This holiday season The Pretenders’ “2000 Miles” turns 40 years old! Released In November 1983 just in time for the holidays, “2000 Miles” has become an endearing part of the holiday soundscape and considered one of the most romantic Christmas songs of all time, but without the schmaltz that often goes along with it. Written by Pretenders front woman Chrissie Hynde, the song tells of a woman longing for her far away lover and how they’ll be reunited for Christmas. But while the romance is thick within the song, there is a melancholiness below the surface. The truth is that while it is undeniably a Christmas song, there was a deeper meaning to “2000 Miles” than casual listeners may have realized and was a moving tribute to a fallen member of the Pretenders’ family.
Released as a single in November 1983, the song was an early release from their third album, “Learning to Crawl,” which was released months later in January 1984. However, Sire Records didn’t want to miss out on releasing Hynde’s beautiful Christmas song just in time for the holiday season, hoping to capture the top spot-on Europe’s Billboard charts which, traditionally, had been captured by a festive song. Well, The Pretenders didn’t capture the top spot that year. ‘2000 Miles” only reached #15 in the UK and didn’t chart at all in North America. However, as years have gone on, via its use in Christmas movies, commercials and by constant airplay during the holiday season, “2000 Miles” has become a beloved Christmas song that pulls on the heart strings but still has enough rock n’ roll cred to remain cool as the winter’s air.
But despite the festive spirit of the song, “2000 Miles” was written and produced during a time of great change and sadness for the Pretenders. While it might sound like a sweet and unconventional Christmas release, the song was, in fact, a tribute to the loss of the Pretenders guitarist, co-founder and Hyndes’ primary creative partner James Honeyman-Scott. An important part of the Pretenders sound, his death was not only a loss to the band, but to the music industry as a whole. However, forty years later, he seems to have become forgotten on the musical landscape as nothing more than a footnote to the Pretenders origin story.
So, who was James Honeyman-Scott? Known as “Jimmy” to his friends, Honeyman-Scott came from the small city of Hereford in England where he was a mainstay on the local music scene starting around 1974. Playing in a string of bands, Jimmy worked at a local music shop called Buzz Music where he sold guitars, as well as reportedly grew and sold vegetables. I’m not sure how those two things went hand in hand, but apparently Jimmy played a mean guitar, and had a green thumb.
Around 1978 Jimmy met bassist Pete Farndon when the band he was playing with, Cold River Lady, made a stop in Hereford. The pair got on well and something about Jimmy’s guitar style stuck with Farndon because when he got recruited by Hynde to join the Pretenders, he suggested that she look at Jimmy as a guitarist for the group. They put word out for Jimmy that they wanted to hire him to do a few “session recordings” for the band, but Jimmy impressed Hynde and her team at Sire, and he was invited to join the group.
After two years of polishing their sound, the Pretenders, consisting of Hynde, Jimmy, Farndon and drummer Martin Chambers, released their debut album in 1979 to critical acclaim. On the album Jimmy not only played guitar, but also played keyboards and sang with Hynde, as well as cowrote three songs – “Cuban Slide” and “Space Invader” and, most importantly, “Brass in Pocket,” which became the band’s first major Billboard hit reaching #1 in the UK and #15 in the US.
But in Jimmy, Chrissie Hynde found herself a right-hand man. Originally formed by Sire Records to be a band built around Hynde, she came to the industry out of the punk scene and had an angry edge to her music. But Jimmy brought a sweeter feeling to their music, which eased Hynde to straddle more of a new-wave-pop sound which helped break the Pretenders into the mainstream. In a 1999 interview with “Uncut,” Hynde remembered Jimmy by saying “He really was the Pretenders sound. I don’t sound like that. When I met him, I was this not-very melodic punky angry guitar player and singer, and Jimmy was the melodic one. He brought out all the melody in me.”
Hynde and Jimmy continued to make music together in their follow up album, “Pretenders II,” released in 1981, writing “Pack It Up” and “Day After Day.” Meanwhile, with MTV making its debut that year, The Pretenders became an early staple on the network, making Chrissie Hynde a rock n’ roll sex symbol, and the rest of the boys in the band rock heroes. Life was good for the Pretenders…. or was it?
While touring on tour in 1981, Jimmy met singer Peggy Sue Fender who sang with a British pop group called Girls Can’t Help It and the pair got married in April of that year. Jimmy began to spend time between London, where The Pretenders were headquartered, and Los Angeles where Peggy Sue lived. He also met musician/producer Stephen Doster, who talked Jimmy into coming to his studio in Austin, Texas to work on a solo project. Jimmy travelled to Austin in the summer of 1982 to begin working with Doster, but before any tracks could be laid down, he got a call from Hynde. There was a problem, and the Pretenders had to talk.
