Song: "Tattooed Love Boys"
Album: The Pretenders
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Often times, one of the most amazing things that can be accomplished in music is when a song is able to completely disguise itself and "pass" as something that it is not. By this, one must understand that in many cases, a song is placed into a genre in which it does not belong, simply because the artist(s) in question have done such a fantastic job of hiding the true nature of their music. One can easily fined examples of this in everything from jazz to hip-hop to metal, yet when one digs deeper, discovering the "true" genre of a song and be both surprising and rewarding. Though their general public persona categorizes them as one of the most important early "alternative" or almost "new wave" bands, the fact of the matter is, The Pretenders were as punk rock as punk rock gets. Emerging from the unexpected musical hotbed of Akron, OH along with the likes of DEVO and many other groups that walked this same line, The Pretenders managed a string of pop hits, nearly all of which were punk at their core, yet the general public failed to see this simple fact. To call The Pretenders "original" is a massive understatement, and though many have tried since, very few bands have been able to produce as unique and hard rocking a record at any point in their career as one will find on The Pretenders' indispensable 1980 self-titled debut. Filled with some of the groups' most enduring songs, the album is a brilliant blend of musical approaches, and the album instantly solidified both the band, as well as frontwoman Chrissie Hynde as icons of music. Though there are many fantastic tracks on the album, one can experience the true power and genius behind The Pretenders on their legendary 1980 single, "Tattooed Love Boys."
The song kicks off in high gear, with a fast paced drum beat and the unmistakable, cycling guitar riff. While there are many amazing aspects to "Tattooed Love Boys," perhaps the most obvious is the seemingly odd rhythm which runs throughout nearly the entire song. Throwing all convention to the wind, "Tattooed Love Boys" is actually played in 7/16 time, a signature which is rarely found in any genre at any point in history. This unique playing time instantly makes the song like nothing else ever recorded, and yet it also gives the song a speed that is more akin to the punk rock style than that of the "standard" rock composition. The guitar work of James Honeyman and Hynde is equally memorable, as the slight echo and distortion are truly perfect and almost mask the fact that the song revolves around a simple, three note progression. The solo on the song remains one of the most spirited ever recorded, and the "skid" at the end is nothing short of perfect. Yet even taking all of this into account, one cannot deny that at nearly every turn, "Tattooed Love Boys" is unquestionably a punk rock song, as the music and attitude fit the definition perfectly. This is not all that surprising, as in the years leading up to this album, Chrissie Hynde had been living in London and was a major (though relatively unknown) player in the early punk rock scene. Truth be told, Hynde was actually part of early lineups of both The Clash and The Damned, and it is on songs like "Tattooed Love Boys" that one can clearly hear the stylistic influence that she brought back when she returned to her home. It is this unique musical approach that makes the music of The Pretenders sound like nothing else, and cements the idea that at their core, the entire debut from The Pretenders is a slightly shielded punk rock record.
If one chooses to overlook the clear punk roots within the music of the song, one cannot deny the fact that on "Tattooed Love Boys," Chrissie Hynde's vocal approach and lyrics as "as punk as it gets." Throughout The Pretenders, Hynde gifted onto the world her absolutely unmistakable voice, and combining this with her approach to singing, one can find her influence across genres in nearly every female frontwoman that followed. With her ability to work anywhere on the vocal spectrum, "Tattooed Love Boys" brings the best of both sides, as the deep, grooving verses contrasted with the powerful, unrestrained bridge/chorus sections remain one of the finest vocal performances in recorded history. Throughout the song, there is an attitude and sense of empowerment that truly represents the entire ethos of punk rock, as in many ways, Hynde evokes the spirit of Patti Smith as she holds nothing back at any point on the track. Combining this frame of mind with a set of lyrics that are similarly inspired, as well as pushing the envelope on "what" is acceptable from a female singer, one has a true musical masterpiece in "Tattooed Love Boys." Hynde's performance is almost taunting at times, as she spins a tale of female empowerment, with an aggression and sense of confrontation that is truly uncanny. From lines like, "...if you mess with the goods doll, honey you've gotta pay.." to the absolutely crushing fake laughs ever caught on tape, one would be hard pressed to find another vocal performance that even remotely compares to the unrestrained honestly and power found on "Tattooed Love Boys."
Though one can find many traces of the punk rock sound and spirit well before the "explosion" in 1977, in the years that followed, it became far more difficult to find the "true" punk sound. Many bands simply became copycats and ripped the formula set into place by The Ramones, The Clash, and The Sex Pistols among others, and yet there was another group of musicians who took the punk ethos and were able to spin it into something that sounded completely different. This, in many ways, is the true genius behind the music of The Pretenders, as they were able to give "the masses" a sound that was commercially successful, yet unquestionably punk rock when one looked closer at the musical and lyrical forms. From the simple chord progression to the unorthodox time signature to the undeniable sense of confrontation that runs throughout the song, "Tattooed Love Boys" is both a rock and roll and punk rock classic, and few songs straddle the line as perfectly as is found here. Remaining today one of the most complex punk arrangements ever, the song has just enough grit and distortion to keep it from being "only" a rock song, and the odd time signature only adds to the enjoyment which can be gained from experiencing the song. Furthermore, Chrissie Hynde has rarely sounded as good as she does here, and the lyrics she sings are among the most snarky and standoffish of her career. It is songs like this that solidify Hynde as one of the finest lyricists of her generation, and similarly cemented her legacy as one of the most influential female performers in history. Though many try and write it off as a "different" rock song, the truth remains that one can experience one of the best hidden punk rock gems ever recorded in The Pretenders' 1980 sonic tour dé force, "Tattooed Love Boys."