It sounds like plenty of pop ballads of the early to mid '90s: a resonating solo piano and a simple, almost classical melody. But then you listen closer to the voice offering a shoulder to cry on. Is that...Chrissie Hynde? Of the Pretenders?
"I'll Stand by You," from the post-punk group's 1994 album Last of the Independents, was a surprise to almost everyone involved: its writers - a hitmaking duo from the '80s - its singer, and its audience. But there's no denying it was kind of a big deal: peaking at No. 16 on the Billboard Hot 100 and cracking the Top 10 of the British charts, it was the Pretenders' biggest hit since "Don't Get Me Wrong" some six years earlier.
By the release of Independents, Hynde and drummer Martin Chambers were the band's sole original members, with a rotating cast of guest musicians in her orbit (including guitarist Robbie McIntosh, who'd been a member in the mid-'80s before joining Paul McCartney's band, as well as bassist Andy Rourke, formerly of The Smiths). She'd also decided to work with songwriting team Billy Steinberg and Tom Kelly, who'd penned hits for Madonna ("Like a Virgin"), Whitney Houston ("So Emotional") and The Bangles ("Eternal Flame"). "She said, 'I want to write a hit,'" Steinberg recalled to Songfacts. "Over a period of about two weeks Tom and I wrote a handful of songs with her."
Of all the songs, it was clear the inspirational ballad "I'll Stand by You" had the greatest hit potential, and the band threw everything together to make it so: Kelly himself played piano, British producer/arranger David Lord developed a sweeping string section, and the London Gospel Choir brings it all home with their energetic backing.
Hynde later admitted she had second thoughts about chasing the charts for once in her career. "When I did that song, I thought, 'Urgh this is shit,'" she later told MOJO. "But then I played it for a couple of girls who weren't in the business and by the end of it they were both in tears. I said, 'OK, put it out.'" (She'd also gain a vote of confidence from Oasis' Noel Gallagher, who told her he wished he'd written the song.) And while it remains a comparative oddity in the band's catalog, Hynde credits the tune with helping her evolve as a musician.
"After collaborating with Tom and Billy, I've learned how to collaborate with people and I found that was really fun," she told Songfacts. "It's fun to have this surprise element of someone else involved. I'm not the lonely, depressed singer-songwriter, sitting in my room crying as much as I used to be."