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Trouser Press / May 1983

INSIDE MARTIN CHAMBERS
(THE PRETENDERS' DRUMMER MEETS THE PRESS)
By Jon Young

“I said to our manager months ago that I thought it would be good for me to go to America and talk about what happened in ’82. And when the whole band comes over later in the year, we’ll be able to talk more about the present than the past.”

With that remark, Pretenders drummer Martin Chambers announces his willingness to discuss a dark chapter in Pretenders history: the two sequential days in June, 1982 when bassist Pete Farndon was expelled from the band and guitarist James Honeyman-Scott died of heart failure thanks to cocaine. Besides laying the past to rest, Chambers is also anxious to tell America that the Pretenders are still a viable band, with two new members, a hit single (“Back on the Chain Gang”) and a US tour slated for late ’83.

The drummer may have wondered whether his band could still generate interest amont the Stateside press after the Pretenders’ critically disappointing 1981 and disastrous 1982. If so, he couldn’t possibly be discouraged by the response to his visit. During a week-long stay in New York, Chambers is scheduled for as many as 10 interviews a day. One looks around the spacious Warner Bros. Conference room where he’s receiving visitors half-expecting to find a cot and food supplies to tide him over the marathon.

Forget the stereotype that places rock drummers way down on the evolutionary scale. Chambers exhibits none of the beefy cloddish qualities we’ve come to expect from stickmen. Instead, he’s gentle, soft-spoken and articulate. He’s also less than forthcoming on some major issues, but his unfailing courteousness makes evasion seem less of a crime.

As Chambers remarks cheerfully after asserting this round of interviews in his idea, “I’m not just a drummer, y’know.”

In 1980 the Pretenders were on top of the world. Leader Chrissie Hynde’s songs and singing had captured America’s hearts; fueled by the hit single “Brass in Pocket,” the band’s debut album promptly went gold (and eventually platinum).

The next year was a letdown by comparison. Amid heavy touring the band released Pretenders II, which to most people lacked the pop sizzle of its predecessor.

But not to Martin Chambers. He’ll admit only that the first and second LPs were conceived under different circumstances.

“Our first LP was very special. The second album was more difficult, because Chrissie had no time to write. She has to be relaxed to write, and we were on the road all the time. But I’m quite happy with it. I listen to the first and second albums with equal enjoyment.”

The Pretenders took an enforced break from heavy touring in late 1981 when Chambers severely cut his hand one night in a Philadelphia hotel.

“At the time, we said I was opening a window,” he recalls. “It was a funny period. Everyone was working very hard - a little too hard, I think. I just took a swing at a porcelain lampstand for no particular reason. I’d just had a lovely dinner. I wasn’t drunk. I hadn’t taken anything.

“The lampstand went into pieces and I cut 50 percent of the tendon at the top of my middle finger. I have a few scars now and I drop a few more sticks than before, but it’s no problem. I wasn’t particularly technical or subtle in the past, so it doesn’t make a lot of difference.

“In fact, I cut a finger on a bottle the first day of the next tour as well, but we got it together and spent a long, long time on the road.”

Early 1982 found the Pretenders engaged in a grueling worldwide tour that concluded in Bangkok in April. Chambers remembers that all was well then, despite the intense pace.

“We were still smiling at that last gig. It was an incredible show.” However, he adds, “We were due to go to Europe after that, but there was no way we could have done it.” A much-needed vacation followed instead.

June brought what Chambers delicately refers to as a “tricky time. Jimmy died only a day after Pete left. It was a difficult period.

“Pete wasn’t doing too well. We were worried about aspects of different things,” he remarks cryptically. “We’d all changed a lot, but Pete was a totally different person. It wasn’t working; the chemistry of the band wasn’t there anymore. It was more of a personal than a musical problem. When you’ve known someone a long time, it’s a terrible situation. I still love Pete very much, but a change had to take place.”

So Farndon’s departure was not his own decision? (The bassist himself claimed he was kicked out.)

“Well, I don’t know. The parting of the ways came. Whatever.

“The following day Jimmy died. He’d been back in London just a few days. Just before he’d returned he’d played a few dates with the Beach Boys, and that was one of the highlights of his life. Jimmy was a real Beach Boys fan.”

Prior to Honeyman-Scott’s death, Chambers had no inkling of what lay ahead. “I had Sunday lunch with Jimmy and he looked so good - better than I did. When somebody rang me up to tell me he was dead, I didn’t believe it.”

The remaining half of the Pretenders reacted the way many people would. “It’s the same as if there were a death in the family. At first we were set off into a different world. Then Chrissie and I immersed ourselves in work. We wanted to carry on, so we did what seemed natural.”

That is, they recruited new musicians and went back into the studio. Guitar picker extraordinaire Billy Bremner (formerly of Rockpile) and bassist Tony Butler (known to Pretenders producer Chris Thomas from Pete Townshend’s Empty Glass) signed on for the sessions that resulted in “Back on the Chain Gang” and “My City Was Gone.”

The melancholy beauty of “Chain Gang” and its dedication to Honeyman-Scott have led to speculation that the song was inspired by the late guitarist.

“People asked if it was written about him, but it wasn’t. The song had been around for some time.”

What is it about, then?

“I don’t know. Chrissie never talks about things like that, and if you asked her, you’d probably get a dirty look. I feel, rather than hear, the lyrics, and tune into what she’s playing on guitar. Often onstage, I’m hearing the lyrics for the first time.”

Having cut a single, Hynde and Chambers set out to replenish the Pretenders with new permanent members. Bremner and Butler weren’t in the running - “for no particular reason,” Chambers says - so auditions began.

