A great way to kick off a new decade is with a fresh new sound, and a pan-Atlantic band did just that for us 42 years ago. The Pretenders self-titled debut album came out this day in 1980 on this side of the pond, a couple of weeks after it had appeared on British shelves.
The Pretenders were a trio of English guys – guitarist James Honeyman-Scott, bassist Peter Farndon and drummer Martin Chambers – with a feisty American gal singing, and playing some guitar herself, Chrissie Hynde. She’d moved from Ohio to London in the ’70s to take part in the punk scene and write about music for the NME. The band had formed in 1978 and quickly took to the post-punk “power pop” sound that was sweeping the nation with the likes of Joe Jackson, Dave Edmunds and Nick Lowe, who actually produced their first single, “Stop Your Sobbing.” Although it is on the debut album, it was actually put out as a 7” about a year earlier and made it to #34 in their homeland, the first of a dozen top 40s they’d score there. Lowe however, didn’t think that much of them and didn’t want to return to do their album, so they turned their sights upward and brought in Chris Thomas instead to produce. It worked! And why not – Thomas had gotten his start in music helping George Martin in the studio with The Beatles and then had gone on to produce records for the likes of Procul Harum, Roxy Music and, oddly, the Sex Pistols.
The 12 songs on The Pretenders bristle with energy and as often as not, anger more reminiscent of the Pistols than the Beatles. Hynde wrote the majority of them, though Honeyman-Scott helped out extensively on the signature tune, “Brass in Pocket”. The hit that many women took as an anthem of empowerment was the one song Chrissie didn’t like on it, and she was mortified that Sire Records chose it as the single to introduce them to North America. “I was embarrassed by it,” she later admitted, “I hated it so much that if I was in Woolworths and they started playing it, I’d have to run out.” She perhaps would’ve preferred the much-commented on “Tattooed Love Boys” with its lines like “I shot my mouth off and you showed me what that hole was for” as the lead single.
The public seemed to agree with Sire though. “Brass in Pocket” became their biggest hit, being a #1 in the UK and #2 in New Zealand as well as being a top 10 hit in Canada (surprisingly, it only peaked at #14 in the U.S. despite now being a staple of oldies radio.) The album itself debuted at #1 in Britain and sat there for four weeks; it’s their only chart-topper there.
Reviews were good when it came out, and remain strong. Village Voice gave it an “A-” and Rolling Stone initially gave it a 5-star rating and would later rank it both in the top 20 of the decade and the top 200 albums of all-time, calling it “one of those rare albums on which every move turns out to be the right one.” Allmusic approve as well saying the band “straddled punk’s rawness and the ear candy of new wave.”
Although the follow-up wasn’t as strong and soon after both Honeyman-Scott and Farndon would succumb permanently to drug addictions, the Pretenders proved they were anything but “pretenders” and have soldiered on with 10 more studio albums to this point, the latest being 2020’s Hate For Sale.