Posts Tagged ‘The Pretenders’

(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:

 

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:

In the late 1990s, just like every other driver, I was dependent on CDs or the radio for my in-car entertainment; and, given that my daily commute to and from the office was a mere 10-15 minutes, that meant the radio more often than not. In no specific order save for the last, stations in my rotation at the time included KYW-1060, Philly’s all-news station, which I listened to for the weather; WIP, a sports-talk station; WXPN, which featured (and still features) the “adult album alternative” music format; WMGK, a “classic hits” station that leaned heavily on the ‘70s; and WOGL, which programmed more traditional oldies.

In those days, I should mention, my company gave us an hour paid lunch. That meant that I zoomed home at noon and, fifty minutes later, zoomed back. It was great. And while the specific year of the sun-soaked spring day that I’m remembering has been lost in my memory banks, in a sense it doesn’t matter. What does is this: On the way back to work from lunch, I tuned to WOGL only to hear the Pretenders’ “Brass in Pocket” saunter from the speakers like a wisecracking diner waitress.

“Brass in Pocket” was an oldie?! If not for the fact that I was stopped at a red light, I would’ve driven off the road. The oldies in my mind then and now basically equate to the songs Michael St. John played on his Saturday night oldies show on WPEN-AM in the late 1970s – a musical milieu of pop, rock and doo-wop from the 1950s and early/mid-1960s. They weren’t the songs of my youth.

But, of course, by the late ‘90s they were becoming just that.

So, for today’s Top 5: Oldies, but Goodies (aka, Singles I Purchased in 1977, ’78 & ’79)… in the order that I bought them. I think. (Not all were “oldies” at the time, but those that weren’t definitely are now.)

1)  Jan & Dean – “Sidewalk Surfin’.”

 

2) Dion – “The Wanderer.”

3) The Zombies – “She’s Not There”

4) Carly Simon – “You’re So Vain.”

5) Al Stewart – “Song on the Radio.”

And one bonus:

6) Eddie Cochran – “Twenty Flight Rock.”

Okay, a second bonus…this one from 1981.

7) The Go-Go’s – “Our Lips Are Sealed.”

 

fullsizeoutput_13a4I’m tripping the memory fantastic to the magical month of March 1983 this morning. On this exact day that year, a Saturday, I hopped on my 10-speed bicycle and pedaled my way to one of the record stores that I often haunted – Memory Lane Records in Horsham, as it was a great day for a bike ride: 52 degrees (Farenheit) and relatively sunny.

The biggest story in the news was M*A*S*H, which aired its final, 2 1/2-hour final episode the previous Sunday. On the sports front, the Flyers were in the midst of a winning streak – 21 wins, 3 losses and 3 ties since the New Year – while on their way to an early playoffs exit. The night before, the 76ers had suffered their first loss (to the hated Boston Celtics) since February 4th; they were 26-3 since the New Year, and headed for the NBA Finals, where they’d sweep the Lakers.

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All things considered, life was good; and it was only made better by that day’s purchase: Linda Ronstadt’s 1976 album Hasten Down the Wind, which features “That’ll Be the Day” and three Karla Bonoff-penned songs, including the wondrous “Someone to Lay Down Beside Me.” It instantly became one of my favorite Ronstadt songs.

As I mentioned in my Top 5 for April 1983, I was in the midst of something of a Ronstadt deep-dive this month: I purchased Simple Dreams on the 1st, and followed it with a succession of her other albums, including Get Closer on vinyl. I’d bought it on cassette the previous fall, but felt the need to observe the platter spinning ’round and ’round. Linda, I should mention, had just appeared on The Tonight Show on March 3rd. Among the songs she sang was the wondrous, Jimmy Webb-penned “Easy for You to Say.” (And, yes, I’ve featured this clip before.)

I also picked up Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours on vinyl, and four Lou Reed albums, including the classic (and oft-overlooked) Coney Island Baby.

Anyway, enough about me. Onward to today’s Top 5, as drawn from Weekly Top 40’s charts for the week ending the 5th.

1) Michael Jackson – “Billie Jean.” The No. 1 song this week was this propulsive piece of pop music. Say what you will about his latter life and music, but at this stage MJ was sheer brilliance on vinyl – and, as importantly, video.

2) The Pretenders – “Back on the Chain Gang.” Cracking the Top 10 is this classic single from Chrissie Hyde and Company, which would eventually land – along with its brilliant b-side, “My City Is Gone” – on the 1984 album Learning to Crawl.

3) Golden Earring – “Twilight Zone.” The Dutch band that gave the world one of the greatest driving songs of all time, “Radar Love,” also hit the charts with this 1983 single, which inched up from 18 to 16 this week.

4) Don Henley – “I Can’t Stand Still.” Former (and future) Eagle Don Henley’s first solo flight was with the solid I Can’t Stand Still album, which was released the previous August. It’s probably best known as the original home of “Dirty Laundry,” but this power-play track (at No. 48), the title song, is quite good, too.

5) Robert Hazard – “Escalator of Life.” Nowadays, Hazard is probably best remembered for writing the Cyndi Lauper classic “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.” But he was also a big deal in the Philly rock scene, where he and his band, the Heroes, headlined area clubs and had songs played (and played and played) on Philly’s radio stations. In fact, though he had a few videos featured on MTV, I’d wager 90 percent of the sales for “Escalator of Life,” a new entry at No. 83, came from his Philly-area fans.