The Pretenders ARE Special!

3.28 Pretenders group studio NEW YORK CITY, 1980996

What has taken me so long to write about this band? Ever since I bought their eponymous first album only because it was high on the UK Album Chart according to a Billboard magazine back in early 1980, just as their first single was about to break here in the slow Midwest. I am talking about the great post-punk, though many of my high school friends thought they were “punk,” band Pretenders. That first album alone should have made them household names worldwide. Yet, the band has met tragedy firsthand as they quickly lost half of their four founding members to apparent drug overdoses. Still, they have risen time and time again like the mythical Phoenix.

Lead singer and head songwriter Chrissie Hynde was one of the first female rock icons, along with Heart’s Wilson sisters, the members of The Runaways, Patti Smith, Debbie Harry and Pat Benatar. This former resident of Akron, Ohio, decided in the early 1970s to go to England to jump start her rock career, which is where she felt the real action was occurring at the time. Immediately, Hynde found a job as a rock music writer, allowing her to hear up and coming bands while helping her to find her voice.

After a few false starts, Hynde hooked up with former boyfriend and bassist Pete Farndon, drummer Martin Chambers and forgotten guitar hero James Honeyman-Scott, and the Pretenders were born. By 1980, they were on the fast track to rock stardom. In 1982, after the release of their second album, known appropriately enough as Pretenders II, Farndon died. A few months later, Honeyman-Scott followed. The losses were devastating not only to the band but Hynde as well. Determined to pick of the pieces of her band, Hynde enlisted two new members and wrote the songs for the upcoming third album. The third album, Learning to Crawl, was another critical masterpiece as you could hear the anguish of those previous deaths in Hynde’s songs and choice of covers. It is considered one of the greatest albums of mourning in all of rock history.

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Unfortunately, the band’s membership became a revolving door, and the quality of music suffered. Yes, there were still hit songs, but the albums became inconsistent as Hynde searched for the right chemistry. There are even albums in which original drummer Chambers did not play on. Fortunately, the band’s latest album, Alone, saw the band get back to making some great music. The downside is that few care about great rock music anymore, except for old fogies like me.

Today, I am going to rank the Pretenders’ 11 albums. Let me know whether you agree or not.

3.28 11.The Isle of View

11. The Isle of View (1995). Did anyone really ask for a MTV Unplugged album from the band? No? Next!

3.28 10.Packed

10. Packed (1990). This is Chrissie Hynde’s weakest set of songs in her nearly 40-year career. I really had trouble salvaging this one.

3.28 9.Loose Screw

9. Loose Screw (2002). I found this one just okay, no more, no less.

3.28 8.Viva el Amor

8. Viva el Amor! (1999). I had high hopes for this one, and it’s alright, I guess. At least the band played with some of the old fire.

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7. Break Up the Concrete (2008). I love this album even though few have probably heard it.

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6. Alone (2016). Finally! An album worthy of the Pretenders’ legacy!

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5. Last of the Independents (1994). Back when the flavor of the day was grunge came the Pretenders with their Brit-pop influencing sound that was a return to form after the Packed stumble.

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4. Get Close (1986). The last good Pretenders album of the Eighties was inconsistent at times but still solid. Plus, it had “Don’t Get Me Wrong,” one helluva song.

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3. Pretenders II (1982). For some reason, this one always seemed to be missing the fire of the debut, even though it is a perfectly fine sophomore album. Unfortunately, this album represents the last music by the original line-up.

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2. Learning to Crawl (1984). Like I said before, Hynde was backed into a corner by the deaths of two members of her band. But, she came through with a mature set that displayed her insightful lyrics, turning anguish into fire.

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1. Pretenders (1980). The debut remains the band’s gold standard, with tight songs and playing, a rock solid rhythm section, impeccable guitar fireworks, tough girl lyrics and outstanding singing. This album is where you discover exactly why the Pretenders are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Remains one of my favorites of all-time!

And, that’s it, my ranking of all the albums ever recorded by the Pretenders. I just wish I had seen them in their early days. Of course, few of my favorites ever visit Indianapolis.

