Brass In Pocket

Songsmith Chrissie Hynde and the Ladies’ Tea Party

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was the rumbling rawness of the Punk Years in the UK, starting in 1976 and spilling over into the next decade. The bad could get really bad, with uncaring unmusical bands, violence and self-mutilation. The newspapers fed on the excess. But the good could be really good, with new faces and new names almost every week it seemed, as creative new talents began writing and performing their own material on new themes.

It was also a time when female artists chose the spotlight with intentions and ideas of their own about how things should run. The rejection of the male-dominated rock, progressive rock and heavy metal groups by the Punk movement opened up the stage and encouraged women to participate in the creation of the new music as much as men. The list of significant female artists in Punk is impressive. Among these, we find Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders, the subject of this third piece in the series Songsmiths.

The Ladies Tea Party
Photo by Michael Putland
Source – rubencaravaca.blogspot.com

In the iconic Ladies’ Tea Party photo taken in 1980, Michael Putland captured the spirit of the times. Musically, these mainly English ladies cover a wide spectrum from ska, through punky reggae to gothic rock and finally disco and pop rock. But in terms of vitality they had all signed contracts with the devil at the same crossroads. Punk historian The Sandman quotes John Lydon : Punk women were hounds from hell. Excellent. It wasn’t combative but compatible. Loved it.

Look at who is in the photo. Maybe Patti Smith isn’t there, but the company is still one of solid talent. Sitting in front we have Pauline Black of The Selecter (right) and Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex (left). Standing from right to left are Siouxsie Sioux of Siouxsie and the Banshees, Viv Albertine of The Slits, visiting American Debbie Harry of Blondie and, finally, her fellow American who had been living and working in London since 1973, Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders who was finally big news. Just my cup of tea.

Got to have some of your attention

1979 was the year when The Pretenders finally got some of our attention, starting with their debut single, Stop Your Sobbing, released in January, a cover version of a Kinks‘ song. But The Pretenders were no mere cover band. With the exception of Sobbing and maybe an encore, they played entirely self-penned songs on their first UK Tour, as Sylvie and I discovered when we saw them live at Harlow Technical College in March. The concert wasn’t exactly full, but it was loud. Chrissie Hynde would turn down the volume to prove she was a true songsmith with Kid, The Pretenders‘ second single which followed in June. In spite of a haunting melody and lots of airplay, the ambitious subject of the song went unnnoticed, and Kid‘s pop smoothness saw it blend gently into the summer soundtrack of radioland.

The real game-changer for The Pretenders would be Brass in Pocket, which came out in November 79. A joint composition by Hynde and guitarist James Honeyman Scott, it was so successful that it actually altered people’s perceptions of the group’s name : they were still Pretenders, but no longer pretending as in unending make believe; they were now pretenders as in contenders for the crown.

Take a moment to discover or refresh your memory of the song with the video of a lip-synching performance on Britain’s Top Of The Pops programme. The Pretenders were number 1 on the BBC chart for the first two weeks of January 1980, making Brass the first number-one single of the 80s.

The Pretenders perform Brass In Pocket on Top of the Pops, January 1980

What’s not to like? Honeyman‘s guitar, Pete Farndon‘s bass, Martin Chambers‘ drums, and all three on backing vocals. Then there’s Chrissie‘s presence, her voice, the sneaky mid-tempo swing. The group play as one, right up to the song’s perfect final resolution.

Lyrics veiled in mystery

Of course, the song is now what we could qualify as a classic – a status confirmed by the karaoke scene in the film Lost in Translation from 2003. In a karaoke session you sing along to an instrumental version of a song – kara is Japanese for empty and oke means orchestra – while the lyrics slide by, often with a little visual signal telling you where you should be. But what happens in everyday life when the standard version of the song plays and you want to sing along with the singer but you can’t quite make out all the words ? You create your own version.

In 1979, you couldn’t just pull out your phone and get the words to a song. More often than not, lyrics came to listeners as primary orality untouched by the culture of print as we heard songs played repeatedly, either because we had a copy or when they came on the radio.

Personally, I always heard Brass In Pocket as a song sung by a girl radiating animal magnetism and lustfulness who wants everybody to know it. She is the ultimate upsetter, creating what I heard as Commotion, that strange emotion. She is prepared to use any means necessary : Gonna use my arms, gonna use my legs. The list starts out like something from the dialogue between Brigitte Bardot and Michel Piccoli in the opening scene from Jean Luc Godard‘s Le Mépris, but Chrissie is by no means passive. And, if nothing works, she can always use her sidestep to wrongfoot whoever resists her, and finally get up close and personal. It is both brutally direct and beautifully tongue in cheek.

