OK, so I'm starting to show a penchant for mid-paced pop songs with simple guitar riffs. But while "Just Like Heaven" was about the form, "Back on the Chain Gang" is about the texture. Does that sound totally tossy? Let me explain. There's not much to choose between the Cure and the Dinosaur Jr version of the former song. In contrast, "Back on the Chain Gang" is a catchy tune with a great hook, but it's how the recording *sounds* that really propels it above the ordinary.
To anyone with one-tenth of a musical ear, the song is recognisable from the very first strum of the opening D-A-Em7 chord sequence.
[Ah, Em7! The most suggestive chord to grace a guitar...hovering seductively between Em and G, hinting at an eventual return to D...]
The Pretenders hooked up with the Smiths' Johnny Marr for this song, and it transforms their sound. While Marr was one of the most creative and distinctive guitarists of the 80s, the colour he brings to "Back on the Chain Gang" is really a team effort from him and his six-string Rickenbacker. No other guitar sounds quite like it once the reverb is turned up a little. That jangle that actually sounds like it has sunlight glinting off it was pioneered by the Byrds, and dominates the first three or so REM albums, but it's here that it's close to being showcased to best effect.
Then of course there's Chrissie Hynde's singing. Warm, effortless, and pretty damn sexy. There's almost a touch of the Arabic in the way she turns one syllable into three-ee-ee, and in the oh-o-oh-*oh*-o-ohs at the end of every line. This is a woman who sounds like she might even enjoy the occasional cigarette; today's pop starlets sound like the children they are by comparison.
On paper, the lyrics are nothing special, but each line resonates as it's sung, even: Circumstances beyond our control... Who would have thought a bureaucractic excuse could sound so sensual? There's a nice tight little couplet here, too:
Like a break in the battle, was your part
In the wretched life of a lonely he-a-art
Then, after the minor-ish bridge section, there's one of the most natural and effective key changes to be found in all pop music. Chrissie Hynde's voice floats upwards, turning the word "part" into *six-and-a-half* syllables, and the song heads off into its sunset of the final chorus and a fade-out of more jangling Rickenbackers. Beautiful.
Categories: the Pretenders, Back on the Chain Gang, Chrissie Hynde , Johnny Marr