Pretenders In Band Name Only, Chrissie Hynde Is Anything But

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

“I’m only talking about one woman, and that’s this woman,” Chrissie Hynde declares on the phone from her London flat where she’s isolating in these times of COVID-19. “I don’t give a fuck about what other people do. Everybody can do their own thing. 

“I’m not here as a spokesman for anything. I’m not trying to be the voice of a generation or anything else. If I had to relate to someone in a band, it’d be Willie Nelson, who just does his thing. I’m nothing like him, but he just does the same thing. I don’t know if he’s supposed to be the (voice of the) male population, but I’m not representing the female population at all.”

Hate For Sale, The Pretenders’ new project, careens from all-out rock to ska to old-school soul and pure pop. Marked by prescience for the times and her distinctly female voice, it throat-punches. Strong, tough but equally vulnerable, the ballad “Crying In Public” is as raw and shameless a lament as Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.”

“If that’s how someone’s perceiving (the larger truth), fair enough. Do what you like.”

She almost laughs, then offers, “Because I don’t come out and say, ‘I’m a feminist,’ people think I’m an anti-feminist. I am the poster girl for feminism. Everything about me says, ‘This is what it is.’”

From that moment in 1976 when the expatriated Hynde returned to America via import single – a wide-open, resolute take on The Kinks’ “Stop Your Sobbing” – the woman with the kohl liner and bangs in her eyes has been as rock ’n’ roll as Keith Richards and as feminine as Stevie Nicks. That tough girl bravado held up, making Hynde an authentic rock voice that transcended gender without relinquishing her truth as a woman.

“That aspect of tough yet vulnerable is what drew me to her,” admits Lucinda Williams, whose Good Souls Better Angels is equally straight-up rock. “Black leather and lace. Girl keeping up with the boys. I recognized myself in Chrissie when I first heard her. It just took me a while to catch up musically.”

With Hate for Sale, all those truths are on full display. For the first time in a dozen years, Hynde recorded with her road band. The energy bristles; the playing’s exact, ferocious. At a time when programming and hip-hop dominate, the immediacy to what’s been created reminds listeners why that charge from great rock ’n’ roll is so narcotic.

“Not that many people are making actual rock records,” she concedes. “I mean, I keep doing the same thing, over and over. I’ve heard people say, ‘It’s proper rock,’ or ‘old school.’ Whatever. This sort of ‘old maid in the studio,’ because it doesn’t speak to everyone.

“I’ve been wanting to do an album with this band … we’ve been on tour for 12 years, and the four of us together,  we’ve been longing to do this the whole time but didn’t for logistical reasons.

“Martin (Chambers) is so recognizable, so powerful, and we’ve been playing together almost 50 years. James Walbourne is really off the scale, a guitar hero who’s just untouchable. And Nick (Wilkinson) has that thing. You can hear everyone at the height of their powers.”

Certainly working with Dan Auerbach — and his cast of rockers — on Alone created that Akron-smelted grittiness. But nothing beats a road-forged band hitting on all cylinders. As the conversation circles the various tracks, the desired outcomes, Hynde utters the most stunning words a musician can say.

“On this album, I wouldn’t change anything …” 

Never missing a beat, she enthuses, “I love ‘Turf Accountant Daddy’ because it has a very ‘Top of the Pops,’ this British television show, feel. I loved going for that Lou Rawls proper R&B thing on ‘You Can’t Hurt A Fool.’ The song ‘Lightning Man’ was for a mate of mine who died, and I really wanted to commemorate him; I pretty much haven’t done a reggae song since the first album — and it fit.”

Sanguine, never sentimental, she writes terse songs, but never at the expense of the notion of “fun.” While the title track calls out avaricious greed jockeys who place pleasure and plastic aesthetics over the common good and “Junkie Walk” paints a picture of addiction, she eschews moralizing and allowing truth to puncture the thrust. 

