By Adam Sobsey
The lead and title track on the new Pretenders album, Alone—sorry, let’s back up a little. Did you know the Pretenders still exist? They released their tenth studio album last fall, and they’re touring the US behind Alone right now, opening for Stevie Nicks. This is no reunion gig. It couldn’t be, anyway. Two of the original band members died of drug overdoses in the early eighties, after the band made their second album, and the Pretenders have gone through numerous lineup changes in the third of a century since. The only constant—and what a constant—has been Chrissie Hynde, that iconic, beloved rock great famous for the brass in her pocket. (She dislikes that song.)
Hynde is sixty-six. She may be a living legend, but she doesn’t live like one. The American expatriate (she hails from Akron, Ohio) has long resided in the west London district of Maida Vale, where she bought a house in the early eighties. It’s a quiet, residential, unostentatiously tony part of the city where she can go out and about in public and, like any longtime denizen of a comfortable neighborhood, be mostly left—to return to where we began—“Alone.” The song opens with Hynde speaking rather than singing over a pulsing rock backing track. Her voice is lazy and laconic, as though she’s yawning and stretching her way out of bed in the late Maida Vale morning:
What am I gonna do today? Walk to the newsagent, check out the war zone, check the listings, see what’s good on. Oh, there’s one I’ve been wanting to see. Anyone up for a movie? I am.”
If not, no problem: she’ll go to the theater by herself, singing, “I’m at my best, I’m where I belong, alone,” one of the few rockers in history to sing the praises of solitude. Hynde has been a long-walker since her youth, and it’s easy to imagine her continuing on from the newsagent “along by the canal,” as she described Maida Vale’s well-known waterway in an earlier Pretenders song (“You Know Who Your Friends Are,” from 2002’s Loose Screw). The southern part of the neighborhood is also known as “Little Venice.” Houseboats are moored there, near the graffiti “sprayed across the tunnel walls” and “the remnants of last night’s reverie.”
Does she ever walk to Ladbroke Grove? It’s just two miles northwest of Maida Vale along the canal, and it’s where Hynde’s fledgling career took its first major steps back in the mid-seventies. Despite Ladbroke Grove’s proximity to her current home, it’s a very different part of London. Even its years of quite evident gentrification haven’t entirely buffed the scruff off the neighborhood, which is the legendary gravitational center of the original London counterculture. Ladbroke Grove was immortalized by Performance, Nicolas Roeg’s 1970 cult film starring Mick Jagger, and much more darkly that same year by Jimi Hendrix, who died of a drug overdose while living in the area. For a decade, from the hippie mid-sixties into the punk fever of the seventies, Ladbroke Grove was where London came to drop out and turn on—and especially to tune in. Music was always central to the scene. Eric Clapton formed Cream here, and—fatefully for Chrissie Hynde—the space rock pioneers Hawkwind were born in Ladbroke Grove in 1969. That band’s early seventies leader, Lemmy Kilmister, later connected Hynde to the original members of the Pretenders.
Before its bohemian bloom, Ladbroke Grove had been an outpost for Rastafarians drawn there partly by its cheap housing. When punk recolonized the area in the mid-seventies, its adherents soon found common cause with reggae as marginalized black-and-white comrades against gray English conformity. You can, of course, hear reggae in the music of the Clash, who formed in Ladbroke Grove while Hynde was living there as a starving artist in her pre-Pretenders days. (She befriended them and tagged along on their first tour.) It was then and there that she likely wrote “The Phone Call,” “The Wait,” and “Tattooed Love Boys”—all soon to be on the Pretenders’ debut album—along with an uncharacteristic country lament called “Tequila,” which wasn’t committed to record until 1994’s Last of the Independents.
By then, fifteen years after forming her band, Hynde was making her second comeback a decade after making her first with Learning to Crawl (1983) following the deaths of Pretenders guitarist James Honeyman-Scott and bassist Pete Farndon. In 1994, the top ten singles “I’ll Stand by You” and “Night in My Veins,” both cowritten with a pair of professional hitmakers (or schlockmeisters, if you prefer), restored Hynde’s popularity, but she and the Pretenders haven’t had a hit since. Most casual listeners consider them disbanded, and if they think of Hynde at all, perhaps it’s as a venerable retiree.
