We are dancing, Chrissie Hynde and I, to a Sex Pistols single, the exact title of which has been blurred by time and a good deal of alcohol.
Heated discussions concerning the role of the rock journalist as public executioner have given way to abandoned physical exertion, although this is perhaps as much to maintain blood temperature on one of this winter’s bitterest nights as to relieve the escalating excitability of the discussion I have been having with Chrissie Hynde and the rest of The Pretenders, and other occupants of a pleasantly decaying house near Tufnell Park.
Suddenly she grabs my arm and bellows above the Jones/Cook power riffs “Look, you should give up all that journalism crap and get yourself a Fender, learn the piano or something. You can’t write about rock ‘n’ roll if you can’t play it”.
As quite possibly the worst drummer ever to work the North-East club circuit, and a man who sings flatter than Lee Marvin, I’m forced to demur.
But she has a point. In fact, it’s currently apparent that several rock hacks have reached the same conclusion: even Uncle Mick Farren recently downed his felt-tip and struggled into his leather trews for a second tilt at stage credibility. And then, of course, there’s Chrissie Hynde herself.
But Chrissie’s career as a rock scribe was fairly brief and totally accidental. “I’d arrived in England naively thinking that I’d bump into Marc Bolan or Jeff Beck on every street corner. All I had was a coupla hundred dollars and three albums by Iggy and Lou Reed, and of course it was instant disillusion – I was living in these really cheap, skuzzy hotels, having to sell leather handbags in one of those sucker tourist markets on Oxford Street and modelling at St. Martin’s School of Art. And, like, no-one knew what the hell I was talking about when I mentioned The Stooges or Lou Reed.
“Anyway, I was pretty pissed off with England. Then I somehow got invited to this party, which seemed pretty boring, so I was coming on the loud-mouthed, vulgar American chick and talking about Iggy and how great he was, and this wiry, weird-looking guy in the corner says, ‘Oh yea, I know Iggy, he’s a friend of mine.’ Which totally floored me. ”
And that’s how I met Nick Kent and I started running around with him, which was great, ’cause I was getting to see a lot of bands and one day I met one of the editors of his paper and I was badrapping some album or something, and he said, ‘Well why don’t you write a review for us, then?’ Which shows where a big mouth can get you”.
Some of Chrissie’s pieces still stand up as good examples of shrewd rock observation.
Her coverage of the prepubescent hordes awaiting David Cassidy‘s arrival at Heathrow is a minor classic, for example. But Chrissie’s ambitions went further than a press card . . .
“I didn’t mind getting the review copies ’cause I didn’t have a stereo, never have had since I’ve been in England, and so I didn’t feel bad about selling the albums; I had to eat, after all. Anyway, one day I was asked to write a retrospective of the Velvets, ’cause they couldn’t come up with anything better, so I thought ‘Well, screw that.’ There was too much else going on”.
Chrissie’s life seems to be dogged by the GPO, for it’s at this point that the first in a series of fateful phone calls comes through. Would she like to come to Paris and sing in a band? Well, hell – why not? “See, I’ve been playing guitar and stuff since I was 16, and my ultimate ambition has always been to play in a band. Not front a band as a solo singer,” she emphasises, “but to work with a bunch of musicians”.
These modest ambitions, incidentally, were nurtured in last year’s tinseltown, Akron, Ohio, where her brother Terry was a saxophonist. Afraid to expose her musical bent to the anticipated derision of her predominantly male peer group, she practiced in clandestine solitude on a jumbo-sized ukulele, and later a proper guitar. She was in a band called Sat. Sun. Mat. With Mark Mothersbaugh, though.
By that time she was already locked into the music of the major soul and R&B acts which from time to time passed through Ohio. “One time I went to see Jackie Wilson, who was top of the bill over Aretha Franklin and BB King. Can you believe that? The place was full of spades, and by the time Jackie came on they were going bananas. And they had this stooge in the audience who was going down the front rows and picking out the prettiest girls and taking them up on to the stage where Jackie was lying down, man, lying down singing and Jackie was giving each of them a big wet one and of course everyone was screaming their tits off.
