Song du semaine: Pretenders, "Brass in Pocket"

Chrissie Hynde has said on more than one occasion that she didn’t like this song. She’s allowed to be wrong on occasion. This is a rock and roll standard, deservedly so.

Brass in Pocket was an atypical early Pretenders song in many respects. For one thing, Chrissie didn’t let any naughty words or single entendres fly. This one’s a little mellower than Precious, Up the Neck or Tattooed Love Boys. Sure, Stop Your Sobbing was an unabashed pop song, but Hynde’s then-boyfriend Ray Davies is responsible for that one. Kid (interesting version with Michelle Branch trying way too hard to match Hynde’s voice here) was a brilliant ballad from a kinder, gentler vein of punk emotion, but James Honeyman-Scott’s evocative guitar shone through on whatever Hynde was writing. If you listen to that Branch clip, note that the guitar solo is a note-perfect rendition of Honeyman-Scott’s original. It’s too perfect to change.

This one is a little different. The guitar jangles but is more subdued — in a couple of live versions I’ve seen, Hynde isn’t even playing, letting Honeyman-Scott (or Robbie McIntosh, or anyone else who followed) handle things solo. It’s built on a bass groove, two words you don’t often find together in a genre of music that unleashed Sid Vicious upon the world. OK, sure, we’ll give you Greg Norton on Husker Du’s Powerline, but as one review put it long ago, the Huskers long ago seceded from the Mohawk nation.

It’s timeless. Like Amy Winehouse’s Rehab, you might think you’ve stumbled into the oldies station. (If you still have an oldies station — we in the D.C. area do not.)

The video, which Wikipedia says was the seventh ever played on MTV, is one of those great low-budget, low-concept takes. Judging by the car, the gang must have hopped across the pond to Hynde’s home country. The rest of the budget probably went toward propping up Hynde’s decidedly un-punk hair. I’m not sure drummer Martin Chambers really bought into the concept, but bassist Pete Farndon has fun playing “the cool one,” and Honeyman-Scott has a goofy good time smiling and making out with his girlfriend.

It’s just enough of a concept to make the viewer pay attention and let the groove sink in. And that’s all this song needs. Enjoy.

How did Chrissie not realize how wonderful this song really was? Hard to say. But she and the original group went on to produce two mostly spectacular albums before drugs took down Farndon and Honeyman-Scott, robbing us of a versatile bassist and a uniquely excellent guitarist. Hynde and Chambers did a couple of sessions with a group including future Big Country bassist Tony Butler, who provided the groove on My City Was Gone, then regrouped with McIntosh and Malcolm Foster to produce another classic, Learning to Crawl. After that, Hynde ran through band members as if she’d shifted to prog-rock, effectively killing the band’s momentum.

She brought Chambers back for the 1994 comeback Last of the Independents, featuring the driving rock of Night in My Veins and sappy balladry of I’ll Stand By You. Guitarist Adam Seymour joined up then and has lasted a remarkable 15 years in the band, third behind Chambers’ two stints and Hynde herself.

There’s no perfect introduction to the Pretenders. Hynde was always equal parts foul-mouthed vixen, fiery feminist and sensitive nurturer. Brass in Pocket is particularly interesting because it showed Hynde’s mastery of older rock motifs even as she subverted them. No matter what style of music you’re playing, a classic groove goes a long, long way.

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