Welcome, welcome, welcome home to Every UK Number 1! Don’t worry, it’s a very niche reference…
Back on we go, with the decade that truly shaped my musical tastes – the 80s (I was born in April 1979). Yet another weird and wonderful 10 years of pop, that started out extremely positively thanks to the foundations set in the late 70s… before, perhaps, the rot begins to set in during the mid-point.
But before we find out if that’s true, let’s go back to January 1980, with the sole number one by new wave outfit Pretenders. Brass in Pocket was by a strong, ballsy woman. But, contrary to popular belief, it’s not about one.
In fact, let’s go further back – to 7 September 1951, when Christine Ellen Hynde was born, in Akron, Ohio. The daughter of a part-time secretary and a Yellow Pages manager, Hynde rebelled from an early age. She recalled in Rolling Stone how she wasn’t interested in high school, or dates either. But she was interested in bands, the counterculture and vegetarianism.
While at Kent State University’s Art School, she joined her first group – Sat. Sun. Mat. – which also featured Mark Mothersbaugh, later of Devo. She was also there during the infamous Kent State Massacre of 1970, in which four Vietnam protestors were killed, including the boyfriend of a friend of Hynde’s.
Hynde moved to London three years later, and within nine months was in a relationship with famed music journalist Nick Kent. She even worked at the NME alongside him, but not for long. Soon after, she was working at Sex, the famed boutique run by Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood.
This was just the start of her connection to the early punk movement. Returning from time in France and back in Cleveland, she asked both Steve Jones and then Johnny Rotten to marry her in order to gain a work permit. Rotten was initially up for it but after pulling out, Sid Vicious offered. Fortunately, the big day clashed with a court appearance for the eventual Sex Pistols bassist. A narrow escape.
Hynde briefly appeared in several bands, including Masters of the Backside – soon to be known as The Damned, and The Moors Murderers, featuring Steve Strange, later of Visage.
In 1978 she gave a demo tape to Dave Hill (not the Slade guitarist), owner of Real Records and subsequently manager to the Pretenders after he suggested she get a band together. The original line-up of Pretenders (named after Sam Cooke’s version of The Great Pretender) consisted of Hynde and bassist Pete Farndon. They soon added James Honeyman-Scott (guitar, vocals and keyboard) and Martin Chambers (drums, vocals and percussion) to the mix.
Pretenders recorded a demo tape and Hynde handed it to her friend, singer-songwriter Nick Lowe. He was impressed and produced their debut single – a cover of The Kinks’ Stop Your Sobbing, which scraped into the charts at 34 in 1979. Lowe stepped away from further sessions and was succeeded by Chris Thomas. Second single Kid did one better than the first single.
As the Pretenders worked on their eponymous debut LP in 1978-79, one song that had hit potential was Brass in Pocket. Originating from a guitar lick by Honeyman-Scott, Hynde had intended to turn it into a Motown-style tune but that changed during recording. The title was inspired by the first-ever Pretenders gig. After the show, Hynde asked whose trousers were sprawled over a chair in their dressing room, shared with support act The Strangeways. One member of the band, Ada Wilson, ‘I’ll have them if there’s any brass in the pockets’. In this instance, ‘brass’ is Northern slang for money, and it’s not the only bit of colourful language here. Hynde also included other slang such as ‘reet’ and ‘got bottle’.
Thinking back to 1980, anyone who knew of Hynde’s background but hadn’t heard any Pretenders before Brass in Pocket must have been surprised. There’s no punk element to be found, and hardly even any rock. What Brass in Pocket has embodied to most listeners through the years, is that confident swagger Hynde has always had. She’s smart, sexy and confident, but actually more in the mould of a Suzy Quatro than a Johnny Rotten. But of course, the actual music here is tamer even than Quatro’s glam bluster. It’s a soft, catchy, almost plaintive tune. The attitude is all in the words and Hynde’s performance.
If you thought Brass in Pocket was sung from a female perspective, so did I, but we were wrong. In a 1980 Sounds interview, Hynde explained it’s basically about an insecure guy down the pub, geeing himself up to put up a front down the pub with his mates and be ‘one of the lads’. I’m sure you can add to that that he’s hoping to pull, too.
All in all, the image of this guy, ‘Detroit leaning’ (driving around with one hand on the wheel) and skanking, conjures up the image of a bit of a twerp. Discovering this simultaneously makes you view the song differently, and kind of tarnishes it a little. It might partially explain Hynde’s ambivalence towards her biggest hit. Initially she had told Thomas she could release it over her dead body as she hated her vocal, and for a long time she hated performing Brass in Pocket, but age seems to have mellowed her.
Hynde wasn’t a fan of the video either, and again, you can’t blame her. She played a waitress in a rundown cafe, while the rest of the band turn up in a large pink car, with Farndon doing some Detroit leaning of his own. Highlight/lowlights include Honeyman-Scott/Chambers miming terribly the ‘Special!’ backing vocals while holding up the selection of specials on the cafe menu. Bit literal, lads. Farndon and Hynde seem to have a thing going, but the tension is interrupted by three girls who enter the cafe and immediately begin snogging the men. They all leave the cafe and Hynde remains alone and upset. Her initial plan was to have the band arrive on motorbikes and rescue her from her drab life.
