘70s, children searched for treasure. We pedaled banana-seat bikes to discount department stores – a K-Mart or Montgomery Ward, say – in hopes of striking gold in the record bins. Everything was cheaper there, but the titles were sparse, so in time we rode instead to a nearby music shop whose proprietor let us browse for what seemed like hours on end. And when we settled on a simple single, he thanked us for our purchase and wished us a good day. Later, we set out up a long and steep hill for a rinky-dink mall that housed a Sam Goody’s. The worker-clerks were more gruff and dismissive, and never thanked us for our cash, but it stocked a wider selection. 

In short, we sought the sounds we heard on the radio. Some stations were formatted Top 40, others rock, disco and R&B/soul. It never mattered. We turned the radio dial and were enthralled by almost everything we heard. We were lost in music. Caught in a trap…

“We” is me, of course, just as I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together. Everything I heard, even the old, was new or new-to-me. But children grow into teens, 10-speeds replace banana seats, and the appetite for more (on the cheap, as we had limited budgets) led us to used-record stores.

But my record buying notwithstanding, in the late ‘70s and early ’80s the music industry suffered a major slump. Hand in hand with the downward spiral, radio retrenched. Few new artists were featured, and those who were – Dire Straits, for example – often sounded like the old. For the most part, punk and new wave could only be read about, not heard via the airwaves, on this shore. And though I liked much of the old, as this blog attests, I also wanted to hear a lot of the new.

That’s when the days of buying albums from reviews alone began.

About the same time, in the late ‘70s, I stumbled upon ITV’s The Kenny Everett Video Show. A British program, it aired throughout the U.S. thanks to the magic of syndication – in the Philly area, it was Saturday or Sunday afternoon. In addition to his outlandish (and not always funny) comedy, Everett – a British deejay by trade – featured a who’s who of established and rising British musicians. Paul McCartney & Wings were in the same episode as the Boomtown Rats, for example.

Yeah, listening to that song now, it sounds more Springsteen-esque than new wave, but that’s not the point. It was new. Everett’s show ran the gamut of cool to kitsch, mind you, but at least most of what he featured was different. Kate Bush, Nick Lowe, Elvis Costello, Dave Edmunds, Rachel Sweet and the Pretenders were among the showcased acts

That clip of the Pretenders, by the way, hails from March 15, 1979 – nine months prior to their self-titled debut album being released in the U.K. and 10 months before it was issued in the U.S.

The Midnight Special and Don Kirschner’s Rock Concert were among the other outlets for music on TV, though – like rock radio – they focused primarily on the tried and true, not the new and untested. Solid Gold was for the hits. America’s Top 10, too. Slump or not, the music industry had become a Big Business, and Big Business is often short-sighted when it comes to seeding future growth. 

Unless they’re an upstart. Like MTV. 

The channel began life on August 1, 1981, but at first was only available in a handful of markets (aka the swamps of Jersey). Many viewers, including myself, didn’t actually experience it until the following spring or summer, thanks in part to a smart public relations campaign that played out on most of the other Warner Cable-owned channels: I Want My MTV!

My aunt visited us that summer of ‘82, and I remember her commenting about how the TV – thanks to 16-year-old me – was usually tuned to MTV.

Now, MTV received its share of criticism at the time  – and some of it was deserved. The biggest issue: The lack of artists of color, which its programmers claimed was due to its AOR-like format. (AOR, of course, is album-oriented rock; and about the only artist of color featured in that format at the time was Jimi Hendrix.) 

The reality, however, was that MTV’s approach to AOR wasn’t in keeping with AOR radio. Far from it. Duran Duran, for example, broke big in the U.S. because MTV played – and played, and played, and played – the videos for “Hungry Like a Wolf” and “Rio” in late ’82. Here’s the former:

I never heard that song on Philly’s twin pillars of rock radio, WMMR and WYSP. Only MTV. As the years progressed, however, they cast their net wider and began to reflect music fans like me, who enjoyed pretty much everything. But in the beginning, “have video, get played” may as well have been its mantra. Here’s one example: Romeo Void, whose “Never Say Never” was a staple of its early days.

Joan Jett, the Go-Go’s, Michael Jackson, Madonna, Prince, Van Halen, and the Bangles are just a handful of the artists and acts whose success (or mega-success, in some cases) can be traced to their videos being placed in heavy rotation. John Cougar’s another.

Spicing the non-AOR AOR format: the “veejays” who introduced the clips.

