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The Unsinkable Chrissie Hynde

She’s led the Pretenders through death, discord, and stretches of silence. And as the band releases a gut-punch of a new album, she’s not about to let a little quarantine keep her down

The Pretenders: Chrissie Hynde, Nick Wilkinson, James Walbourne, and Martin Chambers (from left)

Photo by Matt Holyoak

It’s a Friday evening in mid-May, and Chrissie Hynde was supposed to kick off a U.S. tour tonight in support of the Pretenders’ latest album, Hate for Sale. Instead, she’s stuck in her London flat, singing Bob Dylan’s “Standing in the Doorway” over the phone to the band’s lead guitarist for a covers project the two have been working on. The coronavirus shutdown may have upended her life, but you wouldn’t know it from talking to her. “I live alone, and I don’t have any pets, so I just have all this time to goof off,” she says. “I feel like I’m 15: no real responsibilities, no pressure. I can paint and play songs.”

In recent months, Hynde, 68, has reconnected with her saxophone-playing brother, Terry, who lives in Ohio, and she frequently speaks on the phone with her two daughters, who also live in England, Hynde’s adopted home, after growing up in Akron. (Even after nearly half a century of living across the pond, her accent remains remarkably Ohioan, though she calls soccer “football” and friends “mates.”) As a longtime vegetarian and outspoken environmentalist, she loves that lockdown has meant less smog and more birdsong around the world: “If I knew there would be no more flights, if we can get rid of all cars, I would be the first to sign up.” She has composed a couple of songs during quarantine, but only writes when she’s moved to. “I’m pretty lazy,” she says. “I like goofing off. That’s what I’m good at.” 

Over the past four decades, Hynde has fine-tuned a seemingly unflappable exterior in the face of trouble. Her toughness helped her move through the male-dominated rock world of the late Seventies, helped her endure the drug overdoses that killed two bandmates early in the Pretenders’ career, helped her raise children at the peak of her fame. And that’s still the case. At times, it seems like her never-give-a-shit attitude suffuses her whole being. “Of course I give a shit!” she protests. “Someone told me the definition of a disorder is when [something that bothers you] starts to interfere with daily life. So I’m not going to worry myself or something where it starts becoming a disorder.” When I explain that never giving a shit is sort of a virtue, she laughs and apologizes. “I’m a sensitive person,” she says.

Tennis legend John McEnroe, who befriended Hynde in the early Eighties, believes that other than Janis Joplin, Hynde is the “greatest female rock star.” She famously quoted one of his Wimbledon tirades — “You guys are the pits of the world!” — on Pretenders II’s “Pack It Up,” and whenever the band stops through New York, Hynde invites him onstage. She even featured McEnroe as a guitarist on her Stockholm solo album. 

McEnroe has witnessed her charisma firsthand many times. In the mid-Nineties, he accompanied her to see Jeff Buckley at a small London venue. “After the show, Jeff met Chrissie and said, ‘Oh, my God. I’m such a big fan. I know all your songs.’ And she said, ‘Do you want to come and jam?’ I remember carrying his amp to the studio, and the guy knew every lick, every note of every song they played. I’m sure it was a little inspirational to her. Sometimes you need to be reminded of the respect you have.”

Hynde worked hard to earn that respect, and it didn’t come right away. Growing up, she felt lost. As she recalled in her 2015 memoir, Reckless, she was an average student with no real ambition other than drawing. She fell in love with rock & roll as a teen, escaping to concerts with her friends — she got her first real kiss when Jackie Wilson’s bodyguards hoisted her onstage so the “Lonely Teardrops” singer could plant one on her — but a career in music never occurred to her back then. When she and a friend hung out with Rod Stewart and Ron Wood, she was too naive to realize that they wanted sex. (The rock stars eventually gave up.)

She studied art at Kent State, and was there when the National Guard opened fire on student protesters in 1970. But unlike fellow Kent State students Joe Walsh or the members of Devo who immersed themselves in music as a way of coping shortly after the attack, Hynde only dabbled in rock at the time. And she still felt directionless. 

When I ask how she reflected on the Kent State shootings after 50 years, she says she’s much more interested in the threat of school violence today. “At Kent State, that was four people shot dead and about, I don’t know, 19 wounded,” she says. “Now we get a shootout, like, every other week in a high school. That’s made me think about where it’s gone in a very short period of time. Fifty years is very short in human history. In fact, that’s like the blink of an eye practically, and now everyone’s armed to the teeth demanding to go back to work. It’s a sign of the times.”

American musician Chrissie Hynde, of the group Pretenders, performs at the Aragon Ballroom, Chicago, Illinois, April 13, 1984.