So then this guy comes up to me, and I’m mortified . . . but I get up and suddenly the screaming stops; the only white girl in the place being kissed by Jackie Wilson. Man, they were not ready for that!” “I was pathetically shy then,” she explains. But it didn’t last long.
She went to Kent State University, lived through the riots and the legalised homicide, “and ran around doing a lot of drugs and having a good time”. So Chrissie came to swinging England and thence to La Belle France, which is where we were a few stanzas back.
“Paris was in the grip of the big punk thing at the time and this band, The Frenchies, were basically just another band. But it was okay . . . like I was starving again, but starving in France is pretty much the same as starving anywhere else”. One redeeming fact was that she met Chris Spedding via the Red Festival, a big left-wing gig held in the old Paris abattoir.
“I was getting very pissed off ’cause the promoters kept putting us further and further back in the running order until we were due to go on at 4 AM or something. And I can hardly speak French and there’s no one speaking English, and I’m getting a bit out of it and more angry and rather depressed, so someone tells me that Chris Spedding is in town to record an album. I’m dying to see an English face, so the next day I find his hotel and there he is, sitting in the coffee shop. Sigh of relief. So life is made a little more bearable hanging out with him and his crowd while he’s recording.
“So on the spur of the moment I upped and went to Cleveland, Ohio, where I got involved with this R&B group, Jack Rabbit. Naturally, I went like a shot. Jack Rabbit were alright . . . I had to try and liven them up a bit with a few reggae tunes. But it wasn’t the most inspiring period of my life, and when some of the band started having money problems, I split back to Paris”.
Nothing happening there, so she decided to revert to the glamour of her Clapham digs.
Once back, she reactivated her musical aspirations and began the long slog of trying to get a band together. “It was so goddamn frustrating, cause a lot of my friends were forming bands, doing gigs and actually making records. It was the start of the punk thing; there were people who couldn’t play half as well as I could – and I ain’t great – who were becoming lead guitarists.
I think I’d been around too long. I wasn’t fresh enough for all that . . . I couldn’t bitch enough about the music scene. I mean, after you’ve travelled around a bit and listened to Bobby Womack and stuff that’s a lot more refined, you can’t quite agree with kids who’re saying that everything that went down before punk was a piece of shit.
“Basically I had difficulty finding musicians who I felt I could work with. At one point, Malcolm McLaren wanted to have me dress up like a guy and get my hair cut short and put me in a band called The Loveboys with Richard Hell. Another of his scams was The Masters Of The Backside, which was basically me playing, not singing, with Dave Vanian and another really shy guy called Dave, doing the vocals. Chris Miller was discovered by McLaren because he was such an item, and then he said he had a mate from Croydon or somewhere who could play bass guitar, and along came Ray Burns with long hippie curls. That’s where Rat Scabies and Captain Sensible started.
“It was a complete madhouse, of course, ‘cos this shy Dave didn’t want to do live gigs, and McLaren was too busy dealing with the Pistols, and the rest of the boys really wanted to gig. So they went off and formed The Damned and I was on my own again”.
In ’76 she liaised briefly with Mick Jones, working out songs immediately prior to the formation of The Clash. Three months of fun and then another, less likely connection: a card on a music shop noticeboard led to Fred Mills (bass) and Dave Batchelor (drums), whom she christened the Berk Bros.
In the creative ambience of Fred’s parents’ house in Croydon, they achieved the closest thing to reality, band-wise that Chrissie had found in the UK – until the Croydon legend, Johnny Moped, came out of hiding. After one gig with the man himself, onstage at the Roxy, “I knew I had no place standing next to such a charismatic figure, so I gracefully left . . . when he threw me out”.
Then came another period in the doldrums, alleviated by some session work, doing backup vocals with Chris Spedding, amongst others. Another golden thread in the rich tapestry of CH’s life was her unwitting and fleeting involvement with The Moors Murderers, a band that never was a band – something she must’ve been getting used to by now. As far as she was concerned, it was just another opportunity for her to polish her licks, but a publicity hungry Welshman, Steve Strange, had other ideas.
