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In the vast expanse of my music library, I have curiously few songs from the year of my birth.
I can’t imagine what 1981 must have been like for a music fan of the time. Disco was over and 80s hair metal had yet to arrive. The top LPs were mostly 70s rock holdovers, with songs like Olivia Newton John’s #1 single “Physical” and Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me” hinting at the future of 80s synth pop and New Wave.
The Pretenders didn’t exactly fit into either paradigm. Though bandleader Chrissie Hynde was heavily influenced by British Invasion bands like The Kinks, their debut didn’t hit until 1980 – and it was relatively synth-free. It was also a big hit, which lead the band to rush out a second LP the next year.
I tend to think of Pretenders II as the weakest point of The Pretenders stunning initial three-LP sprint (so: still stunning). It’s hard to be charitable to a record less singular than their debut and less hit-laden than Learning To Crawl. Really, “I Go To Sleep” and “Talk of the Town” would be the only two memorable tracks on it, if not for the bomb blast of “Message of Love” – one of the Pretenders’ best and most sparse songs.
As with many listeners of my generation, I was turned on to this song much later in life by a commercial in the 90s (though the internet seems to have no recollection of such a thing). It was the tipping point that finally sent me out to buy all three of the Pretenders first records at HMV in Center City on New Year’s Eve 1999 (the CD purchase was pretty memorable, yet also the least of all the reasons that day was memorable).
The song opens with two guitars competing for attention, shouting a pair of chords back and forth over a bounding tom drum rhythm from Martin Chambers stolen from an old swing tune (I’m a sucker for any big tom drum fill reminiscent of Gene Krupa). Chrissie Hynde inserts herself between the guitars like she’s breaking up a fight, reminding them “The reason we’re here, as man and woman” (literally, as it’s she and original guitarist dueling), sending the second guitar off into hiding.
When Chrissie Hynde croons, “When love walks into the room, everybody stand up! Oh, it’s good good good … like Brigdet Bardot!” all of those “o” and “oo” sounds just pour out of the speakers like syrup. I humbly submit that it is the best she has ever sounded on any song. She winks playfully through the second verse, casually tossing in a famous Oscar Wilde quote as James Honeyman-Scott finally sneaks back in to break up the guitar shouting match with a riff that duets with the vocal: “We are all of us in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”
All of the pieces are disconnected in the seemingly endless two-chord verse that stretches to the 1:25 mark – nearly halfway through the song. Guitars arrive in stabs and quickly evacuate; the bass quickly jaunts across the stage while the rest of the band is tacit.
Finally, the band comes together at once, all the prior elements pasted together with a churning electric guitar riff spinning past like a card in the spokes of a bike and underpinned by an unusually kittenish Hynde oo-ing and ah-ing beneath the band.
Is this a chorus? Again, it almost goes for a minute before dissolving back into the disparate parts of the verse, nearly verbatim to the first. Yet, this time we feel something different as listeners: anticipation. We know everything will come back together … or, we think we do. We never get another one of those choruses. Instead, all the musical elements circle, swinging past each other like flotsam spinning around the drain of the fade-out.
And then it’s over.
Enjoy this beautiful live version from ABC’s live music show Fridays, with the added bonus of it being introduced by Andy Kaufman: