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