Looking back on over 40 years of seeing the fiery Pretenders frontwoman on stage
Sometimes, your first time really is the best time. And it was that way with me and The Pretenders, when the English band with the Akron, Ohio-born singer hit the stage at Boston’s Paradise Theater March 23, 1980.
Underneath her jacket, Chrissie Hynde sported a “Have a Nice Death” T-shirt, which she fully displayed midway through the set. (She’d been in L.A. and was nauseated by all the “Have a Nice Day” bromides) We all smiled, the way you do when you see a sharp nasty twist of a popular, inane cliché. And of course, hardly suspecting what was to come, that two of her bandmates would be dead from drug overdoses within three years: Guitarist James Honeyman-Scott (June of 1982) and bassist Pete Farndon (April of 1983). I guess that’s posthumous irony.
Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.
It was Hynde, who turns 70 on Sept. 7th, and hard-hitting drummer Martin Chambers who carried Pretenders torch on into the next century; they’ve had, by my reckoning, a dozen other bandmates along the way. I’ve seen ‘em a bunch, the latest incarnation twice, in 2016 and 2018, and wrote this in 2016: “They hit mark after mark. Hynde, clad in an Elvis t-shirt and tight blue jeans, may (still) be the best female rock singer around. The way she glides and soars around a vocal line – that wavering tremolo – is sublime.”
So, maybe the first time was the best – the months of anticipation, the thrill of it all – but there have been plenty of Chrissie / Pretenders high points over the past four decades.
One of the best compliments I heard about Hynde’s voice came from k.d. lang. In 1995, I was in New York interviewing lang, an alt- country/torch singer possessed of an extraordinary and expressive voice and range, and she envied what Hynde could do. “I don’t understand rock ‘n’ roll,” lang said, “but I do love bands like The Pretenders. Chrissie Hynde! I’m jealous as hell I can’t be more `alternative’ sometimes.”
But back to the 1980 gig. Tickets at that Paradise show cost $3.50, which was vastly underpriced even in those days because the show went on sale before the promoter knew anything about what the band’s popularity would become. Sold out in a flash. (They were being scalped for the king’s ransom of $50.) The tour was booked well before their eponymous first album came out at the end of 1979. The first Pretenders album came out a week or so later in the UK and spent four weeks at No. 1. We American Anglophiles knew we had a hot band on the way.
Not that we needed a chart position to tell us that. And not even the album itself. We knew that on the basis of the bang-bang-bang punch of those first three UK import singles from February 1979 through November: “Stop Your Sobbing”/”The Wait,” “Kid/Tattooed Love Boys” and “Brass in Pocket”/”Swinging London”/”Nervous But Shy.”
Taking the stage to the symphonic sounds of the Apocalypse Now overture, The Pretenders launched into their instrumental, “Space Invader” – yes, some of the sounds drawn from the now-classic early-era arcade game – and we were off to the races.
Two of the Paradise songs, “Precious” – with the best recorded “Fuck off” in rock history – and “Tattooed Love Boys” – with the still jaw-dropper, politically incorrect line, “I shot my mouth off and you showed me what that hole was for” – were also included in the 2006 double disc repackaging of The Pretenders.
AUDIO: The Pretenders perform “Precious” at the Paradise in 1980
Christ, what a fiery night! They and played everything from that smoking debut album save “Lovers of Today” and tore the place up. The Paradise back then had tables and chairs affixed to the floor and we began the show on our asses – as we did back then, sorta forced to – and Chrissie yelled at us, “Get off your butts, man! Stand up!”
“Stop Your Sobbing,” the 1964 Kinks song Pretenders remade in such a lovely, passionate way, was the encore. Gossipy side note: I first interviewed Ray Davies in 1981 in Minneapolis and it was a wide-ranging, introspective interview, but Davies let it slip that he’d been dating Hynde. Fair enough – it would be a point in my story. But Ray was fearful it could be a major focus in my story (which it wouldn’t in any case) and asked that I fly along with them to Detroit to continue the interview process – and to make certain I wouldn’t play up the rock star dating angle. My editor at the Boston Globe, a huge Kinks fan herself, said “Go.” It was win-win for us both.
In 1980, I was freelancing for the Globe then, but I admired our competitor, the Boston Phoenix, for devoting a full advance feature on The Pretenders’ pre-album release, based solely upon those double-sided hit singles. And though I reviewed The Pretenders for the Globe several times, I never interviewed Chrissie; my colleague Steve Morse claimed that territory and I was pretty okay with that. Separating the artist from the art and all that. Not wanting to get too close to the fire off stage that I admired on stage. And they did hit it off.
“Chrissie could be very scary to interview,” Steve told me recently, “because she was a tough, no-nonsense person. I recall interviewing her in her hotel in Philadelphia in 1984. The thing I actually remember the most was how we were walking in a hallway to her hotel room and she said, ‘Excuse me for a minute.’ She suddenly raced down the hall to where two leering, groupie guys were hiding behind an ice machine. She screamed a torrent of four-letter words at them and they ran away like scared rabbits. ‘Sorry about that,’ she said to me. I hadn’t even seen the men but she had razor-sharp senses for this kind of intrusion.”
“It’s very uncool for them to be hanging around me floor,” Hynde told Morse. “That pisses me off. I should have those guys thrown out of here. People will jump at you with a camera and I’ll say ‘C’mon, cut it out!’ and they’ll say ‘You must be used it ‘cos you’re a star’ and I’ll say, ‘Well, why don’t you just fuck off.’”
