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.