The focus of The Pretenders, founded in 1978, is squarely on lead singer-songwriter Chrissie Hynde, although she has always sought to share credit with the other members of the group. In the original ‘classic’ line-up these included lead guitarist James Honeyman-Scott, bassist Pete Farndon, and drummer Martin Chambers. Together their blend of rock, punk and catchy melodies led to 13 studio albums and countless hit singles. Here are Guitars Exchange’s top 10 Pretenders songs of all time.
10. Don’t get me wrong - Get Close (1986)
A Bo Diddley-esque melody drives this self-deprecating love song that was inspired by Hynde’s friendship with tennis legend John McEnroe. Reading her lyrics - “Don’t get me wrong, If I’m looking kind of dazzled, I see neon lights, whenever you walk by” – you might be tempted to think that she ‘cannot be serious!’; but she has confirmed it. The song references tides, thunder and rain to evoke the mood swings and strong emotions that often accompany ‘amor’: “it might just be fantastic, don’t get me wrong”.
9. Stop your sobbing - Pretenders (1979)
Penned by Ray Davies and recorded by The Kinks in 1964, this was The Pretenders first single, which was produced by Nick Lowe. In his autobiography Davies talks about a girlfriend who may have inspired the song: "Her sobbing was making me feel guilty and I told her to stop... there was something so desperately lonely about her." Hynde’s relationship with Davies grew as a result of The Pretenders covering the song and they eventually had a child together, Natalie Rae, who is now 39.
8. Hymn to her - Get Close (1986)
Written by Hynde’s schoolfriend Meg Keene, Hymn to her reached number 8 in the UK singles chart. This moving ballad provides an interesting contrast to The Pretenders more rock-oriented numbers, as it is more introspective and reflective. The lyric is replete with pagan references to mothers and daughters and is beautifully sung by Hynde who transmits both stress and passion in practically every syllable. Who could not be moved by the introductory words: “Let me inside you, into your room, I’ve heard it’s lined, with the things you don’t show…”
7. 2000 miles - Learning to Crawl (1984)
2000 miles was the second pre-release single from Learning to Crawl, and hit number 15 in the UK singles chart. Its reference to ‘christmas time’ superficially evokes cheer, but look deeper and you’ll find a song full of longing for a person who is distant from their family, and possibly estranged. It contrasts the feeling of seasonal goodwill with the frostiness of isolation: “She’s gone 2000 miles, it’s very far, get’s colder day by day, I miss her.”
6. Middle of the road - Learning to Crawl (1984)
Middle of the road is replete with autobiographical nods, and Hynde herself has said that it expresses her philosophy of life. "My personal discipline has been to try to stay in the middle, always, no matter what I'm doing. If I buy a jacket and it comes in three sizes, I want a medium. You have to learn how to temper yourself and hold back till you get to the end."
5. I go to sleep - Pretenders II (1981)
I go to sleep was also written by the Kinks’ Ray Davies, but the band never actually recorded it. Hynde focused on the song when she started dating Davies and helped to make it a top 10 hit in several charts; including that of the UK. Hynde’s version is full of warmth and yearning and contains key touches that helped lift it out of the ordinary. One example is the addition of a French horn, which, as Hynde explains, “it’s those little embellishments that capture my attention.”
4. Thin line between love and hate - Learning to Crawl (1984)
Written and produced by the Poindexter brothers, Robert and Richard, Thin line between love and hate was also co-written by Robert's wife, Jackie Members. Interestingly, The Pretenders changed the lyric from the perspective of the protagonist to a second-person telling of the story. Starting in a soft and gentle tone in which a woman is seemingly caring for her husband who is returning home in the early hours of the morning, the dark underbelly of the song soon emerges as it is revealed that he ends up in hospital – ‘bandaged from foot to head, in a state of shock, just that much from being dead’.
3. Back on the chain gang - Learning to Crawl (1984)
Back on the Chain Gang began as a tribute to Ray Davies but then was reconfigured after the death of Hynde’s bandmate, James Honeyman-Scott, who died of a heroin overdose at the age of 26, in 1982. “I saw a picture of you,” the singer heartbreakingly reflects, “those were the happiest days of my life.” The music evokes the Byrds and is surprisingly upbeat given the song’s subject matter.
Scott's death was followed by bass player Pete Farndon's 10 months later. Farndon’s drug problems had led to him being chucked out of the band, and he also died of an overdose. This was the first Pretenders single featuring Billy Bremner and Tony Butler, who took over their roles in the band. In one of her live performances for BBC radio 2 in Hyde Park, Hynde can be seen playing her ’65 Telecaster that Fender based her signature model on.
2. Needle and the damage done
Needle and the damage done, about the effects of heroin addiction, was written by Neil Young around 1972, and his acoustic performances are simply the definitive versions. Part of the reason that Young’s performances are so powerful is that he lost his friend and Crazy Horse bandmate Danny Whitten, and his roadie, Bruce Berry, to the drug. As he said himself in one song introduction: “Ever since I left Canada about five years ago or so and moved down south, I found out a lot of things that I didn't know when I left. Some of 'em are good, and some of 'em are bad. […] I got to see a lot of great musicians who nobody ever got to see for one reason or another. But, strangely enough, the real good ones that you never got to see was... 'cause of heroin. And that started happening over and over, [so] I wrote [this] little song.”
As said, Hynde lost two of her bandmates to the same drug, and so she had good reason to cover this track; as she explains at the start of her most famous live version: “this one is from the heart”. But what makes this even more special is her treatment of the song, which she does in her own way, emphasising, for example, the words ‘milk, blood’ at a key moment in the song. This version merits number two in this listing because it both sounds great and has a hard edge that comes from the raw truth of her experience.
1. Brass in pocket - Pretenders (1980)
Brass in Pocket was a number one hit for The Pretenders and made them famous partly because the song achieves the trick of being both rebellious and seductive at the same time. It also has a hook that is ‘pop-perfect’, and an accompanying video that made it ideal for TV and, in particular, MTV. Hynde grew up in Akron, Ohio but learnt some new English slang at The Pretenders first-ever UK gig, when they were sharing a dressing room with The Strangeways. At one moment Hynde asked whose trousers were thrown over the back of a chair and singer Ada Wilson responded: "I'll have them if there's any brass in the pockets."
We leave the last word however with Hynde who explained in one interview: "It's a very lightweight pop type of song; nothing heavy about it. It's [about a] guy who is feeling very insecure, not about pulling a girl but, say, trying to be accepted by the guys down the pub. It's [all just] a front he's putting up."