- 07 Sep 20
Happy 69th Birthday, Chrissie Hynde! To celebrate, we're revisiting a classic interview with the Pretenders legend – originally published in Hot Press in 1999.
The woman on stage is 47 years old, dressed in black, and hardly seems to have aged a day since her band first hit the charts with a cover of The Kinks' 'Stop Your Sobbing' 20 years ago. Chrissie Hynde, unrepentant as ever, is proclaiming, "They don t make em like they used to . . . /You should've just stuck with me" over the sprightly plod being pumped out by her longtime henchman Martin Chambers, plus newer guys like guitarist Adam Seymour and bass player Andy Hobson.
The sound you're hearing is The Pretender's new single 'Popstar', the opening song of the band's first set in Dublin's Olympia, and while the telecasters might be a little shinier than of yore, and the drumkit caged in a plexi-glass shield, the five-piece ensemble appear to have made few concessions to the digital age.
Indeed, in an era of sequenced, choreographed, computer co-ordinated live shows, the sight of a band playing in real time is almost shocking, particularly when they fall apart during a loungey respray of one of their weaker songs (but biggest hits) 'Don't Get Me Wrong'.
Mind you, for all the fluffed cues in ballads like 'I'll Stand By You', and despite the horsing around and ragged, impromptu stabs at audience requests like 'Stand By Me', Chrissie never loses control of her gig. When the band lock in tight on classics like the rousing 'Message Of Love', 'Talk Of The Town', 'Back On The Chain Gang' or newer gems such as 'Night In My Veins' and 'Human' (like Blondie and The Bangles, The Pretenders are one of the great singles bands), you have to admire their staying power. And if the apparent friction between grit and microchip is heightened by the fact that tonight's show is being broadcast on the Internet, Hynde's manager will later observe that the best way to utilise a medium as sterile as the web is to approach it with the arse out of your trousers.
Today, in a room in the Merrion Hotel, peering out under her trademark bangs and fresh from a breakfast feast of pancakes and potatoes, Chrissie Hynde is in philosophical form, admitting that the band were somewhat cavalier at last night's gig, but seems happy with your reporter's analysis of the set as rough but very ready.
"All it's supposed to be is fun," she asserts. "I mean, if it's too consistent and everything's the same every night and it's like watching the CD play, then it's just fuckin' boring for everyone. Last night it was scrappy and it was falling apart and I was fucking around a little bit and stuff, but at least I was having a laugh. Musically, when it's up and running, I know that I can kind of egg the guys on, I'll actually force them out there when they don't expect it, and then they do something brilliant cos they're on the spot. What I'm all about is to make those guys look good. I don't fuck with them to agitate them, I just try to make them do their best."
Chrissie Hynde undoubtedly is The Pretenders, yet she's always underplayed her role in the group, even going so far as to describe the work she's done since the death of original members James Honeyman Scott and Pete Farndon (six albums worth) as testament to their spirit. Indeed, every guitarist she's hired since Honeyman Scott's passing has been sympathetic to his legacy, even a firebrand of the calibre of Johnny Marr. But then, it was the sandy-haired speedfreak from Hereford who completely turned Hynde around from being a snotty urchin reared on the Lester Bangs school of rock The Yardbirds, The Stooges and the Velvets to adopting a classicist's approach, as strong on songs as attitude.
"Y'know, I always had this vision to have this band," the singer reflects. "But having a band means it really is the input of the different personalities. So when I met the guys I finally found in Jimmy someone who wanted the melody, which I was kind of in denial of, so I wasn't very interested in him until I heard what we did when we played together. And then I thought, Woah! You know, you can't deny the music.
"For me, my loyalty to the band has always been a musical loyalty. Like when Martin and I had some problems, which were not personal problems, it was purely that I think we were traumatised by the loss of Pete and Jimmy y'know. Life was setting in, and neither of us were playing very well at all. We kind of lost it, and I desperately needed to go out and seek what it was I could do, and that's when I split with Martin for a few years. It was never personal. And now he's playing better than ever. Believe me, he was playing crap when I dumped him. I wasn't playing good either, but at least I can sing, I can still get some songs together even if I m struggling."
What forces were squeezing the music out of her life?
"Well, like I said, life sets in," she replies. "It's kinda hard to tell what it was. Certainly the loss of Pete and Jimmy didn't help."
She's an engaging character is Ms. Hynde, somewhere between a hard-ass and a sweetheart, brisk and businesslike on one hand, but refusing to let the record company eject your reporter until she's satisfied that I'm satisfied.
