Back on the Chain Gang

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Back on the Chain Gang”

Artist: Pretenders

Music / Lyrics by Chrissie Hynde

Label: Real Records, 1982
In addition to reinvigorating the world of independent music labels and fostering a “do-it-yourself” aesthetic, punk rock also opened the doors of the rock and roll world to a much greater number of women performers. Like Patti Smith, Chrissie Hynde, the literate and politically-outspoken leader of the Pretenders, realized the most sardonic, sophisticated, and poetic possibilities of the rock-critic-turned-rock star, and delivered them with compelling vocal power and highly individual phrasing.
“Back on the Chain Gang” is the best known among the Pretenders’ tough, witty, succinct radio-friendly singles. The song was inspired by several intense events – Hynde’s affair with Kinks co-founder Ray Davies; the death of guitarist James Honeyman-Scott; and the drug-related dismissal of Pretenders’ bassist Pete Farndon, who died of an overdose a year later. Actually recorded in 1982, it was included on the 1984 Pretenders’ LP Learning to Crawl.
Musical style notes
“Back on the Chain Gang” is a great illustration of several of the Pretenders’ musical influences. It is a beautifully-crafted, sixties’ pop-song particularly reminiscent of the Kinks or the Who, and the “ugh – ah” chain gang grunts are a direct reference back to Sam Cooke’s 1960 single “Chain Gang.” The treble-heavy, Rickenbacker-like guitar sound (with some new phase-shifting effects) can also be heard in 1960s songs by the Byrds, and in Beatles tunes such as “If I Needed Someone.” That “jangly” Rickenbacker sound was favored by Pretenders’ guitarist James Honeyman-Scott, although in this case it is being used as a direct tribute to him, since he died of a cocaine-induced heart attack several months before it was recorded (The guitarist on “Back on the Chain Gang” was Billy Bremner of the band Rockpile.)
The structure of “Back on the Chain Gang” appears at first glance to be a fairly straightforward verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-verse-chorus; however, within this framework it has sophisticated key changes and a rather extended bridge. Hynde’s plaintive vocal phrasing, Bremner’s lyrical melodic interludes, and the rhythmic backbone provided by drummer Martin Chambers and bassist Tony Butler of the group Big Country beautifully frame the song’s heart-wrenching lyrics.
Musical “Road Map”





Introduction – guitars


Drums, bass, lead guitar enter
Lead guitar plays a melody that will return later in the song to introduce the bridge section.


Verse 1 begins

I found a picture of you…


What hijacked my world that night…


Background vocal

chain-gang “grunts.”

We’re back on the train –

(ugh – ah – ugh – ah)

Oh…back on the chain gang


Verse 2

A circumstance beyond our control,


The phone, the TV, and the News of the World…



Put us back on the train –

(ugh – ah – ugh – ah)

Oh…back on the chain gang


The lead guitar melody passage from the intro repeats here


Starts with several rhythmic punches; the mood changes as the key changes to a minor key.

The powers that be

That force us to live like we do…


Guitar chords lead to Verse repeat of first line

I found a picture of you…


Those were the happiest days of my life


Now we’re back on the train –

(ugh – ah – ugh – ah)

Oh…back on the chain gang


Ending vamp, with two repeating “arpeggiated” guitar chords, fading to the end

Angela Mariani would like to thank Dr. Chris Smith of Texas Tech University for his contribution to this Listening Guide.

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