Yesterday’s birthday girl—sharing a birthday with Buddy Holly—is Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders, born in 1951. Cool. And since it was also the deathday of Warren Zevon, why not a song about loss?
The Pretenders, as a band, suffered greatly from the death of James Honeyman-Scott in 1982, after the second album. Today’s song* was released in October, four months after his death. It was “the end” of The Pretenders, in a way, in as much as JHS was a big part of their sound. Hynde recorded this song in tribute and then, eventually, in 1984, had enough of a band to release a new Pretenders album, Learning to Crawl. It was all a holding pattern with “The Pretenders” consisting mainly of Hynde and different groups of musicians. It was rare for the same nucleus to play on all the tracks on an album. Which is not so strange, these days, when band names—Cat Power, Bright Eyes, Iron & Wine—are given to what are essentially solo artists working with different people. So, yeah, this was sort of the end of the illusion that “the band” played the album. Certainly there were lots of session men on albums in the Sixties and Seventies, but it was much less acknowledged at the time.
Anyway, I picked this as the song to pay tribute to Hynde because it comes at the end of the initial Pretenders period and is a great song, certainly one of her best. It has more gravitas than she usually manages—the B Side “My City Was Gone” is a great one too—and some interesting lines: “what hijacked my world at night?” “A place in the past we’ve been cast out of” “Got in the house like a pigeon from Hell / Threw sand in our eyes and descended like flies” and, my favorite, “Like a break in the battle was your part / Oh-oh-oh-oh / In the wretched life of a lonely heart.” There’s also a touch of score-settling: “But I’ll die as I stand here today / Knowing that deep in my heart / They’ll fall to ruin one day / For making us part.” Not sure who the “they” is. Since JHS died of heroin, I guess it could be drug biz, music biz, pushers, or people who just won’t let you be.
And of course the whole song keeps turning on the line “I found a picture of you.” So, yeah, more ghosts, this time one very recently deceased, but haunting everytime one hears/plays the song. And of course more ghosts join “the train” as we go on listening to the song in later eras, picturing others at our last parting from them or in some prior snapshot fading into dust.
The figure of the “chain gang” is tonic, actually. It feels like the song—with echoes of Sam Cooke’s “sound of the men working on the chain gang”—is about getting over loss and getting on with it. We’re back on the chain gang, back to the routine, back to our place on the train. The dead get to forgo all that, preserved in their eternal and admirable indifference to the shit we gotta deal with. “We’re back in the fight.”
And it was a good sign that Chrissie—who was a good songwriter and a welcome female singer back there in the early Eighties, also “hot” in a very hard, cool way—wasn’t going to throw in the towel but would soldier on. I know only the first four LPs, before the big four-year hiatus, and on each there are some stellar tunes and lesser stuff. The first Pretenders LP had a great sound though, thereafter the main draw is the sound of Hynde’s voice and her ability to keep those guitars jangly. “Chain Gang” has a nice lead that feels bright and a touch elegiac. And the vocals keep up a lovely swirl of tough and vulnerable, particularly the catch in her voice when seeming to confide outright:
Those were the happiest days of my life
I can believe that.
[*I’ve linked to the track, not the video, because Eighties videos just embarrass me, mostly, when they don’t annoy the crap out of me; Chrissie walking around like some New Wave Kommandant while a mix of white guys and black guys hack with pickaxes at some rock? No thanks. And lip-synching is so idiotic. And what’s with the guys “sky-diving”?]