By Eleni P. Austin
Have you ever put a record on the turntable and it’s brilliant from start to finish? From the second the needle hits the groove, each song hits you like an amphetamine rush and you can’t wait to hear the next one. That rare experience awaits you with the new Pretenders effort, Hate For Sale.
It’s been 40 years since the band burst on the scene, but even that arrival was decades in the making. Born in 1951, Chrissie Hynde grew up in Akron, Ohio, an avowed Anglophile from the minute the British Invasion hit, she spent her teen years obsessed with the Beatles, the Stones and the Kinks. She didn’t exactly want to date these idols, as much as become them.
She always found the action. She became a committed vegan and animal rights activist during high school. She also became a devotee of Vaishnavism, a branch of Hinduism. Her first band included future members of DEVO. While attending art school at Kent State, she was there when the National Guard fired 67 rounds in 13 seconds, killing four students and wounding nine more in attending a peaceful protest. Neil Young wrote the song, but Chrissie was there.
She saved her money and moved to London in 1973. Thanks to her art school studies, she landed a job at an architecture firm. Not long after her arrival, she began writing for England’s coolest music mag, the New Musical Express. In between magazine assignments she got a job behind the counter at the infamous SEX boutique co-owned by (future Sex Pistols manager) Malcolm McLaren and (future fashion designer) Vivienne Westwood. For a few years she led a peripatetic existence, ping-ponging between Paris, Akron and London. At one point, before they were Sex Pistols, Sid Vicious and Johnny Rotten offered (separately) to marry her so she could remain in England legally.
Intent on pursuing a career in music, she placed an ad in Melody Maker, looking to find like-minded musicians. Pretty soon she was collaborating in nascent bands with future Punk progenitors like Clash guitarist, Mick Jones and Generation X bassist, Tony James. By 1978, she hired a manager and started demoing her songs. Finally, she connected with bassist Pete Farndon, guitarist James Honeyman-Scott and drummer Martin Chambers. The chemistry was instantaneous. Choosing the band name, Pretenders, partly inspired by the Platters’ classic hit, “The Great Pretender,” they signed with Sire Records.
They recorded their first single, “Stop Your Sobbing” under the watchful eye of musician/producer, Nick Lowe. Released in late 1979, the obscure Kinks cover was a hit on both sides of the pond. Their self-titled debut arrived in early 1980. The album was a revelation. The Pretenders sound was stripped-down, spiky and endlessly melodic, a sharp hybrid of Punk, British Invasion and New Wave. Songs like “Kid,” “Brass In Pocket” and “The Wait” guaranteed the album went to #1 on the British charts, and hit the Billboard Top 10 in America.
Chrissie was front and center, forever flipping the script for the next generation of female Rockers. She wasn’t a shambolic Blues belter like Janis, she wasn’t a Punk-Poet androgyne like Patti Smith, nor was she a gypsy nymph swathed in velvet and patchouli like Stevie Nicks. Taking her cues from her ‘60s heroes, she swaggered like Jagger in her (faux) leather pants. Much like Jim Morrison, she radiated charisma. But she wasn’t afraid to be both tough and tender, occasionally wearing her vulnerability on her sleeve.
The band released a five-song EP in the Spring of 1981 and then a second long-player, Pretenders II later that fall. Despite their commercial success, some members fell prey to substance abuse. Pete’s heroin addiction became so serious he was fired from the band in early 1982. Two days later, James died from heart failure, as a result of cocaine intolerance. (The following year, Pete was discovered dead in the bath tub, having overdosed on heroin).
Although half their band was gone, Chrissie and Martin didn’t give up. They recruited guitarist Robbie McIntosh and bassist Malcolm Foster and roared back with their third effort, aptly entitled Learning To Crawl. It was triumph in the face of tragedy, featuring explicitly autobiographical songs like “Back On The Chain Gang,” “My City Was Gone” and “2,000 Miles,” an uncharacteristically sentimental song addressed to Chrissie’s new paramour, Kinks front man, Ray Davies.
