Skip to main content

Enter your email below to be the first to hear about new releases, upcoming events, and more from Dig!

Please enter a valid email address

By submitting my information, I agree to receive personalized updates and marketing messages about WMX based on my information, interests, activities, website visits and device data and in accordance with the Privacy Policy. I understand that I can opt-out at any time by emailing privacypolicy@wmg.com.

Best Pretenders Songs: 20 Real-Deal Tracks From Chrissie Hynde And Co
Alamy Stock Photo
In Depth

Best Pretenders Songs: 20 Real-Deal Tracks From Chrissie Hynde And Co

The best Pretenders songs reveal how Chrissie Hynde’s team have overcome adversity in order to rack up one of rock’s finest bodies of work.

Back

By melding punk aggression with a classic pop sensibility, Pretenders came up with a truly unique sound which propelled them towards major stardom during the early 80s. The deaths of original members, guitarist James Honeyman-Scott and bassist Pete Farndon, threatened to derail the group, but leader Chrissie Hynde is nothing if not resilient. Thanks to her singular songwriting talents and staunch support from some well-chosen collaborators, her band have amassed a formidable catalogue and remain a force to be reckoned with. We reveal exactly why they’re special – so special – with the 20 best Pretenders songs.

20: The Buzz (from ‘Hate For Sale’, 2020)

Pretenders’ current line-up, featuring Chrissie Hynde and original drummer Martin Chambers, plus bassist Nick Wilkinson and guitarist James Walbourne, may just be their best since the quartet formed. This latter-day outfit were responsible for Hate For Sale: a high-quality collection ranging from the sneering, Damned-esque title track to the soulful ballad You Can’t Hurt A Fool. Holding its own among the very best Pretenders songs, though, is the record’s first single, The Buzz: a vintage-style outing showcasing Walbourne’s stylish guitar filigrees and a sublime Hynde vocal.

19: No Guarantee (from ‘Packed!’, 1990)

Pretenders’ relatively low-key fifth album, Packed!, came sandwiched between two high-profile, hit-stuffed records (1986’s Get Close and 1994’s Last Of The Independents, respectively), which means it sometimes goes overlooked. The album was recorded while the band were in a state of flux, too, but long-term alumni, including drummer Blair Cunningham and guitarist Billy Bremner, provided continuity, and, in many ways, Packed! actually sounded like a more logical successor to 1984’s Learning To Crawl than the high-profile Get Close. It also proffered a clutch of unsung gems, among them the wistful Johnny Marr co-write, When Will I See You, and No Guarantee: a feisty rocker inspired by Love’s My Little Red Book.

18: Night In My Veins (from ‘Last Of The Independents’, 1994)

Hailed as a major return to form, Pretenders’ sixth album, Last Of The Independents, saw Chrissie Hynde reclaim her crown in no uncertain terms. The album’s killer ballad, I’ll Stand By You, played a significant role in its success, but the record also boasted a slew of lean and hungry rockers. One stand-out, Night In My Veins, featured Hynde at her sultriest (“He’s got his hands in my hair/And his lips everywhere/Oh yeah”), and it remains one of the very best Pretenders songs.

17: Private Life (from ‘The Isle Of View’, 1995)

Swiftly released in order to capitalise on the success of Last Of The Independents, and to take advantage of the then in-vogue MTV Unplugged format, Pretenders issued a live album of a different stripe with 1995’s The Isle Of View. Though stripping their sound back to a largely acoustic set-up, the group showcased a few of their hits (Brass In Pocket, Kid, 2000 Miles) but also resurrected some of their best-loved deep cuts for the occasion, which was broadcast live from London’s Jacob Street Studios.

In retrospect, the performance was executed with aplomb, but the way Hynde and her team recalibrated the reggae-tinged Private Life was truly inspired. “As soon as I heard them running through things they were thinking of doing, I was sold,” producer Stephen Street recalled in the Pirate Radio box set’s sleevenotes. “It was like I was hearing these songs for the first time. Especially Private Life, which I never thought would work acoustically. It was a revelation.”

