Oct 08

THE PRETENDERS – “Brass In Pocket”

FT + Popular70 comments • 4,926 views

#449, 19th January 1980

I had a pub conversation once about Radiohead’s “Creep”, where we decided the ideal cover would be one grounded in full-on swagger, simply inverting every “I” and “You” in the song: “I’m so fucking special – you wish you were special…you’re a creep!”. “Brass In Pocket” isn’t quite what we were getting at – there’s no sense that Chrissie Hynde’s target is any weaker than her, even if his capitulation is inevitable – but as an exercise in total confidence it takes some beating. The danger in the song is that its determination could shade into desperation, but when you listen to it you never once doubt that Hynde’s got the moves to back up her words: if anything, the song’s a challenge to her lover-to-be to step up and match her.

The band keep things steady in the background, cresting and rolling back unobtrusively to give their singer the space and stage she needs – and her vocal is a box-of-tricks performance, snapping from purr to pounce in the space of a line. Without it, actually, the song is nothing at all – there’s no particuarly good hooks in “Brass In Pocket”, no chorus, just build and force: if you don’t like Hynde’s voice there’s not a lot of room for you to enjoy it. And the honest truth is, I don’t like it – she’s borrowing a lot from Patti Smith but there’s a spontaneity in Smith’s singing, a sense that her squeals and shouts are unbidden responses to musical and emotional momentum. I don’t hear that in Hynde, and it means I can’t buy into her technique here. Of course, it’s a song about going after what you want with laser focus, so no surprise that the delivery’s kind of calculating – but this is one of those singles where I can understand exactly why it’s loved, but can’t join in myself.



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  1. 51
    Brian on 28 Oct 2008 #

    Thanks Erithian & Mark G ~ It’s often hard for me to get a focus on what’s really going on in the British musical scene when I see some of the numbers #1’s that get reviewed. Tougher still when you know that I was ( and still am ) in Canada and older than most of the contributors – so I actually remember the songs and the times .

    So when I see so much praise lavished on Blondie and Pretenders being dissed – I gotta scratch my head and wonder what was going on in the UK that I missed,,,,,,

    Thanks for throwing a light on this –

  2. 52
    Billy Smart on 1 Nov 2008 #

    TOTPWatch: The Pretenders performed Brass In Pocket on four seperate occasions, over three consecutive years! November 22nd 1979 in an appearance that had to be prerecorded because of industrial action, January 3rd 1980, January 17th 1980, and January 1st 1981.

    Also in the studio on January 3rd 1980 were; Madness, Boney M, The Beat, Fiddler’s Dram, Billy Preston & Syreeta and Kurtis Blow, plus Legs & Co’s interpretation of ‘My Feet Keep Dancing’. The host was Peter Powell.

    Also in the studio on January the 17th were; New Musik, Sad Cafe, Sister Sledge, Positive Force, Dexy’s Midnight Runners, Amii Stewart and Rupert Holmes, plus Legs & Co’s interpretation of Green Onions. The host was Simon Bates.

  3. 53
    Billy Smart on 8 Dec 2008 #

    NMEWatch: 10 November 1979. A Charles Shaar Murray single of the week (uncharacteristic photograph of CSM in mod image);

    “Will give Chrissie and her cohorts that major convincing hit. It’s the best kind of derivative, egocentric rock single: it insists ‘I’m special, give me your attention’ in a plangent, pleading manner, provides enough rhythmic poke to qualify as a dance record while still remaining smooth enough for continuous application. It blends ’60s guitar and ’70s drums with an exquisite kitten of a melody. It’s your basic nice record for middlebrows. (…) Not a record to kill for, but one to inspire great fondness.”