No less than Billy F. Gibbons says of Hynde’s demeanor, “The songs are strong, direct and basic. There’s no messing around with too much flowery metaphor, it goes better for the gut-punch kind of riff-based melody and gut-punch lyric. A genuine guitar slinger who maintains an acute awareness of how rock things really work, the job gets done slung low, and if it’s not 100-percent pristine, all the better, (because) dirt is part of it.

“The fact she can thrash while she sings underscores her take-no-prisoners attitude. You can’t help but admire that backline, upfront stance.”

More than just bravado defines Hynde’s endurance. Plenty of riot girls smeared their mascara, stood feet astride and found a furious downstroke. Hynde kept moving and consuming art in unlikely ways.

“Not forgetting great literature,” she says, pointing to influences beyond groundbreakers like Charles Mingus, “which incorporates everything, really, more than any of the arts in some ways. When you read, you have to come up with the music, the look. It triggers your imagination more than anything.” 

Hynde’s last several years have been consumed by a return to the artwork that got her through school. “I Didn’t Know When To Stop,” a seemingly perfect anthem for a to-the-hilt rocker, turns on the notion of art and also interpersonal relationships. She acknowledges the overlap, cites the force of creativity.

“There’s a song on Stockholm called ‘Adding The Blue,’ which is another obvious reference to painting. And that was before I got into painting. I need a lot of time alone to do this stuff; I can’t have people around me. I don’t like to stop in the middle of it, so I’m a bit agitated now because I was painting when you called.”

So that explains the tension. Taking questions full-on, not bothering with the nuance. Hynde is a woman who means it, who’s not playing, and yet, there’s been a falter in the exchange. Bristling, yet not bitchy.

“I won’t talk about things when I’m working on them. I don’t talk about any ideas whatsoever,” she says unapologetically. “Not because I’m superstitious, I just don’t think it’s a good idea. I prefer to be a doer rather than a talker, so I don’t like to let the lid off something before it’s finished.”

Direct is a threat to people who can’t handle a woman who puts it straight out there. But for the ones who do? There’s a real sense of respect for letting the truth drop unadorned.

“Attitude means a lot toward the ultimate delivery with material and conviction. She’s got it in spades,” says Gibbons. “It’s abundantly clear who you think she is. It’s cliché to say, ‘She’s keeping it real,’ because she’s nothing but real.

“’Precious’ springs to mind. It’s got real punk energy, an ominous urgency. Any song with ‘shittin’ bricks’ in the lyrics gets and keeps your attention. That’s Chrissie.”

Williams concurs. “Listen to the way she sings, ‘I’m precious. Fuck off!’ in ‘Precious.’ That says it all,” she says. “Attitude is everything. And her look? There’s nothing sexier than a beautiful woman wearing black eyeliner who looks like she could kick your ass.”

“A lot of the way you’re treated has to little do with who you’re hanging with, but what you look like. Let’s say you dress like a sex worker, you’ll probably be treated like a sex worker,” Hynde demures. “If you dress like the road crew, you’ll be treated like part of the road crew.

“We love playing guitar; this is a guitar band,” she continues, wiping away the other layers. “This was our mission: make it guitar-driven. There’s something I wanted to say, but they’re really just rock songs. I’m not really profound. Instead, it’s fun, almost a party album.”

There’s a pause and a painting waiting to be finished. 

”When we toured with ZZ Top, I didn’t really know their back story. But I was watching the documentary (on Netflix currently), and whoever was narrating it said that one day they went into the studio a blues trio and came out a party band. And they are! No one puts on a ZZ Top album because they want to have a good cry.

“I like to think this album has a similar vibe; put it on to feel better. That’s certainly why I listen to music. I prefer someone to dance, because I like dancing. But if you want to jump up and down, jump up and down.”

And so The Pretenders move through the gears of emotion, tripping over tough moments, friends lost, invectives hurled. But ultimately, Hynde wants to wash it all away in a wave of what explodes beyond trouble and sets the listener’s endorphins on fire.


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