The Story Behind 'Back On The Chain Gang' by The Pretenders
The Pretenders’ hit song “Back On The Chain Gang” was released in 1982, becoming an instant commercial success and capturing the hearts of music lovers all around the world. While the tune is infectious and catchy, the lyrics tell a much deeper story about loss, heartache, and the struggles of moving on after a traumatic event. In this article, we’ll dive into the meaning behind the song and explore the emotions and experiences that inspired it.
A Tragic Loss
“Back On The Chain Gang” was written by Chrissie Hynde, the lead vocalist and songwriter of The Pretenders. Hynde had experienced a traumatic loss after her bandmate and former lover, James Honeyman-Scott, passed away from a drug overdose in 1982. This heartbreaking event sent Hynde into a tailspin of emotions, as she struggled to both grieve for Honeyman-Scott and to continue with her musical career.
Chrissie Hynde and James Honeyman-Scott of The Pretenders performing at The Nashville Room in London on March 8, 1979.
Rebuilding Through Music
Despite the immense pain and loss she had experienced, Hynde turned to music as a way to process her emotions and begin the process of moving forward. She formed a new band, The Pretenders, with a new line-up of musicians, and began to write new songs that reflected her emotional journey. “Back On The Chain Gang” was one of these songs, and it quickly became a fan favorite, as well as a hit on the charts.
Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders and Ali Campbell of UB40 perform at the Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute concert at Wembley Stadium in London on June 11, 1988.
The Meaning Behind The Lyrics
As you listen to “Back On The Chain Gang,” the lyrics paint a picture of someone who is trying to make sense of their life in the aftermath of loss. The chorus in particular is powerful, as Hynde sings, “I found a picture of you, oh oh oh oh / What hijacked my world that night / To a place in the past / We’ve been cast out of? Oh oh oh oh / Now we’re back in the fight.” The image of finding a picture of a lost loved one is poignant, and the idea of being “hijacked” out of one’s normal life by grief is something many can relate to.
The lyrics also touch on the theme of rebuilding and moving on, even in the face of immense pain. Hynde sings, “If somebody’d told me / That you were just a dream / I’d have told them that I’ve got a gun / My only friend, the end / It’s a black top blur / You never live it down / You’re never too old to be denied.” These lines convey a sense of hopelessness and despair, but also a determination to keep going and to never give up.
Chrissie Hynde performs with The Pretenders at Radio City Music Hall in New York City on May 1, 1984.
The Legacy Of The Song
“Back On The Chain Gang” continues to be a beloved song, both for its catchy melody and its powerful lyrics. The song has been covered by a number of other artists, including Morrissey, The Bangles, and Bruce Springsteen, highlighting its enduring legacy. In 1995, Hynde also released a tribute to Honeyman-Scott called “Angel Of The Morning,” which expressed her continued love and admiration for her former bandmate.
Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders performs live at O2 Ritz in Manchester, England on October 23, 2023.
In conclusion, “Back On The Chain Gang” is a song that speaks to the universal experiences of loss, grief, and rebuilding. Chrissie Hynde wrote the song as a way to process the loss of her former bandmate and lover, James Honeyman-Scott, and the lyrics convey a sense of both sadness and determination. The legacy of the song continues to live on, as it remains a classic hit that has resonated with generations of music lovers.
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