35 Years Ago: The Pretenders Avoid a Sophomore Slump on ‘Pretenders II’
The sequel-insinuating title was no accident. Pretenders producer Chris Thomas was again behind the board, and both records also featured a Ray Davies composition. The band's debut featured a revamp of the Kinks' 1964 tune "Stop Your Sobbing," while Pretenders II boasted a moody version of the more obscure "I Go to Sleep"—which Chrissie Hynde & Co. imagined as a sweeping waltz brushed with subtle French horn.
Both albums also feel sonically connected, however. Pretenders II's opening one-two snarl of "Bad Boys Get Spanked" and "The Adultress" are kindred spirits of the debut's "Tattooed Love Boys" and "Precious," for example, while "Message of Love" matches the vibe of the first record's strutting, tough-but-tender "Mystery Achievement." Modern influences were also more prominent on Pretenders II, however: "Message of Love" recalled galloping British post-punk; "Waste Not Want Not" had a dub vibe; and "The English Roses" felt like a contemporary spin on British Invasion tunes.
The professional, well-crafted approach of the first record was no accident, guitarist James Honeyman-Scott told Guitar Player in 1981. "Chrissie had had the material for a long while, and we just did lots and lots of rehearsing, seven days a week, all hours of the day and night," he said, in relation to the band's genesis. "At first a lot of the licks were very heavy – like 'Up the Neck' started off as a reggae song. I said, 'Let’s speed it up,' and I put in that little guitar run, and that’s how it all really started to come together, by me putting in these little melodic runs that I like doing.
Watch the Video for "Message of Love"
"Because my main influence is the Beach Boys. That’s how the melodic parts of numbers came about. And then Chrissie really started to like pop music. That’s why she started writing things like 'Kid.' I love playing 'Kid'! There’s a number we did called 'Talk of the Town,' and that’s great to play as well. Pop songs like that – I love ’em."
"Talk of the Town," which is on Pretenders II, remains one of the band's best early singles, a chiming, aspirational earworm that's full of longing for something great. The song was indicative of the band's subtle progressions. The lovely, low-key "Birds of Paradise"— which ended with a scorching, keening guitar solo—is a misty, long-distance reminiscence of a past friendship (or relationship) that still lingers in Hynde's mind. "Pack It Up" is the album's secret gem, a kicky declaration of independence that seemingly referenced a song by one-time producer Nick Lowe ("That's showbiz, big boy / You've got to be cruel to be kind"), while "Louie Louie" was a barnstorming, old-school rock 'n' roll tune (although not a cover of the Kingsmen's 1963 hit).
Pretenders II was not as commercially successful as Pretenders, and it didn't spawn any crossover hits such as "Brass in Pocket" in the U.S. And while contemporary reviews could be mixed—"An air of disappointment hovers each time I reach the end of side two," Melody Maker wrote—others were kind to Hynde's work.
"Most of her new songs sparkle with wit, substantial melodies, intricately lapidary guitar arrangements, and rhythmic urgency," The New York Times wrote. "Pretenders II won't be mistaken for 'new wave,' as the first Pretenders album was, but it is much more tuneful and more solidly built than the company it is likely to share—the generally dismal mainstream rock LPs that make it to the top of the American album charts."
Watch the Video for "Louie Louie"
Sadly, Pretenders II would be the last record to feature Honeyman-Scott and bassist Pete Farndon. The latter was fired in June 1982 due to his increasing heroin use. Two days later, Honeyman-Scott died of "cocaine intolerance which caused heart failure," Farndon died of drowning in his bathtub during an overdose in on April 14, 1983.
“He really was the Pretenders sound,” Hynde told Uncut in 1999, speaking of Honeyman-Scott. “I don’t sound like that. When I met him, I was this not-very-melodic punky, angry guitar player and singer, and Jimmy was the melodic one. He brought out all the melody in me.”
In light of these deaths, it's tough not to look at this record as a nod to what could've been—a series of potential new directions shut down by loss. Still, Pretenders II stands as a fine testament to the band's chemistry—and it's easy to hear how the LP presaged the Smiths' dreamy jangle, for example, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' pointed yowls.
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