By 1986, Martin had left the band. Chrissie was now the only original Pretender. Beginning with the fourth album, Get Close, which yielded hits like “Don’t Get Me Wrong” and “My Baby,” and continuing through 1990’s “Packed!” and 1994’s “Last Of The Independents,” it was basically Chrissie and a rotating cast of musicians.
The Pretenders released three more studio albums, Viva El Amor in 1999, Loose Screw in 2002 and Break Up The Concrete in 2008. Martin Chambers drifted in and out, mostly touring with the band. At this point, it was essentially the Chrissie Hynde Experience.
In 2010, the Pretenders took a hiatus, but the last decade has been a whirlwind of activity. The same year saw the release of Fidelity! Chrissie’s collaboration with JP & The Fairground Boys. In 2014 she officially went it alone, displaying her mellower side on her solo debut, Stockholm.
The following year, her long-anticipated autobiography was published. Reckless: My Life As A Pretender, chronicled the years leading up to her first taste of success in the early ‘80s. Written with her typically confrontational style, she courted controversy and garnered rave reviews.
In 2016, she reconvened another version of the Pretenders and recruited Black Keys’ front man (and fellow Akron-ite), Dan Auerbach to produce the band’s 10th studio album, Alone. Her second solo effort, 2019’s Valve Bone Woe found Chrissie covering Pop and Jazz favorites like the Beach Boys’ “Caroline, No,” Billie Holiday’s “I Get Along Without You Very Well” and Nick Drake’s “River Man.” The record actually reached #2 on Billboard’s Jazz chart.
Now a new-ish incarnation of the Pretenders is back, this time out featuring original drummer Martin Chambers, longtime touring guitarist, James Walbourne (he played on the last two Pretenders’ efforts and has recorded with everyone from the Pernice Brothers, Son Volt, Folk chanteuse Linda Thompson, the Pogues and the Killer, Jerry Lee Lewis), and bassist Nick Wilkerson, who was on hand for Alone.
The album kicks into gear with the title track. After a shambolic false start (it’s all so Punk Rock), “Hate For Sale” blasts out of the speakers, all blitzkrieg beat, wailing harmonica, tensile bass lines and shards of guitar. The take-no-prisoners melody is buttressed by Chrissie’s churlish sneer, as she spits out some eloquent invective. Lyrics like “Call it luck or inherited title, a guy like that is arrogant, idle, he takes whatever he likes….he dines on calves butchered and bled, tankards of wine burgundy red/Handmade suits and shoes and socks, ooh, his breath could stop the clocks,” seem aimed at the despot-in-chief, who traffics in racist imagery and dog whistle politics.
The next three tracks evince an urgency the band hasn’t displayed since their debut. “The Buzz” is a jangly waltz powered by a slip-stitch beat, wiry bass and a spiraling guitar figure that pays sly homage to James Honeyman-Scott’s transcendent playing on Kid. Chrissie wraps her warm contralto around lyrics that acknowledge Roxy Music got it right, Love is the drug. It’s a shot to the system as potent as an opiate, once it’s gone you’re desperate to experience that same ephemeral rush; “For the buzz I can’t get no relief, You’ve reduced me to a liar, a liar and a thief/Love oh love, I can only prove you’re real by scratching the fever, proof for a believer is how a shot of love makes you feel.” Guitars fuzz, chime and twang on the break, awash in reverb.
Anchored by a thwoking, concentric beat, gamboling bass lines and splayed guitars, “Lightning Man” splits the difference between a Punky Reggae riddim and expansive Spaghetti Western vistas. Whistle-y harmonica and jagged guitar riffs lock into a jittery pas de deux. Meanwhile, Chrissie expressive vocals are beguiling and hypnotic as she unspools a cryptic Crossroads saga between dark forces and ambition; “It was always in the cards, no use denying it, Devil offered something, you were up for trying it/Stashed in the grooves, now we’re dancing to the beat.”