The original five consisted of the always cool J.J. Jackson, formerly of WCBN in Boston and KLOS in L.A.; hip Mark Goodman, formerly of WMMR in Philadelphia and WPLJ in New York; struggling actor Alan Hunter, who appeared in David Bowie’s “Fashion” video; actor-model Nina Blackwood; and my favorite of the bunch, Martha Quinn, who once appeared in a McDonald’s commercial and later was cast as Bobby Brady’s wife in the short-lived The Bradys comedy-drama. (Fun fact: Like me, Martha spun folk records on college radio.)

All of which leads to this: In March or April 1983, I sent a letter to Martha. Maybe it was to share a piece of trivia. Or maybe it was to ask that one of my many favorites get more play. In turn, she wrote back…

Do kids still write fan letters? Do they get autographed keepsakes – for free – in return? So much has changed since 1983 – some for the better, some for the worse. The digitalization of memories, for instance, has its pluses, as everything is in the cloud just waiting to be browsed. But here’s a downside: Young folks today will never know the pleasure of coming across a long-forgotten autographed picture inside a manila envelope…

Thirty-five years ago today was a Friday and, although a winter’s day, calm and not too frigid in the Delaware Valley. The daytime high soared to 55 degrees (Fahrenheit) before dipping to 26 at night.

The New York Time’s summary of that day’s edition can be found here. A big pop-culture story unfolded after the issue was put to bed, however: While filming a Pepsi commercial that afternoon in L.A., Michael Jackson’s hair caught fire. What else? I recapped February ’84 (via Record Magazine) a few years back, so won’t go too in depth into the economic concerns of the era beyond to say that the early ’80s/Reagan Recession was beginning to ebb.

Beyond that: Cold War worries also kept some folks up at night – as did bad TV. And NBC, in a masterful stroke of programming, married the two in the wretched World War III miniseries, which aired on January 31st and February 1st:

A more major media milestone occurred on Jan. 22, 1984 during Super Bowl XVIII, which saw the L.A. Raiders trounce the Washington squad 38-9. No, not the game, but the debut of Apple’s famous “1984” commercial for the Macintosh personal computer.

The following day, Jan 23rd, another historic event occurred: the Iron Sheik, who’d thumped Bob Backlund for the WWF championship the previous month, lost the coveted title to Hulk Hogan at Madison Square Garden. It was the first step in Vince McMahon’s masterful plan to take the WWF national.

On the personal front: I was 18, attending Penn State’s Ogontz campus in Abington, and working part-time as an usher at the Hatboro Theater, a single-screen movie house that was destined to be demolished by summer’s end. Early in the month, I scored a temporary gig working inventory at the A&S department store in the Willow Grove Park Mall, and that extra cash helped fuel a month-long shopping spree – according to my Doonesbury-themed desk calendar, I picked up 15 albums and one single over the course of those 31 days. Most were purchased at Memory Lane Records, a used-record store in Horsham where the platters were plentiful and prices cheap, but two relatively new releases came either from the Hatboro Music Shop or the Listening Booth at the mall: the Pretenders’ Learning to Crawl and Billy Joel’s An Innocent Man.

As evidenced by the picture, I was knee-deep into all things Crosby, Stills & Nash this month. In other words, I was out of step with the mainstream pop world – and not for the first or last time.

Here’s the Top 10 for the week ending on the 28th via Weekly Top 40:

And, with that, here’s today’s Top 5: January 27th, 1984 (via Weekly Top 40)…Further Down the Charts. 

1) John Mellencamp – “Pink Houses.” At No. 12 is this classic populist ode from the Heartland rocker – still one of the greatest such songs.

2) Van Halen – “Jump.” There’s no denying the utter joy of this single and its synth-driven riff, even if it was inspired by a man who was threatening to leap from the ledge of a downtown L.A. building. (“Go ahead and jump” was what Roth imagined people were yelling at him.) The group’s first and only No. 1 single was on its way to the top of the pop chart, rising in one fell swoop from No. 34 to No. 20.

3) The Pretenders – “Middle of the Road.” It’s no surprise that Learning to Crawl was one of the two new LPs I picked up this month. I’d argue that it encapsulates rock’s past, present and future in its four minutes and 15 seconds, but I’m sure others would disagree. Anyway, this week it edges up to No. 21 from No. 25. 

4) Nena – “99 Luftbalons.” The success of this song in both its German- and English-language incarnations speaks as much to the Cold War concerns of the era as to its catchy beat. On its way to No. 2, this week it floats to No. 22. 

5) The Motels – “Remember the Nights.” Martha Davis & Co. never quite caught on as much as it seemed they might, but they did release a handful of classic tracks. This, the third single from their 1983 album Little Robbers, clocks in at No. 36. 

