PRETENDERS Pirate Radio (Warner Bros./Rhino/Sire)
Akron & Herefords most popular amusement, proclaims this handsome box set, and its almost certainly correct. I cant 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 youd hear again), a 77 minute DVD, a big, informative booklet and even a specially commissioned poster.
Ive 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 bands 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 Fours 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 Chrissies 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 doesnt seem to have dated by a second. In fact, its 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 theres 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 theyd 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 junkies promise of When I Change My Life is chilling in its half-light optimism, but its 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. Its still immaculately crafted, though, as a cover of Warren Zevons 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 originals 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 Yous reggae pulse recalls Private Life (itself bafflingly represented only in unplugged form). On Bold As Love one of Jimi Hendrixs most underrated compositions gets Pretenderised, retaining a modicum of the originals slashing dynamics even if its brilliant phased drum break has been excised. The material from 1994s 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 Ill Stand By You is luxuriant, emotive pop music, not exactly to my taste but I can understand its appeal, and although Every Mothers Son is an acoustic demo, like Bruce Springsteens bedroom-taped Nebraska album it already sounds fully formed. An interesting aside (well, interesting to me, anyway): Radioheads 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 duos The Air That I Breathe.
On the final CD the bands 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 Youngs 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 years Loose Screw, is as complex and assured as anything Hynde put the bands 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 latters 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 cant anaesthetise Hollywood Perfumes 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 Hyndes steely determination in the face of circumstances that wouldve 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 its a cherishable, high value package that will repay the money and time you invest in it.