American Top 40 PastBlast, 3/5/83: Pretenders, “Back on the Chain Gang”

It’s Saturday, February 19, 1983, and a College Freshman (CF) is closing in on the halfway point of his second semester. His class load looks a lot like it did back in the fall, at least subject-wise: parts II of calculus, general chemistry, and computer science keep him in the science building much of the time. His fourth class is a composition-like course that virtually all first-year students take. Most of its sections are entitled The American Experience, but he’s in an honors alternative focusing on The Hindu Experience; before the end of the term he’ll write a research paper on Sikhism. (His roommate is in a different honors section on The German Experience—less than a dozen years later, that class’s instructor will become CF’s colleague at his place of employment.)

CF is excited that WTLX is finally about to fire up its new transmitter. He has been waiting, rather impatiently, since early in the fall for the station manager to get things up and running. It’s going to be on only from 4-10 pm three days a week; he’s scheduled for 6-8 on Thursdays. (In the first week of March an article about the station’s opening will appear in the school newspaper.)  One week that spring he’ll record his show using the stereo in his dorm room but will eventually lose track of the cassette.


The weather that Saturday promises to be unusually nice for the time of year: a little windy, but sunny with temperatures near 60. After lunch, CF and a friend drive a few miles north to the Kentucky Horse Park, 1200+ acres owned by the commonwealth and “dedicated to man’s relationship with the horse.” The Horse Park has been in operation for almost five years; his previous visits had been to watch his sister run in cross-country meets held there, including one the previous October (it was prior to them hanging out together so much, but today’s companion went with him then, too—she had a high school friend running). This day, it’s a lovely afternoon, and they enjoy exploring the park and talking.

“Back on the Chain Gang” plays on CF’s radio that morning; eventually he will discover that hearing the song often transports him back in time. He loved “Brass in Pocket” almost three years earlier and probably had heard a few other Pretenders tunes in the intervening time, most likely “Message of Love” and “Talk of the Town.” Before he graduates from college, he’ll purchase Learning to Crawl on vinyl and a special-edition single cassette containing both Pretenders and Pretenders II.

CF will learn that spring about the untimely deaths of Pretenders guitarist James Honeyman-Scott (June 82) and former bassist Pete Farndon (April 83). But even without knowing the context, he begins to make sense of “BotCG,” recorded just weeks after Honeyman-Scott had OD’ed: loss can really suck, but you remember the good times and keep moving forward. The song reaches #5 by the end of March—Chrissie’s biggest hit—and will become one of his all-time favorites.

Today has turned out to be a nice day. Maybe tomorrow, though—certainly someday soon—CF will return to his more-than-occasional self-centered-jerk schtick.

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