And two bonuses…

6) Irene Cara – “The Dream.” The theme song from D.C. Cab inches up to No. 39 from No. 41. It follows the “Flashdance…What a Feeling” blueprint – though it doesn’t capture the same euphoria, it’s still a fun listen.

7) John Cafferty & the Beaver Brown Band – “Tender Years.” So the Eddie & the Cruisers movie was based on a best-selling book, and Cafferty & Co. were tapped to provide the soundtrack. The classic E Street Band sound rankled the critics… but also scored them some hits. This week, “Tender Years” debuts at No. 94. It would eventually stall at No. 78 before being re-issued in the fall, when it made its way to No. 31. Here they are on Solid Gold 

The sun is peeking out now, thankfully, but yesterday and this morning were overcast, chilly and damp in the Delaware Valley. Yet it was warm and sunny inside my den thanks to two finds at HHH Records in Hatboro, which has fast become my favorite store: Lone Justice’s stupendous debut, which I’ve written about many times, and the Pretenders’ Extended Play, a five-song set that I mention in this flashback to November 1981.

There’s something to be said for brevity, in only the crème de la crème making the lacquer cut. Extended Play, which was released in March 1981, is a great example. It includes two tracks, “Message of Love” and “Talk of the Town,” that were included on Pretenders II, which came out five months later, plus two previously unreleased tracks – “Porcelain,” “Cuban Slide” – and a live rendition of “Precious” that’s even better than the studio track.

I owned the EP back in the day, and much preferred it to II, but somewhere along the way parted company with it – not because of the music, but the format. I traded many LPs for cash in the months prior to Diane and I moving in together in 1990.

One LP that I did not get rid of: the 1973 Buffalo Springfield double-LP compilation, which brings together the essential tracks from the influential group’s three studio LPs. It’s also the only legitimate home to the nine-minute version of “Bluebird,” a track that features (according to the liner notes on Buffalo Springfield Again) 11,386 guitars.

I listened to Side 2 (“Mr. Soul,” “Bluebird,” “Broken Arrow” and “Rock and Roll Woman”) last night, and followed it with Side 1 of a future Essentials pick – Neil Young’s Harvest.

I owned it on vinyl back in the day, but – as with Extended Play – let it slip away. Then, for my birthday this year, a friend and her kids gave me the 180-gram LP. “Out on the Weekend,” the first track, is one of my favorites from it; and here’s Neil in March 1971 performing the song on Live on the BBC about a year before the album’s release.

Over at the Hideaway, Herc is counting down his Top 100 singles for 1977 – a thoroughly enjoyable read that mixes the personal with the profound. While countdowns collated from countless contributors, such as NPR’s 150 Greatest Albums Made by Women or Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, are fun (if infuriating) to read, the synopses of the individual works often miss the raison d’être for why they’re important – the backstory matters not, nor does technical precision. No, I’d argue that it’s the personal connection the music makes with listeners.

Lists such as Herc’s fill the void. It’s idiosyncratic, as any fan’s would be, and – as a result – could well be a chapter in The People’s History to Rock ’n’ Pop. Music doesn’t exist in a vacuum, after all. Its impact has as much to do with where we were, who we were with, and what we were doing when we first heard it, as it does the music itself. There’s no right or wrong, though – based on our own experiences, likes and dislikes – we may disagree with each other’s selections and placement. I mean, the live “Maybe I’m Amazed” at No. 64? For shame, Herc, for shame! (I jest, of course.)

Wings Over America, which was released in December 1976, came with a way-cool poster that I quickly tacked up on my bedroom wall three years later, which is when I remember receiving the expensive three-LP set as a Christmas gift. The mercurial Jimmy McCulloch (1953-79) handles the guitar solos with aplomb; listening to them just now via the above YouTube clip sent shivers up my spine.

Here’s another LP I’ve kept with me through the ages: the double-LP Concerts for the People of Kampuchea. Taken from a series of benefit concerts held at the Hammersmith Odeon in London during the last week of 1979, but not released until March 1981, it features a who’s who of then-popular British acts – both well-established (The Who, Wings) and new/relatively new (The Clash, Elvis Costello, Pretenders).

It’s probably most sought after, these days, for the three tracks featuring McCartney’s Rockestra, which consisted of many of the week’s notables in a rock ‘n’ roll-like orchestra. Here’s the “Rockestra Theme,” which was first featured on Wings’ under-appreciated 1979 Back to the Egg album. (Pete Townshend is a hoot to watch.)

But it’s also worthwhile for the other cuts, two of which I’ll feature as bonuses: This gem from the Pretenders…

…and this classic from the Who: