Pretenders Progress Report: Chambers on the Chaingang
Iman Lababedi, Creem, June 1983
SENSIBLE. THAT’S the word for Pretenders drummer Martin Chambers. Playing everything from progressive rock to proto-pub-rock professionally since 1967, he’s a stolid albeit logical player and sometimes a lot better. But since the Pretenders last concert in April of 1982, the band has been hit with mishaps aplenty.
First, Peter Farndon, their bass player, was given the boot in June. A day later, guitarist James Honeyman-Scott died. And after the disappointing Pretenders II, it looked like there might be an end to pretending for good. In September, however, Chrissie Hynde bounced back with her best single in years, ‘Back On The Chain Gang’, featuring ex-Rockpile guitarist Billy Bremner doing a marvellous job as a temporary replacement for Honeyman-Scott. It was in the American Top Ten, last time I looked.
Chrissie just had a baby girl, Natalie B. (the father is an unknown musician she’s been helping named Ray Davies). As a result, it was Martin’s job to meet members of the press in New York recently.
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What happened with Pete?
MARTIN CHAMBERS: It was sort of a difference of opinion in many respects. We’d all changed over the years, but Pete had changed in different ways; it just wasn’t healthy for the band. I thought it was a good thing for Pete and the band to part. Which is a shame, because he is a friend. It was a very difficult decision to make, but at the same time, we sort of felt things wasn’t as good as they could be. Pete was OK, but it was mainly a personality thing, you can either get on with the job or you can’t, and sometimes we felt Pete didn’t really want to. It was one of those things that take place. It wasn’t done particularly pleasantly, because when you’re close friends and suddenly you aren’t in the same band anymore, it isn’t pleasant for either party. It was a difficult period all around. How can you broach a subject like that with a friend? It’s hell, it really is.
And then Jimmy dies.
MC: Yes, death by misadventure due to heart failure, caused by cocaine intolerance.
I’d never call Jimmy a cocaine addict or anything. He was really only addicted to one thing — the guitar. Sure, he did cocaine, had a good time and stuff like that, but never for long periods of time. He’d often go for long periods of time without doing anything like that, or even considering it. But he did go on binges. It’s part of rock ‘n’ roll, the epic saying: rock star marries model. But it’s not for me, not for this spring chicken.
Jimmy was just a great bloke. Everyone he met immediately liked him. There was nobody who didn’t get on with him. He was the life and soul of the party. A real funny genuine character, great natural ability. Jim and I were like Laurel and Hardly. I haven’t been going out much since he died, don’t drink much anymore. Chrissie’s stopped drinking and smoking as well. I always viewed it from one point of view — you’re in a fortunate position in doing what you want to do, so you should do the best bloody job you can.
It must have come as a great blow to you and Chrissie after he died.
MC: It was. Initially, you don’t know what to think because it’s a complete and utter shock. And then you tend to have a period of mourning, and very often people find the best way to come out of that is to immerse yourself in work. And though that wasn’t the way we thought of it, it was what we did, in effect. ‘Back On The Chain Gang’ was a song we’d already rehearsed. It wasn’t particularly about Jimmy. I can’t talk about the lyrical side, but as far as the music is concerned, that was already finished. We had rehearsed it a lot with Jimmy, and thought it would make a pretty good single. So after his funeral and everything was sorted out, we thought let’s get on with it. There was never any real thought of packing it in or anything. We decided to get some people to work with us for the time being, so I rang up Billy Bremner and brought him around, and it worked out well with him on the record. It seemed to suit him. Then we got Tony Butler, who worked with Pete Townshend on Empty Class. He was a good bass player.
We rehearsed for a week. It was a very strange time, very tough for Chrissie and me, with no Jimmy or Pete. Tony once played the bass line to ‘Private Lives’, and Chrissie didn’t recognize it. But we just shook our fists to the heavens and got on with it. With ‘Chain Gang’, we thought ourselves into it to a point. There was a real feeling of hopelessness, really like ‘Can we do this?’ Not that it crossed our minds that we couldn’t, but you really question yourself.
Is that your new band?
MC: Getting a new band together was on my mind all the time. Billy and Tony were doing several other things themselves, and it was never considered for them to join full time. It was purely a one-off. We have a band now, thanks to Jimmy. Some time ago we had discussed the possibility of an extra guitarist for our live performances because Jimmy had to work so hard by himself to get them sound right. Also, he wanted to sometimes play keyboards, which he did very well. Anyway, he found a guitarist a long time ago named Robbie Macintosh. Jimmy thought he was an excellent guitarist and he had certain similarities to Jimmy’s playing as well. So when we started auditions after ‘Chain Gang’ in September, the obvious person to get was Robbie, which we did and he was terrific. We auditioned loads of people after him, but it seemed pointless. So we brought him back. Robbie knew a bass player named Malcolm Foster, and wanted to give him a try. So we got together and played 80 percent of our stage show because they knew the material from the albums and stuff. And it sounded great! We found it quite easy. Chrissie and I thought maybe it would take a year or more to find people to work with, but thanks to Jimmy, it came together very quickly.
So when’s a new album coming out?
MC: We rehearsed in October and went into the studio with producer Chris Thomas — who enjoyed working with the new chaps — about five weeks before Christmas. We have about half the album — various things that are almost completed. Of course, in the middle of all this, Chrissie had a baby girl (born on January 22nd). She’s doing very well. Chrissie is great as well. She’s relaxing, getting used to the baby. The plan is that when I get back to England, I’ll rehearse with Robbie and Malcolm. There’s a backlog of stuff to catch up with, old material to go over. Then when Chrissie’s up to it, she’ll join us and we’ll get on with new material. We’re going into the studio roughly around April, to finish off the album, so hopefully it should be out by late summer or early fall. We should be on the road shortly after that — could be by the end of the year.