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At the Limits of Libido

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THE PRETENDERS
METRO, JUNE 2

If punk was the asteroid that snuffed the dinosaurs of 70s rock, new wave was the breed that evolved in the aftermath. The bands that opened the door punk slammed shut were faster, smarter, and tougher than their bloated predecessors--velociraptors running over brontosaurs and stegosaurs--and the Pretenders, led by American expatriate Chrissie Hynde, were the fastest, smartest, and toughest of them all. All low black bangs and vulpine leanness, Hynde had plenty of the punk in her, copping fuck-off moves from both sides of the gender fence, extending both Patti Smith and David Johanssen. But she was a punk with classic pop credentials, a songwriter of lapidary brilliance who turned out polished gems--"Precious" and otherwise--that combined driving rhythms, irresistible melodies, and a sophisticated understanding of sexual dynamics. From "Tattooed Love Boys" to "The Wait," Hynde's early songs were brash autobiographical vignettes that celebrated being a woman in a business where women had no business. With Martin Chambers tenderizing the drum kit and bassist Pete Farndon and guitarist James Honeyman-Scott firing off hooks aplenty, the entire debut rushed along at a blistering pace that seemed impossible to sustain.

Unfortunately it was. After a dissipated and disappointing sophomore effort, Farndon departed from the band and then from life itself, and Honeyman-Scott succumbed to a similar fate less than a year later. Hynde and Chambers hired new hands and roared back with 1984's Learning to Crawl, another instant classic and perhaps the best album ever made about trying to strike a balance between motherhood and artistry, toughness and vulnerability, love and hate. But it was Hynde's last gasp. Since then she's fallen victim to a puzzling slackness, joining forces with reggae hacks UB40 for a flaccid cover of Sonny and Cher's "I Got You, Babe"--so mediocre that of course it became a huge international hit--and then reforming her own band for two mixed-bag albums, 1986's Get Close and 1990's Packed! There's a consensus diagnosis of the Pretenders' plight: high turnover has robbed Hynde of consistent support, yielding flat results no matter how strong the songs. Packed! goes a long way toward proving this theory; a set of fine compositions that run the gamut from the tough ("Sense of Purpose") to the tender ("When Will I See You"), the album comes off sounding as bland as a collection of carpet-store jingles. See your local cutout bin for details.

Whatever the weaknesses of the past, it's never a good idea to write off a star of Hynde's magnitude, and last year's announcement of a reunion with Chambers hiked expectations for the sixth coming of the Great Pretender. The resulting album, Last of the Independents, plays like ski country, full of peaks and valleys. The sturdy lead single, "Night in My Veins," deepens with additional plays, and the album rises to points of intense beauty ("Every Mother's Son"), passion ("Revolution"), and drama ("Hollywood Perfume"). But it's hard to reconcile the high-quality work--the short and sour "Tequila" or "Money Talk," a canny meditation on greed buoyed by an astonishing vocal performance--with throwaway cuts like the sodden "I'll Stand by You" or a perfunctory cover of Bob Dylan's "Forever Young." In the end the album finds Hynde writing and rocking with replenished energy, and had she had the presence of mind to edit out the weakest material the LP might have marked a full return to form.

But the only true place to test rumors of rejuvenation is onstage. Though Hynde's Urge Overkill obsession has been well documented, the Pretenders hadn't passed through Chicago since the Get Close tour, and the intensifying fervor of the Metro crowd reflected the long dry spell. After more than an hour's delay--now there's a real rock band--the band sauntered onstage and ripped into the opening chords of "Downtown (Akron)." Hynde stood planted center stage, flanked by her supporting cast--ex-Katydid Adam Seymour on guitar and ex-Primitive Andy Hobson on bass--and backed by Chambers, who overlooked the rest of the band from a high riser. As the song wound down, Hynde turned to the crowd, bowed, and then wriggled out of her wraparound skirt to reveal her familiar rail-thin physique. Throughout the early part of the show the band mined new material; "Hollywood Perfume" was especially powerful, with Hynde machine-gunning her rhythm-guitar parts into the audience. And while this lineup has neither the velocity of the Pretenders outfit nor the rock solidity of the Learning to Crawl crew, Hynde's vocal prowess and the heft of the songs smoothed any seams in the presentation.

As older hits started to alternate with and even overtake the new material, the concert served to illuminate the evolution of the Pretenders, to emphasize the shift from four-piece band to band manque. While Hynde was indisputably the visionary from the first album on, the earliest efforts flourished as a result of collaborative energy. Instrumental passages were nearly as common as lyrics, and the sequence of the compositions depended on rapid builds and curt diminuendos. With the dissolution of that original dynamic, Hynde has turned toward more literary lyrics--not literary in the sense of allusive or pretentious, but in that they are decisively written. A line from the chorus of "Money Talk" ("If money is the root of all evil / I'm begging at the foot of the devil") relies on paper rhymes, and even the slick noir of "Hollywood Perfume" or the anthemic gynocentrism of "I'm a Mother"--which features original producer Chris Stanley and Get Close guitarist Robbie McIntosh--are stronger in conception than execution. This isn't to say that Hynde is unaware of the power of live rock--at Metro she was entirely aware, fully kinetic as she stalked the stage, bantered with her band mates, leaned into the crowd--only that the new material doesn't always lend itself to performance.

This said, it's important to remember that Hynde's greatest asset as a songwriter, her exploration of sexual politics, retains every bit of its ability to challenge and disturb. By probing the limits of libido, songs like "Night in My Veins" work erotic territory with profound ambivalence, and for much of Last of the Independents Hynde asks the same questions she's been asking for the last 15 years: Is love power or the surrender of power? Can you become stronger by giving yourself away? What are the risks and rewards of intimacy? These anxieties galvanize the most gripping track on the album, "977," a belts 'n' welts melodrama that updates both "My Baby" and the Crystals' "He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss)." A tale of domestic violence that twists into a declaration of unconditional love, "977" is delivered with a chilling lack of introspection. The narrator keeps returning to the scene of the crime, but vindicates her abusive boyfriend by dwelling empathetically on his pain ("he hit me with his belt / his tears were all I felt"). The woman controls the song but little else, the man is both threat and object, and the lushly erotic treatment of the song further tangles the skein of responsibility. "977" is deep modern blues, as compelling in its own way as Phil Ochs's "Rehearsals for Retirement" or Bessie Smith's "Strange Fruit." At Metro Hynde turned the song into grim theater, keeping the beat by smacking a tambourine coyly against the flat of her heel. Deliberately appalling? Perhaps. Effective? Certainly. In its wake, the tight renditions of the Pretenders' most beloved songs ("Back on the Chain Gang," "Kid," "Mystery Achievement") and the rip-roaring series of encores that closed the show (including "Brass in Pocket," a positively wonderful cover of Urge Overkill's "Positive Bleeding," and "Precious") seemed to offer a recipe for success that ironically recapitulated the grim message of "977": No matter what you do, the hits just keep on coming.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Karen A. Peters.

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