Jimmy returned to London to find out that one member’s drug problem was starting to cause problems within the group. That member was Pete Farndon, the guy who brought Jimmy in. By the end of the meeting Pete was out of the group and the Pretenders were looking for a new member. Jimmy had met a guitarist named Robbie McIntosh, who was playing in a band called Dean Martin’s Dog and suggested that Hynde look at him as a possible replacement for Farndon. Well, Robbie McIntosh would join the Pretenders, but little did Jimmy know, it wouldn’t be as Farndon’s replacement. It’d be as his own.
Two nights after the Pretenders meeting, on June 16, 1982, a terrible irony befell the Pretenders. Jimmy was at the London flat of a girl he was keeping on the side and the two decided to get into the cocaine. That’s right. Less than 48 hours after kicking Pete Farndon out of the group for his drug problem, Jimmy was getting into the white stuff. Well, he must have got into some bad stuff because his system couldn’t handle it and Jimmy went into a cardiac arrest and died. He was only 25.
Jimmy’s death devastated the members of the Pretenders, who was now at only two members – Chrissie Hynde and Martin Chambers. Now at a crossroads with no guitarists in the band, Hynde had to decide what to do. She thought about folding the group, but when thinking about Jimmy and the musical trajectory that they had started, she knew she had to go on. “ “One of the things that kept the band alive, ironically, was the death of Jimmy Scott,” Hynde would later say. “I felt I couldn’t let the music die when he died. We’d worked too hard to get it where it was…. I had to finish what we’d started”.
Was it to late for Farndon to rejoin the band? Sources say that he was already trying to start his own band when he was thrown out of The Pretenders, but as Hynde had predicted, time was running out for him. Less than a year after he was fired, on April 14, 1983, Farndon was also dead of a drug overdose.
Despite being down two members, Hynde and Chambers went into the studio with a thrown together group of industry friends, including Rockpile’s Billy Bremmer and Big Country’s Tony Butler, to record a new song Hynde wrote called “Back on the Chain Gang” which was to be used in Martin Scorsese’s film “The King of Comedy.” A song she had wrote about her on and off relationship with The Kinks’ Ray Davies, she and Jimmy had worked on the song together, and even if this was the final song The Pretenders ever recorded, she was determined to get it recorded. Reworking some of the lyrics to reflect the loss felt by Jimmy’s death, as well as the state of uncertainty that she was in over the future of The Pretenders, the song had a bittersweet sound to it. Well, that bitter sweetness was magic, because “Back on the Chain Gang”: became a huge hit for the group, peaking at #5 on the US Billboard Charts.
An obvious sign that The Pretenders should live on, Hynde recruited Jimmy’s friend Robbie McIntosh as his replacement on guitar and added bassist Malcolm Foster to the lineup. The new Pretenders went into the studio to cut two new single, “Middle of the Road” and, more importantly, “2000 Miles.” In the US “2000 Miles” was released as the B-Side to “Middle of the Road,” but in the UK ‘2000 Miles” got its own release with “Middle of the Road” being released later in February 1984. This is a possible reason why the song hit the charts in the UK but was ignored in the US completely at the time of its release.
Although the Christmas theme to the song is obvious, it was later revealed that Jimmy was deep in Hynde’s thoughts when she wrote the song, and it was a way for her to deal with her grief to the loss of her friend. Although it sounds like a woman’s lament for a far away lover, the song lends itself well to the loss of a cherished friend.
He’s gone two thousand miles
It’s very far
The snow is falling down
Gets colder day by day
I miss you
The children will sing
He’ll be back at Christmas time
In these frozen and silent nights
Sometimes in a dream you appear
Outside under the purple sky
Diamonds in the snow sparkle
Our hearts were singing
It felt like Christmas time
Two thousand miles
Is very far through the snow
I’ll think of you
Wherever you go
I can hear people singing
It must be Christmas time
I hear people singing
It must be Christmas time
When “Learning to Crawl” was released in January 1984, both “Back on the Chain Gang” and “2000 Miles” were included on the album. It’d go on to be The Pretenders best selling album of all time and brought the band back from the brink of destruction.
The Pretenders lived on and rose to higher heights after Jimmy Honeyman-Scott’s tragic death, but his memory lived on in the music and the memories of Chrissie Hynde. Now over four decades after his death, his legacy remains within “2000 Miles” every holiday season. But every time that we hear it, instead of thinking about the romance of the season, lets remember the lost legacy of a talented young man who we barely got to know and whose career and musical brilliance was cut short by drugs. Jimmy had a lot more music to make, but instead we got “2000 Miles.” It’s a beautiful song and a welcomed part of our holiday season, but hardly makes up for the loss of James Honeyman-Scott.