16: My City Was Gone (from ‘Learning To Crawl’, 1984)

Originally appearing as the B-side to Pretenders’ 1982 hit, Back On The Chain Gang, My City Was Gone was far too good to be left as a flipside, and it was rightly recalled for the band’s third album, Learning To Crawl. Driven by a slinky bassline devised by Big Country’s Tony Butler, who also played on Back On The Chain Gang, this articulate, hard-hitting protest song reflected Chrissie Hynde’s growing interest in environmental and social concerns. The lyric finds the singer returning to her childhood home in Akron, Ohio, and discovering that rampant development and pollution had destroyed the “pretty countryside” of her youth.

15: Popstar (from ‘Viva El Amor!’, 1999)

On first listen, Viva El Amor!’s sassy lead single, Popstar, seems to find Chrissie Hynde commenting on a generation of 90s female singers, but the song’s wonderfully catty lyrics (“But when she starts to look like Kylie Minogue/She might even get her picture in Vogue”) came from somewhere much closer to home. “This was literally a reference to a guy I’d been going out with,” Hynde later revealed for the Pirate Radio box. “He’d started going out with a younger, prettier (ha ha!) version of me.” As Hynde suggests in Popstar’s kiss-off line, the foolish man really “should have just stuck with me”.

14: Tattooed Love Boys (from ‘Pretenders’, 1979)

The most aggressive-sounding track on Pretenders’ brilliant, self-titled debut album, Tattooed Love Boys was a rubber-burning, time-signature-defying rocker, and it soon became a staple of the band’s live set. It’s unquestionably retained its primal power as one of the best Pretenders songs, but at its heart there’s a darkness: the visceral (and extremely brave) lyrics were shockingly personal for Chrissie Hynde, who unflinchingly addresses the vicious sexual assault she suffered in her early 20s at the hands of a biker gang.

13: Hollywood Perfume (from ‘Last Of The Independents’, 1994)

A punchy rocker led by a sinewy bassline, Hollywood Perfume wasn’t chosen as a single, but it’s nevertheless one of the best Pretenders songs out there. Written by Chrissie Hynde with help from Tom Kelly and Billy Steinberg (who co-wrote The Bangles’ Eternal Flame), Hollywood Perfume’s vivid lyrics superficially tap into the glamour and sleaze of Los Angeles (“Down on the strip beneath the billboard moon/Teenaged girls look for love in the/Neon sex and doom”), but it’s actually a snapshot of the earthquake that rocked the city in 1994. “I was alone at the Chateau Marmont when it struck,” Hynde recalled. “Hence the sounds of breaking glass and dogs barking at the end of the track.”

12: Middle Of The Road (from ‘Learning To Crawl’, 1984)

One of the Pretenders Mk II line-up’s most dynamic performances, Middle Of The Road opened with an explosive drum fill from Martin Chambers and shot forth from there. A fantastic live number, the song was only a minor hit in the UK but became big news in the US, where it peaked at No.2 on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock chart. Chrissie Hynde later revealed that the song’s lyric broadly referred to Taoism (what she called “The Middle Way”), but some of it (“I got a kid, I’m 33” – her age at the time the single was released) was clearly autobiographical.

11: Don’t Get Me Wrong (from ‘Get Close’, 1986)

Pretenders’ fourth album, Get Close, was made during a transitional time for the group, with Chrissie Hynde and guitarist Robbie McIntosh effectively augmented by a Who’s Who of quality session musicians. Nonetheless, the record went gold on both sides of the Atlantic, thanks to the inclusion of one of the very best Pretenders songs of the era, Don’t Get Me Wrong: a first-rate pop tune driven by an insanely catchy guitar hook which was promoted by a memorable video inspired by 60s British spy TV show The Avengers.

10: The English Roses (from ‘Pretenders II’, 1981)

One of the many stand-outs from Pretenders II, The English Roses wasn’t just a gorgeous mid-paced ballad, it was a magnificent showcase for the band’s original guitarist, James Honeyman-Scott. His majestic opening figure immediately lifts the song, and his graceful solo is simply taste personified.

