Chrissie Hynde, the pretenders

Akron, Ohio born and bred Christine Ellen Hynde has led the Pretenders from the top of the charts since the band’s debut single, a 1979 rethink of Ray Davies’ “Stop Your Sobbing” that killed the Kinks’ 1964 Mersey Beat-ish original on contact. Sort of a spiritual big sister to Joan Jett, she led that gang of provincial British boys like a motorcycle gang. She resembled a feminized 1966 Jeff Beck-as-a-Yardbird in a leather jacket, played tough, solid rhythm guitar and wrote better songs than anyone in the London punk scene she struggled through for years. She also sang better than any of her peers.

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She muses herein that being older, American and raised on the superior Top 40 “Boss” radio of the mid-’60s—screaming “personality” DJs with an echoplex, spinning a mix of Motown, girl groups, the latest and toughest British bands and U.S. reactions like Mitch Ryder And The Detroit Wheels—she had a better grounding in quality songwriting than all those other chancers down at the Roxy in Covent Garden. But after arriving in the U.K. in 1973, she found herself in the right place at the right time to come an original London punk scenester: a brief period scribbling record reviews and features for the NME; working at Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood’s SEX boutique; nearly marrying first Johnny Rotten, then Sid Vicious, to stay in the country; singing backup on Johnny ThundersSo Alone and the Specials’ debut LP; passing through short-lived bands with future members of the Damned, the Clash and Sex Pistols.

None stuck, until she happened upon the three Hereford musicians who became the Pretenders under her leadership: drummer Martin Chambers—the only Pretenders mainstay, other than Hynde—overlooked lead guitarist James Honeyman-Scott and bassist Pete Farndon, both dead of drug overdoses in 1982 and ’83, respectively. While none were hardly punks, they had the chops to pull off Hynde’s sophisticated compositions, and she encouraged enough roughness from them to elevate them above the day’s standard mainstream fare. Alongside the Clash, Blondie and Joan Jett, the Pretenders brought punk onto the radio when Green Day were still in elementary school.

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Death and changing times and tastes have toppled neither the Pretenders’ popularity, quality nor Chrissie Hynde’s punk bonafides. Last year’s Hate For Sale LP—featuring the band’s longtime touring lineup of Hynde, Chambers, guitarist James Walbourne and bassist Nick Wilkinson—was raw enough to pass for the proper follow-up to Pretenders II. On the eve of Fender Guitars launching her new signature model Telecaster, she spoke to Alternative Press about how identical it is to her longtime main guitar, that ’60s background, the importance of bands vs. singer-songwriters, why there’s hardly been any protest songs the last few years, retaining the punk attitude when working with world-class musicians and rethinking the business of running a band in a post-COVID-19 world. 

But what about that Tele, Chrissie?

[The Chrissie Hynde Telecaster] is exactly like my guitar. I had them copy it very faithfully. The only difference is the locking machine heads, which I know would horrify a vintage guy. I’m not a vintage guy. These stay in tune, and they make changing strings easier. I don’t usually change my own strings, but I figured if I was in a hotel room and needed to change strings, that could work out good.

I can recall from the first footage I saw of you in Pretenders, you had started with a Gibson SG Jr.

I had an SG, a little red one. Wait, I might have a white one, at some point!

It’s in the video for “Stop Your Sobbing,” your first single.

I don’t have that one anymore. I don’t know what happened to it. It got stolen or something, or I gave it away.

What led you to pick up that Telecaster from one of those great guitar shops that used to be on New York’s West 48th Street? 

The first one I had was a white one, and I’m not sure where I got that one. Then I got this one, maybe at Manny’s. I just liked the feel of it. I’m not really a guitar buff. I just like the guitar I like. I’m not really a collector or anything. I like this one. It’s been knocking around me for a long time. I’ve played other guitars, and I’ve tried other Teles over the years. But I’ve always come back to this one because it always feels the best.

What is it about the Fender Telecaster that speaks to you more than any other model of guitar?

Again, I just like the feel of it. It feels right. I wish I could get more into the technicalities of it. But I just like it. It’s my guitar, and it feels good. It does the job for me. And it looks great! 

Absolutely! Really sexy lines, and the bridge pickup especially has a bite that’s really nice.

I don’t know about that stuff. I just know it sounds good to me. [Laughs.] I’m about as far away from Billy Gibbons as you can get when it comes to talking guitars. 

