PRETENDERS Pirate Radio (Warner Bros./Rhino/Sire)

“Akron & Hereford’s most popular amusement”, proclaims this handsome box set, and it’s almost certainly correct. I can’t think of any similar geographical collaborations whose work would justify such a lavish assemblage: four CDs packed to their perimeters (promising “favorite songs”, “rare versions” and “tracks you never thought you’d hear again”), a 77 minute DVD, a big, informative booklet and even a specially commissioned poster.

I’ve dabbled with, but never really enjoyed, the Pretenders’ eponymous debut, and listening to the early tracks here I have to wonder why. Maybe the charts were a more adventurous place on the cusp of the 1970s/1980s (hmmm, scratch that maybe) but to me the band’s older material seems a surprisingly hard sell: not particularly immediate, and seemingly too intelligent for the mainstream success they rapidly found. A demo of “Precious” shows them taut and wired from the first, and a cover of The Kinks’ “Stop Your Sobbing” is all jangle and reverb – listen to the way Chrissie Hynde moulds her vowels around Ray Davies’ delivery. “The Wait” sugar-coats the Gang Of Four’s punk-funk aesthetic to delicious effect, and “Tattooed Love Boys” is a jerky pell-mell helter skelter. “Mystery Achievement” opens with the rhythm section hitting as heavily as falling masonry - for once Chrissie’s vocal actually softens the sound – and an achievement it clearly is, building to a guitar solo you could stack shelves with. Could you really imagine a song like “Brass In Pocket” getting to number one today? A scrapbook of phrases set to a rhythm with the slightest of reggae inflections, it still sounds terrific; like a lot of this box it doesn’t seem to have dated by a second. In fact, it’s only the gradual accumulation of production polish and accompanying gently diminishing ferocity that mark the passing of time here. “Talk Of The Town”, with its chiming riff and meandering melody, seems more like Prefab Sprout or Steely Dan than a top pop hit, and “Message Of Love” is almost all rhythm, barely any melody (perhaps a reaction to the Burundi-looting, uh, antics of Adam And The Ants). “What You Gonna Do About It” is a fingerclickingly bold and brassy strut through the song popularised by The Small Faces, rescued from flexidisc obscurity.

Things begin to get a bit more conventional from this point on – “Bad Boys Get Spanked” is essentially “Tattooed Love Boys” straightened out, and there’s another Kinks cover, “I Go To Sleep”, performed with an almost East European chilly aloofness to it – but what a way to begin! “The English Roses” opens with a chugging classic rock riff, perhaps a comment on how far and fast they’d travelled, in retrospect a requiem for the classic Pretenders lineup, on whom time was about to be called.

Following the drug-related deaths of Pete Farndon and James Honeyman Scott, it was a substantially reconfigured and embattled Pretenders that re-emerged in 1984, but their sonic identity remained largely intact. “Back On The Chain Gang” is sophisticated and intelligent rock music, and The Persuaders’ “Thin Line Between Love And Hate” is made over as a Pretenders song, even though its piano-led arrangement is kind of at odds with the guitar dominance that surrounds it. “My City Was Gone” is pointed social commentary, lamenting the demise of the American downtown, and “2000 Miles” remains one of very few vaguely festive songs that still sound good in March. The junkie’s promise of “When I Change My Life” is chilling in its half-light optimism, but it’s around this point – the “Get Close” album specifically - that the material starts to sound a little dated, the synth sounds in particularly irrevocably locking the songs to the mid-80s. It’s still immaculately crafted, though, as a cover of Warren Zevon’s “Reconsider Me”, bafflingly unavailable for two decades, makes clear, as does the lush and lovely Bacharach and David cover “Windows Of The World”, previously consigned to the “1969” film soundtrack. Similarly, their cover of The Beatles’ “Not A Second Time” meticulously recreates the original’s piano solo.

Perhaps the third disc is the least impressive in this set, the “Packed”-era material reverting unconvincingly to type, performed by a fragmented Pretenders that were, now more than ever, a band in name only. “Downtown (Akron)” revisits the same geography as “My City Was Gone”, and “How Do I Miss You”’s reggae pulse recalls “Private Life” (itself bafflingly represented only in unplugged form). On “Bold As Love” one of Jimi Hendrix’s most underrated compositions gets Pretenderised, retaining a modicum of the original’s slashing dynamics even if its brilliant phased drum break has been excised. The material from 1994’s “Last Of The Independents” has a definite power to it, though, raw and ragged like it was played by a band again. If “Hollywood Perfume” is lithe and sensual in ways that rock music rarely achieves then “Night In My Veins”, with its idiosyncratic accordion arrangement, is downright hormonal. The Noel Gallagher-favoured “I’ll Stand By You” is luxuriant, emotive pop music, not exactly to my taste but I can understand its appeal, and although “Every Mother’s Son” is an acoustic demo, like Bruce Springsteen’s bedroom-taped “Nebraska” album it already sounds fully formed. An interesting aside (well, interesting to me, anyway): Radiohead’s “Creep”, here covered in live, unplugged and string-assisted form, now sports Albert Hammond and Mike Hazlewood co-writing credits, apparently due to its similarity to the duo’s “The Air That I Breathe”.

On the final CD the band’s gently revitalised form continues with a Morrissey-approved “Everyday Is Like Sunday”, which betters the 10,000 Maniacs cover at least, and “Popstar” is a deliciously poisonous retort to being, uh, replaced by a younger model. Neil Young’s “The Needle And The Damage Done” is rendered especially poignant by the knowledge of how Chrissie once lost half her band, and a clutch of 2003 live tracks sound vibrant, vital and sassy. The latest material here, from that year’s “Loose Screw”, is as complex and assured as anything Hynde put the band’s name to in the preceding quarter of a century, and, on “I Should Of” and “The Losing”, gently saturated with regret.

The DVD makes for a worthy 77 minute visual accompaniment, many of the 19 performances drawn from long forgotten British television shows. “Top Of The Pops” clips of “Talk Of The Town”, “Brass In Pocket” and “Stop Your Sobbing” took me way way back to when I used to watch the programme as an infant…the cheap futuristic sets, the tacky visual effects, the spectacularly unconvincing miming, Jimmy Saville, ah, the memories. From somethings called “Fridays” and “Alright Now” (the latter’s audience seemingly a microcosm of early 1980s youth culture, like “Quadrophenia” without the fighting) come somewhat more bare-knuckled live takes of “The Adultress”, “The Wait” and “Tattooed Love Boys” (whose sudden silences and unkempt time signatures confound the pogoers). Even the sterile environment of “Later With Jools Holland” can’t anaesthetise “Hollywood Perfume”’s delicious garage rock rip up. Nevertheless, they scrub up well enough for appearances on (gasp!) “Wogan” and (saints preserve us!) “Pebble Mill”. “My City Was Gone”, apparently camcordered from the crowd during a 1994 Phoenix gig, is fuzzy in sight and sound but vital, and “Tattooed Love Boys / Up The Neck”, which close out a March 1980 London gig, are a blistering example of the power of the early Pretenders live experience, Hynde pulling Hendrix moves in a frilly blouse.

Never really a Pretenders fan, I found much to enjoy over the course of these five discs, the constant being Chrissie Hynde’s steely determination in the face of circumstances that would’ve crushed the spirit of many performers. It might be an extravagance as a first Pretenders purchase (perhaps their eponymous debut might be a better route in to the band, especially if you actually pay attention to it as I shamefully failed to do) but it’s a cherishable, high value package that will repay the money and time you invest in it.