Friday, March 1, 2013

Favorite Song Friday: Back on the Chain Gang

I love Chrissie Hynde. Don't we all?

So badass and so sweet. So leather-tough and so vulnerable. Such a mystery, yet so willing to keep throwing herself out there. When she insisted “I’m special, so special” we were right there to nod along and say “Yes! Yes you are!” When she pouted and preened words like “You’ve changed!” with such kittenish pluck we were ready to drop to our knees and beg forgiveness. Chrissie called the shots. And we were cool with that.

Chrissie is rock-n-roll incarnate, one true lifer who seems to encompass every nifty little corner of the genre. Raised in Ohio and honed on 60s pop sensibilities. Expatriated to England where she ran with the earliest of the early punks. The darling daughter of new wave, with leanings as far and wide as ska and folk and soul and even a bit of blues.  

And she seemed to exist in this cross-pollination of so many musical stylings so easily—everything Chrissie did seemed to be accompanied by such unwavering confidence, like she knew she’d do it right. She knew who she was and what she was doing, Hell, this is a woman who once proposed to Sid Vicious. To SID FREAKING VICIOUS.

So. The lovely and awesomely awesome Chrissie Hynde and the band she so ably fronted, The Pretenders, give us this week’s installment of Favorite Song Friday.

Favorite Song Friday—The Pretenders—“Back on the Chain Gang”

This is a beautiful song. It’s sad and it’s tender and it expresses feelings of loss and detachment as well as any ever has. I remember in the early days of MTV, when this song first hit in 1983, when the video would start with bodies flying through the air with a carefree look that would indeed belie what was to come. I would always watch and listen, and I would always feel so exhilarated by what I heard and saw.

“Back on the Chain Gang” is a remembrance of lost souls and lost times. Specifically it is written for James Honeyman–Scott, the highly influential guitarist who plated such delicious leads in The Pretenders early years before dying way, way too young in 1982. The funky strut of “Brass in Pocket,” the retro glow of “Stop Your Sobbing,” the loping growl of “Message of Love”—Jimmy Scott created those sounds. Chrissie had the swagger, Pete Farndon and Martin Chambers formed one of the great rhythm sections of that or any era. Put together they made The Pretenders irresistible.

When Scott and Farndon died within about a year of each other in 1982-83, it would have made perfect sense and been perfectly acceptable for Chrissie and Martin to fold up their tent and go home. Half of a great band is dead. Time to go home.

Instead they regrouped and released arguably their greatest album, Learning to Crawl. And the first single was “Back on the Chain Gang,” a song of such poignance that it makes you wonder how someone barely in her 30s at the time could find such pathos and such wisdom.

It begins with a folky jangle slightly evocative of Scott’s soaring guitar line on “Talk of the Town” a few years earlier, before guest guitarist Billy Bremner delivers one of the most melodic leads you will ever hear,  running up and down the neck with these lovely little teardrop notes that perfectly set the elegiac mood.

Chrissie takes it from there, singing in a voice much softer than we’d heard on those earlier tunes, not entirely devoid of the brass but tinged with a more worldly melancholy and whimsy. She sings of finding an old picture of a lost friend, recalls those times in the past where the good and the bad weren't always the easiest to tell apart, recalls the regrets of not having enough time, recalls the fights and struggles. But instead of letting it get the best of her, she instead chooses to get “back in the fight.”

Now I’m back on the train, yeah
Oh-oh, back on the chain gang

I’ve been going on for a while about the allure and power of Chrissie Hynde here, but the trump card of this song lies in Martin Chambers drumming. As the band offers workmanlike cries of "Huh! Ah!" behind the chorus, clearly recalling the same sounds heard on Sam Cooke’s similarly titled “Chain Gang” from decades earlier, Chambers pounds away like a man swinging his sledgehammer on the railroad line, giving the song its heightened pulse and urgency.

A solo from Bremner, the same run as began the song, comes just before the bridge and flows like rainfall against Chambers relentless slap, lending an ethereal, dreamy level to Chrissie’s words. And then at the bridge itself, Chrissie offers the most personal lines of her entire songwriting career, complete with a promise to a fallen friend.

The powers that be
That force us to live like we do
Bring me to my knees
When I see what they’ve done to you.
But I’ll die as I stand here today
Knowing that deep in my heart
They’ll fall to ruin one day
For making us part.

It is unapologetic and unflinching, trading in any regrets for a vow to never forget this picture she keeps looking at. But then at the final verse, she moves on, though not without one last look that lifts the veneer, leading to a confession that serves as a simply stunning goodbye.  

I found a picture of you
Those were the happiest days of my life.
Like a break in the battle was your part,
And the wretched life of a lonely heart.
But now I’m back on the train, yeah.
Oh-oh, back on the chain gang.

The Pretenders' prime didn't last long beyond Learning To Crawl. A few hits followed over the next half-decade (“Don’t Get Me Wrong,” “I’ll Stand By You”) but by the time the latter hit came out Martin Chambers was gone and Chrissie was the only of the original four left.  But this was a band that mattered in its day and it matters today, one that traipsed on a quirky line between punk, new wave and rootsy folk, creating a sound that was and remains wholly unique.

“Back on the Chain Gang” was a farewell forced to come way to soon, but one that remains indelibly etched upon rock-n-roll’s vast landscape. With a heart that won’t stop beating and a push to keep moving. To get back on that train, back in the fight.

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