Chrissie Hynde - lead vocals, guitar; James Honeyman-Scott - lead guitar, vocals; Pete Farndon - bass, vocals; Martin Chambers - drums, vocals
The Pretenders burst onto the international music scene in 1979 during the second British Invasion that featured legendary punk groups like the Sex Pistols, the Clash, and Siouxsie & The Banshees. Spearheaded by the tough, leather-clad American expatriate Chrissie Hynde, the group churned out street-smart punk 'n' roll anthems that would also provide radio directors with a hot new sound.
It had taken Hynde several years and a few false starts, but in rustic Hereford, England, she discovered the definitive Pretenders lineup of guitarist James Honeyman-Scott, bassist Pete Farndon and drummer Martin Chambers. These four musicians created an explosive combination of precision and flamboyance. Their melodic hard-driving sound combined punk and New Wave approaches, but being older and more seasoned than their punk peers, they also drew inspiration from bands of the first British Invasion, including The Who and The Kinks, in addition to American soul music. Serving as a vehicle for Hynde's songs and breathy, dark-timbered alto, these musicians brought a melodic sheen to Hynde's songs which often featured unconventional time signatures and blunt unsentimental lyrics. As the primary songwriter and bandleader, Hynde came across tough and experienced, and her songs could be extremely brutal or sweet, but rarely anything in between. The group signed with Seymour Stein's Sire records, which gave them the financial backing they needed to spread their message, which spread rapidly. Little more than a year after forming, the band was being recognized for their originality and shortly after releasing their first self-titled album in the US, they were headlining theaters and opening for major acts like The Who.
This 1980 performance, recorded at The Wolman Skating Rink in New York City's Central Park was a highly anticipated event. The Pretenders first album, released that January, was sailing up the charts, and their first American single, the soulful and sensual "Brass In Pocket" was a bona fide hit. The New York Times devoted extensive coverage to the band and this upcoming performance in the high exposure Arts and Leisure section of the Sunday Edition the week prior, guaranteeing a large turnout. Although the band had opened for The Who at several large venues earlier in the tour, this outdoor concert was their most high profile event during their first summer in America and both the band and the audience were highly charged up.
With a take no prisoners approach, The Pretenders kick things off with a lacerating take on "Precious," signaling the audience that this is a band with plenty of attitude and swagger. This pummeling opener is next counter-balanced by the sweet vibrato purr of "Kid," immediately displaying the two extremes of Hynde's songwriting. A sign of the good things yet to come is next with "Talk Of The Town," which would be released as their next single and turn up on their second album the following year. By this point the audience is thoroughly engaged and the band digs in to "Brass In Pocket," a collaboration between Hynde and guitarist Honeyman-Scott. With a chiming Rickenbacker intro courtesy of Honeyman-Scott and a loping, insistent beat, Hynde declares "I'm special...so special" and the audience agrees! Following the unusual tempo variations of the previous songs, this song's straightforward clarity and beauty sparkle. By the time Hynde declares, "Going to make you, make you notice," it is a done deal and one can sense that The Pretenders have conquered New York City.
The only cover of the set is next with an urgent reading of "Stop Your Sobbing," a Ray Davies penned Kinks song from 1964 that Hynde had loved as a child back in Akron, Ohio. Although a rather conventional pop song, the breathy waver in Hynde's voice is undeniably captivating and the band's precise and spare treatment bring restrained power to the performance. "The Wait," on the other hand is pure (but NOT reckless) abandon. Co-written with bass player Farndon, this is one seriously wild ride. This is the band cooking up a storm, fueled by Chambers' powerful drumming and Farndon's muscular, melodic bass, pummeling the audience into submission before literally skidding to a halt. Hynde introduces the band members to ecstatic applause and then closes the set with the unsparing and snarling "Up The Neck," ending the set on an atmospheric, edgy note. This demonstrates their penchant for writing nuclear hooks while maintaining their rawness, vacillating between vulnerability and cathartic release.
The Pretenders have been a powerful force in music for nearly three decades, although only Hynde and Chambers remain from the original lineup. Following their first few albums, the band primarily became a support vehicle for Hynde's songwriting but when this concert was captured, they were truly a band of collective strength and talent. Throughout the band's volatile history, which included the drug-related deaths of Farndon and Honeyman-Scott, the Pretenders have remained a vehicle for Hynde's songs, but they have rarely matched the consistent intensity level of that classic initial lineup heard here.