|"Back on the Chain Gang"|
|Single by The Pretenders|
|from the album The King of Comedy and Learning to Crawl|
|"My City Was Gone"|
|The Pretenders singles chronology|
"Back on the Chain Gang" is a song written by Chrissie Hynde and originally recorded by her band the Pretenders, and released as a single by Sire Records in September 1982. The song also was released on The King of Comedy soundtrack album in March 1983 and later was included on the Pretenders' next album Learning to Crawl in January 1984.
"Back on the Chain Gang" entered the Billboard charts in early October 1982, then reached no. 5 on the Hot 100 becoming the band's biggest hit in the U.S. It also got as high as no. 4 on Billboard's Hot Mainstream Rock Tracks chart and no. 17 on the UK Singles Chart. The single's flip side, "My City Was Gone", later became a substantial hit in the U.S. with lyrics about Ohio.
"Back on the Chain Gang" was recorded after James Honeyman-Scott, the Pretenders guitarist, died of a drug overdose at the age of 25 on June 16, 1982. This came two days after the Pretenders fired their longtime bassist Pete Farndon because of his drug problem. On July 20, 1982, the band began recording the song at AIR Studios in London. At that time, only two Pretenders were left: singer-songwriter Chrissie Hynde who was about three months pregnant with her first daughter, and drummer Martin Chambers. Other musicians were hired to fill out the session: lead guitarist Billy Bremner of Rockpile, guitarist Robbie McIntosh, and bassist Tony Butler who was already at the studio for a Big Country recording project. The producer was Chris Thomas who was familiar to the band from his integral role in making the Pretenders' earlier records, using Bill Price as his engineer, but for this session Steve Churchyard replaced Price because Price was committed to another AIR project at Wessex Sound Studios.
Most of the song was recorded quickly with the band placed close together in the studio, arranged as if performing live, with Chambers' drums up on a riser. Small loudspeakers were aimed at the musicians from behind Chambers to reinforce the sound of selected drums such as the snare. Bremner's featured guitar solo was performed in one take. Later, alone in the studio as was her preference, Hynde performed her main vocal line with three or four overdubs dropped in to fix minor imperfections. She then recorded her own backing vocals. Finally, the rest of the backing vocals were performed by Chambers and Butler, along with the chain-gang chant. The sound of clanging hammers was made by banging various metal pieces together, especially the 25-pound (11 kg) weights that the studio used as ballast for large boom stands. This effect was performed by studio assistant Jeremy Allom. The recording of extra parts for the song and the final mixing process continued for several days after initial recording began.
Hynde wrote "Back on the Chain Gang" as a memorial to Honeyman-Scott and she dedicated it to him. The song was written during the strained relationship that Chrissie Hynde had with Ray Davies (of the Kinks) and was recorded when she was about three months pregnant with their daughter. Their on-and-off relationship ended half a year later.
At that time, the Kinks were at the height of the fame, and the Pretenders were achieving international success. The phrase "Chain Gang" may be a reference to Hynde's frustration over the unrelenting demands placed on her by the recording industry to keep producing records, the cognitive dissonance resulting from the capitalism of her success versus her punk rock origins, and her despair over the corrosive effects that all this likely had on her life and personal relationships (including her relationship with Ray Davies.)
In a 2009 interview series In The Studio with Redbeard, Hynde said:
"In the early days we were full of enthusiasm and we wanted the same things ... and everything was going well ... it seemed too easy ... I was with someone I was in love with ... then I got pregnant" 
She goes on to describe working on "Back on the Chain Gang" with Honeyman-Scott. Then just a month before the song was recorded, the Pretenders fired bass player, Pete Farndon. Then lead guitarist Honeyman-Scott, died of an accidental drug overdose.
"... two days later Jimmy's dead ... really suddenly, it went from everything to nothing ... I was traumatized at the loss of my two best friends ... I had to get on with replacing two members of the band -- to replace my best friends ..."
"Back on the Chain Gang" took on deeper meaning for Hynde, with the tragic death of her friend and the urgent pressure to find new band members to complete the upcoming album.
"I dedicated [the song] to [Jimmy] in some ways ... Jimmy was a big admirer of Billy Bremner ... when we had to record "Back on the Chain Gang" -- well, I knew that Billy and Robbie were who Jimmy would have wanted to get in, so I didn't need to think about it."
In an interview with Guitar Player in 1992, George Harrison claimed that "Back on the Chain Gang" uses a chord that he had "invented" and incorporated into the Beatles song "I Want to Tell You": "That's an A7 with an F on top, and I'm really proud of that because I invented that chord... There's only been one other song, to my knowledge, where somebody copped that chord - Chrissie Hynde and the Pretenders on 'Back on the Chain Gang.'" However, the chord Harrison describes is widely known as A7+5 or augmented A7 or A7#5 and is a standard use of harmony in many genres.
|Chart (1983)||Peak |
|U.S. Billboard Mainstream Rock Tracks||4|
|U.S. Billboard Hot 100||5|
|UK Singles Chart||17|