"I've wanted to be a singer since I was four," she ventures when I ask if possession of that remarkable voice rather than musicianship or songwriting prowess provided her with any self-belief in those lean years, down and out in Ohio, Paris and London.
"There's always the two sides," she continues, "like you're saying, the self-doubt and the self-confidence. And I've found that you really don't have to have confidence because everyone else is so riddled with insecurities, that if they see someone who is confident, they immediately bow down to that person. So all you have to do is just act like it. Y'know, 'Brass In Pocket' was a rock tradition of saying, 'Hey, look how cool my gang is!' Probably the original lyric was, 'I'm nothing special', but that's not the rock language . . .
"Something that I can't stand in anyone, man or woman, is arrogance. The only person who can get away with it is a prizefighter. I find it a loathsome trait, but in showbusiness there's kind of a superficial arrogance, and it's gotta be a bit tongue in cheek, because real arrogance is an ugly thing which I can't be dealing with. I only like humility in my rock stars, that's what they seem to be lacking today. They're always sticking their tits out. I don't know, can't we bring back Jimi Hendrix, can't we bring back the greats who had this immense gift and talent and yet were kind of shy, elusive?"
Hynde might be a top-notch songstress and adept interpreter of other people's tunes, but she's hardly shy and elusive. Nor however, is she as dismissive of her own shortcomings as say, the Gallaghers or Paul Weller. Indeed, she has described herself as anything but a proud writer. And strangely enough, while the last single, 'Human', sounded like the quintessential Pretenders opus, it was written by Shelly Peiken and Mark McEntee. Conversely, 'One More Time' off Viva El Amor, which features Hynde's most audacious vocal performance to date, carries itself with the authority of a standard like 'Stay With Me' or 'Piece Of My Heart', but is in fact an original.
At the previous night's show, Chrissie had made some rather barbed remarks about the way the fine new album has been passed over by radio programmers in Britain. Does she feel that The Pretenders are something of an anomalous blot on the current pop landscape?
"Actually I made some mistakes last night," she considers. "My manager pointed out that I shouldn't put myself down or make it sound like that, that's a bad thing to do. No, it's just that we've been kind of well received everywhere on this record, but we were never played on Radio 1 they have their own little Robbie Williams agenda in England . . . and you know what? This is what I really shouldn't say, cos it goes against everything that I'm supposed to be doing now, but I'm kinda glad, cos I have to live in England, and I'd rather not be too big, cos then it's a pain in the ass.
"See, I've been around long enough to know that you can make all sorts of records, and how it's going to be accepted all depends on what year you put that record out. And I'm really happy with this record, I think it's really great, even if I do say so myself. I'll tell you one thing: if the Spice Girls put this record out, they d be getting all sorts of accolades for it. Although the Spice Girls have made great records of the kind of records that they make, so I shouldn't even mention them. I mean, if Kylie Minogue put this record out, people would say, 'Wow, Kylie s really pulled a great stroke there'.
Which brings us to the lyric of 'Popstar' ('So your girlfriend wants to be a popstar/And beat the charts outta me/She wants to move a million units, man/Probably just to prove she can'), which she denies was aimed at any specific poptart.
"It was just kind of fuckin' around," she says. "It was a very off-the-cuff lyric. Actually, if you listen to the lyric, the woman singing the song is talking about her successor, the person who's going out with her ex-boyfriend, and she's saying, 'What are you doing with that dumb bitch?' It's a very basic premise for a pop song. But in this case, of course, I'm using the whole idea of a pop star, and there wasn't anyone . . . although we just made a video and the video director's idea was to use all these pop star lookalikes, so there's an Alanis Morrisette and a Courtney Love which people might think is me being bitchy or whatever, but I can't be too worried about how it's perceived because really, who gives a fuck? I d rather be controversial for something that has some substance than be controversial because I pulled my pants down."
"A couple of years ago I got busted for having a knife in my possession," she recalls. "A sort of flicknife, and I had to go to jail and stay overnight at the airport and then go back to court, and it was a completely accidental and innocent thing, it wasn't like I had a deadly weapon with me. In fact, when they finally saw the size of this little knife to whittle with or something in court, they couldn't believe that it had gotten that far. I think it said 'Hynde's Horror Knife!' [in the papers] or something! (Laughs)
"Y'know, I'll always play down anything personal. Deaths, births, marriages, arrests, anything that could be a bit scandalous, I don't bring to public attention, and thereby I'm kind of a miserable celebrity and I don't play the game. I find that all kind of undignified. And when I saw that Hynde Horror Knife Scandal thing, I thought, 'Wow, man, you can't pay a press agent to come up with something like this, y'know, this is really hot.' A lot of people would love that shit. Like you say, y'know, Keith slitting Gram Parsons throat or something, myth-building stuff! But fuck it, I just wanna be left alone. I'd rather dismantle the myth. I used to like the myth when I was on the other end of things, when I was just a fan, and being in my position in some ways spoils a lot of it."
