Kris Needs talks to Chrissie Hynde about stardom and the new album Pretenders II
THE REBEL in Chrissie Hynde is positively squirming today. Perched on a chair in a Kilburn dressing room, where the Pretenders are rehearsing for their next bout of gigs, she confesses to “shitting in my pants at the thought of going on stage again in a few weeks.”
She knows she’s on the rock’n’roll treadmill of product and promotion. “And rock’n’roll’s dead! I hate rock’n’roll! I spit on rock’n’ roll!”
(In mock Italian accent) “I SPEET ON ROCK ‘N’ ROLL!”
You sound pissed off, Chrissie.
“Yes, I am pissed off!” she snaps. Then settles back. She’s pissed off she spent most of last year on gruelling tours of Britain, the States (where they’ve become a household word), and Europe, then, with scarcely time to draw breath, was catapulted into the studio to make a new album with only half the songs written. She’s pissed off she can’t go out with her friends and be treated like the “tramp I used to be. In fact, I don’t even know if I’ve got any friends any more”. She says she’s lonely.
There’s one thing Chrissie Hynde certainly isn’t pissed off about. It’s called Pretenders II. In fact, the group seem positively ecstatic about the end result of their eight months’ hibernation. That’s what counts, it’s all the hand-in-hand Biz-crap and pressure getting her goat today. “I hate being told what to do!”
Chrissie’s whole lifestyle up to the age of 27 — scuffling, kipping on floors, dancing at early punk gigs when the thing meant something, FREEDOM — changed when the MM stuck them on the cover after scant weeks of existence, singles became hits, the album crashed to the top and they became Rock Stars, Chrissie a pinup.
It seemed like a dream come true, everything she wanted. For the three geezers that’s pretty obviously true. Guitars, clothes and cars are theirs, so are all the other trappings, and they seem to have a jolly good laugh with it. Fair play.
But it was a little bit of a shock to sit with Chrissie and first Jim Honeyman-Scott, then Pete Farndon, for an hour and experience this stream of misery, self-doubt and, ultimately, loneliness. You know how she comes on live and on record. A bit like ‘The Adultress’ on the new record — razor-sharp, takes no crap, but with a heart of red roses underneath. This is probably true, but at times when we talked it was almost like Chrissie was wrestling with an army of inner turmoils and contradictions. It was quite a surprise. She admitted being shy. She even said she wouldn’t mind if it all stopped tomorrow. But there’s obviously another voice in her soul too: the voice you hear on the new record, which is pure soul, love and passion.
Yeah. I’d better get onto the new record, come back here later. I won’t put in everything she said, it’s not fair, you wanna read about the new album. I guess that’s why I’m here, and why Chrissie, Jim and Pete are here. But she’s a rebel, endearingly impulsive and open.
If Pretenders was a classic debut album which mixed a popular live set with killer singles and a severely lasting effect, Pretenders II is equally special — a follow-up which isn’t a mere shadow, hashed-up to keep the success momentum chugging. As Pete Farndon says, it’s more of a band album. All that touring has knit them together into a lethal unit, honed an already distinctive sound into something stronger.
All these tales of “The Pretenders are gonna be studio-bound for a few more weeks while the new album’s completed” didn’t bode too well. Fountain dried up? Ain’t got enough songs, huh? S’pose they’ll pad it out with singles again. No such luck prospective Pretenders-slaggers (who should be crawling out of the woodwork round about now with pens pre-loaded with vitriolic predictability)! For Pretenders II our heroes have forged a taut barrage of ten new corkers, and, our Chrissie points out in anticipation, the last two singles (‘Message Of Love’ and the marvellous ‘Talk Of The Town’) are here to complete the set. You’d have a full albums-worth without them, “and if they don’t like it they can always scratch them out and play the rest.”