Not knowing the gruesome twosome from a hole in the ground, she agreed to help Strange out on a photo session. “I just happened to be in that part of town the next day and although I wasn’t really in the band, I knew he was anxious to make it. He asked me to put a black plastic bag over my head like the rest of the band, and I thought, ‘Well, if they’re all doing it, why not? What I didn’t realise was that some journalist was in on all this and the next thing I know there’s stuff about ex-rock journalist Chrissie Hynde singing with a band called The Moors Murderers, and the whole thing had a very nasty flavour to it. No one bothered to ring me up and ask me what was going down or anything. That’s the rock press for you”.
Then she met. Tony Secunda, enfant terrible of the Westbourne Grove rock scene and, at the time, manager of Steeleye Span. “At this point some of the punk rock ideology had rubbed off on me, and I remember going into his office for the first time with a big sneer on my face, put my feet on his desk and started bad-mouthing everything in sight.
And he was very cool about the whole thing, he just said ‘How can I hear you? So I told him I had a guitar and an amp, and he said he’d get a car to come and pick me up the following morning and bring me over to do some songs. I thought ‘Wow, someone’s going to pick me up in a car, the big time at last!
“Anyway, I got there and knocked out a couple of chords from The Phone Call and I was still being pretty off-hand and obstinate about the whole thing, glaring at him when I was playing and stuff. But he said, ‘Yeah, great!’ and I went ‘Wow!’ cause he was knocked out and wanted to do something for me right from the start. And the fact that he’d been involved in all these projects like The Move and Marc Bolan gave me a great boost to my confidence . . . I’d been writing songs for years by then and sometimes I got to wonder, ‘Well what’s it all worth?”
Secunda had faith in the Chrissie Hynde songbook, promising to arrange studio time and to procure session musicians so she could cut some demos. But this was an offer she could, apparently, refuse. “I rejected all suggestions about using session people cause what I really wanted was to get my own band together. Eventually, though, I figured that Tony really did need something he could get people to hear, and he was being very good to me, paying me a small wage and helping me with the rent an’ all”.
So she went into a studio with Nigel Pegrum from Steeleye Span and Fred Berk from John Moped’s band (now there’s a hot combo for you) and recorded a version of The Phone Call . “The trouble was that a lot of time had passed by that point, and Tony was getting very involved with other projects. One day I was having a conversation on the phone with him which got quite heated, and I said something stupid and he hung up on me. That was it. C’est fini. So I just went back to being a bum.
“The next thing that happened was that I met a friend of mine from Ohio, who didn’t know anything about the business but always had a lot of good ideas and wanted to do some music. When he heard the tape I’d done, he said he’d manage me. “After a couple of months, I don’t think he could deal with me. Neither of us had any money and when you ain’t got the dough, you have a lot of problems . . .
One day he was on the phone to me saying, ‘Look, I don’t need your bullshit any more’, and hung up. “As it happens, this was the day before we were going to see Dave Hill, who was at Anchor Records at the time, to play him the tape. So I had to ring Dave and say ‘Er, well, look Dave, I was supposed to be coming in to see you tomorrow but, er, I don’t have a band and my manager just told me to kick it in the head. So sorry, man.’
But he said, well, come on down anyway, we’ll try and get something sorted out, rent some gear, whatever. “So I was working with this guy Malcolm on bass, and I got Phil from Motörhead on drums, and we went down to Studio 51 and the results were very rough indeed. And I thought, for sure, Dave Hill’s going to say, ‘Well, it’s got a lot of potential, but why don’t you come back when you’ve got something more concrete together, like a band?
‘But he didn’t. Instead he asked me to go to see him at his office the next day. “So I went in and he suggested that I get the guys together again and we try and do some demos. When we got into the studio it was really like a rehearsal, and after about an hour of it Dave Hill was looking pretty, um, nervous. We finally agreed it wasn’t a good idea and I guessed that this time he was really going to tell me to forget it. But no, he asked me to go and see him again in his office.