Of course, this myth mongering is precisely the kind of inflammable material that made up her former paramour Nick Kent's book The Dark Stuff.
And he loves that shit! Hynde says, fondly. "Totally."
Has she read it?
"I haven't read it. Is it good? I haven't seen him for years. When I knew Nick he was only a boy, he was only about 21, 22, and he really was caught up in the myth, walking around with his nails painted and eye make-up and y'know, he was totally away with it. He just loved the whole mythology of rock decadence and all that. Now that he's older I think . . . there's nothing interesting about all that decadence and darkness and mental illness and drug addiction if there's nothing to counter-balance it, if there isn t some sort of spirituality, some greater substance. It's like, pornography isn't interesting sexually because there's no mystique to it, it's too mechanical, it takes the heat out of it.
"So if I'm threading some kind of train of thought together, y'know, having all that mythology and so on, it's like having the kingdom of God without God being in it. Certainly by the time you're pushing 40, you can see through so much of this superficial kind of stuff, it can't entertain you anymore. And I don t mean that suddenly rock music has to be very earnest and meaningful, because everyone hates that with a vengeance if they have any kind of any rock n roll sensibility at all, but it can't just be superficial and nonsensical, it can t just be vanity. And that's where all these bitches have got it wrong, I think. Y'know, I'm doing this Lilith tour."
Ah, yes. By the time you read this, Chrissie will be well into The Pretenders' leg of this year's Lilith Fair. And one can't but wonder how last night's intro to 'A Thin Line Between Love And Hate' ("What do you say to a woman with two black eyes? Nothing - she s already been told twice.") would go down amongst the Laura Ashley brigade.
"I'll let you know," she responds. "I'm glad that worked, cos afterwards I was like, 'Why did I do that?' That wasn't a rehearsed moment. Yeah, I'll definitely try that out on the girls. But y'know, after all that Women In Rock blah blah blah, people keep asking me, 'What's the importance of Lilith?' and I always say, 'It's showbusiness.' It's just a gimmick to have a bunch of chicks doing it. And of course, what they want me to say is, 'But sisters are finally doing it for themselves!'
"But actually what it just shows to me is that after all is said and done, it's just like a tribal thing where all the girls just wanna go off by themselves and do the cooking. I might suggest that onstage at Lilith and see how it goes down. And I think it s a shame that men can't still have their men's clubs, that that's considered sexist, and men can't go to their club at night and have a cigar and read the Financial Times and just do Guy Things . Women don't want that shit imposed on them. But I mean, there's nothing wrong with a fine cigar."
The leader of the free world couldn't have put it better himself.
* * * * *
All About Iggy
"He is the one. I've heard his new album, cos someone in France gave it to me. It's pretty shocking actually, cos he sort of recites some written words and it's very introspective and very personal and a lot of it's on acoustic guitar. He's got a beautiful voice he was always trying to sound like Jim Morrison. I just love him to death. But this new album is . . . he's talking about the fact that he's 50, and it's all about his 25-year-old South American girlfriend. It's very interesting."
"When I heard their album I thought, 'Wow, let's make an album that sounds like Garbage!' It was so infused with the best of the modern techniques and stuff. And I love her, I love her voice, I think they're a really great band. Shirley's a firecracker, she's pretty nuts. She's a sweetheart. Talk about a blend of self-confidence and self-doubt! I mean, you read one interview with her and she's going, 'I was so ugly, I was cutting my arms open and I just hated myself and wanted to die and despised myself and I was so angry!' and on the other hand she's like, 'Don't fuck with Shirley!'"
Of Cale And Cave
We did In The Round, this kind of songwriters thing (on BBC 2), and I was mortified to do it, but it was great being wedged in between those two. I made Adam sit with me, cos to just sit with the guitar on my own, I'm not used to that. I know John and Nick do that a lot. And they're both waaaaay intense guys, they've got all of that . . . Cale's like really handsome and very dignified, and then when he gets intense in the songs you go, 'Wooah,' you don't want him parked outside of your house at 1.30 in the morning . And I felt like I was kind of the clown in the middle to keep everything more lightweight, with those smouldering coals on either side."