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Trouser Press / November 1981

Chrissie Hynde on the Pretenders
By Harry George

Unknown to this dilettante correspondent, miles from the white heat of 212 Fifth Avenue, the Trouser Press Pretenders feature had been a long time gestating. When wish finally became reality, it was in distinctly businesslike fashion.

I had asked to speak to singer/guitarist Chrissie Hynde and one of the others; although Hynde is obviously the focus, if a band has any merit the subordinate members' views are usually relevant. Pretenders manager Dave Hill (shades, thick crepe soles) takes a less rarefied stance. Asked by the British label publicist who the lucky boy is, he replies, "Martin [Chambers], but he's got to go in 10 minutes." Then, to me: "He's only the drummer."

It's early evening at London's Hammersmith Odeon, favorite theater for established rock bands playing the capital - though few would enthuse about the choice available. It's the day after the Royal Wedding and (barring a festival in Ireland) the last date of the Pretenders' British tour. To their credit they also played the Palais ballroom up the road two days before, a somewhat laid-back set at which ex-Rolling Stone Mick Taylor was turned away at the door. (They say the guest list's closed," he told his date ruefully.)

Few doors have been closed to the Pretenders. The quartet has yet to discover the meaning of the word "flop" - starting with a single of Ray Davies's "Stop Your Sobbing" in 1979, through an accomplished debut album (Pretenders) and four more UK hit 45s. In the US, their rapid conquest (platinum LP, "Brass in Pocket" in the Top 10) of an entrenched old-rock star system was even more impressive.

Everyone should know by now that the Pretenders are the Akron, Ohio-bred Hynde and three Herefordshire, England males: guitarist James Honeyman-Scott, bassist Pete Farndon and drummer Chambers. Only Farndon looks remotely rock-starry (has quiff, chews gum). Chambers has chosen to accentuate his untrendiness by allowing a distinctly agricultural pair of sideburns, tapering to fine points, to steal across his cheeks. The "silent drummer" myth is inapplicable here, though. Had he any preference between the Odeon and the Palais?

"I think I prefer the Palais, but you get different sorts of people coming to different venues, so I think it's worth doing both of them. I wouldn't mind playing the Kilburn State [site of two Ronnie Wood solo gigs in 1974 and little else on the rock front]; that's where we rehearsed for this tour. It's a great building - the biggest cinema in Europe."

The Palais - a long, low room with the stage halfway down one side - makes a band more accessible, don't you think?

"It's bloody hot there, though. Here you've got more space between you and the lights." Chambers's proximity to the blistering spotlights at the Palais induced him to pour ice water over himself during the show. "Ice water really wakes you up. When you get a couple of hot days in England you can never get any ice in pubs. But apart from that it's fabulous." (Sly grin.)

Did you have much time off to write and record the second album?


Hynde (eventually): "Oh, I don't know… You don't take two weeks off to write songs, anyway. You're always writing, so it's kind of an impossible question.

"I can't write when there's other noise around, which is why I hate traveling on coaches when there's a tape on. I won't go into any restaurant in America, practically, 'cause they're always playing Muzak… If you are always humming to yourself or thinking about a song, the minute there's other music it just completely…"

Chambers offers, "Neutralizes it."

"Yeah," Hynde resumes. "It's like trying to draw on a canvas that already has a sketch on it. I find it really offensive and oppressive."

Both sound off some more in this vein, with particular reference to hotels. Thus the pattern of our encounter is set, at least as far as Chrissie Hynde is concerned. If a question strikes her as banal or obtuse, her disengagement is near-total; a topic (usually neutral) close to her heart, though, produces an impassioned harangue. At one point Hynde refers a question on the band's history to Chambers: "Ask him all those sort of questions." If there were any jokes, I missed them.

"I didn't come over here to get a band together to take it back to America, which is a sort of misconception over there," Hynde says. "I moved over here in 1973, full stop. Everything that's happened since then is totally non-related to the fact of why I moved or anything. It didn't take me from 1973 to 1979 to make that move, y'know."

Hynde similarly dismisses her brief foray into rock journalism with New Musical Express as irrelevant to her subsequent career.

"That was a shot in the dark, a…"


"Yeah. Good one."

