Back on the Chain Gang was The Pretenders’ first Billboard top 10 hit. Its b-side, “My City Was Gone,” also became a rock radio staple. But by the time it was released in September 1982, the band had already suffered tremendous loss. Just two albums into their career, bassist Pete Farndon was fired for his drug use and then died a few weeks later. Lead singer Chrissie Hynde was still adjusting to her new life, but she was determined to continue the band’s legacy.
She took it upon herself to write “Back on the Chain Gang” as a way to honor her late bandmate and remember the hardships of those who were forced into lives they did not want. While she doesn’t explicitly mention Farndon in the song, the cryptic lyrics of this Pretenders classic suggest that it is about her former boyfriend and bandmate James Honeyman-Scott. The song conveys a sense of grief and determination to carry on, which resonated with music fans worldwide.
It was a song that helped her to find strength after facing the loss of three loved ones within one year. Hynde’s voice is raw and full of emotion on this classic, and she does not hold back.
The song’s ethereal sound and catchy melody made it a favorite of many people, including Morrissey who performed the track on the Late Show with James Corden in 2018. Hynde’s version of the song remained an enduring chart-topper for over two decades until it was replaced by another of her hits, “I Don’t Love You Anymore,” on the airwaves.