    Also reviewed;

    Boomtown Rats – Diamond Smiles
    Barbara Streisand & Donna Summer – No More Tears
    Sheila B Devotion – Spacer
    Slade – Sign Of The Times
    Phil Daniels & The Cross – Kill Another Night

  4. 54
    lonepilgrim on 8 Dec 2008 #

    ahh…plangent – a word that seemed beloved by NME writers at that time – and to this day I still don’t know what it means

  5. 55
    lonepilgrim on 8 Dec 2008 #

    ..so after Googling it and getting sufficiently distracted to miss my editing time I learn that it means ‘suggesting sadness’ which is clearly wrong in this case – he just likes the alliteration with pleading

  6. 56

    it comes from latin plangere — to strike one’s breast in mourning — and means beating or striking, as in beating one’s breast, or the sound of the sea — also resonant, loud, plaintive, mournful

    ie it means whatever you want it to mean!

    (above is from new shorter oxford, which generally flails a bit less than this: viz it defines plangency as “the quality of being plangent”, which is as close as shorter gets to sayin “plz to F.OFF!”)

  7. 57
    lonepilgrim on 8 Dec 2008 #

    that reminds me of my art teacher telling me that my paintings needed to be more painterly. When I looked it up I discovered that it meant ‘having the quality of paint’ which seemed to state the bleeding obvious.My understanding is a little more nuanced now…

  8. 58
    punctum on 6 Oct 2009 #

    Clever marketing by WEA ensured that the eponymous debut album by the Pretenders became the first major album to be released in the eighties, and also helped “Brass In Pocket” to become that decade’s first number one single – and no one could begrudge either. Consider the Chrissie Hynde of 1974, fresh off the ‘plane from Akron, freelancing for the NME, yawning in agony at being asked to pen yet another Velvets retrospective, wishing inwardly for something much better. Then she falls in with the McLaren/Pistols crowd, suddenly feels exactly at home. She loves the future, winds a few tabloids up by helping out Steve Strange on that one-off Moors Murderers single, but essentially can’t let go of those Kinks and Marvelettes and Stooges sides which helped her grow up; so she finally gets the retro-nuevo pop/rock band she’d been craving, and then the world realises that she can sing…

    The first two Pretenders singles, “Stop Your Sobbing” and “Kid,” were remarkably unclassifiable yet resolutely of the then-now; Hynde, with a voice deriving from, but reaching far wider than, Sandie Shaw (those elongated vibrati), managed the difficult feat of being sensual and comforting at the same time. “Kid” in particular is akin to being offered a long, lovely, selfless hug. The album was startling too, containing two of the most disturbing and unsettling, but rigidly rationalist, examples of tough love in pop in “Lovers Of Today” and “Private Life” – forthright and chilling.

    But “Brass In Pocket” was the pop trump card. Set on paper, the lyric in isolation can look arrogant – “I’m special, so special/I’ve gotta have some of your attention/Give it to me!” One can only shudder at what the Beyoncés of this bereft age would make of such words; strident, clock-watching and loveless. But with Chrissie, you are compelled to agree: “damn right baby, you deserve it!” Because there is a cosmos of difference between arrogance and sassiness, between imposition and assertiveness. She wants that man, desires this world, and she knows the tactics required to secure either, or both: “Intention – I feel inventive!” And she beguiles the listener as she lists her attributes – “Gonna use my arms/gonna use my legs/gonna use my style…” – with her voice rising and swaying in total confidence, so much so that even lines like “Been driving, Detroit-leaning” and “Got new skank, it’s so reet” fly by without the listener taking much, if any, exception. She indulges in rhetorical triplets, almost like a political speech – “Gonna use my, my, my imagination,” “Gonna make you, make you, make you notice.”

    The music is splendid; James Honeyman-Scott’s lucid guitars floating through tenderly, rhythm foursquare but fluid, the same bending bass and pre-coital “Oh!” which introduced “Message In A Bottle.” But Hynde’s demands demand attention because you recognise them for the pleas which they really are; I’ve got it all and you HAVE to notice me, acknowledge me. I was about to turn sixteen, so you can imagine my elementary response to all of this, but her delivery and stance are so naturally lovely that it’s impossible to resist her requests to give yourself to her.

