An Album for the Weekend: Pretenders II (1981)

In 1981, we crazy college folk were bending whatever we could get our hands on. That included gender. All kinds of weird stuff was happening: cross-dressing, dressing with lots of crosses, crossed signals. And while rock had certainly toyed with gender politics before, the field was ripe for something new.

PretendersIIThe Pretenders stepped up. The mostly English straight-ahead rockers looked a laser gaze straight through punk, ska, and everything else popping at the time and said, “We got this over here. Turn it up.” The gender part was Chrissie Hynde — hardly the first woman to front a band, sure. But this woman had a style. No safety-pinned cheeks, no pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman. Hynde was the most feminine one-of-the-boys ever to strap on a Stratocaster. All of rock was better for it.

On this, the band’s second album, Hynde and her mates got down to many kinds of business. Right off the bat, we get the point of view of “The Adultress,” then a whipsaw gearshift to dominatrix in “Bad Boys Get Spanked.” Wooo-eee. Hang on.

One of the Pretenders’ strengths is that they were never afraid to unharsh the sound and mellow out the guitars. The result is some heart-touching stuff, including a great cover of The Kinks’ “I Go To Sleep.” This approach can go pretty poppy too; witness “Talk of the Town,” a song as catchy as a wide receiver on a career Sunday.

It was Chrissie’s feminine side — or sides — that did the work of covering the alarming spectrum of emotions from soft to hard to sardonic to sad. She had great help. Martin Chambers was solid wall-to-wall on drums, and both guitarist James Honeyman-Scott and bassist Pete Farndon understood the band’s merging of melody and madness. (Unfortunately, both died drug-related deaths after this album.) But the music lives on. If you dug that early-80s rock scene, you’ll probably like it.

But if for some reason you don’t…well, get bent.♦

© 2013 Adam Barr except album art and linked music

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