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The Pretty Reckless, Death By Rock And Roll and 2021's most anticipated rebirth

A portrait of the pretty reckless
(Image credit: Century Media)

A decade has passed since New Yorkers The Pretty Reckless exploded with debut album Light Me Up. Now, the band show their battle scars and tease their defiant upcoming fourth album with a special acoustic performance.

Stick around for the final seconds of The Pretty Reckless’s chart-topping new anthem, Death By Rock And Roll, and you’ll hear Taylor Momsen deliver the lyric that says it all. Whether you’re listening to the amps-on-eleven original single, or the haunted acoustic video performance recorded by the New Yorkers this month, the frontwoman’s kiss-off will give you chills. 'And on my tombstone when I go,' drawls Momsen, 'just put ‘death by rock and roll’.

Nobody who has followed the career of The Pretty Reckless to date would question their hell-and-back commitment to the rock‘n’roll cause. A high-velocity decade has passed since the release of 2010’s Light Me Up: a debut album on which 17-year-old Momsen planted her flag as a fire-lunged warrior princess, and stamped out any scepticism that this former Gossip Girl actress was for real. Backed by the thundering grooves of guitarist Ben Phillips, drummer Jamie Perkins and – joining later that year – bassist Mark Damon, this was a band in the truest sense of the word, tighter than a clenched fist.        

With the lineup citing influences that spanned from Nirvana and The Beatles to Joan Jett and Zeppelin – and visionary producer Kato Khandwala catching the sparks – early hits like Make Me Wanna Die and Miss Nothing were heavy and hooky, breaking jaws and hearts, and driving Light Me Up to number six in the UK charts. To their credit, in the age of manufactured pop, Momsen, Phillips and Khandwala were a beacon of old-school authenticity, co-writing every song.  

But The Pretty Reckless were just getting started. In 2014, the Going To Hell album hijacked the Billboard Top 5, while firing a hat-trick of singles to number one, including that year’s biggest rock song, Heaven Knows. Two years later, Who You Selling For was another triumph, scoring a number one single with Take Me Down, a half-billion streams and world tours with Guns N’ Roses. The Pretty Reckless made this rock‘n’roll shit look easy.  

Or so it seemed. This month’s stark acoustic performance of Death By Rock And Roll tells the other side of the story, drawing a line in the sand after hard times, and vowing to fight on. “It has our whole mentality in the lyrics,” says Momsen. “It’s not a morbid song. It’s, ‘I’m going to live my way, I’m going out my way’. That’s the rock‘n’roll ethic. It’s empowering.”

True to that title, rock‘n’roll might have made The Pretty Reckless, but it almost broke them, too. In 2017, what should have been a dream tour with Soundgarden turned black after the suicide of Chris Cornell. Devastated, The Pretty Reckless cancelled their tour plans and vanished. Eleven months later, the skies darkened again with the death of Khandwala in a motorbike crash. “It sent us into a downward spiral,” notes Phillips. “We fell apart. It turned into a world of depression and substance abuse. At that point, we had to figure out how to continue making music. It was either death or go forward.”   

As the mission statement of The Pretty Reckless’s upcoming fourth album, Death By Rock And Roll is both a salute to the band’s past and a bold step into the future. The track begins poignantly with a sample of their beloved producer’s footsteps, but as Phillips’ snakecharmer riff lashes into the mix, there’s a sense of new momentum. “There was no way to hide from this,” says Momsen. “There was no running from what happened. I didn’t have to ‘write’ it – it was just infused into what we’re doing.”

Ten years is a long time in rock‘n’roll. But in 2020, as Light Me Up reaches that milestone sounding as fresh as ever, The Pretty Reckless are set to bookend their classic debut with a fourth album that turns the page. With co-production from longtime friend Jonathan Wyman, plus A-list cameos from Soundgarden’s Matt Cameron and Kim Thayil, and stunt guitar from Rage Against The Machine’s sonic maverick Tom Morello, Death By Rock And Roll is the first taste of the most anticipated rebirth of 2021. “Rock‘n’roll,” considers Momsen, “saved our lives”.

Watch the official video of Death By Rock And Roll below. You can now stream a special clip of Death By Rock And Roll (opens in new tab) in order to reveal a surprise from Taylor Momsen.        

Henry Yates has been a freelance journalist since 2002 and written about music for titles including The Guardian, The Telegraph, NME, Classic Rock, Guitarist, Total Guitar and Metal Hammer. He is the author of Walter Trout's official biography, Rescued From Reality, a music pundit on Times Radio and BBC TV, and an interviewer who has spoken to Brian May, Jimmy Page, Ozzy Osbourne, Ronnie Wood, Dave Grohl, Marilyn Manson, Kiefer Sutherland and many more.