What happens after a legendary artist wants to retire their most popular material from concert setlists
Sometimes, you throw something music-related up as a Facebook post and it lingers for a bit, then fades away. Other times, the comment thread lights up the screen like a human switchboard. You never know.
The latter scenario was certainly the case the other day after I came across the announcement from Pretenders singer-songwriter-guitarist Chrissie Hynde, which I then reposted and subsequently rattled on about.
“I’m completely dumping any sort of Greatest Hits set for now on,” Hynde wrote. “I never wanted to go there in the first place but was trying to keep myself alive and pay the bills. And yes, I know that’s no reason to be in a rock band. (I was just too scared to go back to waitressing.) But those greatest hits / ballads days are now behind me. If anyone wants to come and see me in the future it’s going to be punk rock/no hits.”
So, I had a go at this pronouncement, which I’m now expanding upon. (Others voice will weigh in after my wheeze.)
We all know and love some mercurial – dare I add temperamental and iconoclastic? – artists. Neil Young and Bob Dylan come to mind immediately. Our setlist expectations are pretty much “no expectation.” Certainly, not of hearing your favorite song (or two, or three, or four …) and maybe not even those in a familiar fashion. (Lou Reed could be like that, too, but, alas, no more sets of any kind from Lou. Christ, I’d even sit through a live Metal Machine Music and I hated that album.)
But more often than not when we’re going to a show by a favorite artist, we feel that part of the unspoken contract is hearing the hits. You reasonably expect at least some of the hits are going to show up. Or, if not “hits” per se, key songs in the artist’s catalog. You don’t want a human jukebox, you don’t want pure nostalgia, but you want some familiar bells to be dinged.
VIDEO: The Pretenders “Brass In Pocket”
The set may not include your favorite songs, but most likely a few and, at some level, it’s why you’re there in the first place. These songs mattered to you once and still matter – and you’d like to think they matter to the artist. Sure, you’d like it if the artist did some deep catalog mining or whipped out a bit of new material, but in proportion. As the old Kinks song goes, “Give the People What They want.” (Frankly, I was never sure if Ray Davies meant that sarcastically or seriously. Maybe it was both. When the Kinks signed to Arista, part of the deal with Clive Davis was that Ray would drop his concept album pretentions and deliver radio-friendly rock songs. Which he did. They were damn good songs, very much of the moment. And the Kinks ascended to arena level.)
I remember seeing and reviewing a club show in Boston in 1993 by Cyndi Lauper. She was still super-famous. The regular set was entirely her new album, which had not yet been released. (Yeah, I had an advance, so I knew it sorta.) Maybe the audience should have been tipped off that this was like an off-Broadway workout; she was playing a venue much smaller than normal so NEW SONG ALERT! But they clearly expected – I dunno – a smattering of hits and not the encore of a radically revamped reggae/hip-hop rendition of “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.” I wrote about it for the Boston Globe and the headline writer had a Stooge-y good time of it, too: Cyndi Lauper at the Paradise: No Fun.
Chrissie, of course, has always been a bit pissy, had a confrontational/fuck you attitude coiled within her, sometimes more submerged than other times. It’s part of why we like Pretenders. Part. But the satisfaction of being there to hear “Precious” or “Middle of the Road” or “Tattooed Love Boys” (or whatever your faves are) in favor of Chrissie’s intention to play “punk rock/no hits” (what punk rock is she talking about? Damned, Adverts and Buzzcocks covers? Her own new “punk” rock? Does she intend to play deep catalog, too?) seems like she’s cut off her nose to spite her face.
I mean, it’s good that she’s warned fans thinking of buying a ticket to any upcoming shows. Fair warning and all that. But has everyone heard the word? And how satisfied is that audience going to be if she does exactly what she says she’s going to do? Which I’m sure she will. Are they gonna feel like Cyndi Lauper’s did back in ’93?
My Facebook post blew up with comments and there was a 180-degree arc of opinion, though there was the occasional moderate “very interesting conundrum” type of contextualized comment. The term “dick move” was used. As was “gutsy” and “she’s earned the right to do whatever she wants.” From someone who knows her – “She can be so full of crap.” One fellow surmised she was in need of “therapy and medication.” A woman demurred that, “the best artists continue to forge new ground, responding to their internal urgencies. Sometimes brilliant, often controversial – and just as dangerous as lighting a match near an open gas tank.”
Linda Thompson, who sorta has a dog in the hunt – her son-in-law James Walbourne play guitar in Pretenders – said, “Love her. She doesn’t need money or acclaim. She already has both. Admirable to do just what you want. Most people never have that option.”
Cyndi Dawson, lead singer of New York band The Cynz: “I think you have to play for the people that put you on the map first and yourselves slightly after. Enjoy your new music – it’s how you grow as an artist but remember the Fire you had when you started and stop taking those songs for granted.”
Consider a couple of pretty articulate guys with PP initials, current minibeast multi-instrumentalist and former Mission of Burma drummer Peter Prescott and veteran rock critic and former Rolling Stone senior editor Parke Puterbaugh.
Prescott: “More power to her! You can always listen to a greatest hits record at home, right? Or hear something raw and fresh that she really means. The vitriol is kinda interesting. I totally understand that someone who wants her to be their personal Pretenders jukebox when they plunk down their cash will not want to go. I understand less the disgust aimed at someone who at least wants to offer the unpredictable at an age when most would play it safe for a paycheck. I would think that as admirable. Who knows if it would be satisfying? Going to shows back in the day was a joy because you were occasionally surprised rather than comforted.”
Puterbaugh: “If that is the case, I expect we won’t be seeing Hynde and whatever Pretenders she has with her performing for much longer at any ‘respectable’ venues, where a typically inflated latter-day assessment for a ticket (plus convenience charges, parking fees, $13 beers, etc.) realistically entitles an attendee to a satisfying performance that includes at least a few recognizable numbers. Should Hynde persist in declining to perform songs for which she is known, then she will likely wind up back in the bars, where maybe she’ll wind up with what is made at the door from whatever cash-poor contemporary punks deign to show up. She may well wind up waitressing, or reconsidering, before long.”
VIDEO: The Pretenders “Back On The Chain Gang”
After all this back and forth, where am I now?
1) She can play whatever she damn wants. Yep, that’s her right. 2) She’s done the right thing by putting out word that no one should expect the songs they likely know and love most. Hopefully, all fans hear that message loud and clear. 3) She’s vague about what “punk rock” songs she’s doing. Hers? New? Catalog? Does she do punk rock songs? Is she writing a new batch? Was she inspired by seeing her young self as portrayed as a near-punk in Danny Boyle’s Pistol? 4) It’s unspoken, but assuredly by telling her fans she’s not even trying to be a people pleaser anymore. She’s asking them to take a flyer on the gig because of who she is, how the band sounds and trust in her directorial vision. 5) Expect a tour with venues of much smaller sizes. There’s only so many people to spend X amount of money on such a crapshoot of a show. 6) I’ve always loved her voice. Always will.
I was in New York interviewing one of our best contemporary singers, the great k.d. lang, back in 1995. “I don’t understand rock ‘n’ roll,” she told me. “But I do love bands like the Pretenders, Chrissie Hynde!”