The Pretenders’ first album, the appropriately titled Pretenders, is one of the all-time great debut albums. And there’s no arguing that point, so don’t even try…it’s simply a fact of life, the way that it’s a fact that the Earth is pretty much spherical (yes, I know, it’s a bit misshapen at the Equator apparently, but you get the drift). If you ever get into a discussion with someone about all-time great debut albums, just toss “Pretenders!” out there and you’re good.
So let’s pause for a moment to ponder: why is a great debut album any more notable than simply a regular “great album”? Well, it’s a special thing because bands and solo artists aren’t necessarily supposed to show up to the big-time music border crossing with their suitcases all packed, passports in hand, and papers in order. Usually they’ve got the stuff with them, but they have to fumble around for a while, looking through their belongings for their ID, unzipping various pockets while things spill out onto the ground, saying, “Oh, here we go, I think….no, that’s not it, that belongs to someone else…how did that get in here?” Finally, after several attempts, they finally stand up triumphantly, ID in hand and say, “Voila! I’ve found it…see, this is me!
With a great debut album, however, the artist(s) in question arrive cool, calm, and collected, everything just where they intended it to be, stride right up to front desk, present ID that leaves no doubt it’s them, and pass right on through. Not only do they know exactly who they are, but everyone else seems to as well and if they don’t it doesn’t take long for word to get around. People in line crane their necks to see who this confident, fine-tuned lady or gent was, wishing that they could be like that, but no. It’s a rare moment, and soon everyone else is back to digging through their bags searching for that ID. Sadly, some never find it.
In 1980, Chrissie Hynde, James Honeyman-Scott, Martin Chambers, and Pete Farndon showed up at that crossing with the Pretenders album at their side, strode up to the front of the line, and didn’t even look at the guards as they passed through. The nerve! But that’s exactly what makes the album so great: their nerve and chutzpah [I swear, I don’t remember ever having written that word before] — not to mention their great musicianship and Hynde’s awesome singing. Nearly every song is a perfect rock nugget, fully realized and full of high-tension energy and rock riffs that never stop. It’s punk on one hand, but simply rock ‘n’ roll on the other; no fully “punk” band would include three songs over 5 minutes in length on an album, as the Pretenders did. But they knew how to keep the songs interesting even at that length. A lot of that is due as much to Honeyman-Scott’s aggressive and original guitar playing as it is to Hynde’s great, sexually charged vocals. His death in 1982 (as well as Farndon’s that same year) was a major loss for the band…although Hynde continued the band with some success, they never again matched the energy of the debut.
Among the many great moments on The Pretenders, one of my favorites is “The Wait,” a pull-out-all-the-stops rocker that careens along at full speed until the moment it crashes to an end. Hynde sings like she can’t wait another moment to get it all out…in fact she spews it so fast that it’s hard to understand a lot of what she’s saying, but it doesn’t really matter. The song is understood through its emotion and utter impact. Honeyman-Scott slams out the stuttering guitar chords with all the energy of a live show that against all odds happened to be caught on tape. It’s some of the most potent, fiery rock ever recorded.