Intensities in Ten Suburbs

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All Killer No Filler: The Pretenders – S/T (1980)

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on September 1, 2007

I shot my mouth off and you showed me what that hole was for

My brother hates The Pretenders. Hates them. Makes fun of them whenever they come on the radio, can’t stand the Yeah Yeah Yeahs due to the similarity, the whole deal. I do not hate The Pretenders, in fact, I imagine what my brother hates about them so much are the same factors that made me love their hits so much–the chiming guitars and gorgeous melodies, the vulnerable lyrics and wounded vocals, the stately grooves. It pisses off my brother for the same reasons I think he hates The Clash–because there are those that consider The Pretenders to be Punk, and these are not the qualities of a Punk band.

Would he reverse his stance on the group if he heard The Pretenders’ self-titled debut album? Probably not–at the very least, there’s still Chrissie Hynde’s vocals and lyrics, which even at their most grand-standing and aggressive still belie a compassion and sensuality that (arguably, anyway) have no place in legit punk. Not that my bro is such a punk afficianado, but he tends to dislike it when bands of whatever genre don’t live up to their genre’s conventions, and The Pretenders were certainly no X-Ray Spex, or even just X.

But I still wish I could explain to him that The Pretenders’ singles, amazing though they are, only tell half the story, and on their debut album, only roughly about 25%. The overwhelming majority of The Pretenders’ best known songs are the least punk of them–of their dozen or so biggest hits, really only “Middle of the Road” (from ’84’s Learning to Crawl) demonstrates the sort of energy critics tend to rave about The Pretenders having. The rest are just these awesome, but rather staid (or at the most, breezy) pop songs. If the band didn’t have such acclaim, and if Chrissie didn’t try so hard to look like a badass, I’m not sure I’d really have had any reason to consider the group any different from, say, The Motels or Quarterflash.

But yeah, the dudes can rock. Once again, not in that X-y sort of way, but in a way that I personally find much cooler. The thing that becomes immediately apparent listening to their debut is that in those early days, the band was just as much the vision of guitarist James Honeyman-Scott’s as it was the far more, uh, personable Hynde’s. Over Hynde’s rhythm guitar, Honeyman-Scott would invent these ridiculously cool, twisty guitar lines that were like nothing you’ve really heard in music before–the stop-and-start riff to “The Wait,” the 15/8 time Diddley-skank of “Tattoed Love Boys,” the screeching chorus runs of “Precious“…it’s just this amazing, warped, unforgettable stuff, even before Chrissie enters into it. Not that the band would be half as awesome without her–one of the greatest frontmen (frontpeople?) in rock, no doubt, but if you only know stuff like “Back on the Chain Gang” and “Don’t Get Me Wrong,” you could get the idea that the band was always just a vehicle for her songwriting, and that’s clearly not the case.

There are signs as to the direction the band would eventually take, however, which would become practically inevitable after Honeyman-Scott OD’ed in ’82. There are three straight pop songs on The Pretenders, the Spectorian cover of The Kinks’ “Stop Your Sobbing,” the graceful, low-key “Kid,” and the speaks-for-itself “Brass in Pocket“. The first two are quite nice, and the latter…well, let’s just say that it deserves its own blog entry, which it will inevitably receive in the next year or two, if I ever get moving with the rest of my 100 Years, 100 Songs series. Their pop perfection jars a bit in comparison to the relatively gritty rest of the album (especially because they all appear in the same stretch of the album), but the songs are so good that it doesn’t really matter.

For my money, though, “Up the Neck” is the album’s unsung gem. Infectious, chugging groove met with Honeyman-Scott’s “Public Image” guitars and one of Hynde’s sultriest (or sultrier, at least) vocals. Makes me ridiculously excited to worm my way through the rest of the band’s catalogue, though I have a feeling it doesn’t get too much better than this. I’m sure my brother would agree, sort of.

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One Response to “All Killer No Filler: The Pretenders – S/T (1980)”

  1. Jennifer said

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