Chrissie Hynde, Pete Farndon, James Honeyman Scott and Martin Chambers may have taken the name of The Pretenders, but anybody paying attention soon realized that there was nothing "pretend" about this band - not its brash amalgam of British and American styles (Hynde was a U.S. émigré; the other three were Brits), not its unabashedly punk approach to a classic rock sound, not its effortless, cool swagger. 1979's Pretenders launched the band on a journey that continues to this day. It's been a long, strange trip filled with ups (ten albums, numerous hits, a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction) and downs (the deaths of Honeyman Scott and Farndon, many personnel changes). The bulk of that journey has recently been collected by Demon Music Group's Edsel label as a series of individual, deluxe reissues or one 22-disc box set, 1979-1999.
In this series, Edsel has addressed all eight albums from The Pretenders as originally released by the Warner Bros. family of labels between 1979 and 1999 as deluxe editions. (Or: that's to say 8/10, or 4/5, of the entire Pretenders discography! The band has only released two albums since 1999, in 2002 and 2008.) Every one of the eight titles here is housed in a thick digipak, with six of the titles as 2-CD/1-DVD sets and two as 1-CD/1-DVD sets. What that means is that plenty of bonus material has been collated, including B-sides, live tracks, demos and soundtrack one-off performances. These discs reprise the rarities brought to light by Rhino for the box set Pirate Radio as well as on Rhino's original expanded editions of the band's first four albums.
The storming debut Pretenders set the tone for the band's electrifying sound. Though filled with pop-worthy hooks perfect for the new wave movement, its attitude was pure punk. Chrissie Hynde, who wrote or co-wrote ten of the album's twelve tracks, was already a well-known figure around the U.K. punk scene. She had played with early versions of The Clash and The Damned, and brought that brash spirit to her own band. But Hynde knew the rules of rock before she broke them. Ohio-born Hynde found ideal (for the moment) conspirators in three chaps from Hereford, all of whom had diverse musical influences: guitarist James Honeyman Scott, bassist Pete Farndon, and drummer Martin Chambers. "Gonna make you, make you, make you notice," Hynde belted with assurance on "Brass in Pocket," the hit single and future classic which anchored Pretenders. She kept true to that lyric on this raw, tough, sexy and surprisingly emotional record as produced by Chris Thomas. (Nick Lowe handled the production on a rendition of "Stop Your Sobbing" by Kinks frontman Ray Davies, with whom Hynde shared a long relationship.)
Alas, the original line-up only created one more full-length record. Pretenders II followed the band's Extended Play EP and adhered closely to the sound, spirit and style of the first LP, right down to the Ray Davies cover - in this case, "I Go to Sleep." Once again, Hynde - as vocalist and writer or co-writer of every song on the album save the Davies tune - balanced her sexually charged, open persona ("The Adultress" [sic], "Bad Boys Get Spanked") with that of a mature woman poetically reflecting on life and love ("Birds of Paradise," "Talk of the Town"). Honeyman Scott's jangly, taut licks, Farndon's confident bass and Chambers' hard-hitting drums all melded into one perfect unit in support of Hynde. But all wasn't perfect behind the scenes. On June 14, 1982, Pete Farndon was ushered out of the band due to his escalating drug problem. Two days later, on June 16, James Honeyman Scott died, a consequence of cocaine abuse. (Farndon would die a year later, drowning with heroin in his system.)
The next Pretenders album, No. 3 in Edsel's box set, didn't arrive until 1984. Prior to recording a full LP, Hynde and Chambers enlisted guitarist Billy Bremner and bassist Tony Butler for "Back on the Chain Gang," a shattering, touching tribute to Honeyman Scott with a touch of inspiration from Sam Cooke's R&B hit "Chain Gang." The Top 5 hit, as well as its sad, autobiographical B-side "My City Was Gone," would appear on Learning to Crawl. The album featured a new line-up of Hynde, Chambers, Robbie McIntosh and Malcolm Foster (and also included the two single cuts). Learning to Crawl would have succeeded on sheer force of will but is helped considerably by a consistent, strong set of songs including the sentimental future holiday favorite "2000 Miles." Though there were no Kinks covers this time out, The Pretenders did include a fine reworking of The Persuaders' 1971 R&B hit "Thin Line Between Love and Hate." Finding strength in the adversity that had affected the group, Hynde and co. crafted one of their most enduring statements with Learning to Crawl.