If You Don’t Remember New Radicals, Go Get Their Only Album…Today!

3.27 NewRadicalsMYBBT

Back in late-1998, I was driving to a high school basketball booster club meeting during which I was supposed to be introducing the seventh-grade basketball team that I was coaching at the time to the members of this club. Even though I am basically an introvert, I have never found public speaking intimidating, which means that I am really a “paid extrovert.” If I were funny, I might be a comedian; or if I could get over myself, then maybe I’d be an actor. Instead, I became a teacher and coach. But, that’s not the point. The point was I that I was driving my car, which means the radio was on, when I heard one of the most brilliant songs I have ever heard during the decade of the Nineties. I thought I was hearing a new Todd Rundgren song, only with someone that sounded as if the singer’s voice fell somewhere in the middle of a triangulation of Rundgren, Daryl Hall and Billy Corgan. This song was blue-eyed soul and rock heaven! When the heavenly sound was done, the local DJ stated the group was a new band called New Radicals with their new song “You Get What You Give.”

Of course, since this was 21 years ago, I was still in my “get excited about new music” phase, even though I should have out-grown the phase a decade sooner. Anyway, all I knew at the time was I had to hear that song again! Sure enough, when that morning meeting finally ended, I got back in the car to drive home, and I immediately heard the song again. And, I knew I was correct about it. The song was brilliant. Of course, my older son was 13 at the time, and when he first heard it, he was NOT impressed. If it had been Limp Bizkit or Master P at the time, he would have been excited, but something that sounded rooted in the Eighties…naw!

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Undeterred by my boys’ lack of support, I went out and bought the CD, which I still have today. This album, Maybe You’ve Been Brainwashed Too, is an overlooked classic. Go ahead, find this album at the local used CD shop or Half-Priced Books, as you can probably buy it for $3.00 or less, which is a steal! I just cannot believe that it continues to be overlooked by most critics as it is a pop/rock masterpiece.

The album opens with a Rundgren’s Utopia-type pop-based rock song called “Mother We Just Can’t Get Enough.” The song sets the stage for what is to come during this song. The second song is the big lead single “You Get What You Give,” which I said sounds like a long-lost Rundgren single from the Eighties. The third song is a dead-ringer for a Daryl Hall & John Oates song called “I Hope I Just Don’t Give Away the Ending.”

But, the true depth of the album’s brilliance comes in the form of track 4, “I Don’t Wanna Die Anymore.” This song should have been a huge hit, as it sounds as if Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins was fronting the Hall & Oates band of their hit-making Eighties era. This song is the emotional pinnacle of the album. Next up, we get yet another Hall & Oates-soundalike, which in my book, is an honor to be called. The song is “Jehovah Made This Whole Joint for You,” and sounds as if Hall & Oates left it off their 1979 X-Static LP, which was, if you know Hall & Oates history, is the album that set-up the duo for their successful Eighties run.

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Now, as if to have life imitate art, track 6 is “Someday We’ll Know,” a song that actually was covered by Daryl Hall & John Oates on their big 21st century comeback album Do It for Love. Once you hear New Radicals’ version, you knew it HAD to be covered by the rock ‘n’ soul duo because it is tailor-made for them. Track 7 is the title track, and is more of an alternative rock song, not real grungy, but not unlike the music on Daryl Hall’s first solo album. The song is a great stretch of the band’s sound, displaying leader’s Gregg Alexander fantastic songwriting ability. After that experimental break, we get back to the blue-eyed soul based pop/rock sound with another slice of Todd Rundgren called “In Need of a Miracle.”

Now, it needs to be said that Gregg Alexander may have been the leader of the band, but he was not the only talent in it. Much was made at the time of this album’s release that former child actor Danielle Brisebois, that little girl who was in Archie Bunker’s Place. Brisebois had given up acting to pursue a musical career and was finding some minor success when her buddy Alexander had her join the band. Brisebois’ backing vocals gives a nice counterpoint to Alexander’s lead vocals in most of the songs, while her keyboard playing is a highlight throughout the album.

