My brother got this album in 1981, not long after it was released. I was twelve years old, and we'd been listening to Boston and Van Halen and the Beatles. This was different: These guys swerved all over the road, and they crashed. This was rock'n'roll, and I discovered that I'd never known what that was. It's all fun and games until somebody gets hurt; after that, it's rock and roll. London Calling came next, but we'll deal with that later.

Within a year of making this album, bassist Pete Farndon had been ejected from the band. He was one of those junkies who has a short shelf life, and they couldn't work with him any more. Then lead guitarist James Honeyman-Scott killed himself in with a speedball, and then Farndon OD'd too. That was the end of the Pretenders, these Pretenders, one of those bands that just couldn't be any better.

When you get two musicians in the same band who belong together, you've got something; when they were all born to play with each other, you get the Pretenders, or the Clash, or Led Zeppelin. You get a band that goes from strength to strength and can do no wrong, until somebody's excesses kick in and the survivors hold auditions. The Stones had it too, when Mick Taylor was in the band, but he left to become a Big Star and hasn't been heard from since.

Now, they don't all have to be virtuosi. In fact, it's better if they're not, or at least if they're not out to prove it. They've got to play things that belong together, and they've got to be tight. John Bonham was a great drummer and so is Charlie Watts, but if you transposed the two you'd have two disasters. Watts couldn't have done a damn thing with "Kashmir" and Bonham wouldn't have gone anywhere with "Just My Imagination", either.

The first Pretenders album was a bit scattered, and two songs were recorded before the lineup was finalized. Still, listen to "Mystery Achievement" some time, or "The Wait", or "Lovers of Today": There was greatness in there. It's an indispensible album, but it's still an inconsistent one: Even a perfect band needs some time to get to know one another. By Pretenders II, they had, and they they were growing in all directions. It's seamless. They do so many things on there, and it all belongs together, it all makes perfect sense. The only stumble on the record is the obligatory Kinks cover, "I Go to Sleep". Everything else comes out of the grooves like God made it that way, like gravity. It sounds like they weren't even thinking about it, or trying at all. That's how you can tell they're doing it right. They recorded the album piecemeal; two songs were released on the Extended Play EP before the rest, and there was another single or two before the LP came out. So what? You just can't tell.

Let's have some specifics.

A great rhythm section is a rare thing. There are a lot of good ones, but not a lot where the drummer and the bassist just merge and react like one organism. Flash is an annoyance. In a rock'n'roll band, rhythm playing is all about muscle and motion: Find the pocket, dig in, lever the song forward. Farndon had that like nobody. Get down with the little chromatic climb before the verses in "Louie Louie" (not the other song of the same name that the Kingsmen recorded): It's a cliché but in Farndon's hands it's got genuine physical force. It pulls you into the speakers every time. "Mystery Achievement", too: Listen to the bass. Stop talking and listen to the bass. It took us fifty thousand years to learn to do that. Martin Chambers had the same thing going on, but it's harder without a pitched instrument.

James Honeyman-Scott was the finest noisy dumbass post-Johnny Thunders rock'n'roll lead guitar player who ever lived. It's a limited role, but it's the one the band needed. The Pretenders weren't the Allman Brothers. They didn't do long solos, and Honeyman-Scott would've run out of ideas before all the hippies had even settled down to "relate" to the solo. Hynde's songs were never an excuse for solos; the solos and the lead fills were there to kick the song along. This has nothing to do with smoking a bowl and getting groovy. The point is to get fierce. It's a different kind of playing from what Dickie Betts and Duane Allman did. Listen to "Jessica": The Allmans got out on the open highway and felt free, and that's a great kind of energy and motion, but the Pretenders were racing in traffic. That's the only right way to drive, and you know it.

None of that would be of much use if Chambers and Farndon and Honeyman-Scott were playing the wrong kind of noise for the songs Chrissie Hynde wrote, but their noise was just right. Lightning struck. And they're great songs, and she's one hell of a singer, and this is the album where they did everything right. Try "The English Roses". The lyric has weak points (and strong ones: "forgotten, left to rot"), but just listen to all those guitars, all those damn guitars churning and snarling, and the way it all shakes and hauls along like a freight train. Jesus, that's good stuff.

This is one of those albums you need to own. I've been getting to know it for twenty years now.

Here's a track listing:

  1. The Adultress
  2. Bad Boys Get Spanked
  3. Message of Love previously released on Extended Play
  4. I Go to Sleep
  5. Birds of Paradise
  6. Talk of the Town previously released on Extended Play
  7. Pack It Up
  8. Waste Not Want Not
  9. Day After Day
  10. Jealous Dogs
  11. The English Roses
  12. Louie Louie

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