Only Hynde and McIntosh returned for 1986's Get Close, joined by new drummer Blair Cunningham and new bassist T.M. Stevens. Chris Thomas, who had guided The Pretenders' first three albums as producer, was also out. Jimmy Iovine and Bob Clearmountain were in. Guest musicians appeared on every track, including spots from Bruce Thomas of The Attractions and Carlos Alomar. The sound of the group wasn't the only thing that had changed; Get Close embraced even more of an R&B influence while the producers sympathetically crafted a pop sheen for Hynde's increasingly mature reflections. But the old rebellious punk spirit was very much in evidence on the deliciously snarling "How Much Did You Get for Your Soul?" Jimi Hendrix's "Room Full of Mirrors" was a worthy cover, while Hynde clearly identified with "Hymn to Her," penned by her friend Meg Keene.
Another Hendrix song, "May This Be Love," was included on the Mitchell Froom-produced Packed! The 1990 album was a departure for The Pretenders, as only Hynde was credited as a member of the band; she was backed by a rotating group of session musicians (including drummer Blair Cunningham, who played on every cut) for the album. She teamed with The Smiths' Johnny Marr to write the sultry "When Will I See You," one of the strongest tracks on the LP and one that is still relevant today with its promise to a lover that "everyone will be free/we'll walk down the avenue openly." She also returned to her hometown milieu with "Downtown (Akron)."
Though Packed! never cohered into one of the most inspired items in the Pretenders' catalogue, Hynde rebounded with the crackling Last of the Independents in 1994. This time out, Ian Stanley, Stephen Street and old friend Chris Thomas handled production, with Hynde, Adam Seymour (guitar), Andy Hobson (bass) and founder Martin Chambers credited as the band. This line-up only plays together on one track, though - the rocking "All My Dreams." For the remainder of the album's songs, Hynde and Seymour were joined by various musicians. (Chambers plays on four tracks, overall.) Hynde co-wrote five songs on Independents with the team of Billy Steinberg and Tom Kelly; their partnership yielded the U.K. No. 1/U.S. No. 6 anthem "I'll Stand by You." The inspirational power ballad has become one of Hynde's most enduring statements. Its benevolent spirit was echoed in the album's cover of Bob Dylan's timeless "Forever Young": "May God bless and keep you always/May your wishes all come true..." The Pretenders had grown up.
Just one year after Last of the Independents, the band returned with The Isle of View - an essentially "unplugged" live concert featuring Hynde, Chambers, Seymour and Hobson backed by a string quartet on a greatest-hits set. The Warner Bros. era came to a close, as does Edsel's campaign and box set, with 1999's ¡Viva El Amor! Produced by Stephen Hague and Stephen Street, and featuring The Duke Quartet from Isle of View, Amor features the core quartet with numerous guests on an engaging, cleanly-produced collection of potent pop and rock. Steinberg and Kelly returned to write a few songs with Hynde; the Divinyls' "Human" was the solid cover selection. When The Pretenders returned in 2002, it was on a new label, Artemis Records.
The highlights spread across the bonus discs are too numerous to mention them all. The demos on Pretenders are illuminating, including an embryonic "Brass in Pocket" with a pointed variation in the familiar lyric; previously released demos are also included for Pretenders II and Learning to Crawl. The 15-song set Live at the Santa Monica Civic (first released on Rhino's Pretenders II) is a strong enough performance to have warranted a standalone release. A number of the bonuses feature songs by other artists that complement the covers on the albums themselves; you'll hear songs that clearly resonated with Hynde, such as Neil Young's "The Needle and the Damage Done," Jimi Hendrix's "Bold as Love," Warren Zevon's "Reconsider Me," Lennon and McCartney's "Not a Second Time," and even Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane's holiday standard "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" (from A Very Special Christmas).