Or your former bandmate James Honeyman-Scott, who was one of the best rock guitarists ever and is rather underrated at this point.

Well, he’s just overlooked, I think, not underrated. Because everyone who grew up on him and everyone I’ve ever met from that period, they’ve all said he was a huge influence. Actually, I wrote my memoir [Reckless: My Life As A Pretender] primarily to commemorate him. He only made two records with us. He invented the sound, and then he died when he was 25. We didn’t make a big deal out of it because we’re not really that kind of an operation. So it wasn’t like a big media thing when he died. That was a long time ago, and he seems to have been overlooked as one of the greats. Whenever I see a list of the top 50 guitar players, Jimmy isn’t in it. And that used to really piss me off. That isn’t right. So finally, I sat down and wrote a memoir just to commemorate him, more than anything else.

I’m glad you did that. You and the Pretenders came out of punk, but the musicians you worked with—and you, as a songwriter—had musical imaginations well beyond punk’s musical limitations.

Jimmy wasn’t interested at all in punk. He didn’t like it. He liked melody. They weren’t from London. They were from Hereford. I can’t really compare it to an American situation. It was like the difference between being from New York or Akron. It wasn’t a really happening scene in Hereford. It wasn’t on the punk map. Jimmy liked melody, so he liked ABBA and the Beach Boys. He just wasn’t interested in punk. Which didn’t endear me to him at first because I had a real punk mentality. But musically, he certainly brought this melodic side out of me, and I forced him to do guitar solos, at which he was a master. He didn’t really see himself as a lead guitarist as such, but he was. So we just brought out the best in each other, I think. 

As a songwriter, you were leagues beyond your peers in the London scene.

Let me just say the London scene, at that point, everyone was a couple of years younger than me except Joe Strummer—he was my age. Because they were a couple of years younger and they were from London, and I was from Akron, Ohio. I grew up on American AM radio. So I had this background of listening to Bobby Womack, the Velvet Underground, all the West Coast stuff, B.B. King, stuff I could get from Nashville, Tennessee on my transistor radio. I had a really healthy, wealthy background in music. These London punk kids, they just listened to Roxy Music, Mott The Hoople and David Bowie. I was more well versed, as was anyone from the sticks in America who grew up on radio, because I didn’t really have a scene. So we were like scholars of radio. 

In the end, I think that worked to my advantage because I couldn’t really fit in with the punk thing. And when you look at that whole punk scene, where are they now? It wasn’t really built to last. It was built on anger and deconstructing music. It was like something that came along to destroy prog rock, of which I wasn’t a fan. I loved the punk thing. But I loved the hippie thing. I loved anything that was anti-establishment. The punks were very anti-hippie because it was a whole different scene. But I liked anything anti-establishment. In other words, I was the odd one out. I was American. I was oddly accepted into the thing because we all wanted to get into bands. Simple as that. 

Getting back to the Chrissie Hynde Telecaster, I was reading in the note you wrote announcing its launch that the original was spray-painted. Is Fender also using rattle cans on these guitars?

This model is exactly like my guitar! It’s unbelievable. I took about three of my guitars in that had necks on them that I liked. One of them was a Telecaster that I had made when I was going through my Urge Overkill phase. It had a gold glitter finish. I really like that guitar. I’ve used it a lot, although it’s the odd man out in the looks department. It can be a country-western guitar. Urge Overkill had their own thing, and I like that flash thing sometimes. But I would always go back to this blue one. I’ve had a couple of other guitars. 

I took them all upstairs where we rehearse in London, John Henry’s. There’s a Fender shop upstairs, so I took about three of my guitars, left them upstairs and said, “Kinda replicate this neck.” They did a great job, right down to the guitar strap, where I had a star from my favorite cowboy film, Appaloosa, that Viggo Mortensen sent me. I met him and I talked so much about Appaloosa, and I was embarrassing myself! I was embarrassed \he next day that I went on so much about it. But he sent me his deputy sheriff star from the movie. He said, “If anyone deserves this, you do.” [Laughs.] So they have it on the new guitar’s strap. When Fender took the guitar, I said, “I want it exactly like this.” And they made the badge! Except it has my initials on it.