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Alexander’s songwriting goes back to the Hall & Oates well for a great ballad called “Gotta Stay High.” As if to say that he knew their whole catalog, Alexander seemed to be dipping into Hall & Oates’ 1978 Along the Red Ledge album for inspiration. Next, New Radicals go back for some Utopia inspiration to come up with what might be the album’s weakest song “Technicolor Lover.” But, I’d much rather listen to this song than a whole album by Master P. Just sayin’.

Not to be forgotten, Alexander gives us a “1979”-styled Smashing Pumpkins-influenced song called “Flowers,” which only enhances the band’s alternative nation credentials. This song would have fit perfectly on the Pumpkins’ magnum opus Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. Once again, Alexander is not just displaying his influences but is improving on the original artists’ sounds. The album concludes with the gospel-like “Crying like a Church on Monday.” Whenever I hear this song, I simply wish Aretha Franklin had covered it and just torn it all apart. This song is a fantastic way to end the album, but in the hands of Franklin, or even George Michael, this song would have become the transcendent album that it is screaming to become. Hell, even Whitney Houston could have done the job too. Wait a second! If I were producing Christina Aguilera, Kelly Clarkson or P!nk, I’d tell them to just cut the crap and get down the emotional basis of this song and let ‘er rip! It just tells me to become a gospel-tinged song. Or, I could even hear Richard Manuel, God rest his soul, painfully singing this song in his falsetto while the rest of The Band plays the hell out of it.

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Gregg Alexander

Regardless, this album that New Radicals created is a masterpiece and should be required listening for anybody who wants to know what real pop/rock sounds like so they don’t get the wrong idea from Adam Levine and his posers Maroon 5. The question is what happened to this band? Well, after the success of “You Get What You Give,” Alexander broke up the band so they would always remain a one-hit wonder. Was he afraid to follow-up a masterpiece? Who knows? The man said he wanted to be a songwriter and producer, eventually earning an Oscar nomination for a song he wrote for a movie a few years back. Regardless of his motivation to break up this band, he left us one fantastic album that I am still playing to this day. And, for an album from the Nineties, that says a lot!

‘The Dirt’ Caused Me to Complain Vociferously, or At Least for a Few Hundred Words

Well, well, well! I’m finally back. I don’t know what to say. 2019 has sucked so far. I have gone from my stupid new pain pump working too well to Mom dying to contracting influenza to my favorite high school basketball coach passing away unexpectedly, that I just needed a break from writing. Plus, it’s March Madness here in the States, which is like a national holiday weekend of watching 12 hours of college basketball for four days straight. Which, by the way, finally helped me rediscover just what I always loved about basketball. Of course, this conspired to get the competitive juices flowing through my body, only to get up off the couch and realize that the chronic pain from my back will always be greater than my desire to get back to coaching. And, it’s such a shame because I can only dwell on how poor basketball coaching is today when NOBODY can beat a bloody 2-3 zone. But, once again, I digress.

This morning, I watched that biopic on Netflix about Eighties hair metal band Mötley Crüe called The Dirt, the very same title as their autobiographical tell-all book from a decade or so ago. So, what did I think? The movie was okay. The screenplay seemed interesting as the “band” members would break down the fourth wall to tell you what was about to happen or give the viewer some important information. But, I’m sorry, but these guys should have been left in the Eighties. Now, would have I done similar things if I had become successful as they did at their age? Probably. But, I still am embarrassed by members of my generation being so self-centered and playing such derivative music as the whole hair metal scene was. Then again, I always preferred alternative music because those musicians were actually speaking to what I was seeing all around me. Hair metal was just my generation jumping on the Ronald Reagan bandwagon, following the Gipper in an Alfred E. Neuman-type of “What? Me Worry!” way of thinking that continues to permeate into the divisive, yet uneducated political dialogue.