So who was right about Brass in Pocket – Hynde or the public? I’m going to side with the latter. It’s a rather low-key start to the decade, but then, every decade up to this point had similar, so no change there. It’s stood the test of time as a memorable enough tune. However, it’s not even Pretenders’ best (I prefer Don’t Get Me Wrong and 2000 Miles). And how did it happen, after two previous relative flops?
Well, the excellent, insightful and blisteringly funny folks at the Chart Music podcast uncovered an edition of World in Action from 1980, called The Chart Busters. Brass in Pocket was among the songs which the programme claimed did so well because of underhanded tactics from the music industry. I’m not aware of how much the Pretenders knew about this.
Whatever the controversy over the performance of Brass in Pocket, debut album Pretenders was a critical and commercial success. And the follow-up Pretenders II contained the hits Talk of the Town (number eight in 1980), Message of Love (11 in 1981) and other Ray Davies track, I Go to Sleep (seven, also in 1981). But there was trouble ahead. Farndon was sacked by the others for drug abuse that June, and two days later, Honeyman-Scott died of heart failure due to cocaine intolerance.
Hynde assembled a new line-up with Chambers, featuring members of Rockpile and Big Country, for comeback single Back on the Chain Gang, which went to 17 in 1982. Farndon, who was trying to form a new band, was found dead in the bath after overdosing on heroin in April 1983,
That November, a new line-up featuring Hynde and Chambers with Robbie McIntosh on guitar and Malcolm Foster on bass released the lovely seasonal ballad 2000 Miles, which went on to feature on many a Christmas compilation. This first single from 1984 album Learning to Crawl peaked at 15. Pretenders performed at Live Aid in 1985, but soon after Hynde sacked Chambers, making her the sole original member. Foster quit in protest.
1985 was also the year that Hynde had the first of two number 1s with other artists. Sadly it was the awful reggae-lite cover of Sonny & Cher’s 1965 chart-topper I Got You Babe with UB40.
The next Pretenders album, Get Close, was recorded with various session musicians. Released in 1986, Hynde must have felt vindicated when Don’t Get Me Wrong soared to 10 and Hymn to Her outdoing it at eight. But the latter was their last top 10 hit for eight years, and there were yet more line-up changes. Parliament/Funkadelic’s Bernie Worrell briefly featured on keyboards while they toured, and Johnny Marr, post-Smiths, joined the band in 1987 for a year. That same year they recorded two tracks for the soundtrack to James Bond movie The Living Daylights.
The 90s didn’t begin too well, with Hynde the only official Pretender on unsuccessful LP Packed! in 1990. Three years later Hynde teamed up with guitarist Adam Seymour to form a new version of the group with a revolving door of bassists (including Andy Rourke from The Smiths) and drummers. By the time the next album Last of the Independents was finished and released in 1994, Chambers had returned and was joined by Andy Hobson of The Primitives. And they struck gold, with power ballad I’ll Stand by You, a number 10 smash and a number 1 in 2004 for Girls Aloud. But it was the last time they made a serious impact on the charts.
In 1995 Hynde had another rubbish chart-topping cover outside of the Pretenders name. This time, the tedious power ballad Love Can Build a Bridge with (ironically) Cher, plus Neneh Cherry and Eric Clapton. It was that year’s official Comic Relief single. No laughing matter.
The Pretenders settled into the career of a band who will always have faithful support, but no longer trouble the charts. They collaborated with Tom Jones on his 1999 album Reload, and Human was their last song to enter the top 40, making it to 33 in the same year.
Since the new millennium, the Pretenders line-up has continued to change as five albums came and went. Loose Screw in 2003, Break Up the Concrete in 2008, Alone in 2016, Hate for Sale in 2020 and most recently, Relentless in 2023. In 2005 they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, where Hynde paid tribute to Honeyman-Scott and Farndon.
Brass in Pocket features in a memorable scene in the 2004 film Lost in Translation, in which Scarlett Johansson performs the song at karaoke to Bill Murray.
Brass in Pocket continued the trend for edgy, new wave pop that would continue to chart well in the late-70s and early 80s. But it was only the start of a bumper year of a diverse range of number 1s, which would end with the death of an icon.
The Info Written by
Chrissie Hynde & James Honeyman-Scott
Weeks at number 1
2 (19 January-1 February)
19 January: Grime MC D Double E
20 January: Racing driver Jenson Button/Welsh Bullet for My Valentine singer Matthew Tuck
21 January: Boxer Nicky Booth
30 January: Model Leilani Dowding
31 January: Journalist Clarissa Ward
27 January: Economist Sir Eric Wyndham White
19 January: The first UK Indie Chart was published in trade weekly Record Business. The first number 1 was Where’s Captain Kirk by Spizzenergi.
20 January: The record for largest TV audience for a film in the UK is set when 23,500,000 viewers watch the James Bond film Live and Let Die (1973).
21 January: MS Athing B is beached in Brighton.
28 January: A controversial edition of Granada Television’s current affairs series World in Action is broadcast on ITV. It alleged that Manchester United chairman Louis Edwards made unauthorised payments to the parents of young players in the club, as well as dodgy deals to try and win the local council meat contracts for his chain of retail outlets.