  9. 59
    garax on 11 Feb 2010 #

    This is all about attitude – and a fabulous slice of it – 5 – are you taking crazy pills – worst case 8 – I mean – its got CH singing on it at her peak – so it starts with an 8 – 5 be buggered!

  10. 60
    Tom on 11 Feb 2010 #

    I think most of the comments agreed I went too low on this one. Ah well!

  11. 61
    thefatgit on 11 Feb 2010 #

    Each time I hear this record with it’s steady rhythm and sexy swagger, I just conjure up in my mind Chrissie Hynde repeatedly kicking Jim Kerr in the nuts. And for that, it’s a 9.

  12. 62
    Brooksie on 13 Feb 2010 #

    Love BiP; the jangly floaty guitars are irresistible. It’s catchy and likable. Don’t understand the criticisms here. There seems to be a little too much “It’s too catchy/It’s insubstantial” for me. My reaction is, “and?” It has everything a # 1 pop hit should have in spades. # 1 singles are not created for people in their late teens/early twenties for whom ‘credibility’ or ‘subtlety’ are paramount – # 1 albums maybe, but that age group have little bearing on what does or doesn’t get to the top of the singles charts (there are usually only one or two groups a year that shake that truth). They’re made for twelve year-olds who sing them in the playground. And for all those people talking about ‘Message of Love’ or ‘Talk of the Town’ like they should be the ones that hit the top, I say “no chance.” Those singles got exactly where there popularity justified them getting to – not # 1.

    @Brian # 51:

    You aren’t the only one baffled here. Let’s just get the history straight about Blondie / The Pretenders in 1980: Blondie may have been one of the biggest singles bands of the year, but from ‘Eat to the Beat’ onwards, the critics were shredding Blondie with increasing ferocity. The Pretenders were lauded across the board with their first album in 1980. Don’t be fooled by the comments here; if this was being written in 1980 as a roundup of the years singles, BiP would be the height of credibility, and Blondie would be seen as heavyweight fluff. Yes, in the modern world we love Blondie to bits, especially with their “fills a greatest-hits nicely” bunch of catchy pop-rock, but then we don’t have to sit through ‘Autoamerican’, do we? I say that as someone who loves/loved Blondie, and only passingly liked The Pretenders.

  13. 63
    Mark G on 7 Feb 2011 #

    does anyone else have the love for the two groovy instrumentals on the b-side? Just me then…

    (slight return from #50…)

  14. 64
    swanstep on 8 Feb 2011 #

    Great single from a great debut album. As well as the album tracks that Punctum mentions, the lyrical and musical ferocity of Up the Neck and Tattooed Love Boys really stood out I think. Both those tracks got played a lot on radio in NZ at the time. The Pretenders first line-up seemed like a full-service pop-group – great front-woman, great snarky attitude, great players and chops, great sexy loping pop songs, great filthy sexy fast rocking songs.

    BiP got to #2 in both NZ and Australia – no major manipulations alleged. The song’s an obvious hit.

    The week before BiP hit its peak in NZ was one of the best top-of-the-charts of my lifetime, if anyone’s interested:
    April 27, 1980
    1 Smokey Robinson, Cruisin’
    2 Ry Cooder, Little Sister
    3 Prince, I Wanna Be Your Lover
    4 The Pretenders, Brass In Pocket
    5 The Flying Lizards, Money
    6 Spinners, Working My Way Back To You
    7 Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, Refugee

  15. 65
    Lena on 17 Dec 2012 #

    Then Play Long discusses the parent album: http://nobilliards.blogspot.co.uk/2012/12/the-pretenders-pretenders_17.html – and yes, I am now helping to write the blog. Thanks for any links, retweets, etc.!

  16. 66
    lonepilgrim on 18 Dec 2012 #

    that’s a fantastic response to a very underrated album Lena.

  17. 67
    Lena on 19 Dec 2012 #

    Thanks! I tend to think they are underrated altogether as they (in the original line-up) lasted for only two albums, and never got to grow and mature as a band, sadly.

