The first thing you notice about the new Pretenders album, Hate for Sale, is that all four members of the band are on the cover.
That may not sound like a big deal, but it is. The last time the other band members were pictured alongside Chrissie Hynde was way back in 1984, on Learning to Crawl. But here they all are: Hynde, lead guitarist James Walbourne, bassist Nick Wilkinson and longtime drummer Martin Chambers. It feels like their way of saying, “We’re back!” And indeed they are. Hate for Sale is, in fact, the best Pretenders album since Learning to Crawl. Hynde has always been a rocker at heart, but in recent years she’s dabbled in genres like jazz, reggae and Americana. Hate for Sale, by contrast, is flat-out rock and roll: 10 songs, most of them short, all of them great.
Amazingly, 2020 marks 40 years since The Pretenders’ self-titled debut was released. It remains one of the best debut albums in rock and roll history, an amazing mix of the punk rock that stormed the world three years earlier with more traditional pop songcraft — and topped off by Hynde’s distinct vocals. The Pretenders was a critical and commercial success. “Brass in Pocket” was a chart hit on both sides of the Atlantic, original axeman James Honeyman-Scott was hailed as a guitar hero and Hynde became the first female rock star of the ‘80s.
But the band’s happiness was short-lived. In addition to the usual hazards of the rock and roll life, their label was pressuring them to get a second album out before they were ready. Honeyman-Scott died in 1982 and bassist Pete Farndon followed him less than a year later (both drug related deaths).
Since that time, The Pretenders have continued with various lineups, Chambers being the only original member besides Hynde. Some periods have been more prolific than others and some albums more consistent — but all have had something to recommend them.
That said, Hate for Sale is an essential addition to the band’s catalog. It will thrill fans of The Pretenders’ first few studio discs or, for that matter, anyone who loves good rock and roll. The title track, “Turf Accountant Daddy” and “I Did Not Know When to Stop” are tight, straightforward rockers. “Crying in Public” and the ’50s-style “You Can’t Hurt A Fool” are top-notch ballads. “The Buzz” is a catchy song about addiction. But best of all is “Maybe Love Is In NYC,” an ode to Gotham that somehow manages to rock and to be beautiful at the same time.
The Pretenders had planned to spend the summer on tour. But like many artists, their plans got derailed by the COVID-19 crisis. When I talked to Chrissie Hynde last month, she was holed up in her London apartment, waiting (like all of us) to see what happens next.
Though Hynde has a reputation for being a tough interview, she was actually delightful to speak with: open, funny and quick to compliment others — no one more so than James Honeyman-Scott.
I wanted to start out by asking you about the new album, Hate for Sale. The first thing that struck me was the album cover: the fact that all four Pretenders are on the cover. The last time all four Pretenders were on an album cover was back when Learning to Crawl came out. So this sounds and looks very much like a band album. Tell me a little bit about recording it and about what each band member — Martin and James and Nick — brought to the proceedings this time.
I really wanted to record with these guys. And I wanted to write the album with James [Walbourne]; that’s been on the cards for a long time. We actually started writing these songs a couple of years ago — but then we were on tour and were doing other things. James and I really talked about it a lot: all throughout our last couple of tours, how we wanted to do an album with a four-piece band. You know, just simplify it. Bring in [producer] Stephen Street, who we both worked with individually before.
And what did they bring to it? Martin has a very distinctive style. So he brings his personality. Well, same with Nick. Yeah! We have a real solid chemistry. We get along together. We have a blast when we play live and we really wanted to bring that into this album and make it number one, a fun album. Everything that we set out to achieve I think we did, so that feels great.
My favorite song on the album — and I’m not sure if this is because I live in New York or because it’s just a great song — but “Maybe Love Is in New York City.” Beautiful imagery and guitar sound. So I want to ask you about that one.
That actually was [inspired by] a friend of mine who lives in New York, who I’ve known all my life. She gave me a t-shirt when she came to visit me last that said, “Maybe love is in New York City.” And I thought, “Oh, what a great title.” That’s where that came from. What else can I say?