Yes, twelve worthy songs, running the full gamut of Pretenders moods — full-tilt putdown slashers to dreamy, romantic oozers. You can almost tell by the titles: ‘The Adultress’ — Chrissie the flickknife-bitch, backing hard as nails but rich with it. ‘Bad Boys Get Spanked’ — Motorhead velocity, Chrissie on heat. ‘Message Of Love’ — still can’t get over where it wings from that tin-can stomp into soaring sound-carpet bliss. ‘I Go To Sleep’ — haunting ballad, the thing they do best. ‘Birds Of Paradise’ — slow and glowing, but strident and dense with it. ‘Talk Of The Town’ — one of the best pop songs of the 80s.
‘Pack It Up’— venomous putdown. “I don’t like your trousers.” To a junkie? ‘Waste Not Want Not’ — loping reggae feel. ‘Day By Day’— a favourite; glorious chorus-line and descending Lovin’ Spoonful guitar patterns. ‘Jealous Dogs’ — the likely single, vicious soul-vamp. ‘English Rose’ — Chrissie’s irresistible tender side again, backing the lads at their most propulsively luxuriant. ‘Louie, Louie’ — not that one, a charging James Brown granite-groove with brass and chart destiny.
Mania at gigs, Press backlash of colossal proportions and fullscale conquering of the US and Europe — hence last year’s titanic touring schedule and the obvious thirst for new product. So it was out of the tour bus and into the recording booths!
Jim asks what I think. I start gurgling and flailing with extreme affirmation of delight.
“I tell ya,” the bouncy blonde burbles. “It’s ever so weird when you spend a long time recording an album and you come to rehearse it and it really sounds like, ‘who the fucking hell can get off on this?!’ It’s so stale, because you’ve been playing it so long or you’ve heard it back so many times.”
“Piecework,” says Chrissie. “We did it in piecework.”
“When did we start?” asks Jim. “November, wasn’t it? See, we did the first album in Wessex Studios and had such a good kick, a good vibe from it, that we thought, ‘let’s go back to Wessex’. Then we thought, ‘no, let’s try a new atmosphere’. I suggested New York because I’m in love with the place, but we ended up in the extremely expensive Pathé-Marconi studios in Paris.”
There, with Chris Thomas producing, they laid down about six tracks, including ‘The Adultress’ and ‘I Go To Sleep’, which have been in the live set for about a year now. ‘I Go To Sleep’ is actually a Ray Davies song dating from the mid-60s that the Kinks never recorded, but apparently Peggy Lee did. It’s a gorgeous ballad, a little in atmosphere like ‘Lovers Of Today’ in the way Chrissie caresses her tonsils round the sad lyrics.
Chrissie: “‘Stop Your Sobbing’ had come out and one day this tape arrived from Ray Davies. It was just demos, just him on the piano, and this song was on it. They never did it. When I played it to the guys they went crazy, loved it. I couldn’t believe I got this tape!” (looks at her hand in disbelief).
“What we planned to do,” explains Jim, “was record the six or so songs we had, then finish work on the half-finished ones. Trouble was, when we came out having done the six, our ideas had changed and the songs were only a quarter-finished! So we had a lot more work to do.
“Chris Thomas suggested we go and rehearse for a couple of months. He had some work to do with Elton John in America, so while he did that, we worked on the rest. Then he came back and we went into Wessex and recorded them. It also took so long because Chris is very meticulous, a perfectionist. He’d insist on doing things over and over until it was just right.”
“I felt a real get at the end of it,” said Chrissie. “I hated the fact that we’d taken so long to do an album. I remember how I used to feel in 1973 about groups who used to spend nine months in the studio. I felt like…”
“Yes”, interjects Jim.
“Yes, Genesis…” she continues. “I felt really crestfallen that I’d done the same, cos here I am doing exactly the same thing.
“A lot of it was because we’d come straight Off The Road — there I said it! I’ve been waiting to say that for years! On The Road, another dead rock ‘n’ roll expression — BLEEEEUUUUUCHHHH!!