“That night at the show,” Morse continued, “I was invited into the dressing room and sensed a little friction between Chrissie and Martin. She respected him the most in the band, but they did have skirmishes Some time in the future, Martin had to miss some concert dates because he said he cut his hand on a lamp, but he ultimately revealed that he had punched his fist into a wall out of frustration from an argument with Chrissie.
Another strong memory is doing a phone interview with Chrissie after she attended her 10th high school reunion in Akron, Ohio. She said the reunion was pretty boring, so she left for a while to smoke some pot in order to deal with it. I always admired her honesty, but you have to be on your toes when you talk to her.
What I got from Hynde – a former music journalist who only took the stage herself when she was 27 – was the music and how she projected herself within and between songs. Which was equal parts come-on/fuck-off. She brokered no fools; she spun taut and tense miniature dramas in rock. This was music born of punk, but not punk exactly and I suppose The Pretenders neatly fit the definition of new wave at the time. There’s always been a lot of juxtaposition in her music: tough/tender, resignation/defiance, cynicism/hope, and caress/blister. And a hell of a lot of great mid-tempo songs – “Back on the Chain Gang,” “Middle of the Road” and “Talk of the Town” to name three – and in many ways this became their forte, much as I love “Precious,” “Up the Neck” and “Tattooed Love Boys.”
I’d have to say The Buzzcocks’ Singles Going Steady, from 1979, is the best singles comp of the punk/new wave era, but Pretenders’ 1987 comp, The Singles, finishes a close second.
Hynde has not been a Pretender forever. She recorded and toured with then-boyfriend JP as Chrissie and the Fairground Boys in 2010. Eight years ago, she released a solo album, Stockholm, and toured behind it. I covered that Boston show at the Orpheum Theatre and wondered if maybe she’d mellowed a bit with age.
Not quite. Hynde and her backing quartet had barely begun the first song “Don’t Lose Faith in Me,” when she started railing at the cellphone camera clickers in the front, snarling “That’s going to ruin the show for me.” She brought the second song, “Biker,” to a halt, struck a pose and sarcastically snapped, “All right, take your pictures now!” and shortly thereafter threatened to have security toss out any picture-takers.
Attitude and spunk, she still had it. Hynde did apologize a couple of songs later: “Sorry, I freaked out,” circling her finger around her head making the “crazy” gesture.
The juxtaposition of her freak-out and apology bears some relation to her music. This edition of Hynde, as a songwriter, is not as full of fire and fury as in her youth. She generally did float in a more temperate zone. And she jested, “Great to see so many old faces out here … it’s that time of life for some of us. Step on the wrong crack and it’s all over.”
But Hynde – slender as always, sporting torn blue jeans and the same in-her-eyes bangs – reasserted her position as one of rock’s best, most expressive, female singers. That gorgeous contralto still curdled and soared.
Midway through the set, after some new ones, “In a Miracle” and “Life in the Movies,” and the similarly styled “Talk of the Town,” “Kid” and “You or No One,” she asked, slyly, rhetorically: You don’t think we’re not gonna rock do you?”
That, they did, with special credit going to guitarist James Walbourne (also of the Rails). He, like bassist Nick Wilkinson, is a current Pretender so the line between a Hynde set and a Pretenders set was truly blurred. Walbourne is a spectacular guitarist. English music critic/novelist Nick Hornby calls him an unearthly cross between James Burton, Peter Green and Richard Thompson. The band was fleshed out by keyboardist Sean Reed and drummer Kris Sonne.
They kicked it out with these: “Down the Wrong Way,” “Up the Neck” and “Night in My Veins” – the heroin references in the latter made clear when she changed the final “just the night in my veins” to “just a spike in my veins.”
The hits just kept on coming – the chugging and clanging pair “Don’t Get Me Wrong” and the “Back on the Chain Gang” – and then the encores, beginning with the insistent and propulsive “Sweet Nuthin’.” The final song was the best track from Stockholm, “Dark Sunglasses,” a catchy and cautionary song about someone on the descent hiding drug-induced red eyes behind those shades.
Hynde and company pulled off that great, and ever-so-difficult balancing act for a veteran rocker – moving ahead with strong new material and plucking songs from a terrific catalog, allowing her (and us) to look back, indulge in nostalgia, but also stay in the moment and think about the future.
VIDEO: The Pretenders perform “I’ll Stand By You” at the Orpheum Theatre in Boston 2018
And now some stray thoughts after seeing Pretenders the last time through town in 2018 at the Orpheum in Boston:
* I have never seen Chrissie less pissy, which is to say, no rants at audience, just some funny barbs/praise directed at band mates and her delight to see an old Ohio friend at the front. It probably helped that audience members respected the “no cell phone” demand published on websites and shouted at you as you entered by security outside the venue.
* A generous 105-minute set playing everything I’d hoped to hear, save “Up the Neck.”
* This lineup is the best Chrissie’s had since Pretenders Mach 1 and stylish neo-rockabilly cat Walbourne kicked out the jams. Sizzling when called for, dropped back when he should, took the front of the stage with Chrissie at times, her playing rhythm.
* Chrissie’s voice. The sound mix was poor early on, but cleared up about three songs in and she may just be by favorite female rock ‘n’ roll singer. I still love that quavering contralto, the way she soars and glides, g) Same hair style (blond now) as ever, same sexy, slim look. I don’t think she’s an ounce over her playing weight in 1980 and while you can say keeping you looks shouldn’t matter, it can. It helps you get into older music without thinking about its age, the performer’s, or our own.
* The audience of that certain age was up on its feet pretty much throughout as well it should have been.
* “Precious” is about the best way to close a concert and that “Fuck off” is one of my favorite rock ‘n’ roll declamations.