So, who was I listening to? Well, you know that R.E.M. was at the top of my list. Wouldn’t be terrific if they were still together to led rock music into a bitch session about the Trump administration? Likewise, my other musical heroes of the era, such as the Replacements, Hüsker Dü, Dead Kennedys, The Smiths, The Cure, Depeche Mode, New Order or Midnight Oil would do. These people stood up for the oppressed. The only artist doing that today seems to be Kendrick Lamar, and he doesn’t reach the masses like artists of the past used to. He is as vital today as, let’s say, Rage Against the Machine or Eminem was nearly twenty or thirty years ago, but only sells a fraction of the music that those artists sold. Music just isn’t that important to the youngsters of today. Society is too fractured, and the communal experience that album listening has been replaced by iPhones with ear buds. I think, like all musical genres, rock music is dying, to be replaced by the next phase, and, to me, that is sad. Rock music gave this kid a voice that was lacking in his life until he heard Simon & Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson” on the radio.

So, I am an old guy saying that things were better back in his day. Yeah, reluctantly, you’re probably correct. But, one thing is for certain, I do NOT want to go back to the days of hair metal! I just never got into it and constantly felt insulted by it. I even listened to a playlist of hair metal yesterday that I couldn’t force myself to finish. Why is that? These guys were all playing some form of diluted Cheap Trick, whom I love, but without the wink, wink, nudge, nudge that makes Rockford, Illinois’ finest so good.

Okay, enough of this crappy writing! I simply needed to get this whole thing off my chest. That movie just really pissed me off! Where Bohemian Rhapsody was inspiring and uplifting, The Dirt just felt exploitative. We get enough of that crap on a daily basis while watching the news. You know what? I can’t wait for the upcoming Rocketman, the Elton John biopic.

So, Eric Carmen, when is the Raspberries biopic coming out? Now, that’s one I really want to see!

What’s a Musical Fan to Do About Michael Jackson & R. Kelly?

So, I’ve been silent because I caught influenza type a from my granddaughter, not because I was being overly lazy. I had not had a bout of influenza since my junior year in high school, when five of our basketball team all dropped on the sidelines during practice. We were literally laying on the court, hacking our lungs out. Personally, I missed school Tuesday through Thursday that year, the first school days I had missed since I threw up in my chili during lunch in third grade. Of course, I somehow made a miraculous recovery in time for the Friday and Saturday basketball games. Only, I played sparingly on Friday, but hardly came out of the game on Saturday. Man, I wish my body recovered like that now.

So, how did I spend this downtime? Well, of course, watching trash, such as Leaving Neverland or the latest illegal escapades of R. Kelly with the great Gayle King. All of which led me to a major musical dilemma: Do I listen to these guys’ music anymore? First off, I am pretty pragmatic. I try to listen to all sides of a story before passing judgement, unless I witnessed something happening firsthand. Honestly, I wish I had NEVER watched Leaving Neverland. Not because I was a huge fan of Michael Jackson, but due to the fact that these allegations are sickening. As more and more victims begin telling their stories, I just don’t think you can deny that Michael wasn’t some sort of pervert. The stories of these men sound too close to what other victims of child sexual seduction have described. Plus, what kind of money are these victims seeking? Lord knows a documentary is not going to be source of income. Sure, there are civil suits, but those are difficult to win. How can these people not be sympathetic as long as you have compassion for other humans.

Then, there’s R. Kelly and his alleged preference for underage girls, in addition to his sex cult. That totally takes things in disturbing directions. And, when there are several women speaking out about similar things points me in the direction of a sexual predator. Now, R. Kelly is not part of my musical collection, though I remember my boys owning his CDs. So, my musical dilemma is not so much with him, though I do recognize his musical gift. But, he never held the same esteem in my collection as Michael Jackson.

And, I guess that’s why I have this debate going on in my head. Right now, I don’t think I could listen to Michael’s “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing),” “Beat It” or “Smooth Criminal” the same way again. I do know that I will not purge Michael from my collection, but I can honestly say that it will take a very long time to put his records back on my turntable.