“I found a cassette I made at a rehearsal, and we were working on The English Roses,” Martin Chambers remembered in the Pirate Radio box set’s sleevenotes. “It happened to be when Jimmy came up with that great guitar intro, which was like his salute to Ronnie Wood and Faces. You hear him messing about and suddenly there it is. I listen to it now and it’s priceless.”

9: Precious (from ‘Pretenders’, 1979)

Chrissie Hynde introduced herself in style with Precious, the opening number from Pretenders’ landmark, self-titled debut album. Tight and aggressive, it was one of the record’s most visceral cuts, with James Honeyman-Scott’s phased guitar cutting through Pete Farndon and Martin Chambers’ pounding rhythm, and it offered the ideal vehicle for Hynde’s sexually provocative lyrics, which famously climaxed with her spitting “But not me, baby, I’m too precious/I had to fuck off!”

Precious was largely autobiographical, with the superficially cryptic line “Now Howard the Duck and Mr Stress both stayed” referring to Cleveland musician Bill Miller, aka Mr Stress. Hynde was briefly involved with his band, but, as Miller later recalled in an interview with US magazine The Plain Dealer, he told her, “You would probably have to go to Europe to get anyone to listen to you.” So that’s exactly what she did.

8: 2000 Miles (from ‘Learning To Crawl’, 1984)

A timeless balled embroidered by Robbie McIntosh’s chiming guitars, 2000 Miles is both a sublime Christmas hit and one of the best Pretenders songs. Yet, while its yearning lyric apparently refers to two long-distance lovers who miss each other over the holidays, it was actually Chrissie Hynde’s tribute to her band’s late guitarist, James Honeyman-Scott.

Hynde later recalled the background to the song in more detail: “This was influenced by an Otis Redding song called Thousand Miles Away. Also, it came while we were sitting in [London’s] Air Studios above Oxford Circus, looking down on the Christmas lights in Oxford Street. That year, they had all these little twinkling lights in the trees, and 2000 Miles sounds exactly how that Christmas looked.”

7: I Go To Sleep (from ‘Pretenders II’, 1981)

Though written by The Kinks’ Ray Davies, Pretenders cut the definitive take of I Go To Sleep. Appearing on their second album, it’s a song that’s already drenched in loss and loneliness, so the band’s understated approach works perfectly, with the sparseness of the arrangement and the haunting little French-horn part merely accentuating the raw emotion that bleeds from Chrissie Hynde’s voice when she reaches for the lines “You were all, you alone and no one else/You were meant for me”. Abject sadness has rarely sounded quite so glorious in song.

6: Message Of Love (from ‘Pretenders II’, 1981)

With its staccato beat and call-and-response guitars, Message Of Love made for a fantastic, attention-grabbing single which peaked at No.11 in the UK and at No.5 on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock listing in the US. Chrissie Hynde’s lyric also famously namechecked Brigitte Bardot and quoted Oscar Wilde (“We are all of us in the gutter/But some of us are looking at the stars”), but this particular Pretenders composition was unusually spontaneous. “Chrissie likes to come to [the band] when she has [a song] finished in her mind,” Martin Chambers revealed in a contemporaneous interview. “But this time she hadn’t really finished it, and so we just… rehearsed it. We’d already set up in the studio, and it was on tape in two hours, basically.”

5: I’ll Stand By You (from ‘Last Of The Independents’, 1994)

Proving that the group were every bit as relevant in the 90s as they had been during their 80s heyday, I’ll Stand By You asserted itself as one of the best Pretenders songs of the decade when it reintroduced the band to the mainstream on both sides of the Atlantic. In retrospect, its success could never have been in doubt, as it was a beautifully executed ballad with a universal message of hope and empathy (“Don’t be ashamed to cry/Let me see you through/’Cause I’ve seen the dark side, too”) which Chrissie Hynde delivered with feeling.

In fact, the only person with any reservations was Hynde herself. “I was embarrassed by this song because it was so intentionally commercial,” she said in 2006. “But I played it to some girls I knew from the boxing community, and, by the end, they were both in tears, so I guess it moved them. Once, when I apologised about [the song’s] commerciality to Noel Gallagher, he told me, ‘I wish I’d fucking written it!’”