Hardly—and this objection is the springboard for the following playlist (and, partly, for my new book, Chrissie Hynde: A Musical Biography). It may be true that “domesticity is the enemy,” as Hynde wrote in her 2015 memoir, Reckless, but her struggle against it has continued to yield music. The Pretenders’ ¡Viva El Amor! (1999), Loose Screw (2002), Break Up the Concrete (2008), and her solo debut Stockholm (2014) are rich and strong albums. She also collaborated with a Welshman named JP Jones on the album Fidelity! (2010), and spent time last decade in South America playing with Moreno Veloso, son of the legendary Caetano. She has never stopped making music.
The short and straight line from Ladbroke Grove to Maida Vale is the extended metaphor here, the image that draws the live connection from the defiant, profane punk urgency and violence of “Precious” in 1979 to the mature but no less potent work of her later years. Hynde can and does still tap into the waters that flow directly from her past to her present. She may have left Ladbroke Grove and moved up in the world long ago, but she remains elementally connected to her musical home.
Taking Hynde’s lead, this playlist omits “Brass in Pocket,” as well as big Pretenders hits like “Back on the Chain Gang,” “Don’t Get Me Wrong,” and “I’ll Stand by You.” Those chestnuts don’t need additional anthologizing. (The latter can be heard in a Progressive Insurance ad.) Instead, the handful of early Pretenders songs that open this chronologically arranged mix are mainly lesser known cuts that dig some of the overlooked but seminal roots out of Hynde’s catalog: clues to her worldview and her personal history. The rest are drawn from the largely unexplored riches of her post-stardom phase, which is nearly three decades old now, a vast trove. See—and hear—below.
“The Phone Call”
She may be “the greatest female rock singer, maybe ever,” as her former label honcho at Warner Brothers called her, but on the first two tracks of Pretenders (1980)—surely one of the greatest dozen or so rock debut albums ever made—Chrissie Hynde doesn’t sing a note. The lyrics are delivered as spoken-word rants and hisses over bruising punkish tracks. On the second track, “The Phone Call,” she calls herself “a faceless messenger” who warns the addressee: “Somebody you used to know is back in town. You better go.” The scary urgency of the message springs from the lurching, beat-skipping 7/4 meter (what was Hynde listening to then that gave her the idea to use this difficult time signature?), and it’s ratcheted up by the instrumental break’s jarring chord changes and sudden crash back into the final verse. The song ends abruptly in a busy signal (recorded from an actual telephone booth) after the caller has abruptly flung the receiver down off the hook and fled.
“Up the Neck”
The next track on Pretenders picks up right where the busy signal of “The Phone Call” leaves off with a staccato guitar riff from James Honeyman-Scott, the band’s great, doomed axe-man. This harrowing account of a druggy one-night stand in a seedy section of Cleveland (where Hynde spent a dissolute but formative period in 1975) might be the secret great Pretenders song: catchy, nervy, intense, compact—and, as it closes, shockingly vulnerable, as Hynde unleashes a long, deeply sung “Ohhhhhhh” before the chords completely lose their grip and home key during the fadeout. “Up the Neck” zeroes in on the brutality and disorientation, even alienation, of sex: “Anger and lust” is its first line, followed by “bewildered and deluded.” Hynde would keep writing songs out of this foursome of sensations for decades afterward, but as musical genius Scott Miller wrote: “This is the best Chrissie Hynde ever was at working an almost easy listening soul territory for the purpose of sharing and humanizing emotions of distress.” “Up the Neck” is an overlooked Pretenders monument.
“Talk of the Town”
This one, from the Pretenders second LP (which co-opted it from a stopgap EP released shortly beforehand), is probably the best-known song on this playlist. “Talk of the Town” might be the greatest single songwriting act of Hynde’s career. It’s a tender ode to a fan who used to hang around the Pretenders’ sound checks, sung in a lovely lilt and organized around a series of sweet chord changes that, like the longing of its primary narrator, take an achingly long time to resolve. It’s a brilliant marriage of form and content, and the song’s short lyric set is full of little gems like “common laborer by night, by day highbrow” and “clouds rearrange like the talk of the town.” Her life revolved around Ray Davies in two spheres, musical and personal, for at least a decade; this song is as good as any the Kinks legend ever wrote.