“On tour you just get up, sit in the bus, go to the soundcheck, do the gig, go back to the hotel and drink a bottle of wine, or whatever you drink, go to sleep then do the same thing again next day — for three months! Then to be expected to go straight back into the recording studio!!?!
“Being on tour sends me crazy. I drink too much and out comes the John McEnroe in me.”
The Pretenders probably wouldn’t have been so conscious of the sand of studio-time trickling past if their record company hadn’t started moving on the sleeve and marketing campaign while they were only half done. The short series of dates they just did are what’s left of a full-scale 30-date tour that was set up before it was realised they were gonna be recording right into it.
Finally it was all finished. Time to heave sighs of relief …then straight into rehearsal for the tourlet here, two months in the States, then another full-blown one here in November.
They’re concerned that no-one will have heard the new album before the tour.
Chrissie: “We’re gonna do these gigs over here and no-one’s heard the album so it’s really breaking whole new ground again. And I have this feeling turning round in my darkest of paranoias that these gigs will appear to be our warm up gigs for America.” (Not the case).
Don’t you feel like you’re on a treadmill, Chrissie?
“It is! It’s like being thrown to the wolves in a way and it is kind of… humiliating. I’ve just made a record. Do I have to be judged? Does every aspect of my life have to be judged on those 12 tracks on an album? But it does become like that. Although I meet up with a lot of old friends who are in various bands, they’ve all gone along and done it with a different approach. I don’t know how to say it without sounding corny or boastful, but I’m of a pretty rebellious nature, and you have to make a decision how you want it. It’s such a big industry, you’re gonna be eaten up by it one way or another.
“It’s different schools of thought what you want out of it, really. I haven’t really made up my mind yet. I know a lot of what I’ve got out of it I don’t want. Pete said one day, ‘I don’t want a mortgage and a flat, I just want to get out of all this.’ I wander from one end of my flat to the other and think, ‘what am I doing? What has happened to me? What’s going on here? Look at this rack of clothes I’ve got — silk jackets, three or four macs, boots all over the floor. Everything I ever wanted — when you first get some money you go out and buy it. I look around and think, ‘what’s happened to me? When we first started in 1978 Dave Hill (manager from the start) gave me this cassette player for my birthday. I was sleeping on floors then and it seemed so flash and expensive. Then three weeks ago. I was sitting in my flat staring, like I always do, and I happened to notice this thing sitting on the floor. It looked so puny and insignificant, and I thought ‘what’s happened to you?'”
Pete: “You get very blasé, don’t you? You forget why you did it in the first place. Shit, I remember three years ago, in different bands, just to get a gig! Croydon Greyhound! Somebody from a record company might be there!”
Yeah, now you’ve got the full works (huge PA, 55 guitar roadies, etc.)…
Chrissie: “I know, it’s insane. Three years later! Then you bitch and gripe about you’re pissed off with this and that. You have to do interviews, you have to do this and that. It makes you feel you’ve forgotten your station when you run into one of your old mates who says, ‘I’m getting a band together but the guitarist hasn’t got a guitar, have you got an extra one?’ It makes you feel very small when you’ve complained because you can’t get the right level in your monitors or something.”
Chrissie clocks (now there’s a Proper Rock Writer word I was waiting to use) the Grim Reaper who appeared on my arm during the recent birthday binge.
“That’s a good one… your birthday, huh? How old were you?”
57 (it feels)
“We’re all 30 this year!” announces Pete.
“I’ll be 30 in September”, adds Chrissie. “That’s the irony of it. (Here hangs a touching tale) I was sitting on a park bench in North London the other day by myself. I’d had a fight with someone or something and I was sitting in this little square in Highgate in the evening, drinking a bottle of wine. These girls walked by and I said, ‘do you wanna drink?’, forgetting, momentarily that I was (grandiose gesture) ‘Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders’. I just saw them and I was on my own and I was really lonely. So they sat down, but within five minutes they reminded me who I was, and I thought ‘oh shit!’ cos I was sitting on the bench drinking and for all those years doing that just seemed perfectly normal, and they look at me like I shouldn’t be doing that. ‘You shouldn’t be sitting alone on a park bench with a bottle of wine.’ They think because you’re in a band you should be spending money on something.