  18. 68
    furtive on 16 Jan 2013 #

    Chrissie Hynde has said on many occasions how much she hates Brass In Pocket – she had to be talked into recording it and then persuaded to release it as a single, telling her band, management and record label that it would be released as a single ‘over my dead body’. Personally, I think it is a genius slice of pop music. Melding numerous genres together (country, Motown, pop to name three) it charges along from peaks to troughs and back again never allowing the listener to catch their breath and before you know in 2 short minutes the ride is over (the perfect length for a pop record).
    I’ve never seen Hynde’s delivery or lyrics as aggressive, there is a lot of melancholy and yearning in the the song and I’ve always felt it is more about unrequited love other than a quest to snare a man. I’ve perhaps been influenced by the film clip where Hynde fails to capture the attention of the men who come into her cafe. Surely the wonderful film clip is also one of the very first to feature a dramatic storyline instead of a straight performance to camera? I can’t think of many dramatic film clips pre-1979…

  19. 69
    hectorthebat on 19 Aug 2014 #

    Critic watch:

    1,001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die, and 10,001 You Must Download (2010) 1-1001
    Blender (USA) – Standout Tracks from the 500 CDs You Must Own (2003)
    Bruce Pollock (USA) – The 7,500 Most Important Songs of 1944-2000 (2005)
    Dave Marsh & Kevin Stein (USA) – The 40 Best of the Top 40 Singles by Year (1981) 17
    Life (USA) – 40 Years of Rock & Roll, 5 Songs for Each Year 1952-91 (Updated 1995)
    Michaelangelo Matos (USA) – Top 100 Singles of the 1980s (2001) 66
    Pause & Play (USA) – Songs Inducted into a Time Capsule, One Track at Each Week
    Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (USA) – 500 Songs That Shaped Rock (1994?)
    Rolling Stone & MTV (USA) – The 100 Greatest Pop Songs Since the Beatles (2000) 87
    Spin (USA) – The 100 Greatest Singles of All Time (1989) 58
    Treble (USA) – The Top 200 Songs of the 1970s (2012) 124
    Ultimate Classic Rock (USA) – Top 100 Classic Rock Songs (2013) 83
    VH-1 (USA) – Nominations for the 100 Greatest 80s Songs (2006)
    VH1 (USA) – The 100 Greatest Songs from the Past 25 Years (2003) 62
    Woxy.com (USA) – Modern Rock 500 Songs of All Time (combined rank 1989-2009) 264
    BBC (UK) – Pop on Trial, Top 50 Songs from the 1980s (2008)
    Dave Thompson (UK) – 1000 Songs that Rock Your World (2011) 580
    Gary Mulholland (UK) – This Is Uncool: The 500 Best Singles Since Punk Rock (2002)
    NME (UK) – The 100 Best Songs of the 1970s (2012) 99
    New Musical Express (UK) – Classic Singles (magazine feature 2006-2007)
    Paul Morley (UK) – Words and Music, 210 Greatest Pop Singles of All Time (2003)
    Q (UK) – The 1001 Best Songs Ever (2003) 503
    Q (UK) – The 1010 Songs You Must Own (2004)
    Sounds (UK) – The 100 Best Singles of All Time (1986) 94
    The Guardian (UK) – 1000 Songs Everyone Must Hear (2009)
    Theater van het Sentiment, Radio 2 (NL) – Top 40 Songs by Year 1969-2000 (2013) 37
    Gilles Verlant and Thomas Caussé (France) – 3000 Rock Classics (2009)
    Les Inrockuptibles (France) – 1000 Indispensable Songs (2006)
    Toby Creswell (Australia) – 1001 Songs (2005)
    Giannis Petridis (Greece) – 2004 of the Best Songs of the Century (2003)
    Village Voice (USA) – Singles of the Year 4

  20. 70
    Larry on 23 Nov 2014 #

    In 1979 I wasn’t that wild about BiP. Now, I appreciate that it’s about a woman feeling sexual, being open about her sexuality. That aspect of the song is completely undercut in the video that depicts Chrissie as an ignored waitress.

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