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2000 Miles: Why Pretenders ‘ Beloved Christmas Song Still Goes The Distance
In Depth

2000 Miles: Why Pretenders ‘ Beloved Christmas Song Still Goes The Distance

Pretenders ‘ Christmas song, 2000 Miles, sprang from tragic circumstances, yet Chrissie Hynde ‘s Yuletide staple remains a triumph.

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Yearning and heartstring-tugging, Pretenders’ 1983 single 2000 Miles is widely accepted as one of the Best Christmas songs of all time. Yet while it namechecks the festivities (“The children will sing/He’ll be back at Christmas time”) and conjures images of lovers missing each other across the miles, this sublime ballad was actually inspired by a tragic event entirely removed from Christmas – the sudden death of Pretenders’ original guitarist, James Honeyman-Scott.

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The backstory: “It was influenced by an Otis Redding song”

“I think the sense of distance in the lyrics was referring to [the loss of] Jimmy Scott,” Pretenders’ leader, Chrissie Hynde, reflected in the liner notes for the group’s 2006 box set, Pirate Radio. “The song itself was influenced by an Otis Redding song called Thousand Miles Away,” she continued, noting that its connection with the “King Of Soul”’s was “another thing I thought everyone would pick up on, and of course no one even knows that song”.

Understandably, Honeyman-Scott’s unexpected death from a drug overdose, in June 1982, set Pretenders reeling. It came just two days after the group fired their original bassist, Pete Farndon, for his own drug-related unreliability. Then, while Hynde and drummer Martin Chambers were still coming to terms with Honeyman-Scott’s death, the estranged Farndon died from a heroin overdose, in April 1983.

In between these twin tragedies, Pretenders (with Hynde and Chambers augmented by Big Country bassist Tony Butler and ex-Rockpile guitarist Billy Bremner) returned with the excellent UK Top 20 hit Back On The Chain Gang, but they were still processing the loss of their two bandmates. As they made decisions on the group’s long-term future, Hynde and Chambers were united in their desire to record new music – and sooner rather than later.

“[Martin] and I decided we could either not go in the studio… or just go in the studio,” Hynde later recalled. “We were going to be miserable either way, so we decided we might as well be miserable in the studio. So we just carried on. I had a delayed reaction to the trauma about losing these guys.”

The recording: “Pretenders learned to be a band again”

However, by the time Hynde had written 2000 Miles, Pretenders’ second full-time line-up had coalesced. The band hired guitarist Robbie McIntosh, in recognition of Honeyman-Scott’s own admiration for McIntosh’s playing, and the guitarist also brought bassist Malcolm Foster. Under the auspices of producer Chris Thomas, this new-look Pretenders then spent the final months of 1982 and much of the following year at London’s AIR Studios, recording the songs for what would become Pretenders’ third album, Learning To Crawl.

One of the first songs completed for the record, the stately 2000 Miles had a glorious Byrds-esque chime and showcased McIntosh’s talents. Studio engineer Steve Churchyard, who worked alongside Thomas on the Learning To Crawl sessions, later recalled that the new guitarist’s skills helped to recalibrate the band.

“If you check the song out, there’s this really high guitar part that runs throughout, played by Robbie McIntosh,” Churchyard told Sound On Sound in 2005. “By that point, he was playing all the lead guitar. He was a great guitarist and a lot of his solos were done in one take. In 1983, the Pretenders went out on the road a little and got to know each other and learned to be a band again.”

In the same interview, the engineer also remembered how 2000 Miles represented everything that was unique about Pretenders’ sound. “Invariably, when we’d get to guitars, everything would be layered,” Churchyard revealed. “It’s a sound that Jimmy [Honeyman-Scott] had created, along with the great live feel of Martin’s drums and having Chrissie’s vocal really loud in the mix, leaving no doubt that she’s in control of the song.”

He added, “Over the years, people have asked me, ‘How did you get that sound on her vocals?’ Well, I put a [Neumann U47 FET microphone] in front of her, she sang it and we made sure you could hear it. It was all Chrissie Hynde. And it was very much in the tradition of all that early British pop where the vocals were so far out front. That would never fly today.”

The legacy: “2000 Miles really does sound exactly how that Christmas looked”

Certainly on 2000 Miles, both Hynde’s vocal and her band’s performance were nigh-on perfect sitting exactly where they were. And, while it wasn’t written specifically with Christmas in mind, the song’s shimmering melodies and naturally wintry melancholia suggested it would have a broad appeal if released in time for the festivities.

This came to pass when 2000 Miles – supported with a suitably festive video featuring Hynde dressed in a Salvation Army uniform, alongside Santa Claus, a polar bear and an abundance of snow – became the lead single for Learning To Crawl. With its 18 November 1983 release timed to perfection, the song duly peaked at No.15 in the UK. It later went on to earn a platinum certification and perhaps even softened Chrissie Hynde’s rather less-than-enthusiastic stance on the season to be jolly.

“I can do without Christmas myself,” she wrote in her notes for Pirate Radio. “I find it a lot of pressure, and while I don’t want to be a spoilsport, the commercial aspect is grotesque. But, having said that, when we were sitting in AIR Studios looking down on the Christmas lights in Oxford Street, above Oxford Circus, they had these twinkling lights, and 2000 Miles really does sound exactly how that Christmas looked.”

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