The Pretenders, II, 1981
The Pod is loving 1981 these days. And why not? Endless Love was cleaning up at the box office. A young Tom Hanks was teaching us how to laugh in Splash. My parents got cable and HBO accidentally didn't scramble their signal for six months, allowing me to see naked girls for the first time. And Chrissie Hynde was the coolest woman in rock n roll and ruled MTV.
Chrissie Hynde's voice drives some people crazy. I have friends who find it as annoying and off-putting as Geddy Lee's. That seems especially true with women listeners, and with women singers. A lot of female vocalists I know hate Chrissie Hynde's voice.
Me? I can't imagine what annoys them, actually. I have always loved the sound of her voice, and more particularly, her delivery. I think listening to Chrissie Hynde sing "The Adultress" helped bring on puberty for me. Yes, she sometimes goes to the vibrato trick a bit too much (turning the word "Kid" into Ki-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-d," and she's occasionally deliberately overdramatic, but to me, she sounds like one of the most authentic and genuine female rock voices ever. Put it this way-- I believe her when she's singing, and that's about the highest compliment I can pay a singer.
Perhaps what she's singing about is part of the problem some people have with her. On the first two Pretenders albums, Hynde is very revealing and sexually confrontational in her lyrics and in the way she sings. "Tattooed Love Boys," one of my all-time favorite songs, is borderline pornographic. I think some people assume it's some kind of act designed to titalate high school boys who don't know better. Like me. Perhaps, but I don't think so. I think Pretenders albums reek with authenticity. Hynde was truly an original-- originally from Akron, Ohio (as are Devo and The Black Keys-- what's in the water out there?) she left Kent State after the shootings, moved to London, and became a serious scenester, working at the NME and with Macolm McLaren right when he formed the Sex Pistols. She formed the Pretenders at the height of the punk movement, and the gender/national hybrid of the band was immediately electric.
Hynde is hardly the whole show. It was a terrific band, especially in its first incarnation with Martin Chambers on Drums, Pete Farndon on bass, and Jim Honeyman-Scott on guitar. In fact, The Pretenders might be the greatest female-fronted band in rock history not named after the singer (Scandal featuring Patty Smyth is disqualified for that "featuring" thing. Also for sucking.) In addition to making great records, they were an incredible live band-- check out the full concert that comes with the reissue of this album; they were the real deal. All four of them were accomplished at their instruments, they had great songs, and their interplay as band members was truly impressive. If they had been able to stay together for five years, I think that they would have been one of the biggest bands in the world.
Sadly, the excesses of rock n roll destroyed the band. Both Farndon and Honeyman-Scott died of drug-related accidents within two months of one another. Hynde soldiered on with Chambers, making one more great album in 1983 (Learning To Crawl) but it's all been downhill from there. She still makes albums, but now they're essentially solo albums, and there's no magic left. I saw the band in the 90s, and I kind of wish that I hadn't.
This song is the first single off of this second album, which strangely got panned when it came out. Why? For being named II a la Led Zeppelin? For being too similar to the debut? It's obvious that people were WAY too critical back then-- listening now it sounds like a bold, fresh, hook-filled album. "Message Of Love" is a great example both of Hynde's tuneful writing and the band's excellence. Check out that drum pattern, and the interlocking guitar figures. This song is hard to play-- we covered it a few years ago at an SFSC event, and it's damn tricky to keep that groove going. I also love the contrast between the angular verses and those lush choruses. The "talk to me darling" that closes out the song is downright romantic, especially for a band this aloof.
Youtube only has a live version from ABC's Fridays show (anyone remember that show? It was CRAZY-- coked-out performers fighting onstage in the skit and a raucous, drunk crowd hooting along to the bands. It remains probably the rawest, most real TV rock band footage there is Just search Youtube-- there's tons of it by all kinds of great groups.) This clip gives a good sense of the band's alchemy, though Farndon is completely wasted and makes at least four giant clams in three minutes.
To celebrate Bonnaroo's opening day tomorrow, we'll be looking at Blitzen Trapper next. See you then.