Sounds August 1979

The Pretenders: The Perils of Christine

Peter SilvertonSounds, 25 August 1979

 THE PRETENDERS ARE DEPRESSED. MEETING PETE SILVERTON MAKES THINGS WORSE. AND CHALKIE DAVIES DOESN’T HELP MUCH, EITHER

“WHAT IT’S basically down to is pressure.”

Peter Farndon speaks slowly, his voice coloured with deliberation, exhaustion and a hint of bewilderment. The soft water vowels of his still distinct Hereford accent add bite to his new-found disillusionment with the ways of the world.

As he continues, the sympathetic side of me realises that I’ve caught him and the rest of The Pretenders at their lowest ebb, that one day when nothing seems worth it at all. The uncharitable metropolitan in me reckons he’s sounding off like the archetypal country kid who’s come to the big city and made the unsurprising discovery that the streets are paved with three card tricksters, not gold.

“All of a sudden it’s hard to understand how come a year ago you were just bumming around and some geezer is going to give you £25 a week to rehearse and all that and you think ‘Shit, I’m laughing’.

“And, before you know it — because there’s only one way to do it, work really hard, up and down the motorway, in and out of the studio, in and out of the BBC, non-stop, one day off a week — the pressure builds up and builds up until you think ‘Shit, a year ago, I was just sitting around getting half as much money and getting twice as pissed or whatever you’re into’ and you start thinking: ‘Is it worth all that hassle?'”

FOR WHAT seemed like the tenth time that evening, the tannoy at Blackpool’s Norbreck Castle Hotel (holidays for Scots and Ulstermen a speciality) blared into action with the same message: “Will Mr. Wayne Fontana please come to the reception desk where there is a phone call for him.”

In between batting a little white ball across a table tennis table (I told you it was a holiday hotel), James Honeyman Scott and I wondered aloud if this series of calls for Mr. Fontana might not have something to do with the fact that the man who sat in the park all those years ago and is now wandering around the country with the vain hope of trying to whip up some enthusiasm for a Merseybeat revival was doing a show down the road apiece the following night.

(Much later in the night I met the bassist in Fontana’s band. While he was attempting to convince me to persuade Chrissie Hynde to join us in the bar, I noticed his badge. Home-made and constructed with admirable wit but scant tact, it announced him as part of the ‘I Fowt E Woz Fuckin Dead Tour’.)

Still smiling over the thought that these days Wayne’s forehead is probably higher than the Empire State building, Jimmy and I heard a middle-aged woman shouting “C’mon, get out”. Imagining she was just hustling the couple of kids on the other side of the room to their beds, we ignored her till we heard “And you two… the fire alarm’s gone off. You’ve got to get out of the building.”

Normally, of course, being ejected temporarily from the hotel in the late evening would have been no sweat; the band could have just gone on to the gig early. But when a band stays at the Norbreck Castle, it plays at the Norbreck Castle and, one by one, The Pretenders had to join the pyjama-clad early-to-bedders, the screaming kids and the prospective audience for that night’s gig on the windy hotel forecourt.

As we were then informed that it was in fact a bomb scare and the police would take half an hour to search the hotel, I realised that, in the confusion, I’d left my beer behind. I looked round at Jimmy, guessing that he of anyone would have had the sense to remember the liquid sustenance. I was of course right, only it was my pint of lager he’d brought with him — he’d already finished his.

“I didn’t know it was yours, Silv, honest. But you know I wouldn’t miss something like that sitting around. In some fucking order.”

How can you get angry at someone with such a crude but effective understanding of survival? Especially when it’s James Honeyman Scott and you’ve just beaten him at table tennis.

“GET BACK, you bastards.” You didn’t have to be able to see Chrissie Hynde’s face to realise that she was fed up, frustrated that the first three or four rows of the crowd at the Norbreck Castle were making it impossible for the band to play with ease (flair and style were out of the question that night).

Not that it was their fault really, the shape of the Norbreck Nite Spot hall is such that it makes it inevitable that the front few rows will push forward, will knock over the mikes, force the band back to a close group round the drumkit, will drive Chrissie Hynde into losing her temper.

Presumably designed by someone with the aim of making life as difficult as possible for visiting rock and roll bands, it has an eight or so feet deep platform in front of the stage which is almost level with the stage but a good fifteen inches above the rest of the room. Which inevitably means that there’s a big crush to get up front of the stage where you can actually see which inevitably means…

Acoustically, it means the sound roars like an uncaged lion at the front and whimpers like a dying dog at the back, A true gem for collectors of rock and roll horrors.

Unwilling to brave the throngs at the front, I hovered around the safety of the mixing desk where the only disadvantage was a brace of Skrewdrivers falling around in an advanced stage of alcohol and fascist dementia — I couldn’t for the life of me understand why they’d come, maybe they thought Chrissie, having once hung around with biker gangs, would have absorbed a few of their attitudes on race — I never did find out; the tenth time they fell over a politely dressed courting couple on holiday and breathed a brewery down the girl’s cleavage, they were helped to the door by two large men in black suits and latter-day Zapata moustaches.

