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The Pretenders Swerve Tired, Mainstream 80’s Classification and Maintain Their Sound

“Oh I went back to Ohio / But my family was gone…”

It seems like Ohio is the butt of most jokes these days. However, it does have one good thing going for it: the musicians. The Black Keys, John Legend, Dave Grohl, and Chrissie Hynde from the Pretenders all originated in Ohio. Maybe the state’s overall blasé factor fueled these artists' angsty passion for music; what else can one possibly pencil into their agenda in Ohio?

All jokes aside, the Ohio native Chrissie Hynde established herself and her band, Pretenders, as a household name in the U.K. and America. In an era of “The” bands, with heavy influences of The Clash and The Kinks, the Pretenders melded that same, light style of 70’s rock into the 80’s, successfully conquering other popular artists of that decade by choosing not to follow suit. No irritating, headache-inducing electro-synth to note, with a more happy-go-lucky, relaxing, floaty 90’s foreshadowing similar to The Go-Go’s and influencing artists like Hoku. A timeless feel, wrinkled yet ages with grace.

Founded and first becoming popular in the U.K., Pretenders topped the British charts with “Brass in Pocket,” featuring jivey electric guitar and Hynde/Honeyman-Scott songwriting. I picture this song being played while on a romantic drive through the green, hilly countryside in a 1985 Ford Mustang GT Twister II with the windows down (and clearly could only be a red one). A nonchalant guy in his mid-20’s is clad in a muscle tee and clubmasters, his arm around the passenger seat, his girlfriend’s Farrah Fawcett mockup hair flying astray.

Much of the Pretenders' music themes are love-based and sappy. Hynde even names the band after the song “The Great Pretender” by The Platters, an ex-boyfriend’s favorite song. Today, we see much less love nostalgia in music, and it is less sappy and poetic than years past, roasting instead of reminiscing on prior love relations. “I’ll Stand by You,” their most noteworthy and famous song, makes me wallow over past romances that didn’t work out, wondering how deep of a connection it would take for me to want to adhere to the philosophy and main theme of the song “Nothing you confess / Could make me love you less.” I can think of five things in the next thirty seconds that, if someone confessed to me, would actually make me love them less, but that’s a story for a different time…

The 80’s were notorious for drug abuse among bands, and the Pretenders fell victim to its vicious cycle of addiction. James Honeyman-Scott and Pete Farndon were both found dead in the early 80’s from cocaine-induced heart failure and drowning in the bathtub from a heroin slump, respectively. Hynde, left unscathed, was left with the travesty of puzzling together a borderline-empty band alongside drummer Martin Chambers. You can’t replace the people lost from drug enslavement, but the empty spots needed to be filled, and Robbie McIntosh and Tony Butler filled the guitar and bass voids, respectively.

Speaking of enslavement, Hynde wrote “Back In The Chain Gang” in tribute to Honeyman-Scott and Farndon, but its meaning was originally a statement on her rocky relationship with Ray Davies of The Kinks. Chrissie laments over positive times past and is chock-full of grief, wallowing in the deaths of her fellow bandmates and her once fruitful relationship, comparing it to being part of a chain gang (a group of prisoners chained together while working outside prison grounds). Albeit a profusely theatrical comparison, it adds to the overall feeling she is trying to provoke in the listener successfully. Those who have been a part of a chain gang, however, may disagree, and the borderline politically incorrect analogy would definitely be rejected if released in today’s diplomatic narrative.

The Pretenders managed to find a niche and not drown in boring, typical electronic jams found droning on and on in every radio station and record shop in the 80’s. They would “Never Do That” to us by creating the music they wanted to create, regardless of the current genre constructs. Hynde mentions time and time again that as long as she has people who listen to her music and she gets to play live with attendees in the crowd, she doesn’t care how many people follow her, or how much money she makes, which is chronically what makes a band successful.

Their sloppy, 80’s, whimsical music video production with blurry transitions and zoomed in, distressed Hynde lip-syncing lyrics with furrowed brows and distinct black eyeliner only add to the reminiscence of the simpler times of decades prior. Simple, poetic, vague lyrics of “Kid” and “Don’t Get Me Wrong” are unproblematic and pure compared to much of the mainstream filth polluting the eardrums of today’s youth. The words are far away and insider, leaving the listener minutely ostracized. The band puts walls up between themselves and their fans whilst dangling metaphors left and right, but that may be part of their overall appeal to some.

The 80’s did not halt the Pretenders-- they have consistently been releasing music since their debut. In 2020, Hate for Sale was released, featuring “The Buzz” and “You Can’t Hurt a Fool,” the most streamed songs of the album. Hynde’s vocals are reminiscent of a less wail-y, echo-y Heart. The guitar is more fine-tuned and fuller with more open chords, rather than the hollow strums of “Brass in Pocket,” and their sound hasn’t stylistically progressed much since the 80’s. For their devoted fans? It’s a win. They don’t have an Arctic Monkeys streak, that’s for sure.

The Pretenders have evolved, or should I say calibrated, their sound. I have seen some successful bands release very unsuccessful albums and fall off the deep end, whether their newest discography is too niche to garner a substantial audience, or they completely change their vibe in an unfavorable fashion. Pretenders have stood their ground and are a steady, reliable force in an ever evolving (and sometimes for the worst) music industry.

Written by Catherine Spohn


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