Lead singer Chrissie Hynde wrote this song, which finds her coping with transition and approaching middle age. Following the 1981 Pretenders album Pretenders II, two of the four bandmembers - Pete Farndon and James Honeyman-Scott - died of drug overdoses, leaving just Hynde and drummer Martin Chambers, who remained the mainstays in the band amongst a rotating cast of guitarists and bass players.
"Middle of the Road" is Chrissie Hynde's credo. She told the Austin American-Statesman: "My personal discipline has been to try to stay in the middle, always, no matter what I'm doing. If I buy a jacket and it comes in three sizes, I want a medium. You have to learn how to temper yourself and hold back till you get to the end."
Toward the end of the song, Hynde sings about the media hounding her. She has always tried to keep her private life to herself.
On this track, Hynde sings, "I got a kid, I'm 33."
She was actually 32 when the song was released as a single in late 1983. In January that year, she had a daughter, Natalie, who she was raising as a single mother after leaving the father, Ray Davies from the Kinks.
A little after the 3-minute mark, Hynde lets loose one of the most famous yowls in rock. The feline inflection plays to the line, "I'm not the cat I used to be."
Stuff from Atlanta, GaOh, the riot at the end of the video wasn't just a riot. It was being shut down by British police. Keep in mind she idolized the Sex Pistols when she was young. The return of politics to music, in any shape or fashion, was as taboo in the UK as in the US (and pretty much still is); and the joke was that while the establishment might take notice of the mention of a negative mention of warmaking or obscenely rich third world elites, they would go ahead and stage the video getting shut down for just that reason (as well as the pants-less first line). (U2 had real police actually shutting down "Where the streets have no name" with much tamer lyrics.) Another thing I liked about the video, was the band and the patrons are leaving this imaginary club in the video; but the the song is still playing. It's like saying, 'We know you're too smart to think this is us playing live' or 'We won't fake trying to make you think we're playing live.' The antidote to MOR: it starts out sounding like MOR (much like the Clash's Train In Vain starts out sounding like Disco), but ends in a police bust.
Stuff from Atlanta, GaIt seems that all the commenters so far have not even mentioned the real subject matter of the song. People have done so well with "American Pie" that I was disappointed for so little on this song. "Lead singer Chrissie Hynde wrote this about approaching middle age." Huh. Maybe it's about, "I got a smile/For everyone I meet/As long as you don't start draggin' my babe/Or dropping your bombs on my street." Maybe it's also about, "When you own a big chunk of the bloody Third World/The babies just come with the scenery." The entire second verse is about that. The song is structured on a lot of people she doesn't like; and she tells them all, in almost so many words, to go play in the road.
In 1983, people who were obviously hippies were more or less purged from the industry, people were tired of Disco, and New Wave didn't have enough pulling power to be mainstream; despite the appeal of The Cars. The industry was toying around with Middle Of The Road music, often abbreviated MOR at the time. There was a subgenre developing under that style name, but it came out sounding like Bread, Abba, and to a lesser extent, Asia (although I know two were 70's bands). Then, this song came out. "I'm standing in the middle of life with my pants behind me/But I've got a smile, for everyone I meet ...". (The lyric is indeed "pants", not "plans", as I often see. Listen closely to a live performance.) I took her to be referring to her "permanent vertical smile." Six lines into the song, and it's already the antithesis of MOR music. Another misheard lyric is quoted here: "I can't get from the cab to the curb/Without some little jerk on my back." It's "I can't get from the CAN to the curb ...".
Note that after 1983, MOR just seemed to shrivel up and fly away. Coincidence? It was a huge song in the US. In England, the much more MOR flip-side for the single, "2000 Miles" was the promoted single. They seem never to have gotten rid of their MOR music; and now it ALL sounds that way, unless you are talking punk or techno. This song's importance in Pop/Rock history might or might not being underestimated, but IMHO; it should be understood not only as a great song, but as a major turning point in the industry - at least in the USA.
Andy from Taunton, MaCould not agree more with Doc's comment above.
Jeff from Chicago, GaDoes anybody remember one fo the videos for this song.. the Pretenders were playing live in a club and they simulated a riot/protest.. i never got what was up with that...
Doc from Boston, Ma"I can't get from the cab to the curb without some little jerk on my back". Dang, I love that line.
Dirk from Nashville, TnThat's not only Chrissie on the harp--that's also her throwing in the cat noise.
Scott from Chicago, Il"I've got a kid' I'm 33" indeed!
Dan from Sterling, VaThat's Chrissie on harmonica at the end of the song.