In all, it wasn’t a very happy night. The bomb scare meant they went onstage an hour and a half late. The sound brought a new meaning to the word ragged. And the audience gave the impression of having been scientifically selected as a cross-section of the 16-35 age group.

A small bondage hook of punks. The inevitable Bowie clones. Bedenimed ‘lads’. An odd balding hippy. Drunken women in their mid-thirties, thinking they’re Elsie Tanner but ending up just sloppily drunk. Smooth reps in their late-twenties — I don’t know what the Northern equivalent of Take Six is otherwise I’d tell you where they bought their suits. And the rest of them just there because they’re staying at the hotel and there’s not much to do in Blackpool of a night after twelve if you don’t have the money to fling handfuls of fivers on the roulette table at the casino.

Surprisingly, the crowd seemed to take the Pretenders to their hearts — they went so far as to demand an unreceived second encore and the waitress that Jimmy had tried to impress by calling nurse came and told me as she left that they’d been much better than she expected.

God knows what she’d thought they’d be like. On a scale of one to ten, I’d rate that night’s performance around one and a half to two. None of the band were too knocked out with it either. I realised that when Jimmy, never one to miss an open bar, went straight to bed after the show.

(I later discovered the band had given Chrissie a very hard time in the dressing room about her insulting the crowd. She defended herself by drinking almost a bottle of vodka. She too went for an early bed.)

Which was one of the constant paradoxes of life as it is lived on the rock and roll road. It’d been an easy day.

Short drive from Liverpool. Afternoon on the funfair.

“No, you’re not getting me on that big- dipper,” Jimmy shouted as I nodded in agreement, “You don’t realise what you’re asking me to do. Me, a man who got bumped on the dodgems when he was five, bashed his head on the pole and ended up in hospital, threw up his lunch into his lap on the big-dipper and suffered the tunnel of love with Barbara Charone.”

Everybody finally gets back into the van, stuffed with hot dogs, pop corn and candyfloss and topped with daft cowboy hats. On to the hotel. Check in. Swift soundcheck.

DINNER, MELON. Fish in a sauce that made Bird’s Eye ads look enticing. Ice cream “Sorry, we’ve got no chocolate, luv, will vanilla be alright?” Chrissie stares into her coffee and mumbles that two valium should be enough tonight, thank you, nurse. The waitress smiles and brings melted vanilla ice cream.

A post dinner game of table tennis and on to the bombscare.

A fairly relaxing day, all in all, which should have set them up nicely for the gig. The previous day, by way of contrast, they’d driven up to Liverpool from Portsmouth, a seven hour proof of the thesis that hell is a long journey in a VW bus with other people. And the gig was fine, the solos sparkled, the vocals blended, Chrissie looked arresting rather than stupid and frail in her jockey outfit, they did two encores which meant I got to hear them slide through ‘Girl Don’t Come’ (and Chrissie doesn’t sound like Sandie Shaw, she’s just got the same haircut) and enough people danced to make it look like there were more than 50 of them scattered through Eric’s.

In a logical world, I would have talked to the band after Eric’s. Expecting them to be tired, I passed up the opportunity in favour of slotting in the formal interview some time in Blackpool, finally plumping for after the gig. With half the band passed out, in bed, well oiled, I settled for back in London when they’d finished the tour and when got a bit further with the album, maybe even hear a few finished mixes. Foolhardy youth that I am, I really expected that this time everything would run as smooth as Chrissie’s racing silks.

Inevitably, another couple of ballbearings had been lobbed beneath their feet. They were far tireder than they’d expected after the tour — just not used to rigour, these youths of today — and had found it extremely difficult to move straight into the studio with hardly a break and work on the potential successor to their two singles, both of which deserved a financial acclaim they never received. And then things went disastrously off-course in the studio.

Then things don’t seem to have always worked out for this lot all round. When Chrissie started working with Dave Hill and his Real Records, they were a lot of giggles up the sleeve. Chrissie had been around for years planning to get something together but never quite managing it and it began to look that, however talented she was as a songwriter, she’d always be let down by her lack of talent as an organiser.

Dave Hill had also signed up Johnny Thunders and Alex Chilton for his embryonic label, two other characters most noted for their lack of organisation (and in Chilton’s case enough legal suits hanging round his neck to ground an albatross). It seemed obvious that Dave Hill was an idiot bent on destroying his still-born label in an orgy of bad decisions.

“Yeah, that was the worst six months of my life, starting that label,” he confirmed. “That’s why I got out of it and concentrated on managing this lot.”

And of course then came ‘Stop Your Sobbing’. But even that hadn’t been without its problems. Both sides of the single were recorded in the October of 78 with Gerry Mackleduff on drums but it was only released in January this year by which time Martin Chambers had been moved in on drums and for one reason or another the band never quite got round to doing the quantity of live work they undoubtedly needed to.

