When Morrissey decided to cover the Pretenders’ “Back on the Chain Gang” for an upcoming double-vinyl reissue of his Low in High School album, he wanted to play it loose with the lyrics. “I didn’t ever see the lyrics correctly printed because I wanted to sing them as I had always thought they were,” he tells Rolling Stone via e-mail. “This is tricky with [Pretenders singer] Chrissie [Hynde] because sometimes she’ll sing into a misty wobble. So, I decided to wobble also.”
Other than a few switched-up words, though, it’s mostly a reverent cover. He croons Hynde’s lyrics, wobbling his voice, along with a jangly guitar line that sounds like a mix of his solo music and the Pretenders. He recorded it this past April at Sunset Sound in Los Angeles. The song will also be available as a 45 with cover art, out November 23rd, which features Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “I Didn’t Know What to Do” on the flip side. Morrissey proudly points out the single sleeve features writer and feminist Germaine Greer, with the expanded LP out December 7th.
“I think the original can safely be counted as a pop classic, and as always with the Pretenders, of the brain as well as the loins,” he says of why he picked the song. “Chrissie is always ready to do something before anyone expects it, and for me that’s a well-developed artist.”
Mostly, though, it’s meant as an heartfelt tribute to one of his closest companions. “Chrissie is one of my longest and enduring friendships,” Morrissey says. “I don’t have many. She sang on my 1991 U.K. single ‘My Love Life,’ and also on a track on my Swords album called ‘Shame Is the Name.’ Chrissie is the funniest person in the world, yet she has absolutely no sense of humor. We have been in many absurd situations – all her fault, of course. I know she’d marry me tomorrow, but she’s already had 11 husbands and she’s always being spotted digging in the garden at midnight.”
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The song’s video presents Morrissey as if he were performing it on a Sixties music showcase like Hullaballoo or Top of the Pops, with wavy-haired women dancing along in front of a dramatically lighted backdrop of Morrissey posters. In the clip, he strums a guitar (an unusual sight for Morrissey fans), and the instrument’s strap cuts its way across his décolleté, unbuttoned shirt. Regarding the set, he says: “That’s actually my living room. But thanks for the compliment.” And as for his six-string skills, he offers, “I wanted people to see that I can play as well as Jeff Beck. I wanted them to, but they never will!”
Morrissey is currently wrapping up a West Coast jaunt before touring Mexico and South America. He’ll bring “Back on the Chain Gang” to The Late Late Show With James Corden on November 7th.