Everything on this guitar is almost exactly identical—the color, the spray paint finish. I think it’s the color of [the] ’67 Corvette Stingray. Or maybe it’s a ’65? Only the locking machine heads are new. I almost did that on purpose to piss off all the vintage geeks. I don’t think people are necessarily gonna be interested in this guitar because it’s mine. Most guitar heads love all that vintage stuff. Believe me, I’ve spent a half-hour with Billy Gibbons while he talked about his guitar, and I know what guitar bores are capable of—when it comes to the gauge of strings, how high the frets are, every aspect of that guitar. So in a way, with these new machine heads, I thought I’d just fuck it up a little bit. Let me get one to Billy because he’s such a fucking great player, and I know he’d love this guitar.

Oh, yes he would! And he loves the Telecaster, especially the Esquire—the one pickup version. I’ve spent time around him. I’m probably in between the two of you, as far as the attitude goes. [Laughs.]

My bass player and I, we used to knock on Billy’s door when we were on tour with them, and he’d let us in his dressing room. He mainly lived on his tour bus. But if we were at one of these outdoor festivals at one of these sheds, he’d be backstage, and he’d have his flight case open. Me and Nick would sit on the floor, and we were like his disciples. We would sit on the floor cross-legged, looking at his flight case with the brass fittings on it, and he walked around in a blazer, pajama bottoms and cowboy boots. We’d go in and sit down, and he’d start talking about guitars. Nick and I were comatose after about 40 minutes of it. But we loved Billy so much that we’d sit there and take it. Now if Jimmy Scott had been there, he’d have been able to hold his own. Do you know Charlie Sexton? He’s from your town.

I interviewed him once for an Austin Chronicle story on Mike Bloomfield. And I specifically wanted to interview him because he’s Bob Dylan’s lead guitarist, and as I told him, “Mike Bloomfield invented your job.” Which he hadn’t thought about until I mentioned it.

Right. Charlie is such a terrific player. He’s another one of those guitar heroes of mine. See, my position in a band, I always think as a singer my real job is not to get the audience to focus on me. I’m there like at a soccer match. My position is to set the guitar player up because he’s got to put the ball in the net, not me. I want everyone looking at the guitar player because, to me, a band is about the electric guitar. I do the job—I’m the rhythm player. But the guy standing to me to my left, he’s the real star. And I see Charlie as one of those guys because not only can he play great. If you saw Charlie Sexton walking down the street, in any town at any time, any day, you’d know he’s a guitar player. To me, that’s what a real guitar hero is. You just know that his belt buckle matches his Zippo lighter and that his underpants match his socks. You already know that. You don’t even have to look. [Laughs.] And he plays with Bob Dylan! There you go. All boxes ticked.

But Chrissie, I don’t think people think of you normally as a guitar player. Yet, you are a solid rhythm guitarist. You’re like the Keith Richards of the Pretenders. You’re the glue. You drive the band, you and Martin.

But that’s the whole purpose of a band. That’s why I was finally convinced, after people kept saying, “Oh, Fender will make you a guitar.” But I kept putting it off because of my punk mentality of anti-collector’s items. Every time they write a bio, I have to scribble out if they mention the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame. I always have to take all this establishment bullshit out of it. I thought, “I’m never gonna be like Jeff Beck or any of the greats. Maybe it’s a token thing because I’m a chick? I dunno.” 

But my guitar tech said, “Yeah, but it will encourage people to get into bands.” That’s when I said, “I’ll do it.” Because I love bands, and bands are very thin on the ground these days. And the ethos of a band, what a band is about, is these four different personalities that make this unique sound. You just can’t get that with a singer-songwriter. I’m not putting them down. I’m not gonna say that a singer-songwriter is less—no, I am gonna say that a singer-songwriter is less than a band! Why not just come out and say it? Bands rule! 

Fender’s promo material for this guitar said you were hoping that it would inspire a new generation of artist activists, protest singers and the like.

I don’t think I said that, did I?

Well, I guess Fender said it! [Laughs.]

Well, OK. Everyone’s got their fish to sell. Whatever Fender says goes. But as far as protest songs? I think music transcends politics. Even a love song can have the same effect on a person as a protest song. Because once it gets inside and it makes you feel better about things, or it lifts you, or it opens your head to thinking of new ideas, whatever it is, it’s doing the job. It doesn’t have to be that specific. If you’re doing a protest song? Fair enough. I haven’t heard any good ones lately. During the Vietnam War, it was all protest music. I can’t speak for this current generation. I don’t get it now because I’m a band person, and modern music went into this singer-songwriter thing. And pop music destroyed everything. I thought disco was the enemy, but pop has destroyed everything I liked about rock. It’s not cool.