Friday, May 2, 2014

DB's Song of the Day (day 122): "TALK OF THE TOWN" (1980) The Pretenders

Today’s song dates from the beginning of the Eighties. The Pretenders were a big radio presence with their first album and its string of hits in 1979-1980. “Talk of the Town” was the first follow-up track, and I liked it better than any song on the first album. The second LP didn’t quite live up to it, so I’ve always had a special feeling for this song as a “stand alone”—actually I first got it on an EP with “Message of Love” and “The Cuban Slide.”

“Such a drag to want something sometimes / One thing leads to another I know / Was a time wanted you for mine / Nobody knew.”  There you have it. One of the great attestations to surreptitious desire, affection, love you could ever hear. Then comes the switch: “I made a wish / I said it out loud / Aloud in a crowd / Everybody heard / ‘Twas the talk of the town.”

The “talk of the town,” of course, is one of those phrases for gossip, for buzz, for whatever is making tongues wag. A new band, led by a woman, in 1980, like The Pretenders, were the talk of the town in that way. They were as hot and hip as anything happening. They had presence, moxie, a great two guitars, bass, and drums sound, the basics of rock served up crisp and fresh. It really did make you feel that rock’n’roll can never die. And Chrissie Hynde was something long awaited—a real female rocker. You can talk about Heart, Stevie and Christine in Fleetwood Mac, maybe even Linda Ronstadt, but. Chrissie was the one. She could be, to use Joni Mitchell’s line, from “The Jungle Line,” “coy and bitchy, wild and fine.”

And those guys backing her up were pretty gear, wot? James Honeyman-Scott I appreciate more as the years go on. Not flashy leads, just good, interesting fills. But Martin Chambers is the real deal, drummer-wise. It’s a good sound on that first album especially. The second album is more flawed, but “Talk of the Town” always recalls to me that time when they were right on the money, before the dissolution and deaths in the band. And Chris Thomas, again, y'know?

The song is about pining for someone who is rather mercurial—“Who were you then / Who are you now / Common labourer by day / By night, highbrow”—and gives us the feeling that, almost, the singer is putting him down, even while still infatuated. I’ve always been impressed by the way the song features that give and take, like when you’re arguing with yourself over someone’s obvious desirableness for you, and yet, you’re trying to take him/her down too. “Oh, he’s not all that!”

“You’ve changed your place in this world” has the effect, too, of signaling that this is about someone who’s becoming Something. Like, for instance, The Pretenders did. Hynde struggled for a long time to get a band together and the one she got didn’t last, though her career did as a capable songwriter and a very recognizable voice. That sinuous, insinuating vocal on this song is still my favorite of hers. The song is a moment where she seems to be willing to recall her status as a fan, looking on from afar at someone who is making it.

Oh, but it’s hard to live by the rules
I never could and still never do
The rules and such never bothered you
You call the shots and they follow

That gives a lot of power to this dude, but, y’know, if the shoe fits . . . . Then comes the part that makes me love this song because you can really hear the longing in it: “I watch you still from a distance, then go / Back to my room, you’ll never know / I want you—Oh—I want you but now / Who’s the talk of the town?”

Hynde packs so much feeling into that “I want you—Oh—I want you but now . . . .” it’s just killing. And the final line suggests that maybe it’s our girl who is now “the talk of the town” or gonna be, and so, keeping her distance is the best thing. It often is, friends, it often is.

And so I dedicate this song to all the times I have kept my distance, and to the few times I didn’t.

Maybe tomorrow, maybe someday.

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