The original 45 – still intact

Brass In Pocket is also all the more intriguing because there is a veil of mystery over the words to the song. Hynde is renowned for the quality of her phrasing even today, and this incites you to want to sing it just the way she does. But what exactly are the words she’s singing? We all have versions of lyrics to tunes which we hear over and over. Some parts are clear, others are fuzzy. But the desire to sing along pushes us to find meaning where the singer’s enunciation leaves doubt. Sometimes the slurring can be deliberate.

Take a peek at this extract from Elvis Costello‘s very first TV interview in 1977. He says that if he wanted people to understand all the words to his songs he’d print them on the sleeve so people could read them. He goes on to say I like the idea that people can get the wrong impression. I used to have a whole other version of She Loves You that I’d worked out off the radio when I was a kid. It was total nonsense.

Unpicking the words to sing along

We all have a need to find intelligibility in human speech. We need to capture and unpack messages which attract us. However, as Costello points out, the words to a song are not simply what the singer sings, but also what the listener makes of them, as I recently found out when comparing my remembered version of the second verse to Brass In Pocket with the official lyrics.

Commotion, that strange emotion / Been diving, detour leading / No reason, just seemed so pleasing / Gonna make you, make you notice

What I heard

Got motion, restrained emotion / Been driving, Detroit leaning / No reason, just seems so pleasing / Gonna make you, make you, make you notice

WHAT CHRISSIE HYNDE SANG

I had been quite happy with my rendering of the lyric to that verse. Primary orality works like that : you pick up sounds in a sequence, and unpick them into words. They arrive as oral input, you process them until they make sense and retain the result without ever writing it down.

Why couldn’t I make out what was being sung? Maybe because Chrissie Hynde was an American originally from Akron, Ohio so, while the car-driving expression Detroit leaning would have been been familiar to her, it was miles from my culture. I couldn’t possibly have segmented the sounds I heard into those words because I couldn’t collocate Detroit with leaning. There was no connection.

The other thing about primary orality is that you either let these things pass and hope to understand something later, or you find a solution so you can sing along. My solution was to morph driving into diving and Detroit leaning into detour leading. That worked for me, and felt true to the mood of the song. I could sing along.

Take another look at the Top Of The Pops audience in that video version of Brass In Pocket to see how Chrissie Hynde really reached shy teenagers with that song. Look at the way they mouth the words. She had an irresistible voice. Whatever the real words, who wouldn’t follow that leader? Who wouldn’t feel desirable – boy or girl – singing or gently dancing along to I’m special, so special, I’ve got to have some of your attention, give it to me?

That is my take on this great song. If you want more details about Hynde’s lyrics and how she wrote them, then you will have no trouble finding people ready to explain it all in fine detail. Brass in Pocket must be one of the most explained songs around. I have tried not to repeat things that you can find elsewhere on sites like Louder Sound and American Songwriter.

One thing these websites won’t say is that brass is a copper-zinc alloy which looks like gold but isn’t. This song is a curious alloy of various metals. Don’t believe everything people say about Brass In Pocket. Even here. All that glitters is not gold.

Blue Video or Red Video?

Now you’re on your own. Here’s your first choice. The Blue Video or the Red Video? One is the original version of the song, with lyrics timed so you can sing along. The other video is an empty orchestra – a karaoke version backing track with lyrics which light up when it’s your turn to sing. So what’s it to be? Blue or Red? Ah, decisions, decisions. More tea?

Still want more?

Video conversation from 2015 of Chrissie Hynde talking about her experience of the songwriting process in bands, for better and for worse.

Newspaper interview from 2018 which presents a lively portrait of Chrissie Hynde.

Interview with James Honeyman Scott from 1981 with a link to the audio version.

A wild performance of Brass In Pocket from 1995 at a fashion event with an audience full of beautiful people. It’s wicked.

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2 Comments

  1. Anne Spagni

    Very interesting commentary on Chrissie Hynde and The Pretenders.. once again you’ve honed into the spirit of the artist and drawn our attention to the lyrics..which I’ve nearly always found difficult to decipher whoever the artist may be. I tend to focus on the musicality and when people say oh the lyrics are really good I’m like oh are they? Funnily enough I have always wanted to know what CH is singing in this particular song and have payed attention..no pun intended! Partly because I liked the sound of the word sassy as an English anglo speaker and always wondered what it meant. And her diction is quite clear I find in this case.
    But I find it quite funny how you made up your own words but then i used to sing ” Sue Lawley ” to Stings ” So lonely” and wonder why he’d sing about this TV presenter until someone pointed out the real words! Actually I was a bit disappointed as I thought it must have some underlying meaning personal to him..

  2. Gerry Kenny

    Thank you Anne for your long comment and the lovely “Sue Lawley” anecdote. I’m convinced that we all have stories to tell about songs and how we perceive them. I certainly have a few more!

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