Legendary Pirates guitarist Mick Green contributed an important helping hand during the guitarist trials. He’d strum the basic chords of a song as each aspiring Pretender played lead, with Hynde and Chambers sitting in judgment.

The winner of the competition was Robbie McIntosh, veteran of Manfred Mann's group and Night, the Fleetwood Mac-styled band formed by Mann alumnus Chris Thompson that had a hit with "Hot Summer Nights" in 1979. (This Robbie McIntosh isn't related to the late Average White Band drummer of the same name, let alone the same person.)

McIntosh had been recommended as an auxiliary Pretender by none other than James Honeyman-Scott months before, Chambers explains.

"We'd been considering adding another member live, so that Jimmy could relax a little when Chrissie wasn't playing guitar, or so he could play keyboards, which he did well. Jimmy had said that Robbie was great, with a style similar to, but not the same as, his.

"It was more important to me than anything else that Jimmy had liked him."

The search for a new bass player wasn't going so well. Then McIntosh suggested his old friend Malcolm Foster, who'd recorded previously as part of the Foster Brothers. The new combination was the right one.

"It either works or it doesn't," Chambers feels. "If it's hard, it's not good. If it's easy, you're halfway there. It'sjust something that you know is right or not. It's just like when Chrissie, Jimmy, Pete and I first played together. We knew it was right."

So Chambers says the healthy state of the new Pretenders is "all thanks to Jimmy. If he's looking down upon us, I'll bet he's awaiting our first gig with as much excitement and anticipation as I am. He'll be out there," Chambers asserts brightly.

"I don't disbelieve stories about people looking at you from another world. Anybody you've been close to, you can feel their presence, or at least you think you do." Chambers flashes a wicked grin and looks around the room for dramatic effect. "Funny things have been moving around my flat, and his sister, who was very close to him, has had various experiences. Jimmy always was a tease. He had a funny sense of humor."

Chambers's optimism about the new Pretenders is based on more earthly considerations. At the end of 1982 they entered the stuido and cut seven tracks with Chris Thomas, to the satisfaction of all. "None of them are particularly finished," he explains. "Two of them are mine. I wanted to write songs for Chrissie to sing, but that's difficult. So I'm singing them. I don'tnow how they'll work out, but she seems to think they're OK."

What kind of songs are they?

"Pretenders songs, I hope! I'll be all ears to hear what people think if they come out. And maybe I'll sing live. That would be fun. It would also relieve some of the pressure on Chrissie and give her a number off, so she could just get off on playing. Chrissie always wanted Jimmy, Pete and me to sing more than we did. Jimmy and Pete could sing fine, but they never pushed to do it. Robbie and Malcolm are more into singing."

Following his New York press bonanza, Chambers will return to London to rehearse with the new Pretenders, in preparation for finishing the LP and touring toward the end of the year. Hynde will join them shortly thereafter -- once she's "gotten used to" (Chambers's words) being the mother of her baby girl, born in January. The Kinks' Ray Davies is the proud poppa.

Hynde isn't the only Pretender-turned-parent recently. McIntosh's wife also gave birth to a girl, just before Christmas. "Her name is Hanna -- Hanna McIntosh." Chambers pronounces the name with a grand Scottish flourish.

Martin Chambers seems like one of rock's genuinely "normal" guys, which might explain his graceful weathering of the Pretenders' ill fortunes. He says he doesn't take his work home, goes fishing and skiing for relaxation, and harbors no illusions about the so-called glamor of the rock lifestyle.

"People think you're always having a great time, with Rolls-Royces, money, and so on. If they knew the truth, they'd be disillusioned. It's a lot more hard work than fun.

"But that work can be fun -- a lot more fun than working in a jam factory in Hereford, which is something I have done."

Indeed, Chambers was no overnight success. In 1971 he was playing in Karakorum, a "progressive rock band with three members. Karakorum was named after the ancient fortress that Genghis Khan built for himself, not the Himalayan mountain range. This was the progressive rock era, remember!

"There was an item in a February, 1971 Melody Maker that's still the highlight of my career. The 'Raver' column said, 'Keith Moon seen raving over Karakorum at the Lyceum.' Apparently he got off on what we were doing and came to see us a couple of times."

(Karakorum cut an LP at Rockfield studios that never came out.)

By 1973 Chambers was a day laborer in the roofing trade and a nocturnal drummer in the Dave Stewart Orchestra, a 17-piece dance band that specialized in Glenn Miller, James Last and other civilized fare. "I used to wonder why I did it," he remarks, "but in retrospect I'm glad I did. I learned a lot."

He followed the big band with Cheeks. This group included Honeyman-Scott, whom Chambers had known since the late '60s, and the notoriously strange Verden Allen, former Mott the Hoople organist.

"He's a very intense person, Verden," is all Chambers will volunteer about the famed eccentric.

"I carried on working with Verden in various bands until '77-'78, when I got fed up with not getting anywhere."

Chambers took a job as a driving instructor while keeping an eye out for a promising group. He auditioned for Gene October's Chelsea, but felt the punk scene "lacked substance. Then, when I ran into Jimmy and heard the Pretenders demos, it seemed like the answer to all those years of farting around."

Now Chambers expects the rejuvenated Pretenders to make history all over again.

"It's like a new band," he says. "Robbie has a style that's enough like Jimmy's to be good for the band, but not enough to be bad for Robbie. It might be tough for him, doing what Jimmy invented, when we play the old numbers onstate. He'll have to tread a fine line between copying and doing what people remember and want to hear. I think he'll take it in stride."

"I hope we can finish the third album as quickly as possible -- it won't be called Pretenders III! And then," he exclaims, "we'll be over here to tour as soon as we bloody can. It's been a long time between gigs, and I'm really looking forward to it."


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