Sorry! I just cannot defend either man in their situations. This is truly a couple of very sad situations all the way around. And, Lord knows that the music industry is full of past sexual peccadilloes that could end the whole industry, which is scary.

Just a Few Words About R.E.M.

3.1 REM 1983

Wait a second! My package tracking app says that my Weezer Black Album will NOT be delivered until tomorrow! Urrrrgh! I was so ready to listen to it today. Damn it! Well? What in the heck am I going to write about?

I know! Lately, I have been going back to the R.E.M. well. I discovered the band in 1983 on a record-buying excursion. I loved the kudzu-covered building photograph on the cover of the band’s debut long player Murmur, so I bought it. Immediately, I was entranced by the Byrdsian sound of the band. It was not New Wave. It was southern Gothic sounds that was way beyond my youthful way of describing music. Sure, besides the Rickenbacker sounds of the Byrds, you could find little snippets of Patti Smith here or the Velvet Underground there or even a little bubblegum over there or something that seemed like punk here. But, for the first time in my life, this was something completely new but not alienating at all. “Radio Free Europe,” “Talk About the Passion,” “7 Chinese Brothers,” what was going on?

And the best part was that these guys were around my age! Finally! My age group had a band of their own, or, at least, that’s what I romanticized. My college friends were slow to warm to the band, while some of my more progressive-minded associates were there with me.

3.1 REM live

The following year, 1984, R.E.M. released their second album, Reckoning. While my friends were wearing out their ZZ Top and Van Halen albums, I was cranking “So. Central Rain” and “(Don’t Go Back to) Rockville.” I was on a totally different trip.

But, the best thing about R.E.M. is that they musically grew up as I was growing up. By their fourth album, Lifes Rich Pageant, still my favorite of theirs, the whole world finally knew what Michael Stipe was singing. And, the band was leaving their charming unprofessional playing and evolving into a rock force. The foursome of drummer Bill Berry, bassist Mike Mills (the alliterative rhythm section extraordinaire), guitarist Peter Buck and the aforementioned Stipe had grown tighter through touring and recording. With that album, the band moved into their imperial phase, the one during which they grew from college rock and critical darlings into America’s best band and then into the World’s Most Popular Band. From Lifes in 1986 to Automatic for the People in 1992, their growth as a band and as individual musicians was exponential. And, their popularity grew in response.

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I was lucky. I got to see R.E.M. perform in Oxford, Ohio, on their Document Tour. My most vivid memory of that was watching all the Miami University students going nuts during “It’s the End of the World as We Know (And I Feel Fine),” knowing every word since it was number one on the local alternative music radio station. And, I saw them again on that ill-fated Monster Tour. Their professionalism had increased exponentially by then, but their spontaneity had not waned at all. The only downside of the concert was that we had left our ten-year-old older son at home, all pissed off since he thought, as a life-long R.E.M. fan (he used to entertain college students all over Oxford at the age of 2 or 3 by singing “Superman” to them) he should be able to go see them. To this day, he says that I owe him a R.E.M. concert.

This is the R.E.M. I miss. I know that life interrupted all of us in the mid-Nineties. Our innocence was totally gone as the game of life made us all more cynical. Bill Berry’s health scare during the world-conquering Monster Tour, led him to retire from the band. What had been a four-pronged monster from the beginning of the Eighties, was now pared down to a trio. The band never replaced him, nor recovered from his departure in my estimation. Berry was the engine that drove the band, and that engine was gone. I know that I missed his drumming. Sure, he was no Neil Peart, but that’s not the point. The band had a chemistry that was undeniable in the live and studio setting, and no matter who Buck, Mills and Stipe hired, that person was NOT Berry.

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I honestly thought I would grow old listening to new R.E.M. music, much like the Boomers liked to brag about having the Stones around. Yet, R.E.M. called it a day back in the early part of this decade, and I miss them. Sure, the can release compilations, unplugged sets and, as I just learned today, old bootlegs on Record Store Day, and I will buy them all, but it does not mean those releases will ever be salve for my soul.

I miss R.E.M.