An optimist looks for the silver lining to a raincloud, a pessimist sees a clear sky and worries about drought. It’s hard to know which category Chrissie Hynde falls into, but it was a good day during a bad time for her back in 1983. What would turn out to be her band, The Pretenders biggest North American hit, “Back on the Chain Gang” peaked at #5 on Billboard.
The song which had been recorded the previous fall came about four years after the band formed in London, where Ohio-native Chrissie Hynde had lived for several years. Their debut, self-titled album had been a major hit on both sides of the Atlantic, and gave them a British #1 song, “Brass in Pocket.” Their follow-up, Pretenders II had done alright, being a top 10 in the UK, U.S. and Canada, but had failed to match the success of their first. Still, things seemed pretty good for them then. Hynde recalls, “everything was going well…it seemed too easy. I was with someone (Ray Davies of the Kinks) I was in love with” and they were doing well on sales charts. Clouds quickly filled that sky though.
Drug use in the band was spiraling out of control, and in summer 1982, she fired their bassist Pete Farndon because of it. Two days later, their guitarist James Honeyman-Scott, died of an OD. Farndon himself would die from drugs months afterwards. “I was traumatized at the loss of my two best friends,” Hynde says.
However, she and drummer Martin Chambers decided to carry on, but having to find new members and facing pressure from Sire Records to record material, they went back to the studio in fall ’82, with producer Chris Thomas, to record this single and the B-side, (the band’s best song in this site’s opinion) “My City Was Gone.” They brought in bassist Tony Butler (who’d soon join Big Country) and guitarists Billy Bremner of Rockpile and Robbie McIntosh to play the song she’d written as a memorial for Honeyman-Scott. The line about the “photo of you” was written about Davies, she says but the song took a more sombre, downbeat turn as her bandmates died and she changed its focus more to Honeyman-Scott. The new members also played on “My City Was Gone.” That b-side also became a popular radio hit and was inspired, as the lyrics suggest, by Hynde’s disappointment to changes she saw in her hometown of Akron upon returning to it after years in England.
“Back on the Chain Gang” was helped along by its use in the movie King of Comedy, and rose to #5 in Canada as well as the States. In the UK it got to #17. Both songs were included later on Learning to Crawl, the third Pretenders album.
The Pretenders are still active, although they’ve only put out two studio albums (their tenth and eleventh) in the past ten years.