This classic song from the early 1980s was inspired by a great deal of emotional trauma.
At the start of 1982, The Pretenders consisted of vocalist and rhythm guitarist Chrissie Hynde, lead guitarist and vocalist James Honeyman-Scott, bassist and vocalist Pete Farndon, and drummer and vocalist Martin Chambers. On June 14th, 1982, Farndon was fired from the band as a result of his drug problems. Two days later, Honeyman-Scott would die of a cocaine-induced heart attack while at his girlfriend’s apartment.
At the time of Honeyman-Scott’s death, he and Hynde were working on the song that would eventually become Back on the Chain Gang. At the time, the song was envisioned as being about Hynde’s turbulent relationship with Ray Davies of the Kinks. After Honeyman-Scott’s death, the song took on a different meaning and, instead, became about Hynde’s struggle to keep the band going even after losing two of her best friends. (Farndon, himself, would die of a drug overdose in 1983.) Hynde, who was three months pregnant when the song was first recorded, dedicated Back on the Chain Gang to Honeyman-Scott’s memory. Back on the Chain Gang went on to become The Pretenders’s biggest hit in the United States, where it was adapted as an anthem by people who probably did not know the emotional story behind the song’s composition.
The video, which was put into heavy rotation during the early days of MTV, features the two surviving original members of The Pretenders. Chrisse Hynde sings while Martin Chambers plays one of many office workers who, upon arriving at work, are briefly transformed into slaves using pickaxes to excavate ruins in the desert.