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The Story Behind The Song: Brass In Pocket by The Pretenders

Brass in Pocket was the first UK No.1 of the 80s, The Pretenders' biggest hit, and the first flowering of 'girl power'.

“I never thought it was that great,” Chrissie Hynde says today of Brass In Pocket. “Was it pop? Motown? Rock? It didn’t seem to know what it was. I used to cringe when I heard my voice on those early Pretenders recordings, and then that fucker went to number one! I remember walking around Oxford Circus hearing it blasting out of people’s radios. I was mortified.”

For all Hynde’s doubts about the song, the public bought The Pretenders’ third single in their droves. Many found Hynde’s sassy, self-aggrandising portrayal of a gal who wasn’t going to take no for an answer irresistible. The first UK No.1 of the new decade, it topped the chart for two weeks in January 1980.

The great irony was that Hynde hadn’t wanted it to be released. “This goes out over my dead body,” she told producer Chris Thomas after she and her fellow Pretenders recorded Brass In Pocket at London’s Wessex Studios late in 1979. We can be thankful that Thomas was persuasive enough to convince Hynde of the track’s worth.

Unusually for Hynde at that stage in her career, the song was one that she didn’t write alone. When she heard James Honeyman-Scott play what would become BIP’s infectious guitar hook, she seized upon it, taking away a recording of the riff so that she could work on it at her leisure.

“I’ve learned to collaborate since then”, she says,” but at that point I didn’t really know how to.”

It was later, when The Pretenders played support to then-labelmates Strangeways at a gig in Wakefield, that Hynde chanced upon a title for she and Honeyman-Scott’s ace composition.

“We were all having dinner together afterwards, and one of the guy’s in Strangeways had just picked up his trousers from the dry-cleaners,” she remembers. “His bandmate asked him jokingly: ‘Was there any brass in the pockets?’ I suppose I just liked the turn of phrase. Being from the US I hadn’t heard it before.”

Interestingly, the demo of Brass In Pocket that appears on Rhino’s 2007, two-CD re-release of The Pretenders’ self-titled debut album has somewhat different lyrics. Hynde sings: ‘You’re special’, rather than the cockier, much more self-assured ‘I’m special’ on the finished version. It’s a small, if crucial, detail but Hynde maintains that any girl-power the song packs is as much by accident as by design.

“When people say that there’s this strong female persona driving the song, it drives me fucking crazy!” she blasts. “The ‘girl’ thing seems to be real important for other people but I’m mystified by it. For me, Brass In Pocket was supposed to be real traditional, because tradition in rock is what turns me on. We want our rock singers to be confident and cocky, and Brass In Pocket was an act, my attempt to write a song that sounded like that. It’s actually very tongue-in- cheek – that’s why I have that line where I sing: ‘I’m winking at you.’

Elsewhere, Hynde’s mention of ‘Detroit leaning’ references a style of driving where folks lean way back in the front seat and stick their elbow out of the window; her ‘Got new skank/It’s so reet’ is a little tip of the hat to famed US artist and satirist Robert Crumb.

“I was a big fan of his comic books”, she says. “One cartoon of his had this pot gauge; a machine for measuring the quality of marijuana. If it was really, really good stuff they called it ‘reet petite’.”

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Even if Hynde hadn’t conceived Brass In Pocket as some kind of feminist anthem, she was frustrated when the accompanying video cast her in a passive role, playing a down-at-heel waitress at a Nowheresville diner – a woman with far less drive and tenacity than the real Chrissie Hynde.

“My idea was that the band would show up on motorbikes,” she says. “I’d cast off my apron and we’d all ride off into the sunset.”

Alas the video’s director – missing the fact that Hynde was an alpha female – had a rather different idea.

“He had the band showing up with their girlfriends in a Pink Cadillac, and me trying to get their attention and failing. The closing shot shows the band driving off and me looking out of the window, weeping. I wanted to put a bullet to my head.”

When Brass In Pocket went to No.1, no champagne was popped chez Hynde, and not just because of her conflicted feelings about the song. The sad backdrop to The Pretenders’ only chart- topper was the heroin-overdose death of her friend and flatmate Kevin Sparrow. Hynde and the rest of the band attended his funeral while the UK was going Pretenders-mad.

“In terms of my career, Brass In Pocket was about as big as it got,” the singer says, “but globally-speaking it was more like a B-movie. I don’t remember it having any huge impact in terms of us playing bigger venues. But I like intimate shit. All I ever wanted was to play venues the size of Shepherd’s Bush Empire, and that’s the kind of place we still play today.

“I enjoy singing it these days,” says Hynde. “If someone wants to hear it, it’s always a pleasure. And my new band likes playing it too. But the best thing about the song is that it always reminds me of Jimmy Scott. He was a fantastic guitar player. He was only 25 when we lost him.”

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