A Personal History of Music, Day 21: “Day After Day,” by The Pretenders

John Scalzi

I suspect most people, if you asked them, could tell you who they thought was the coolest person in whatever genre of music they liked the most, or maybe who was the coolest person in all of music. “The Coolest Person” was not necessarily one’s favorite musician, although there was usually a high correlation between the two, but it was certainly the person who, when you saw them in videos or in concert or being interviewed on MTV or whatever, you thought, “damn, they’re so cool, it must be awesome to be them.”

For me, that was Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders. The Pretenders were not my favorite band growing up — although I did like them a whole lot — but, bluntly, most of the bands I did like growing up weren’t all that cool. I loved Journey, but any pretense of cool they might have ever had went out the window with that infamous “Separate Ways” video, and the other AOR bands of the era I enjoyed were saddled with the edge of ridiculousness that is fun in retrospect but did not exude cool at the time. I also liked Depeche Mode and a lot of their British synth-based contemporaries, but they were all too mopey to be cool. Other stuff I was listening to at the time – Billy Joel! Vangelis! Men at Work! — were almost aggressively anti-cool. Which was fine by me; I was not then nor am I now, anything close to cool, and one should not expend a lot of time worrying about whether the things one likes are cool or not, one should just like them.

But I knew what cool was — or thought I did — and Chrissie Hynde was it: Smart, attitude-filled and not here to take your shit, whoever you were, and the leader of a band that would rock your face off and maybe beat you up in the parking lot later if you needed an ass-kicking. Is this who Chrissie Hynde actually is? Got me, I don’t know her, and if I had to guess I would suspect on a day-to-day basis she’s probably just trying to get through life like the rest of us (you may recall I said similar things about Shirley Manson of Garbage, who also exudes cool, although a couple of decades later). In public, however? A fuckin’ star.

Who also not-entirely-coincidentally made some of the greatest rock of the late 70s and early 80s! The first two Pretenders album, largely written/co-written by Hynde, are a masterclass of guitar rock that no one else has sounded like before or since. Then, after half the band died of drug overdoses and a bunch of other wild shit happened, Hynde picked up the pieces and wrote the band’s biggest album ever. She’s a badass.

Any number of Pretenders songs could go be picked to exemplify Hynde’s coolness; the one I’ve picked is “Day After Day,” which I think has all the elements that go into that band’s great songs in almost-perfect balance: James Honeyman-Scott’s ringing guitars, Martin Chambers’ relentless drums with Pete Farndon’s bass keeping time, and, way up in the sky, Chrissie Hynde, and a voice that will never be confused with anyone else’s, singing about loneliness. There are more popular songs in the band’s canon, but I would argue, not better songs.

Chrissie Hynde is still out there, still spitting attitude and still being cool. I could never be that cool; I don’t aspire to that level of cool. It would be a lot of work for me, especially at this late date. But I like that she is cool, and when I think of what it is to be cool in the world of music, she’s still who I think of.

— JS

13 Comments on “A Personal History of Music, Day 21: “Day After Day,” by The Pretenders”

  1. Agreed. One of rock’s all-time great vocalists. Amazing how she can exude both confidence and vulnerability in equal measure.

  2. One wonderes why our esteemed host mentions only one of the two great icons of cool in female-led rock…

    (Or possibly 1.5 of 2.5. Manson and Garbage are personal favourites of mine, but she’s nowhere near as iconic as Hynde. And once you start expanding the pantheon too much, there’s a dozen others you could bring up….)

    But not mentioning Debby Harry is either a deliberate oversight to not spoil a future entry, a simple oversight, or evidence of an unfortunate flaw in an otherwise pretty cromulent taste in music.

  3. Every time I pick up my guitar and it doesn’t sound like James Honeyman-Scott, I’m a little disappointed. Love that band, and Chrissie Hynde in particular.

  4. Such a blast hearing this song again – haven’t heard it for years. I saw Chrisie Hynde in 1981 and I thought she was the hottest chic alive. Also the coolest. And she still is.

  5. Great pick for a song from them, for me it’s Mystery Achievement.

    You can’t go wrong with any of the songs off the first album and most off the second…

  6. Back in the day I won a couple Pretenders tickets from the radio. My friend and I showed up and we weren’t registered. Registered? Evidently we had to do something at the station (KGB in San Diego) to make our tickets valid. Which KGB didn’t mention.

    We didn’t get to see them, even though we had 2 tickets :(

    Not the bands fault, just a not so CSB :(

  7. Back when the Pretenders were new, I was a bar-band guitarist working on a music degree, and thought James Honeyman-Scott was a limited and cliched player. Yeah, I was full of shit.

    It’s great to hear this old stuff. Chrissy Hynde was and remains beyond awesome. I own a number of Pretenders albums which are really Chrissy Hynde and her current backing band. They are great (I bought them, right?).

    But the music from when the Pretenders were still a real band is something special. It’s not just Hynde and her hired hands. It’s a band.

    BTW, no need to apologize for liking Journey. Yeah, the music from their arena band era is schlock, but it’s such perfectly made schlock. And Steve Perry’s amazing pipes could transform and transfigure the material.

  8. “Back on the Chain Gang” is a great song, perhaps the greatest single ever.

    I don’t know whether Chrissie wrote the lyrics first, but the lyrics and music combine so well. It took me a few years to hear it, but when the last verse comes around after the modulation upward from the minor-key central section (“The powers that be…”), there are no more minor chords; the ii chord in the first two verses is now a IV chord.

  9. You’re probably cool ENOUGH. Especially standing in the glow from Krissy.

  10. Um… don’t you live in… Ohio? I guess you’re safely outside of the scorch marks of the song…

  11. Today I was reminded that CA Route 144 was our very own Milpas Street here in Santa Barbara, the exit you take to get to the Santa Barbara County Bowl, where the majority of this was filmed.

    RIP James Honeyman-Scott and Pete Farndon

  12. I to this day wish that we could have had many more years with James Honeyman-Scott and witnessed how he grew as a musician and with the band as a whole. He was amazing at 25, and it would have been awesome to hear him at 30 (and beyond.)

    I also agree with Snowden – “Mystery Achievement” is my forever fave song – and with Giel about how cool Debbie Harry is. :)

  13. Most of the time, “Back on the Chain Gang” is in my all-time top 10. But you still have nine more picks in which to include it, so that’s fine. I look forward to its triumphant inclusion… ;-)