The soundtrack recordings are among the strongest additions here, especially as they display Hynde's great versatility as a vocalist. "Where Has Everybody Gone" and "If There Was a Man" were both co-written by Hynde and legendary composer John Barry for the 1987 James Bond film The Living Daylights. Though A-ha got the plum title song slot, Hynde held her own with this pair. The moody "Where Has Everybody Gone," heard playing on a Walkman in the film, has the famous "James Bond Theme" brass stabs incorporated into its contemporary arrangement; end title song "If There Was a Man" is a more straightforward ballad; its gently loping shuffle is redolent of a melody from Bond's sixties heyday. Johnny Marr lent his guitar to Hynde's rendition of Burt Bacharach and Hal David's powerful anti-war anthem "The Windows of the World," produced by Nick Lowe for the soundtrack to 1988's 1969 (got that?). Hynde admirably adheres, for the most part, to Bacharach's beautifully melancholy melody while Marr, bassist James Eller and drummer James Hood give the track a muscular edge.
A couple of versions of Chip Taylor's ballad "Angel of the Morning" are included; it was featured on the soundtrack to television's Friends. The Pretenders also supplied songs for Indecent Proposal (a gleaming yet stripped-down update of 10cc's "I'm Not in Love"), Boys on the Side (Morrissey's "Every Day is Like Sunday"), Fever Pitch (a fine tribute to another legendary lady of pop-rock, Carole King's "Goin' Back" with lyrics by Gerry Goffin), and G.I. Jane (Steve Earle's "Goodbye" and Hynde's "The Homecoming").
Another chief attraction on these reissues is a plethora of video footage on region-free DVDs, much of which has never been released commercially. Performances are drawn from The Pretenders' appearances on BBC-TV programs including Top of the Pops, Swap Shop, Breakfast Time, Wogan, Later, The Danny Baker Show, The Late Show, Pebble Mill and Songwriters' Circle between 1979 and 1999. Original music videos are also included, as is the video for Isle of View.
Each individual album and its bonus discs are housed in a digipak containing a booklet. Lyrics and credits have been included, but unusually for Edsel, these well-designed, full-color booklets do not include liner notes or full discographical annotation as to the first appearance of each track. Remastering is credited to Phil Kinrade at Alchemy Mastering. His work on these discs is the subject of intense debate elsewhere; potential buyers are advised to take a listen to samples and make a decision based on personal taste. (Some buyers have taken note of a possible audio flaw on the Isle of View DVD; whether or not the sound of the DVD is, in fact, an error has also been the subject of debate.) Those who already own Rhino's expanded remasters of the first four albums might wish to hold onto them for the liner notes as well as for their distinct mastering and overall softer volume levels.
Edsel's Pretenders campaign is an ambitious one. While some tracks are missing (non-LP side "1969," some unique single mixes including "Talk of the Town" and "The Wait"), these reissues handily compile almost everything released by the band during its stay on various Warner Bros. labels. (No unreleased audio material is included, hopefully leaving the door open for a future release.) If you're looking to acquire the catalogue of this quintessential rock and roll band in one fell swoop, the 1979-1999 box set offers virtual one-stop shopping. The cube-style box containing all eight albums and 22 discs would doubtless make an attractive addition to any shelf. Immersing yourself in the band's alternately tough and tender, heavy and soft, angry and inspirational music of The Pretenders, you too might be compelled to shout ¡Viva El Amor!
You can order Edsel's Pretenders reissues at the links below!
Pretenders (Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K.)
Pretenders II (Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K.)
Learning To Crawl (Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K.)
Get Close (Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K.)
Packed! (Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K.)
Last of the Independents (Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K.)
The Isle of View (Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K.)
Viva El Amor! (Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K.)
1979-1999 (Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K.)