“The upshot of this second meeting was that Dave Hill came down to have a look at my rehearsal room and I said, ‘Well, look, I’m 70 quid in the hole for this place.’ And right there on the spot he pays off the debt and something like two months’ advance rent. And of course I thought ‘Far out!’ I never withdraw my paw when it’s empty, it’s just not gracious!”
The plan was to audition people until Chrissie found the right guys to form a band with. She decided that what she needed was a drummer: “I wanted to make sure I had a backbone in the thing first”. Several were tried, and eventually she found one who seemed right, name of Gas. He said he had a friend who’d just got back from touring Australia with a folk band, which didn’t exactly knock Chrissie out, but she said, “What the hell, bring him along.”
Enter Pete Farndon. “So on the way over to the rehearsal room I picked up a copy of King Floyd’s Groove Me , which has a pretty remarkable bass line on it. When we get down to the studio we’re running through the material, and all the time Pete’s not saying anything – he probably thought I was just another heavy, loud-mouthed American chick.
But then he picked up his bass and he just started playing this riff on the King Floyd record, and he wasn’t holding his bass on his knee or using a pick – he was playing like I figure it should be played. And I thought ‘Great, I’ll go with him'”.
She was lucky. Farndon almost became a full-time layabout, having been humiliatingly punched out by eminent Herefordian bassist, Jet Harris, for the cardinal sin of “looking at his girlfriend”.
Hereford is the last stop for migratory hippies en route to the cheap and verdant pastures of Wales and its attendant promise of self-sufficiency.
Sunday afternoons at Hereford railway station, you can watch the college girls jumping the train back to London after a hot and heavy weekend with their hippie boyfriends, most of whom live in country cottages on allowances from their businessmen fathers . . . and sharp-eyed dope dealers making the weekly shuttle back to base with big wads of money down their Y-fronts.
Hereford is all long hair and wellies and I like it well enough. But to Pete Farndon, it lost its sparkle after the mod era. “In Hereford you were either a mod, or you were too young to ride a scooter, so you had a pushbike . . . but still wore a parka. But in those days there was a very solid gig circuit, a place called the Hostel was the place to play. I remember seeing The Stones there in ’64, right? Everybody wanted to go and see groups, but the thing was that Hereford was so isolated, like 50 miles from Birmingham, 60 miles from Bristol and so on – that all the bands were local ones. There a lot of work around – we had it all to ourselves”.
Despite the insularity of the Hereford rock scene, Pete never played in a band with the remainder of The Pretenders, Jim Honeyman-Scott and Martin Chambers, until Chrissie became their unsuspecting catalyst. “First time I met Jim was when I was walking down some street in Hereford carrying my guitar case and looking like a big deal, I guess. And I notice there’s this spotty bloke creeping along behind me. Eventually he builds up enough courage to come up to me and says, ‘Excuse me, what’s that? It’s not a guitar is it?’ ‘Well, actually, son, yes it is. ‘ I don’t think I ever saw him again after that”.
Jim Honeyman-Scott says this was because he didn’t like the look of Farndon’s teeth which, in those days, were a mite rotten. However, Jim got himself a guitar, studied Bert Weedon hard and became something of a local speed-freak guitar hero. One musical combination he was involved with was called The Cheeks, and included Martin Chambers on drums. This little lot were allies of The Temperance League, committed to getting Hereford’s wayward youngsters out of the boozers and into the YMCA. Naturally, Jim and Mart drifted out of The Cheeks before their souls got saved.
In the meantime Farndon was playing with a band called Cold River Lady who, when I saw them at a village hop many years ago, were pretty awful but who eventually made it to London. After an abortive audition, for A&R men at a girls’ college in Twickenham, Farndon dumped Cold River Lady, and whilst pacing the streets of Earl’s Court one day, looking for dog-ends, he came across a chum who was playing with a folksy outfit called, yes, The Bushwackers.
Naturally they were just off to tour Australia, by way of Germany, and needed a bassist. “It was the summer of ’76, the Pistols were playing the 100 Club and I was watching all these punks in their pre-record company days and starting to think seriously about trying to get a band together. It was difficult, because I knew I could play better than most of them, but I was really excited by the energy and the atmosphere.