Fronting the Pretenders at Chicago’s Aragon Ballroom in 1984 (Photo: Paul Natkin/Getty Images)

After dropping out of Kent State, she drifted around the world for much of the Seventies. She lived in England, France, Mexico, and several U.S. states before understanding her true calling. She spent years on the periphery of music, writing reviews for NME and working in the Vivienne Westwood clothing store that launched the Sex Pistols. Although she learned on a classical guitar as a teen, it wasn’t until her mid-twenties when she was living in London that she felt like a guitarist.

In college, she had played with a group that featured future members of Devo, but it didn’t go anywhere, and similarly in London, she played with musicians who’d go on to make up the Clash and the Damned. She was so close to the Sex Pistols, before they got infamous, that both Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious offered to marry her at various points just to keep her in the U.K., though neither went through with it.

It was another one of her punk-scene pals, Lemmy Kilmister of Motörhead, who tossed her a life preserver In 1978, when he suggested she link up with the man who would become the Pretenders’ first drummer. More than that, Kilmister was a kind of role model. “Lemmy never changed,” Hynde says. “He was kind of like the quintessential example of everything to me that epitomizes the rock experience. The way he thought, the way he looked, the way he dressed in cowboy boots, the way he was always in front of, you know, ‘the fruit machine’ or ‘the one-armed bandit,’ as we call it, the way he always had goofy-looking chicks standing next to him. That was Lemmy, right up to the final day. Without Lemmy, I wouldn’t have the Pretenders.”

Kilmister’s drummer of choice, improbably named Gas Wild, didn’t play with Hynde for long, but he helped her assemble the first Pretenders lineup, which also featured bassist Pete Farndon. They found lead guitarist James Honeyman-Scott, who never seemed to overplay or underplay on Hynde’s songs, and eventually rounded out the band with the addition of Wild’s replacement, Martin Chambers. The Pretenders’ smart arrangements of Hynde’s songs, which played up Honeyman-Scott’s jangly guitar and Farndon’s and Chambers’ forceful rhythms, perfectly set up Hynde’s curled-lip attitude, positioning her to become one of rock’s most dynamic singers.

The group scored a Top 40 hit in the U.K. right out of the gate — a take-no-prisoners cover of the Kinks’ deep cut “Stop Your Sobbing,” backed with a Hynde original, “The Wait” — and its self-titled debut went to Number One on the strength of the singles “Brass in Pocket” and “Kid.” 

The original Pretenders would last for only one more album and an EP. Farndon’s heroin addiction and unreliable presence onstage prompted the group to fire him in 1982, and two days after that, Honeyman-Scott died of heart failure brought on by cocaine intolerance. Less than a year later, Farndon, too, was dead of a drug overdose, this time heroin, leaving only Hynde and Chambers as the surviving members of the band. For the next decade, she led a revolving door of bandmates through hit after hit that displayed both Hynde’s underdog fortitude as well as her vulnerability: “Don’t Get Me Wrong,” “Middle of the Road,” “I’ll Stand by You.” “When [Pete and James] were out and they died, I felt I couldn’t let the music die,” Hynde says. “That sounds really corny, but I had a very strong sense of that.” 

Meanwhile, Hynde’s determination paved the way for more success thanks to heavy MTV airplay, and that meant fascination about her personal life — her relationship with the Kinks’ Ray Davies, though they never married, produced her first daughter, and her marriage to Simple Minds’ Jim Kerr led to her second (they divorced in 1990) — and it gave her a platform to voice her beliefs. 

Hynde became a vegetarian at 18, and she has since positioned her fame behind PETA and animal-rights protests. She and three others were arrested in 2000 on felony charges of third-degree mischief for destroying $1,000 worth of supposed “black-market leather” from a New York Gap store, but the case was dismissed with the understanding that she’d avoid mischief for six months. Four years later, she led a protest against KFC in France. (Her daughter with Davies, Natalie Hynde, has followed in her activism footsteps, getting arrested in 2013 for supergluing herself to a drill at a fracking site.)

Today, she says, “I don’t want to talk about politics, especially for Americans,” but she feels some people are “hypnotized” by the current presidential administration’s “Who cares?” attitude toward climate change. That said, she has felt invigorated by the way social causes have come to the forefront to the minds of young people around the world, from the students protesting the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, to people recognizing what she calls “the common knowledge” about the evils of industrial farming. In 2009, Hynde wrote the preface to a book, Cows and the Earth: A Story of Kinder Dairy Farming, which combines her love of vegetarianism and compassionate farming with her Hindu beliefs.

“Finally, people are addressing this reality,” she says of organic farming. “Environmentalists were saying the same thing as Greta Thunberg for 40 years. For whatever reason, the penny dropped, as they say here, when you put a coin in a machine. It finally landed with this little girl from Sweden. Sometimes you just have to wait. That’s what I’ve learned. You just have to wait, but that doesn’t mean you stop doing what you do.” 

