Picking a favourite Pretenders single isn’t easy. Most bands would be lucky to be responsible for just one single as classic as, ‘Kid’, ‘Talk Of The Town’, ‘Brass In Pocket’, ‘I Go To Sleep’ or ‘Message Of Love’. ‘Back On The Chain Gang’ wasn’t the groups biggest hit, but it’s their most emotional moment.
Hynde’s expressive voice is one of the biggest assets of Pretenders. Her sensual performance on their first single, a cover of, ‘Stop Your Sobbing’ by The Kinks is divine. She gave another impressive performance as the band achieved perfection on their second single, ‘Kid’. It’s an exhilarating hook filled new wave song that’s a masterclass in what you can cram into three minutes.
Already gifted Hynde’s incredible voice and a brilliant rhythm section and, their secret weapon was James Honeyman-Scott. Over two albums he quickly blossomed into one of the best guitarists of that era (he was a big influence on the brilliant, Johnny Marr). Tragically, Honeyman-Scott died of an overdose in June 1982. Hynde immediately penned, ‘Back On The Chain Gang’ as a reaction and tribute to him.
She sets the scene with the opening line as she sings, “I found a picture of you”. Her delivery and words are unavoidably tinged with sadness and nostalgia as everything is so raw (the song came out just months after Scott’s passing). She continues to tell the story with such grace, “what hijacked my world that night, to a place in the past, we’ve been cast out of”. The direct honesty mixed with clever wordplay appears on the songs most memorable line, “got in the house like a pigeon from hell”. The backing vocals on the chorus come from Sam Cooke’s ‘Chain Gang’. They give the chorus a defiant message of trying to find strength and keep on going in the face of tragedy.
‘Back On The Chain Gang’ boasts one of the finest middle eights music has ever produced. Hynde confronts the loss and her heartbreak straight on, “but I’ll die as I stand here today, knowing that deep in my heart, they’ll fall to ruin one day, for making us part”. The way she stretches the word, “part” along with her backing vocals that appear are absolutely crushing. When she then repeats, the lines, “I found a picture of you’, the vulnerability caught in her voice is moving and painfully real.
The fragility as Hynde reflects, “those were the happiest days of my lives” is a poignant moment in the song’s unresolved narrative. We don’t know how Hynde and the rest of the band will go forward from this point, but there’s a sense of hope that radiates through the warm harmonies and jangling guitars in the outro that offer some comfort.
‘Back On The Chain Gang’ works both as a beautiful tribute to Honeymoon-Scott, as well as being a snapshot in the band’s life at that point. It’s the sound of them and specifically Hynde, just beginning to come to terms with something painful and illustrates an endearing humanity that characterises her best performances. It’s an astonishing piece of work.