Most rock musicians are far cruder on stage than on record - live audience demands don't leave much room for subtlety - but Hynde's singing at the Palais was notably sensitive. She almost caressed "Stop Your Sobbing" (which she has every right to be tired of), while "The English Rose" featured a catch in the voice and exploratory flavor that characterize Joni Mitchell's best singing.

Till now there have been three basic Hynde voices: sweet, Sandie Shaw pop-tone ("Sobbing," "Kid"); aggressively sexual and/or self-reliant ("Precious," "Tattooed Love Boys"); and sardonically observant ("Private Life"). All three sometimes occur in the same song. Has Hynde been working on her vocalese?

"It's not something that's been worked on, it probably just comes hand in hand with doing a lot of work. You can't help but develop. In 1979, when we did our first record, I hadn't gotten used to singing. There's a hell of a lot of difference between humming on your way home at night…"

(Chambers leaves; Hynde seems put out.)

"It's a violent world, isn't it?" Hynde replies to critical charges that her debut LP's songs concentrated on musical/lyrical violence. "I don't analyze or listen to my own songs. I would never say I wrote violent songs… one man's violence is another man's pleasure. I haven't sat down and listened to the [first] album since we made it, and I haven't sat down and listened to the new one yet. We just do the shows every day; I'm quite a bit out of touch with what the public gets. You've recorded it, so then you wanna go on and do something else.

Pretenders II's little-known Ray Davies song, "I Go to Sleep," is not to be confused with "I Just Can't Go to Sleep," an early Kinks album track. (Think of all those other Great Lost Kinks Demos: "You Never Really Got Me," "Cloudy Afternoon," etc.)

"It was written in 1965. I think there have been about six versions of it. Peggy Lee did one, Cher did one - neither of which I heard. The song publishers for about the first three Kinks albums sent me a cassette of a demo made by Ray Davies in 1965, with him playing piano. The Kinks never recorded it. In my estimation it's a perfect song and I was delighted to have access to it. I was just hoping they wouldn't be offended."

One British tabloid revealed recently that Hynde and the head Kink have been canoodling for the last year or so, but I judged our rapport of insufficient grooviness to risk broaching the subject.

On a professional level, has Davies heard the Pretenders' version?

"Yeah, he has actually."

Does he like it?

"I don't know. He's never actually said."

On one level the Pretenders are indeed riff merchants. However, just as you're reflecting that it's all a bit humdrum you realize what a variety of moods they evoke. Despite his lack of a distinctive style, Honeyman-Scott makes every little interjection count, while Farndon's bass is always liable to do the unexpected. An all-embracing blend of raucous licks and often inspired melodies have made the band such a moneyspinner. Some months back Hynde commented to the effect that on the Pretenders' emergence the market was probably ready for a straight rock band with a girl singer. Now she isn't so authoritative on the subject.

"Interviewers are always asking me, 'Why were you so successful?' In my estimation that's a pretty daft question. How the hell do I know? I don't read the things, I never collect them or save them."

Some rock analysts would credit producer Chris Thomas as a factor in the Pretenders success story. Thomas also plays "additional keyboards" (with Honeyman-Scott) and "odds 'n' ends" respectively on their two albums. How much does he contribute?

"You'd be better to ask Jim, although he's not here. Chris'll play keyboards a little bit on something, a little guitar arpeggio on something, a little sound effect. On 'Bad Boys Get Spanked' he tapped a bottle of Evian water throughout the whole song; you can hear it at the end of the track. I walked in there one day and he was hitting a motorcycle helmet with a piece of wood."

Hynde's own eclecticism comes through in "Message of Love," which not only quotes Oscar Wilde ("We are all of us in the gutter/Some of us are looking at the stars") but takes its title from a Jimi Hendrix song.

"I assumed everyone would know that… but no-one did. Maybe someone one day'll pick up the Band of Gypsies album and say, "Ah, look, they ripped off the title."

"We've got one on the album now called 'Louie, Louie.' The actual title was 'Louie Louie Had His Day'; it is a reference to the older song. Saddie and Hattie from 'Wooly Bully' get a mention too. The song's one of my favorites and I assume everyone knows it. Course I'm 29, but having a mental age of 14 I forget I'm getting older every year. I saw Sam the Sham in Akron when I lived there. I'm so out of touch; it's probably been 12 years since I've been in a record store and seen what's going on."

Nevertheless, the results suggest that such abstinence hasn't hurt Hynde's ability to commune with the Pretenders' huge audience.

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