“Turf Accountant Daddy” is an instant classic, blending Garage Rock crunch and pure Punk attitude. Slash-and-burn guitar partners with search-and-destroy bass over jaunty handclaps and a pile-driving beat. Chrissie is her confrontational best as she calls the bluff of a louche lothario slightly off his game; “See you duck and dive, so you don’t get hit, that’s how you stay alive, but just a little bit.” Apropos of nothing, she asks “Hey, baby, you wanna dance, come here,” and the effect is positively thrilling. Guitars shimmer and strafe over chilly New Wave synths, before chunky riffs unfurl, bringing the track to a satisfying close.
The band cycles through their tried and true bag of tricks and it all feels remarkably fresh and exhilarating. “Didn’t Want To Be This Lonely” is a rollicking Rockabilly rave-up fueled by a Bo Diddley beat, throbbing bass lines and stuttery guitars. Here Chrissie rethinks her decision to dump her deadbeat guy; “Well I didn’t want to be this lonely, thought losing you was a relief, from a life with one man only, devoid of morals or belief.” By the time James unleashes a scorching solo, she’s more at peace with her resolution; “You’ll find somebody else to suffer, and get to know your selfish ways, and I’ll feel pity for the next one, when you start to ruin her days.”
There’s a scuzzy elegance to “Junkie’s Walk” that echoes the demimonde verisimilitude so thoroughly explored by Iggy and the Stooges and Lou Reed. Over a stompy rhythm, roiling bass and guttural guitars, Chrissie’s mien is subtly sardonic as she notes drug addiction is a full-time job; “Thank you for your dedication, cross the street in the dirty rain…Here’s the list, place your bet, no a loser won’t regret, don’t you fret or deny every junkie has to die.”
Clangorous guitar, smoky harmonica and wily bass are paired with a scattershot beat on “I Didn’t Know When To Stop.” Intent on capturing a paramour’s true colors, Chrissie puts paint to canvas, and the results are unsettling; “Well, you see a fraud and no one else knows, a catwalk phenomenon, the emperor’s clothes/Our faithful lightnings, but something ain’t right, I painted over you and kept me in blue lights.” On the break a wash of oooky keys are accompanied by blistering guitar, banshee harmonica and a pummeling Keith Moon-tastic tattoo.
Meanwhile, guitars sweetly jingle-jangle, latticing swirly keys and elastic bass over a pendulous rhythm on “Maybe Love Is In NYC.” Much like real estate, finding love is all about location, location, location. On a chorus that shares some musical DNA with the Clovers’ classic, “Love Potion No. 9,” Chrissie ruefully notes “Maybe love is in New York City, fluorescent lights might lead me to it/I’ve been to Barcelona, Lima and Hong Kong, if it was here, I never knew it, if it was here all along.” Swirly keys collide with ricochet riffs and the bridge before unpacking an incendiary guitar solo on the break. Still, real love remains elusive.
The action only slows on the wistful “You Can’t Hurt A Fool” and the album’s closer, “Crying In Public.” The former is a slice of Soulful slink powered by sugar rush guitar, sinewy bass and a rock steady beat. Each verse is bookended by rippling guitar riffs, but front and center is Chrissie’s melismatic croon. Although it’s all third person, the lyrics offer a bit of self-reflection; “See how she enters the room like a diva/If you said she was damaged, I wouldn’t believe ya, laughing and joking a real superstar.”
The latter is a pensive piano ballad; stripped-down to stately ivories and subdued strings. The lyrics offer some cautionary advice for approaching a distraught woman (like her?); “She might look like a million, or only ten cents, when mascara runs, there’s no recompense/Aristocrat, popper, or the ourgeoisie, all know what it feels like when life’s misery, means crying in public, crying in public.” It’s a nakedly emotional finish to an electrifying album.
Produced by Stephen Street (the Smiths, the Cranberries, Morrissey and Blur), all the songs on the record were co-written by Chrissie Hynde and James Walbourne. The Pretenders have had their moments over the last four decades, but nothing has ever managed to equal the rough and ready perfection of their 1980 debut. Hate For Sale comes pretty damn close.