“Waste Not Want Not”
This rather obscure cut from side two of Pretenders II is not only notable for its reggae, the essential Ladbroke Grove musical genre to which Hynde has returned over and over throughout her career. It also lays out some of the politics that have long guided her songwriting. There is the diehard vegan’s (and dedicated PETA activist’s) “You slaughter when you feast, you disrespect the beast,” as well as attacks on the corrupt politicians and soul-crushing suburbanization that drove her from America to London in 1973, fleeing not only to the homeland of the English music she loved but also from what she has called our peculiarly (and depressingly) American “car culture,” with all its attendant evils.
The Pretenders’ third album, Learning to Crawl, made with a regrouped lineup following the deaths of Farndon and Honeyman-Scott, was an international smash. It yielded the hits “Back on the Chain Gang,” “Middle of the Road,” and “My City Was Gone,” and the enduring lullaby-meets-quasi-Christmas-carol “2000 Miles.” Only one song from the album is included on this playlist simply because Learning to Crawl should be heard in its entirety: it is consistently polished, deep, and assured, and finds Hynde at a great creative height. Perhaps nowhere does it feel more deeply than it does on the gorgeous “Show Me,” a song for her infant daughter. It’s a big, dreamy, chiming song, with layered guitars by Robbie McIntosh, an excellent player who capably absorbed and reproduced the “Pretenders Guitar Sound,” as Hynde called it, with doctrinaire emphasis, that had been invented by Honeyman-Scott. Hynde’s voice is in beautiful, expressive shape—and she has a lot to express here. She laments the world’s “war, disease and brutality” and her own “heart of stone that’s cold and gray” but sees hope in her newborn who has “innocence and grace” and “the Milky Way still in your eyes.” To her, she pleads: “Show me the meaning of the word”—love, of course. It’s a subject Hynde treats more sparingly and skeptically than many other songwriters, but when she allows herself to wade in she’s as direct and honest as when she’s (more frequently) taking shots at someone on her bad side. . .
Chrissie Hynde with the legendary photographer Kate Simon in their early London days. Photograph by Joe Stevens.
. . . As she does here. This playlist has just skipped over fifteen years of Hynde’s career, eschewing the Pretenders albums Get Close (1986), which is under-written and sounds bad; Last of the Independents (1994), which is over-written and smells bad (the precise odor is “Hollywood Perfume,” as the lead track inadvertently names it); and the intervening Packed! (1990), whose comparative reserve, leanness and modesty render it mostly bland. (Hynde’s reggaefied “I Got You Babe” with UB40, from 1985, is recommended.) ¡Viva El Amor! (1999) was a strong rebound. For one thing, it sounds great, produced by a pair of pop-rock veterans (including Stephen Street, who had been at the board for her pals the Smiths). The album should have led to a third comeback for the Pretenders at century’s end, but her record label, Warner Brothers, had lost interest—there had been a five-year hiatus following Last of the Independents—and ¡Viva El Amor! was left out in the cold, and stiffed. It’s a shame. “Baby’s Breath,” cowritten with the same team who gave Hynde “I’ll Stand by You,” is a much better song (as is their catchy, hummable “Nails in the Road”). The target of the lyrics’ ire is a young thing whose preening self-regard is shallow and jejune: “You’re so pensive but your thoughts are insignificant.” It’s a companion piece to “Popstar,” the album’s first single and lead track, which showers disdain on all the wannabe chick rockers who’ve tried to follow in the musical footsteps of the Great Pretender but are just plain pretenders. “Should’ve stuck with me,” she declares, launching an album’s worth of passionate adult consciousness that is never self-conscious and nearly always tuneful. The chorus of “Baby’s Breath” is hard to get out of your head after you’ve heard the song once.