“It’s all very well being this week’s thing in London but who’s gonna care about that on a wet Tuesday night in Blackburn?

FINALLY A meeting was arranged — at the soundcheck for a recording of In Concert at the BBC studios in Lower Regent Street. All four of them looked like their brains were still scooting up and down the M6, locked into the blankness of a five hour drive between Blackpool and all points north but they dutifully trooped round to the pub to whisper into my Sony TC44

Carefully placed behind soothing alcohol, they began to bemoan their experiences of the last couple of days in the studio.

As usual, James Honeyman Scott (what kind of name is that for a lead guitarist?) erupted into action. “The fucking toilet exploded upstairs in the studio and came pissing over the Tannoys, I kid you not. We were in the studio and looked through into the control room and it was Niagara over the Tannoys, I kid you not.

“And I’m fucked. Every day since I got back off tour I’ve thrown up.”

I mentioned that I’d found their Lyceum show scrappy and depressing.

“We’ve only done 50 gigs and a lot of those have been at places which are really too big for a band that’s only done 50 gigs,” claimed Pete. “When you play to 2,500 people when you’ve only done 50 gigs you’ve either got to be incredibly experienced or very lucky.”

“Or pissed,” adds Jimmy.

Ignoring that view of life, Chrissie continued, “Ideally things would have been alright if we have been a band that had done all these kinds of gigs and things for a year before we did ‘Sobbing’ and then we’d have a live act but we just did one single and one or two gigs and had loads of publicity. We’re not trying to be careful or anything. We just wanna do it right.”

I wondered if she now felt they should have spent more time on the road between the two singles.

“I think that’s probably a good idea.”

Pete sighed. “With hindsight… je ne regrette rien.”

Jimmy tucked into his large vodka “On the fucking fruit, I say. In some fucking order,” and disappeared to spend the rest of the time talking to their sound engineer, Kieran.

When I’d arrived at the soundcheck, Chrissie was bitching about the loud-mouthed American chick image that she felt had been foisted on her. But really that is a part of her, isn’t it?

“The way I look at it is that most Americans do have big mouths and they probably are a lot more crass than, say, an English person and Americans are generally very, very forward. You stand at a bar and they’ll ask you where you’re from, are you married, where you live. They get right into the meat of it and most other people find that a little bit disturbing.

“(When I read about myself) I just think it looks so bad, reads so bad but maybe that’s because I’m human. I can’t watch a movie like a weepie or see a baby in a pram crying without it bringing tears to my eyes.

“When you’ve lived a bit and moved around a bit and you’re usually on your own and especially if you’re a chick, you’re always getting hit on by people and you get an attitude after a while where you’ve gotta ask people ‘What do you want?’ right from the beginning so they don’t intrude on you.

“I used to have lots of self-confidence just to get around town when it was just me and my own wits… yeah, that was the good old days. I love to walk into a pub where no-one knows me and I know no-one. You lose that freedom to just go and mingle…

“Any experience is better than no experience. If I was getting brutalised or whatever…”

 HER VOICE trails off and later picks up the thread. “You don’t really think about what you’re getting yourself into. I had a guitar and I like to play guitar, I like to write songs and sing and I thought it’d be great to get into a band that might make it as a band and that’s as far as it goes. So you keep doing it ‘cos you don’t fancy doing anything else. I wasn’t doing it with any future in mind. I was just doing it ‘cos I liked doing it and suddenly you’re the next big thing and the whole excitement of doing it because you like doing it becomes all very focussed, dissected, analysed.

“You sit in your room alone and you knock out a great riff and you can imagine how it’ll sound and you’re pretty excited about it but then the process of trying to get it across to the world by all the channels you have to go through, that’s never been any fun.

“The excitement to me is much the same as, say, painting. I used to paint and to me the thrill was actually when I was doing it. Afterwards I didn’t even want to keep it and, if someone else liked it, fine, if they didn’t fine.

“I’ve got nothing else to say. My statement is in the action. My interest is in writing a song and playing it with the band and after that it’s finished. I don’t even save copies of the record and newsclippings. In other words I don’t revel in the product. I just like making the product.”

AS HEAVILY depressed as she was, Chrissie cheered up as soon as the tape machine switched off and the show was fine, even the audience who probably hoped they’d get tickets for Steeleye Span quite seemed to like it and the band proved that there’s more than two good singles in them and that, if they do make ‘Brass In Your Pocket’ the next one, it could be the best so far. I left happy. Chrissie left to go drinking with Johnny Rotten.

Four days later, at Knebworth, I spotted Jimmy in the beer tent (where else) and asked him why he’d wandered off from the interview.

“Well, I was in an awful mood and I’d have only started slagging off the management or something.”

Pushing the memory from his mind, he brightened up “What you having? On the fucking fruit, I say. In some fucking order.”