4: Back On The Chain Gang (single A-side, 1982)

Pretenders’ first release after the loss of James Honeyman-Scott, the melancholic yet gloriously life-affirming Back On The Chain Gang sounded like it was written in response to the group’s personal situation. In reality, though, it predated the trauma that enveloped the band when both Honeyman-Scott and original bassist Pete Farndon died within 12 months of each other.

Honeyman-Scott’s spirit was still guiding the band’s future development – indeed, Chrissie Hynde turned to one of his favourite guitarists, Billy Bremner, for Back On The Chain Gang, and the song’s successful execution was at least partly down to the killer guitar hook the former Rockpile man devised to carry its intro.

3: Kid (from ‘Pretenders’, 1979)

Pretenders’ second single, Kid, was about as glorious as jangly guitar pop gets, even if its subject matter (which effectively deals with a prostitute whose son finds out what she does for a living) was hardly the stuff of classic radio hitmaking. Guitarist James Honeyman-Scott attributed the song’s inherent melodic quality to Hynde’s shift from punk to pop (“Chrissie started to like pop music, and that’s why she started writing things like Kid,” he said in 1979), but Honeyman-Scott’s glorious, country-flavoured solo was also a major part of the song’s attraction.

“Jimmy would be the person that said, ‘Right, there’s eight bars here that I can put a really good stamp on,’” Martin Chambers recalled in 2020. “He would go back with a guitar, sit on the bed and just work out what sounded really good. I’ve got the demo of Kid that has a different ending than the one on the record, but the solo is absolutely the same. Jimmy had gone somewhere for a couple of evenings, and he had worked on it so he could play it fluently when it was ready to record.”

2: Talk Of The Town (from ‘Pretenders II’, 1981)

Right up there with the best Pretenders songs, the chiming, Byrds-esque Talk Of The Town cracked the UK Top 10 in the spring of 1980 and was later reprised for Pretenders II. A majestic swoon of a tune, it copped its title from the London nightclub of the same name, but its subject matter was an anonymous fan whom Chrissie Hynde regularly encountered during the band’s early days.

“I had in mind this kid who used to stand outside the soundchecks on our first tour,” Hynde told BBC Four’s Songwriter’s Circle in 1999. “I never spoke to him. I remember that the last time I saw him I just left him standing in the snow, I never had anything to say to him. I kind of wrote this for him, so, in the unlikely event that you’re watching this, I did think about you.”

1: Brass In Pocket (from ‘Pretenders’, 1979)

Reminding us how the best guitar riff can secure a song’s success, Pretenders’ signature hit, Brass In Pocket, originated from a highly infectious lick that James Honeyman-Scott devised and gave to Hynde to work her magic around.

When you pull it apart, you realise that Brass In Pocket is hardly typical verse-chorus-verse fare. It’s extremely catchy, but most of Hynde’s lyrics derived from both American and British slang terms: the phrase “Detroit leaning” referred to a style of driving with the car window down; the song’s title (which is only mentioned once in the lyrics) came from an after-show dinner in the north of England, where Hynde heard another musician ask, “Have you picked up my dry cleaning? Was there any brass in pocket?”, with “brass” meaning “money”. Yet, when Chrissie’s team put these disparate elements together, they came up with the rich classic that tops our list of the best Pretenders songs.

More Like This

Erotica: How Madonna’s Playful Tease Climaxed In All-Out Provocation
In Depth

Erotica: How Madonna’s Playful Tease Climaxed In All-Out Provocation

A journey through a range of sexually-charged fantasies, the ‘Erotica’ album found Madonna at the frontline of gender politics.

Why Prince’s Self-Titled Second Album Is A Post-Disco Classic
In Depth

Why Prince’s Self-Titled Second Album Is A Post-Disco Classic

The record on which ‘his original ideas broke through’, Prince’s self-titled second album served notice that a star was in the making.

Sign up to our newsletter

Be the first to hear about new releases, upcoming events, and more from Dig!

Sign Up