“You could go through everything in my flat and you’d have trouble believing that person was even in a band! There’s no indication of the Pretenders in that flat. No records or anything.”
“I gave all my gold discs away,” says Pete.
I remark that the group seem pretty tight-knit and easy with each other — little evidence of petty bickering with the three lad’s steam of funnies and schoolboy cavortings.
“Well, we’re 30 years old,” retorts Pete.
“I’m fighting with myself too much,” sighs Chrissie. “Actually we have fought quite a lot this year, making that album! It was quite a trauma because there was certainly a fight going on. When you’re with somebody every single day…”
Pete: “You can’t really call it a fight. It’s just when we’re together. Chrissie will walk in with a finished song and we go, ‘you play this, you play that, bang, bang bang!’
“It takes two days of working out what the arrangement’s gonna be. Two weeks more like! That’s before we get into the recording studio and pull it apart again. You could call it fighting, you could call it anything.
“We’re so pleased with this album. You think, ‘the second album’ especially when the first album did so well as it did. You’re very apprehensive. Are they gonna like it? Is it gonna sell? But I’m pleased with it. It’s more of a band sound than the first album, even though I think that was great.”
Chrissie: “This band has only been going three years! This is only our second record!”
Jim: “We were on the front page of Melody Maker when we’d just formed. The first record had only been out a few weeks. It just happened so fast. You’d think we’d been around for years.”
Chrissie: “It embarrasses me that we are so popular in America. It makes me feel that the English audience doesn’t like that very much.”
Pete: “They don’t know! We’re probably one of the top three English acts to have come along in the past five years over there, we played to 12,000 people in Central Park and they went crazy. But nobody knows that because we’ve been ignored by the English Press as far as our status in America goes.”
Chrissie: “It’s a bit hard to swallow, when you’ve grown up with bands like the Slits, Siouxsie and the Banshees, PiL and The Clash. It’s a bit much for me to be suddenly thrown into this bag with Pat Benatar and Tom Petty.”
“Very! And a lot of people say this band is MOR. That’s certainly what it is America, MOR right down the line. I picked up the Billboard chart and I’ve never heard of any of them. It really was a guilty type of thing and we were there with our Extended Play record (12-inch EP put out in the States, which got in the LP charts cos of its size!)”
Pete: “There’s no band doing anything like what we are though — that’s the good thing about this band, as far as I’m concerned. There’s no one image. Both albums cover every area of modern pop, rock, whatever you wanna call it — reggae, punk, ballads, straight rock, everything’s there, which to me is a great plus because nobody can label you. Once you get labelled, as soon as you start going down forget it. They’ll knock you down as soon as you come up. I just hope that in ten years time people are going to be able to play our records and still think they’re good.”
In the cab home Chrissie says how she’s lost touch with many friends and never goes out anymore. And people she does see ask about work — just what you want after a day at your own throat. It seems fame haunts her.
“I just get embarrassed when I hear my records,” she’d said earlier. “It’s like when somebody finds your diary at school — not that I kept a diary. I hate it when I’m in the supermarket or Woolworths and they come on. I know it sounds great to say, ‘oh I don’t wanna be recognised’, but people treat you different now. I get really pissed off.”
What it seems to boil down to is she’s performing cos she likes it, the group got famous and she ain’t so keen on the trappings. I just hope it don’t get too much for her, but I think she’s got enough strength. Hope so cos they’re one of the best bands we’ve got. This record proves it.
Let’s go out positive.
“I think at the end of the day, with any band, the proof of the pudding’s in the grooves.”
Here it is!