Song #62: The 65’s – “Greatest Pretense”

October 26, 2020
Song #62: The 65’s – “Greatest Pretense”

Bands break up, musicians have arguments with one another and part ways. It happens for all sorts of reasons. I get it.

But sometimes, those strong and dynamic creative personalities can make some fucking amazing music, and when Joe Pugsley and Dan Smith did their best work together, it was pretty fucking magical. There are songs on Strike Hard! that are just fantastic, melodically beautiful, crushingly heavy, just outstanding songs.

I think almost every song on Strike Hard! is good. I think three or four are legitimately great. And I think one, “Greatest Pretense,” is brilliant.

We put out two different versions of the song, and each one showcased different things that I loved about the lineup of The 65’s that played on Strike Hard!

The album version was the Bob Mould version, a straightforward dose of pop, with Dan singing lead, his melancholy voice singing dark lyrics over upbeat handclaps, tambourine and layers of guitar, including subtle acoustic strumming. The chorus comes in after the second verse, the phrase hitting hard:

This feeling we’re all chasing keeps escaping me
Even though we’re all caged, we pretend that we’re free.

and then, similar to Dan’s later song “The Ballad of Squeaky Fromme,” Dan single the final lyric:

Even though she’s miles away, I still pretend that she loves me
And maybe that, my friends, is the greatest pretense

And with that, the song just ends, this time with a long, one-minute fade out, Dan repeating the song title. Two verses, one chorus, and you’re left with the dark lyrics, echoing in your brain as the song fades away.

Once, I drove from Jersey to Pennsylvania in the middle of the night, with “Greatest Pretense” loaded on my iPod (back when I had an iPod), and I played it again and again, studying it, singing along, learning the lyrics and the subtle vocal melodies. Maybe I played it 20 or 30 times in a row, just deconstructing the song til I knew it inside-out, clicking back to the beginning and listening to the segment where the guitar feedback introduces the chorus, or the way the chorus ends with a slight change to the melody line, longing for a second chorus or a third verse to resolve the song in a way that befits the uplifting melody.

Two weeks after Strike Hard! was released, we put it out again, this time a completely different version of the song, on the digital B-side of a single release we did for “Pretty in Pink” on Christmas Day, 2011.

This version was completely different. Instead of the Bob Mould poppy version, this version swings, a different rhythm provided by John Steele behind the kit, and with much darker, more distorted guitar. The bass doesn’t come into the song until just before the beginning of the verse (including a clam in the second verse), and instead of Dan, lead vocals are provided by Joe. The darkness of the song, with Joe’s vocal, is much more apparent, and the vocal in the chorus is provided by Cindi Merklee, who by that time was the band’s bass player. Cindi has a beautiful, expressive voice, and Dan’s harmony vocal sits far in the background, barely audible, just providing a little texture. This time, Joe sings the killer lyric at the end, and instead of a minute-long fade, the track ends with a long, plaintive guitar solo.

Two completely different interpretations of the same song by the same band, released within two weeks of one another.

The 65’s have released some killer music since Strike Hard!, and so has Dan. The 65’s added Ed Roessler on guitar, an excellent musician who I knew from the band Miss Ohio, and Ryan Struck on bass and backing vocals (Ryan is the creative voice behind Scary Hours). They’ve released a number of singles and EPs over the years, and they were excellent.

Dan, for his part, released Groping For Luna, Vol. 1 on Dromedary, and has released a few albums on his own, both original material and covers. He’s got a new project he calls Smallpox, and the forthcoming record is outstanding.

Despite all that, the creative chemistry on that first 65’s record was pretty amazing, and despite the fact that the version of the band that created it is no more, it would be a fucking shame if everybody involved didn’t occasionally stop and remember what a great piece of music that was.

~ by Al on October 26, 2020.

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