Also from ¡Viva El Amor!, here is Hynde issuing a full and forceful manifesto, both a personal and political declaration of independence that Last of the Independents absolutely was not, despite its title (it was perhaps the most dependent album of her career). To the thumping giddyup of the beat she’s gonna “rattle your combinations”—and her own. She throws away her antidepressants and is out “campaigning for the rights of the meek.” After years of mostly by-the-book songwriting following her early experiments with meter and chord structure, she returns on “Legalise Me” to her fondness for compositional surprises that she deploys with great assurance. She even eggs on the guitar player during the solo: “Come on, Jeff!” It’s Jeff Beck.
A third ¡Viva El Amor! selection, this one is the album’s closer, but along with “Legalise Me” (also buried deep in the LP) it has pole spiritual position. Ever since the brutal “Tattooed Love Boys” from Pretenders, Hynde had an abiding obsession with the archetype of the biker, and here he finally gets his own paean twenty years later: “Biker, they tell me you’re a dangerous lover… but I’d never ride with another.” He’s “an outlaw with belief,” just like the idealist at the microphone. (On “Talk of the Town,” she’d sung: “Oh, but it’s hard to live by the rules. I never could and still never do.”) A song about a biker would seem to call for a hard-rocking, asphalt-burning groove, but “Biker” is, surprisingly, a love ballad with a string quartet, which gets at the true tenderness of her feelings toward this archetypal presence in her life. In fact, she wanted to name the album itself Biker; when Warner Brothers objected, she kept the spirit of the song and translated it into Long Live Love instead.
It takes cheek to cover a single as big and ubiquitous as Radiohead’s career-making smash—that is, it takes cheek or queenly prerogative, and one of the amazing things about Hynde is that she has been a towering rock persona for decades despite a limited recorded output and a reticent public presence. She can simply do anything she wants. It takes perhaps even more gumption to strip a big-time production of its elaborate sonics and record the song virtually unplugged. Hynde and another rejiggered lineup of the Pretenders played this version of “Creep” live in 1995, accompanied by the Duke String Quartet, with whom they recorded that year’s Isle of View, a live album of Pretenders songs rethought as pseudo-chamber music. And the biggest cheek of all is that, thanks mainly to Hynde’s extraordinary delivery—with its repeated “Brass in Pocket” wink of “I wish I was special”—this cover is better than Radiohead’s original, and probably the one by which all others will be forever measured.
Loose Screw (2002) was made independently and then auctioned off to labels. The buyer was tiny Artemis Records, which had made its name by rounding up venerable stars whose popular heydays had ended (e.g. Rickie Lee Jones, Todd Rundgren, Warren Zevon, Boston) and giving them complete creative control in exchange for small-business backing. Loose Screw was originally conceived as something close to an actual reggae album, and it was produced by the duo who had recorded Finley Quaye and Ziggy Marley. The result is more hybrid, and it might also be the best sounding Pretenders album: weighty, lush and glossy, never synthetic and always convincing. Keyboards and sonic effects are deployed with great deftness and skill. The tune “Complex Person” is reggae through and through. Here, instead of the manifesto of “Legalise Me,” Hynde delivers a much mellower self-assessment, and it includes her flaws. “I’ve got senses that I cannae control,” she confesses. And she needs attention, too. She wants to make you “adore me, deplore me, but never ignore me.” Meanwhile, the backing track lopes along on a single chord, almost a put-on, animated by some creative bass playing and punctuated by drum fills that sound like rim shots. But the song is ultimately no joke. In the fadeout, Hynde declares herself ready for Judgment Day—“I’ve got a plan to give it all away,” says the adept of the Hindu epic Bhagavad Gita—and then the key changes, weirdly, at the very last moment, as if that day has suddenly come.
