Rock History: Back on the Chain Gang by The Pretenders
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. Chrissie Hynde wrote the song 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 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.” Just a month before the song was recorded, the Pretenders fired bass player Pete Farndon. Then, within days, lead guitarist Honeyman-Scott died. Farndon would also die of a drug overdose within several months. "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.
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.
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