Each and every time I hear the opening guitar strumming of The Pretenders’ “Back on the Chain Gang”; I am filled with happiness, sorrow, love and regret. Then the acoustic guitar (only truly featured in the beginning of the song) joins in, and finally the lead guitar melody, the drums and a wonderful bass part propel me through my past. When asked what my favorite songs of all time would be, I know that this song would be ranked in the top 5. Initially released as a single in 1982, I remember the song fondly for its bouncy video featuring the members of the band leaping in the air. Since we didn’t have cable television my entire childhood (my parents reluctantly got it in the 90’s), I first saw the video in the basement of a kid named Thom Theiss. Thom and I were in 7th grade together and were pretty tight during that year. By the time The Pretenders album, “Learning to Crawl”, was released in 1983, I had fallen out with Thom and his group of friends. It wasn’t so much we had a fight or anything, they just moved on to the newest cool kid. What did I do? I ran back to Matt. Once again, I had abandoned him for long periods of our 7th grade year in attempt to shed this “brainy” image of the advanced classes I was in and tried to hang with the cool kids. I wish I’d known what a futile effort this was; I wish I’d known that the people in that 7th class with Mrs. Whitwell would turn out to be the friends I kept for a lifetime. People like Jeff Marsick and Cindy Graf. People like Matt.
At that same time in my life, I was getting deeper into my passion for drumming. Oh, how I looked up to Budd and hung on every note he played in the various pickup bands. Since most bands had girl singers, and there were so few women rock stars, The Pretenders got played a lot, along with Pat Benatar, Joan Jett and Scandal. When my copy of “Learning to Crawl” arrived in the mail from the Columbia Record Club, I believe Budd played it more than I did. At that time I didn’t have my own drum set, so I had to ask permission to go down into the basement and play Budd’s drums. Since I was minimally talented back then, there was no way in hell I was going to be playing along with Rush anytime soon. I stuck to Journey and some of the easier rock drummers to play along to. And “Back on the Chain Gang” always beckoned me from the turntable. Martin Chambers has been labeled a human metronome by some critics, but I find his playing to very organic and loose. And on this song particular, the spirit he brings to the song is a lesson in modern rock drumming. His playing contains nothing too fancy, the appropriate fills, and enough energy to make the song seem peppier than the subject matter. While I didn’t understand why at the time, I always felt that there was something sad about “Back on the Chain Gang.” The way Chrissie Hynde sings, there is melancholy and reflection that gives the song so much power. It was only years later that I learned that the song was inspired by the death of her friend and band mate, James Honeymoon Scott, who died of a heroin overdose before the song was completed. But in 7th grade, none of that meant anything to me. I was about the drums and the melody. Even today, I marvel at the craftsmanship of this song. Lest I forget, the exceptional bass playing was done by the extraordinary Tony Butler (of Big Country and Pete Townshend fame) and the great Billy Bremmer (formerly of Rockpile) provided the chiming lead guitar song.
“Learning to Crawl” was a huge success for The Pretenders. It was followed up by the slick album, “Get Close”. While that LP included the pop great, “Don’t Get Me Wrong”, I found the record disappointing, mainly because Chambers had left the band. Without him, the camaraderie of two people who had survived the deaths of their two band members was gone. To me, The Pretenders were no longer a band; they were a one woman show. Not that there is anything wrong with that, but it just didn’t feel the same to me, so I moved on to other bands and different music.
In the late 80’s and early 90’s, the Pretenders fell from their huge fame, like most 70’s rock stars did at that time. However, the rise of the classic rock radio format gave them new life. Since Chrissie Hynde hails from Akron, OH, a mere 45 minutes from Cleveland, her music continued to get airplay, especially on classic rock stations. During the summers of my college years, I worked on a paint crew with Steve, spending almost every day outside with my black boom box blasting music. On good days, we brought in our own tapes and introduced each other to new music from our different parts of the country. On lazy, humid days, less inspired that others (or hung over), it was 98.5, WNCX that filled the silence. ‘NCX is the classic rock station in Cleveland, so, yes, we heard plenty of Pretenders. With college graduation on the horizon and impending adulthood, this song reflecting on a friendship past tapped into the emotions I was feeling. These weren’t my minute to minute thoughts of the day. But they would present themselves in isolated moments throughout the course of the summer months. I’d be high on a scaffold, alone, looking down on my friends. They would look so small, so far away. Or there would be times in my folks’ basement, hanging out with a six pack and some tunes. As the music played, Steve and I, or Matt and I, or all three of us on rare occasions, wouldn’t say anything. A simple look and a head nod sufficed. And most definitely, these thoughts would come during those opening chords of “Back on the Chain Gang” and as the song played all the way through. Years later, when I made Steve a nostalgic cd containing songs from our summers in Ohio, I avoided most of the obvious selections. But there was one song I knew had to be included.
In the mid 90’s, The Pretenders became a band again. Hynde brought Chambers back into the fold and hired two young aces for guitar and bass (and they’re still in the band). At the tail end of the “unplugged” phenomenon, The Pretenders recorded an acoustic concert with the Duke String Quartet. That night, “Back on the Chain Gang” was re-imagined with lovely violins and cellos. The harmony of these strings at the beginning of this version of the song can bring tears to your eyes if you’re not prepared for it. Hynde’s vocals are brought front and center. You can really hear the anguish in her voice, mixed the joy in her remembering her fallen friends. I don’t know if she gives her all each time she performs “Brass in Pocket” or “I’ll Stand By You”, but every live performance I have heard of “Back on the Chain Gang” has the same passion; the same love and affection; the same sadness. This is a special song to her and that is obvious.
Two years ago Matt passed away. After working through the grieving process, I could finally look at photos of him without tearing up. A couple of months ago, my sister in law, Karyn, found a picture taken in 1994 when Matt visited us in California. In it, the two of us are young, carefree and smiling for the camera. I look back at that visit as possibly the last time our friendship was good and we were happy in each other’s company. That photo brings to mind Hynde’s lyrics:
“I saw a picture of you/ Those were the happiest days of my life.”
Any photo of Matt feels that way to me.
“Back on the Chain Gang” has transcended mere “favorite song” status. It has become a constant, welcome presence in my musical life. 25 years after hearing the song for the first time, this song has brought so much meaning me. Any song that you can use to pinpoint important emotional moments has to be unique. And the memories continue to come. As is customary, I’ll listen to my basement song several times over to keep it in my head while writing these little essays. It is a real testament to any song that you can hear it ten or twelve times in a row and still enjoy it the next day. Tonight, as I was writing, Sophie and Jake were finishing their bath. Mid way through my entry, the bath ended and I had to help them dry off. The song continued to play as I wiped Jake’s hair. Normally, he stands still for this ritual, but not this night. He began playing an imaginary guitar, strumming along with Chrissie and the band. It was completely spontaneous and he didn’t even realize I was watching him. It is one of those precious moments of childhood we keep with us forever. And I will treasure this one: My son, playing his imaginary guitar and shaking his little butt to one of my favorite basement songs ever.