“I found a picture of you, oh-oh-oh-oh
Those were the happiest days of my life
Like a break in the battle was your part, oh-oh-oh-oh
In the wretched life of a lonely heart.”
You may have noticed that the Adios Lounge has been on vacation for awhile. Fact is, we’ve been closed for repairs, mostly of the cogno-synaptic variety. Wiring and stuff. That’s the bad news. The good news is that those issues are being addressed and the Lounge is open for business again. But, don’t thank me, thank this wonderful tune by Chrissie Hynde and The Pretenders, one of my favorite songs since its release as a single in November 1982. By addressing the pain of loss and the necessity of not giving up, it didn’t take a genius to figure out its appeal to me. Sure, lying in the fetal position and wondering, “Why me?” has its adherents, but Miss Chrissie makes it clear that we must hoist ourselves back on the proverbial chain gang. And so here we are.
“It was from a little photograph of Ray Davies (that) I found in a wallet. We were trying to work the song out in soundchecks for a while, but later when my guitar player died I finished the song off with him in mind.”
–Chrissie Hynde, Rolling Stone, 2005
It’s been so long now, most people don’t remember that Chrissie Hynde and Ray Davies were an item in the early ’80s. Their stormy, on-again, off-again relationship produced a daughter in January 1983 and was the initial inspiration for “Back On The Chain Gang.” However, as she makes clear, it was the cocaine overdose of her badass guitarist and songwriting foil, James Honeyman-Scott (pictured right), in June 1982 that cast the song in a new light. In fact, Scott died two days after original bassist and former boyfriend, Pete Farndon, was kicked out of the band because of his drug dependency. Furthering the tragedy, Farndon drowned to death in April 1983 after passing out in a bathtub due to a heroin OD. In other words, in a period of 10 months, two bandmates died, her child was born, and certainly at the time of Scott’s death, her career (as well as her love life) looked to be in serious jeopardy.
“Oh, I was bummed. One day I had a band, and two days later I didn’t. But, I see all of these things as being a reflection of something greater. I think I have a pretty healthy grip on what loss is about. Loss is extremely painful, but I think that it’s ultimately our separation from God that it’s trying to remind us of.”
–Chrissie Hynde, The Independent, 2003
While the lyrics point to Hynde’s professional losses, the music of “Back On The Chain Gang” combines two of the three fundamental pillars of The Pretenders’ glorious noise: The bedrock influence of the British Invasion and the underappreciated influence of soul music. Only the primal energy of mid-’70s punk rock, heard to such great effect live and on Pretenders (pictured left) and Pretenders II, was absent. Although, given the subject matter, that was certainly understandable.
Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve always heard the intro/outro of “Eight Days A Week” in the intro to “Back On The Chain Gang.” Yes? No? You be the judge:
Outro to “Eight Days” > Intro to “BOT Chain Gang”
Outro to “Eight Days” > Intro to “BOT Chain Gang”
Granted, The Beatles chord sequence is D-E-G and The Pretenders is D-A-G, but that’s close enough for government work. Add to that their common B minor-G turnarounds in the verses and you can understand my association of the two songs.
A PLACE IN THE PAST, WE’VE BEEN CAST OUT OF
For the most part, though, the pervasive influence on “Back On The Chain Gang” –if not Chrissie Hynde, in general — is Ray Davies. Given the personal origins of the song, that reference makes perfect sense. But, the combination of theme and music is brilliantly, artfully constructed. Hynde has written an elegy to the past that just happens to be (at least partially) about the songwriter who mastered elegies to the past. Further, the music echoes The Kinks at their best, such that were there no lyrics, the song could reasonably be considered an homage to the band’s classic mid-to-late ’60s heyday.
“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.”
I think where The Kinks feel is most evident is in “Back’s” middle eighth, quoted above. The notion that “the powers that be” force us to live in certain ways and that we must fight them is part and parcel of the Ray Davies catalog. His anti-authoritarianism wasn’t brazenly political, but showed the effects of the political on the personal. In that sense, he not only influenced Hynde, but the whole of mid-’70s punk rock.
Musically, though, the debt to the Kinks is equally formidable. Billy Bremner‘s slashing guitar is straight outta the Dave Davies book of awesome the way it cuts through and rides above the rhythm section. Speaking of which, Tony Butler‘s bass lopes around Martin Chambers‘ straight-ahead 4/4, not unlike some of Pete Quaife‘s classic moves in partnership with Mick Avory. For example:
FYI, I’m linking to the Sanctuary import of Face To Face, which is remastered and features several A and B-sides of that period, including “Big Black Smoke.” It’s more expensive, but vastly superior to all other options.
MEANWHILE, I GOT TO WORK RIGHT HERE
“As a tribute to Pete and Jimmy, I’ve kept the name (The Pretenders) and I’ve kept the sound. It’s for them that I’ve carried on.”
–Chrissie Hynde, in The Independent, 2003
All this Kinkiness tends to obscure the influence of soul music on Chrissie Hynde, and that would be a mistake. Of course, “Back On The Chain Gang” is an obvious homage to the Adios Lounge’s patron saint of cool, Sam Cooke. But, The Pretenders next album, 1984’s Learning To Crawl (pictured left), also features a cover of “Thin Line Between Love And Hate,” which was a 1971 R&B hit for The Persuaders. I’d argue that “Show Me” sounds like it was written with Sam & Dave in mind. At the very least, it would be a perfect showcase of their vocal prowess.
With all that soulfulness in mind, let’s listen to one of the main inspirations for “Back On The Chain Gang.” Huh! Ahh! That’s the sound of the men …