“But then this Bushwackers thing came along and the money won me over. A year later I woke up in someone else’s bed in Sydney and wondered what the hell I was doing there. The Bushwackers were a top band there, TV shows and everything, but I had to get back to England”.
So here are Chrissie and Pete in a rehearsal room with a drummer who turns out not to be quite what they had in mind and no lead guitarist. After a lot of argy-bargy, Pete remembers the spotty-faced kid who’s since acquired a big reputation in Mott the Hoople country and hauls him up to London.
“I saw this wide-eyed fresh-faced lad for the first time” (the Clearasil had done its stuff) “and thought ‘Christ, who is this hick?’ But when he got into the studio and started to play, he was just excellent. His personality started to come through and I thought, ‘Yes, indeed!'”
By this time Martin, too, had been lured by the gold-plated pavements of London, and was hanging out with Pete and Jim whilst he auditioned for various second division bands. Of course it wasn’t long before he was brought to rehearsals and, whammo, ladies and gentlemen, The Pretenders.
Except they weren’t. “We couldn’t think of a goddamn name,” explains Chrissie. “I used to wake up in the morning, look at the ceiling and think, ‘Yeah, The Ceilings! Ah, no!’ Then I’d go into the kitchen and think, ‘Wow, The Kitchens!’
“In the end it’d got as far as the record actually being pressed and Dave ringing us up the day the label was being printed and asking us what the hell we’d decided on. “The Pretenders” was a last-minute job, but it’s good”. And so are they.
It occurs to me, this late in the game, that the world is not universally aware of The Pretenders – or of the fact that in the MM cabal there are those who consider them to be likely rock ‘n’ roll icons of the Eighties. Their cover of Ray Davies‘ Stop Your Sobbing is steadily climbing the shaky scaffolding which passes as the Top 100 in this country, Top Of The Pops benefits from their company tonight (Thursday), and a lot of people in the industry are getting very excited. All of which leaves them somewhat nonplussed.
“We’ve only done a few gigs,” says Pete. “It’s great that people like us, but we need to work on our act a lot more”. “Yeah,” interjects Chrissie. “At the moment, people mainly know about us ’cause of the single, but the stage act’s rather different. A lot of the songs have been around for quite a while, and I’m now writing stuff that’s a bit . . . well, there’s a thing we do that’s close to a Barry White number, another that’s reminiscent of Otis Redding, and another that’s straight country and western”.
Unfortunately, the system has a tendency to single out any girl in an otherwise male group, making her the star of the show (Tina Weymouth of Talking Heads being the only exception that I can immediately think of). But things are a little different with The Pretenders because (a) Chrissie Hynde is a damn fine guitarist in her own right, and thus an integral part of the band rather than a stage-front siren, and (b) because she won’t let it happen.
“I think everyone in the band,” she glances around at them for confirmation, “all have to depend on each other when we’re rehearsing or playing. We all respect what each other is doing and, unlike a lot of bands who hate each other’s guts, we’re very friendly on a social level.
“The reason it’s taken me so long to get a band together is because I’ve been unable to find musicians who can suss my music, and these guys can . . . I mean I got really sick of people coming up to me and saying, ‘Hi Chrissie, what’re you up to?’, and I’d tell ’em I was trying to get a band sorted out, and they’d say ‘Oh yeah, weren’t you doing that last year?’
“We all work on the arrangements together and the guys alter bits or add bits . . . it’s not a case of me going in and saying ‘Look here, you guys, here’s the song and this is how I want to do it,’ it’s a joint effort”. Anyone who’s been to one of the handful of Pretenders gigs will attest to the band’s tenacious drive, their individual musicianship and the originality of their material.
Further reckless eulogies I’ll leave to more eloquent scribes, but once you’ve come to terms with how good they are live, check out Chrissie’s lyrics.
Lack of space obviates their inclusion here, but the point of this story is to illustrate that she is one very sharp, very amusing young lady, who’s got a lot of experiences on which to draw. Finely-crafted observations are the result. And any smart-arse quips about her being the black-haired Blondie are likely to get you a swift one in the nuts.
Melody Maker, 17 February 1979