This is also from Loose Screw. Hynde has always been known for her nail-spitting defiance, even vitriol; but she’s the legend she is because she has “two different voices,” as the admiring Warner executive put it, and the second is as tender as the first is tough. She was once asked why she didn’t do a whole album of ballads. “No one wants to hear that shit from me,” she snapped back. “This is a rock band.” “The Losing” may be more anthem than ballad; but whatever the category, it shows that Hynde is always willing to sing the slow one when the inspiration hits. This song is, if not quite a celebration of losing, then a deep embrace of its power. Playing the game, risking the chance: that’s what keeps us going, and it leads, mostly, to losing. Even when we win, we just want to get back in the ring and play again. Hynde’s longtime devotion to Buddhist and Hindu philosophy bleed into her songwriting here: We are done in by our desires and attachments. “The Losing” is at heart a big old-fashioned soul number, a reminder that Hynde learned to sing partly by listening to, and imitating, Sam Cooke, Jackie Moore, Candi Staton, and a whole lot of the American soul and R&B music she loved and left behind when she moved to London.
“Boots of Chinese Plastic”
By the mid-2000s, Hynde was nearly ready to dissolve her band. But she was cajoled by a playboy-philanthropist into making another Pretenders album in 2008. Break Up the Concrete was recorded in less than two weeks with a new lineup that was essentially Pretenders Mark IV. It’s a careworn, loose-knit album, folk-rockish and easygoing, and it won’t remind any diehard Pretenders fans of the band they thought they knew. Hynde’s songwriting generally hangs her trademark spitfire in favor of letting go grievances and peacefully settling old accounts. Yet it opens, after a brief homage to “Sleep Walk” by Santo and Johnny (the apparent titular homage to Bob Dylan’s “Boots of Spanish Leather” is a red herring), with this punchy little rockabilly number that is actually a Buddhist mantra in disguise and translation: “Every drop that runs through the veins always makes its way back to the heart again.” And the ardent “animal rights wacko,” as Rush Limbaugh once called her, isn’t poking fun when she adds: “By the way, you look fantastic in your boots of Chinese plastic.”
“The Last Ride”
How relaxed Hynde sounds on Break Up the Concrete. Here, over a Sunday-drive backing track, she avows that her life has been a “futile chase,” alternately pursued by the Biker and riding on the back of his Harley, but now she’s all about forgiveness, for herself and for him: “Hey buddy, hey friend, my pal, my brother, we take shelter in each other”—and under “the buckeye trees” of her Ohio home, no less, which in her heart she’s never left.
“One Thing Never Changed”
That nostalgia leads to this mournful album closer. With a slide guitar moaning like a train whistle, she recalls the trains of her childhood—a romantic sense memory that summons feelings loss and regret. She once told an interviewer that she used to cry at the sight of the trains going by when she was in junior high school and “just knew that I had to be on that train someday.” This cracked-voice ballad captures the mature emotional complex of perceiving the weight and impact of her decision to climb aboard on her entire life and career. And it also marks the formal end of the Pretenders, despite Hynde’s surprise resurrection of the name eight years later. The train has left the station.
As she was about to leave the UK to tour following the release of Break Up the Concrete, the traditional Welsh parting of “fairground luck” was wished upon her by a much younger musician named JP Jones, whom she’d met in a bar. She liked the phrase and told the Welshman he should write a song called “Fairground Luck,” so he did. When the Pretenders’ tour was over, Hynde and Jones went off to Cuba together and made a whole album of songs. Some of them are about—irony alert—Hynde being too old to get involved with Jones: she was nearly sixty, he in his thirties. “Fairground Luck” is gritty, yearning, and heartsick, and a piece of evidence (sadly, mostly absent from Hynde’s catalogue) that she is a great duettist—in fact a generous collaborator in general, despite her perceived stubborn and headstrong public character. As a music maker, she is a strong bandleader but no tyrant. She welcomes the suggestions and contributions her mates make. Fidelity! contains a whole album’s worth.
