Chrissie Hynde never really wanted to be punk-rock royalty
The Pretenders leader muses on technology killing off musical revolutions, why guitars and rock bands are important, keeping things raw and leading a band in a post-COVID-19 world.February 19, 2021
Since 1978, the Pretenders’ outspoken singer/songwriter/rhythm guitarist Chrissie Hynde and her band have brought sophisticated compositional smarts and instrumental chops to punk rock. They took the music to radio and MTV in the early ’80s, subversively selling it to people who thought they were just listening to exciting rock ’n’ roll.
Hynde spoke exclusively to Alternative Press to help unveil the new Fender Chrissie Hynde Telecaster, an instrument she hopes will inspire more people to take up guitar and form rock bands. It’s based on her main instrument since 1980, a 1965 Tele spray-painted “the color of a 1967 Corvette Stingray,” as she put it. Longtime NYC rock figure Nite Bob announced the same day via Facebook that he sold it to Hynde at Stuyvesant Music.
“This model is exactly like my guitar!” she exclaims. “It’s unbelievable.” The attention to detail on the model we received is impressive, down to pick scratches and a worn place where a sticker might have been affixed on the mirror-finish pickguard and finish cracks around a strap button. The alder body is nicely resonant, with a “C”-shaped maple neck identical to mid-’60s Teles and pickups custom-wound to vintage specs. The case is even the old black, textured vinyl, rectangular sort that came with Fender guitars from 1964 until sometime in the ’80s.
It tuned up and played perfectly right out of the box, no adjustments necessary. Plugged into a Blackstar HT Stage 60 amp, tones ranging from Don Rich with Buck Owens’ Buckaroos to Jeff Beck in the Yardbirds to Keith Richards on “Brown Sugar” to Johnny Thunders were easily achievable. It’s a solid, versatile guitar for working players of all styles, priced affordably at $1,399.
Isn’t it amazing that during the last four years here in America, you didn’t see some sort of punk revival—bands lashing out against this authoritarian regime?
Because the kids are all on screens. They’re all watching YouTube. And they’re watching 10 seconds’ worth of some guy watching some other guy playing a video game. That’s the new generation. Whether we like it or not—and we don’t like it—that’s tough shit for us. Those are the people that are going to be pushing us around in wheelchairs, if we are lucky. You have to roll with it. That’s the new generation, and I’m not gonna say I have an opinion about it. It’s just the way it is now.
I was also miffed because it looked like there could be another revolution. But the technology is different. Remember, when people got in bands originally, there were three guys in your school that wanted to get into a band. Or three girls. You would meet people at the one place in town that had live music. Well, now everything’s online, so that necessity to seek out your kindred spirits… You’ve just got Facebook, I guess. So it’s really taken the heat out of it, this quest to find like-minded people. It was much more elitist, and I mean that in a good way, so you found the other outsiders.
So, we’re in a different world now. I don’t think you can compare even the ’80s to now. It’s a completely different blueprint now. I’m also as befuddled by it as you or anyone else. Because it would seem that there would be a bunch of bands, yes. But there’s not really a world for bands anymore. The whole thing changed.
The bands changed. The bands started going into these fucking stadiums and big arenas, and they got bigger and bigger. They lost the vibe. The bands lost the vibe. They thought they were part of some royal family. If you come over to England, we don’t watch The Crown. We don’t care about the royal family. It’s the Americans that care about the royal family. They all wanna be part of rock royalty. I don’t. I don’t even want to be remembered. Forget about me! Forget me, already. I don’t wanna be part of that legacy. I just wanted to be in a band and do my thing.
I’ve hung around a long time. And anyone who stays around long enough, your number comes up eventually. I’d say Fender maybe made a guitar for me by default because I’m still here. I’ll tell you, it’s a lovely guitar. It’s a fucking great little guitar. Anyone who picks one up is gonna want to play it. Playing guitar is like learning a language, at which I’m also not very adept. Viggo Mortensen can speak seven languages, and he probably plays a multitude of instruments. I only have my one trusty thing that I do. I don’t understand why more people aren’t thinking of getting guitars and getting into bands. I look at the younger generation of women, and they got into modeling! I mean, what the fuck? Who would rather be a model than play guitar in a band? It defies understanding. I don’t get it at all. Because anyone who can get on a catwalk can pick up a guitar. So what are you guys waiting for?
Fifteen years ago, back when Myspace was the dominant social media platform, these kids would come to me and ask, “Do you play Guitar Hero?” And I’d tell them, “No, I play guitar, not video games. Learn guitar! You’ll never get laid playing video games.”
Well, that’s certainly why a lot of people started playing guitars…famously! Most people started playing guitars because they were bored. They were sitting around in their rooms with nothing to do. Or maybe they were very introverted and couldn’t express themselves very well. Or maybe they were competitive with their peers. People had different reasons for doing it. But I think generally the one thing that everyone who learned to play guitar had in common was they didn’t have much else to do. Maybe they were in a small town. But once you’re on a screen? There you go. Your time is gone. You can stare at those screens all day long. Everyone’s recognizing this now. It’s fucked with people’s attention spans.
I still think that anyone who picks up a guitar who’s like 14 years old and gets with a couple of friends—a drummer, a bass player? C’mon, it’s fucking great!
