The Pretenders’ first album (1980) came up tonight as part of this obsessive project I keep telling you about, where I’m playing my entire record collection in reverse chronological order. Has there been a better debut album since? I seriously think not. “Precious” kicks it off, and it never stops. Well, it does stop after about 20 minutes and then you’ve got to flip the record over to play side two. Young readers who can’t figure out what I mean by that, go and ask your parents.
Speaking of which, this album, good as it still sounds today, is full of things only people of a certain age will remember: “Space Invaders” is one. It was also a time when “fuck off” held some shock value, back when rap amounted to the Sugarhill Gang and not much else.
It’s my birthday, so it seems fitting to talk about debut albums. What’s exciting about them is that you catch the group in kind of a pure, newborn state when they’re relatively free of self-consciousness. The second album is always a reaction to the first, and so on down the line. That’s not to say the albums can’t get better and better — look at ABBA and the Police — but they are necessarily more calculated, at least until the artist kind of gives up, as many do; what came before comes into play no matter what.
The next album after a really big-selling album can be a real test of an artist’s integrity, especially when that big-seller was unexpected. On the one hand, you’ve got groups like Fleetwood Mac, who followed up their chart-topping, eponymous 1975 album with the even bigger Rumours. Nicely done. Michael Jackson similarly followed Off the Wall, his runaway smash from 1979, with Thriller.
And sometimes the artist chokes. Witness I’m in You, Peter Frampton’s 1977 follow-up to Frampton Comes Alive. Or just look at the cover. He was pretty, I’ll give him that.
I don’t know that the Pretenders ever bested their debut album, which was particularly good because it seemed to come out of nowhere, but I do think they never put out a bad record. That’s saying something. Life is too short to listen to bad records — you can; but not me, baby, I’m too precious. Fuck off.