“Postcard from London”
Here is another duet—a monumental duet, one would expect, as it’s the only song Hynde ever recorded with Ray Davies, the original love of her life and the father of her eldest daughter, who reportedly arranged for her mother to sing the female part on this song her father wrote. (He claimed to have originally wanted Dame Vera Lynn, who was unavailable.) Yet “Postcard from London” is a sweet little tune, marketed as a Christmas song although Davies didn’t intend it as one. It’s an ode to the city Davies (and Hynde) loves and calls home—and whose identity is eroding, he fears. The song is so slight that it might float away were it not for the heavyweight collaboration of one of rock’s most extraordinary couples (albeit short-lived; they lasted only about two years), finally singing together way down the road of life. “Postcard from London” tempts one to imagine what their lives (and ours) might have been like had they stayed together; and it causes one to smile a little sadly when they sing: “I hope sometimes you’ll think of me, because I’ll always think of you.” In the Christmassy video, Davies gestures toward Hynde when he sings that line, but she isn’t really next to him: Their appearances were filmed separately and then edited together. Ditto the recording, apparently. This warm little holiday tune was in fact sung by an estranged couple who never even said hello to each other in the studio while it was recorded. The closest they came, according to Davies, was while he watched Hynde sing her part from behind a one-way mirror.
“In a Miracle”
Hynde claimed she dropped the Pretenders moniker and made her first solo album, Stockholm, in 2014, only because she had “to reboot my brand.” Perhaps that’s true, but Stockholm doesn’t sound like a Pretenders album. It was made in that city with a pair of Swedish pop cowriter-producers who gave her music a Euro feel, notwithstanding a guest appearance on guitar by Neil Young: textured drums, synths, and so on. One review of “In a Miracle” compared it to Aimee Man, which is essentially a way of saying that Mann’s career, from her melismatic vocal habits to her creative control over her music (she has her own record label), might have been unthinkable without the trailblazing example of Chrissie Hynde; and it’s a deeper reminder that countless female rockers owe the Great Pretender an unpayable debt. The mid-tempo melodicism and tidy “if/then” construction of the verses do evoke Mann’s craftswomanly deftness, but Hynde’s imagery is far more mystical, in a zen koan sort of way; and when she launches into “Fly away on the wings of an angel, never touching the ground,” a Wim Wenders movie begins to take magical-realist shape in the imagination.
“Adding the Blue”
The closing track from Stockholm is a tuneful lament for a lost lover, whom the singer was painting—but the model got up and left while Hynde was “adding the blue.” The sitter, of course, is also the muse. Hynde has never been a prolific songwriter to begin with, and by the time of Stockholm she was in her early sixties and four years removed from her previous album. It’s no surprise that she might find herself watching her inspiration walk out the door while she was still working on a portrait. Nor is it, probably, a design coincidence that the model on the album cover, with a face warpainted in colors that include blue, is Chrissie Hynde herself. She is both subject and artist.
As she well knows: “Life is a canvas and I’m on it,” she observes here. Alone was recorded and produced in Nashville, with fresh and upfront aplomb, by Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys, who like Hynde are from Akron. In her later years, Hynde has lived part-time in her hometown, effecting a reconciliation, and even opened a vegan restaurant there. (It failed after three years.) Alone began, in Hynde’s account, as another solo album and then “became” a Pretenders release. Whatever the parameters that dictated this transformation, the difference is unimportant; Hynde is now such a legend that she contains and transcends even the multitudes of her own band. The spoken-word musings of this song approach a loopiness Hynde has seldom permitted herself: “Another thing I like to do [is] go to the graveyard and hang out with you, and have a smoke and practice my autograph, then sit back and re-read your epitaph.” “Alone,” and the tenth Pretenders studio album as a whole, is a reminder that she is, above all, a rock and roll survivor, and she can sit in a Maida Vale cemetery and crow about it over your tombstone all she wants.
“I Hate Myself”
It’s tempting to leave “Alone” as the last word, but it can’t be left at that—nothing so tidy will do for “a very, very complex person” like Chrissie Hynde, who will often flank her boasting with self-doubt that can at times become merciless self-flagellation. “Alone” is bracketed near the end of the album by this cabaret-like put-on (or is it dead serious?) in which she names all the reasons why she hates herself—envy, deceitfulness, misapprehension, and plenty more—while repeating the title some thirty-eight times. And while she’s as hard on herself as anyone can just about possibly be, she signs off with a final dart of her trademark rock spite: “But most of all,” she concludes, “I hate myself for hating you.”
Adam Sobsey is coauthor of Bull City Summer: A Season at the Ballpark, a book about minor league baseball, and has written about music and culture for the Paris Review and other publications.