My friend Jim Diamond, who produced all those great Detroit garage bands like the White Stripes several years back, produced the Sonics’ reunion album about six years ago. He told me he instructed the band, “Try not to play too well. Pretend you’re 16 again and just learning your first Chuck Berry licks.”
That’s what happens. That’s why punk didn’t last. Because anyone in a punk band—maybe not the singers but certainly the guitar players—they wanted to get better. They grew up in love with the guitar. And as soon as they got too good, it wasn’t punk anymore.
I had one of the best bass players of all time, this guy T.M. Stevens [who] I was working with for a while. Pete Farndon had died, so T.M. was playing this song “The Wait,” which is one of my favorite songs. T.M. was playing this song, and I was watching him, and he was such a proficient player. When Pete used to play, his fingers would bleed. He could hardly play. He would literally bleed by the end of the show. But when T.M. would play, he was such a master bass player [that] he didn’t look like he was struggling at all. Because he wasn’t struggling, and to me, that took all the heat out of the performance. I was watching him and asking myself, “What is wrong with this picture?” Finally, I said, “You know what, T.M.? Play this with one finger.” Then he struggled. And I said, “Now you’ve got it.”
If it looks too easy onstage, the audience looks at it and says, “Anyone can do that.” Why make it look easy? That’s not even good showmanship.
Exactly. You’ve gotta sweat up there.
You’ve gotta look like you’re in more pain than anyone in the audience. I’m not saying that’s hard and fast—there are no rules. I’m just saying that from the punk mentality, I know exactly what your friend Jim Diamond was saying to the Sonics. I’ve had that problem with players where I’ve said exactly the same thing over the years: “Well, can you pretend you just picked up the guitar two weeks ago? Why don’t you play it like that?”
Be more Johnny Thunders and less Eric Clapton.
Yeah! Some people can keep the heat in. I don’t know. All I know is I know what I like, and I know when it sounds right. I’m not technical, and I’ve worked with some great, great players. And I’ve never been ashamed to walk over to one of the best drummers in the world [Martin Chambers] and say, “Can you not hit that one? Can you just hit that one?” And I’ve never had anyone look at me like, “Who the hell does she think she is?” Because I don’t pretend like I know more than I do. But I know what sounds good. That’s my role.
My role is to set everyone else up to get the ball in the net. That’s all I’m there for. I’m the orchestrator. So I think that when I’ve done that with guys, even though they can see that I’m a bit of an idiot… [Laughs.] A guy in a band, they only want one thing: They want to sound as good as they can. So if somebody says, “You stop playing that. You take that bar. And can you lay down for a minute? Now, go!” If all of a sudden they realize they now sound better, they don’t give a fuck who’s telling them what to do, as long as they sound great.
If they’re the type of player who understands they have to play in service of the song, they’ll certainly be that way.
Yeah! And in service of the band. So, do you still have a band? Are you still playing? Well, you can’t do any gigs now, can you? With COVID, everyone now has to figure this out. And whatever happens now, it’s not going back to what it was. The idea of being on a tour bus seems like it comes from another galaxy now. It seems so remote, somehow. And I don’t think it’s coming back, and it doesn’t seem like it’s coming back anytime soon. So we have to figure out how to rebuild this thing.
Eventually, we’ll all be able to get together with three other guys in a rehearsal room or recording studio. We’ll probably have to wear masks. We’ll certainly all have to be vaccinated. It’s gonna be a different world.
I just won’t even let myself think about it. It’s like, “Fuck! If there’s nothing I can do about it, I just have to roll with the punches now.” But everyone is feeling it now, everyone I talk to. My guitar player, I’ll be like, “How are you doing?” And there’ll be a pause, and I’m like, “Oh, I get it.” Because it seems to come in waves of either lethargy or despondency, enthusiasm, creativity and then depression. Because it’s not Nazi Germany. All we have to do is stay on our cellphone.
I’m trying to figure out how to make records under this regimen and somehow make them sound like three guys sweating in a room.
I’ve been doing stuff remotely. I’ve been singing a cappella into my phone and sending it to someone who puts a track around it.
Ah! So a new Pretenders album is coming?
Actually, James Walbourne, the Pretenders’ guitar player, and I, we’ve written half an album over the last few months. And if I may say so myself, I think it’s fucking amazing. I’m very surprised. Our last album, Hate For Sale, we really got our rocks off. We knew exactly what we wanted to do, and we did it. And now we want to do something different, and we’re doing it, and it feels good. If anyone listens to it or not, I don’t know. In this case, you just do it because that’s what you do.
Oh, I’ve been spinning the hell out of Hate For Sale! It feels like the proper follow-up to the first two Pretenders albums. It sounds to me like early Pretenders.
Well, we were on a mission. Martin is in there, and he’s playing great. The band had been touring our asses off, so we really, really knew what we wanted to do. And I’ve always wanted to do that, to be honest. But as you probably know, you can’t always keep doing the same thing, even though it is the same. You’ve got to keep moving forward. I’ve made albums where I went to another country to work with someone, like in Sweden. It’s just turned out that way because I don’t have a studio. I just like moving and traveling, working with different people. But that last album was definitely the album of the band that had been on tour for years.