On the cover of the first Pretenders album, Chrissie Hynde looks like one of Russ Meyer's biker chicks. Lips pursed, shaggy bangs spilling over steel blue eyes rimmed with heavy black Mascara, she's wearing a red leather jacket and fingerless gloves. Everything about her says, "Don't mess with me." Flip the album over though and there's Hynde bending down to straighten the cuff of bassist Pete Farndon's pants, in an almost maternal gesture.
Right from the get-go, Hynde was a contradiction of tough and tender, sneering and sexy. Opening with the dirty- mouthed "Precious," she manages to squeeze "shitting bricks" and "fuck off" into a lyric that's pure punk confidence. "Tattooed Love Boys" and "The Wait" continue the relentless assault of her spat-out lyrics, James Honeyman-Scott's fuzz guitar, and Martin Chambers' big beat drums. Then, just as you think you've got Hynde pegged, she turns all sweet, cooing four pop confections in a row: "Stop Your Sobbing," "Kid," "Private Life," and the still awe-inspiring "Brass In Pocket." Shrugging off the softness, she bows out with the galloping guitar workout "Mystery Achievement." In these twelve songs, first released in December 1979, she laid out the blueprint for a career of hit singles, platinum albums, and renegade spirit.
The bonus disc, packed with an hour's worth of previously unreleased B-sides, demos, and live tracks, gives a glimpse of how the band composted and refined material. An example: the "Brass In Pocket" demo takes the tune at a slower tempo, pointing up the importance of finding the right bpm for a hit single. Also, in the chorus, Hynde sings "You're special" rather "I'm special." The first-person change on the final version adds far more punch and personality. Other highlights: the barroom country weeper "Tequila," the Stax-ish workout on "I Need Somebody," and Honeyman-Scott's wildly anarchic guitar playing on the live "Sabre Dance."
Twenty-seven years on from their debut, there's no doubt about it: Chrissie Hynde and the Pretenders are still special, so special. • Bill DeMain