Carrying on has been something of a mantra for Hynde, as she’s been the Pretenders’ sole constant for much of the band’s existence. Supposedly disappointed in Chambers’ playing in the mid-Eighties, she fired him and carried on with the band herself for years. “I have been asked 10,000 times, ‘Are the Pretenders just you? Or is it a band?’ All I can say is, I’m not a solo artist. My position in any band that I’ve been in is to set the guitar player up to make a goal. It’s all about the guitar.”

Hynde reconnected with Chambers in the mid-Nineties. In the quarter century the drummer has been back in the band, the two have remained close, though Chambers didn’t play on two Pretenders albums during that stretch. In 2018, he wrote on his personal blog that he and Hynde would occasionally watch DVDs together, just the two of them, on the tour bus. “We had this long period where [Martin and I] didn’t work together, and that was my call,” she says. “I can only put it down to the fact that I needed to keep trying to figure it out myself, what I could do. I had to change it up around me. It’s very, very hard to explain why — maybe it’s something to do with trauma — because I love Martin. He’s a fantastic drummer. He’s my favorite live drummer ever. We never had a fight or fell out with each other.

Chrissie Hynde

Hynde last year (Photo: Camera Press/Matt Holyoak)

“I don’t know of any band that has lasted for 40 years with the same lineup and consistently made interesting, good records,” she continues. “We’d already thrown Pete out and that was after two albums. You’ve got to change it up. It’s just a fact of life. I don’t know why. I can’t explain it. And I can’t explain some of the decisions I’ve made. Like that shirt you had on in a photo taken in the Seventies, you can look back and think, ‘What was I thinking?’ and I could look back on my whole career and think that. And I do; I do look back and think, ‘What was I thinking?’”

Hate for Sale is the first Pretenders album to feature Chambers since 2002, and the first to include the rest of the band since 2008’s Break Up the Concrete; since then, everything Hynde has started wound up as a solo affair, including the Pretenders’ 2016 LP, Alone. Hynde says she never intended to abandon her band. “It’s the logistics of getting a band in one place,” she explains. “I don’t have a studio. So I go where the producer is. I’ve wanted to make the album we just made for 15 years.”

Compared to Valve Bone Woe, Hynde’s quieter solo album from last year, Hate for Sale feels like a gut punch, with hard-rocking tunes about bookies, junkies, and crying in public. This is thanks partly to guitarist James Walbourne, who joined in 2008 after Chambers spotted him playing lunchtime gigs at a local pub. “To me, he’s the definitive guitar hero,” Hynde says. The pair collaborated on every track on Hate for Sale

The main goal with the record was that Hynde and Walbourne wanted to get it done, stat. As pretty and nuanced as Valve Bone Woe is, it took more than a decade to complete — with Pretenders albums coming and going in between — and the songwriting duo wanted to make something with urgency. “Every song has got to have a bit of attitude, really, whether it’s a love song or a punk-rock song,” Walbourne says. “[We like to] keep it as raw as possible and not lose the general hardness of it. We don’t want anything too syrupy or smooth.” 

They started writing the record when Walbourne came up with the song title “You Can’t Hurt a Fool,” and the pair worked up a soulful, power-ballad arrangement around it. Hynde, however, is hesitant to explain how the songs came to be. “Even talking about songwriting kind of creeps me out,” she says. Most of the songs are rough-hewn and direct — only one song on the half-hour LP lasts longer than three-and-a-half minutes — and many of the tracks rock harder than the Pretenders’ biggest hits. Hydne says “Hate for Sale” reminds her of the Damned, while Walbourne says “Junkie Walk,” with its snaky guitar riff, feels like a garage rocker worthy of a future Nuggets comp. 

When the album was nearly done, Hynde sent it to McEnroe to get his take. “She’d come full circle,” he says. “She’s playing songs that are quick and to the point. This record, to me, is one young musicians should listen to.”

Now that the tour has been canceled, Hynde wants to get back to her roots — and away from the band’s warhorse hits. “What I’d really like is a more ‘alternative’ bill with someone like Mark Lanegan on tour with us,” she says. “The audience I want is one where I can pull out any obscure Pretenders thing and say, ‘Here’s something you’ve never heard,’ and they’re like, ‘Oh, OK, cool,’ instead of, ‘I think I’ll get some beers for us, honey.’”

She has no interest in “socially distanced” shows (“Where are you going to do it, in an airplane hangar?”) or come-together anthems. “Why do artists think that they’re going to heal everybody, and their music is so important? It’s a little bit pompous.

“But who knows? If we’re locked down like this for another five years, I might be doing a striptease on Zoom. I don’t know how desperate people can get.”