Album review: THE PRETENDERS – Reissues (Box set)


Edsel [Release date 16.02.15]

‘Icon’ is an overused word in the entertainment industry.  But not so in the case of Chrissie Hynde the driving force behind, and in all but name, The Pretenders – one of the most successful bands of the 1980s and 1990′s.

And 35 years on this uncompromising woman is still producing fantastic music – last year’s Stockholm more than equalling any of the album releases across her career.  But what we have here is some neatly packaged re-issues covering the Warner years 1979 – 1999 on which Edsel have done their usual professional job.

The majority come in a 2CD / 1DVD format with the DVDs (not available for review) bringing together all the promo videos and BBC appearances (TOTPs, Jools Holland etc), and the bonus CD’s all manner of B-sides, demos, extended  and alternate versions, live tracks and songs for soundtracks.  Manna from heaven.

Available individually or as a box set, the collective set offers little by way of extra enticement – seemingly only a relatively unexciting 3 sided storage ‘box’.  And the discerning will, almost certainly, want to add the pretty decent Loose Screw/Loose in LA CD/DVD, and the aforementioned Stockholm.

Pretenders box set

Formed in 1979, the newly formed band with Martin Chambers – drums, Pete Farndon – bass, and James Honeyman-Scott – lead guitar, hit the charts on both sides of the Atlantic with their eponymous debut Pretenders (1980), largely on the strength of the leading 1979 singles ”Stop Your Sobbing, ‘Kid’, and ‘Brass In Pocket’.  Add in the marvellous ‘Private Life’ and you’ve got a clutch of timeless gems.

It hit #1 in the UK and the top 10 Stateside – a fete unlikely to happen now.  The generous portion of ‘extras’ yields 6 b-sides, 8 demos and 5 live tracks of which the revealing demo of Stop Your Sobbing is the pick of bunch.  *****

The success brought pressure for an immediate follow up – a gap plugged by the Extended Play EP featuring two new tracks including ‘Talk Of The Town’, and two outtakes from their debut.  In this format the latter feature as bonuses on their debut and the former, as they did – as part of the Pretenders II (1981) setlist.  But the standout track on that album was a cover of the Kinks ‘I Go To Sleep’ and, the singles aside, it largely fell victim of the rushed second album syndrome.

The main bonus here is the contemporary live set from the Santa Monica Civic in 1981.  Personally, I’m not big on live recordings, but I’ll make an exception for the included version of ‘Kid’.  And the guitar outtake version of ‘I Go To Sleep’ is equally noteworthy.  ****

Pretenders - Learning To Crawl

Less than 12 months later disaster struck with Farndon and Honeyman dying – within two days of each other -from drugs.  Hynde was undeterred – she’s fired Farndon days before his death and the ensuing album Learning To Crawl (1984) was a patchwork affair with a temporary line-up featuring Rockpile’s Billy Bremner and Big Country’s Tony Butler recording the 1982 single ‘Back On The Chain Gang’ / ‘My City Was Gone’, and Bremner, Graham Parker’s bass player Andrew Bodnar, and Paul Carrack playing on the classic ‘Thin Line Between Love And Hate’.

The sessions were completed with Robbie McIntosh (guitar) and Malcolm Foster (bass).  Again it was the singles that were the standout tracks and the bonus tracks are relatively limited, but the demo of ‘When I Change My Life’ outshines the version that appears on Get Close.  ****

Get Close (1986) saw more transition as Hynde fired Chambers to become the sole survivor of the original line-up.  Nor was she afraid to change her supporting cast mid tour when the chemistry simply wasn’t right.

The album stitched together sessions with a variety of players and producers but nevertheless yielded two #1 singles – ‘Don’t Get Me Wrong’ and ‘My Baby’, and the magnificent ‘Chill Factor’.

Pretenders - box set

It marked a shift away from the punky new wave roots that permeated the first three releases with Bowie-esque white soul / funk elements (‘Dance’ / ‘How Much Do You Get For Your Soul?’).

The artwork was also significant – on this and each successive album only Hynde would feature on the cover.  Of the bonus tracks on offer, the soundtrack numbers from The Living Daylight are particularly worthy of note.  *****

And so it was that Packed! (1990) was effectively a solo album.  In this re-issue series the only bonuses are 2 singles B-sides.  In hindsight, having shed the deadweight of a band and assumed complete control, it marked the start of a run of albums that would be some Hynde’s most consistent mainstream work.

The B-side Beatles cover ‘Not A Second Time’ is a nice to have, but hardly merits the price of upgrading the original release, especially when there’s no discernible upgrade in sound quality.  But it remains an album well worth having in its own right.  *****

Pretenders - Last Of The Independents

Last Of The Independents (1994) saw Martin Chambers re-enter the fold, although Adam Seymour (guitars) was the only constant amongst the supporting players.  It’s a rather fine album with Hynde collaborating on several tracks with Billy Steinberg and Tom Kelly resulting in an album’s worth of transatlantic pop/rock of the highest order.  The demo of ‘Every Mother’s Son’ and a cover of 10cc’s ‘I’m Not In Love’ are the pick of the ‘extras’.  *****

If ever and artist was going to come across well unplugged, it was Hynde.  Isle Of View (1995) showcases her songs and vocals and underlines her talent in both areas.  So many more songs could have been included, but frankly it’s fairly faultless.  And timeless.  Really, no collection is complete without it.  *****

Pretenders - Isle Of View

Prior to hearing the extended edition, I’d always considered ¡Viva El Amor! (1999) one of Hynde’s weaker sets.  A contract filler perhaps?  Even the cover – a Linda McCartney shot – is unexplainably naff.  But the quality of the bonus material – easily the strongest across these re-issues – has caused me to re-evaluate.

In fact, it’s breathed fresh life into the album, the bonus disc containing some real gems.  Always a dab hand with a cover, the inclusion of Neil Young’s ‘The Needle And The Damage’ done is a particular moment of Hynde magic.  *****

The mark of a great singer is one whose vocals are instantly recognisable, no matter what the song.  And a great songwriter, one whose songs can be stripped to their very essence and lose nothing in the translation.  Hynde ticks both boxes.  In abundance.  To achieve this – consistently over 35 years – originally as a stranger in a strange land, and in a predominately male industry is quite remarkable.  Iconic, even.

Review by Pete Whalley

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