Were there any women who were big influences on you when you were growing up? They don’t have to be musicians. They can be — but any women that were guiding lights to you.
Well, I mean, there were women I liked. Like Dionne Warwick. Music was the only thing I got into. It informed my entire life… Because I grew up in the late ’60s, I kinda thought that sexism and racism kind of took care of itself. It seemed like everyone said, “That’s not what we’re doing now.” Like we moved on from that. [But] I think from decade to decade it changes.
What I’m trying to say is that i didn’t have any real role models that were women. My role models were musicians — and I wasn’t thinking in terms of [gender]. You know, my role model might have been Jeff Beck. I knew I’d never play guitar like that — but I thought I could look like him! The fact that he was a guy didn’t even [factor] into it. I didn’t care. ‘Cause I was never gonna wear a dress, so there you go.
Also, the big difference between me and the more current culture of women is in my experience [is that] I was never discriminated against in music. I never felt anyone looked down on me or was condescending…. Like you said in the beginning of this, what do the other guys bring to it? You know, everyone brings what they can. And what I brought to it was what the guys needed. What they brought to it was what I needed. Now if someone really didn’t wanna have a female singing voice — fair cop. You know, that’s a different instrument. I understand that and that’s not discrimination. I did play with some guys in the punk days who didn’t like the sound of a girl’s voice. I mean, not too many girls sing rock and roll. As a matter of fact, not too many women play guitar — and I’ve never been able to figure it out. You know, I’ve been in trendy cafes, sitting at a table full of supermodels [who are] talking about how they’re being given a hard time or someone sold pictures of them. And I”m thinking, “Why did you guys wanna be models when you could have gotten guitars and [been in] a band?”
All the guys I’ve ever met love when a girl plays guitar! Jeff Beck plays with girls. Prince played with girls. If anything, there’s one less male ego to compete with in the band.
I know your time is limited. Lemme ask you real quick —
That’s alright! I’m not doing anything, and nobody else is. These days, you go, “What are you doing?” And you know they’re not doing anything. (laughter) I’m glad to be talking to someone who’s in New York. I find it a really interesting thing at the moment, to talk to a New Yorker.
It’s been a weird time to be here, you know?
My friend Sandy Bernhard, I was talking to her wife the other day. And she says, “Sandy’s in the corridor, doing sprints.” And I can’t get it out of my head — this image of her sprinting across — you know, it isn’t a very big corridor! It just makes me laugh every time I think about it.
Most of us in New York don’t have a lot of space, as you know.
2020 is also 40 years since the first Pretenders album came out. Was wondering if you have any thoughts about making it, of that time and place. Any memories, even of being in England back then?
Well, I was here for awhile before I [recorded] the album. I didn’t know what I was gonna do when I came to England; I just wanted to see the world. You know, I was pretty sure I wasn’t gonna stay in Akron and I wanted to be in England because that’s where all my favorite bands were from. There you go, I was an Anglophile.
I put a lot of effort into getting that band together [and] meeting the right people. I couldn’t get it together in the punk scene because frankly, I was a little more musically diverse. Being an American growing up on radio, and I was a couple of years older than most of the people in punk. They all grew up on David Bowie and Roxy Music, but I grew up on James Brown [and] Bobby Womack. I never really got off on making it. Call me a spoil-sport but you know, I really wanted to get a band together. That was my only ambition. And when it happened, of course, I was pretty scared to get onstage. No matter how you appear to be onstage, first of all, you’re six feet taller than everyone else, so you have that working in your favor. You’re on the stage so people are looking up to you. So if you look confident, you know — what I found is: confidence is a plus. You don’t get onstage and go [whiny voice], “No, I’m so scared!” But frankly, I found it very daunting to do shows.
So you know, we went on tour. We were two albums in and half my band died of drug overdoses. There was a lot of trauma and dissent within the band. The drugs messed us up badly. In any band, after the first album, people start getting married, they meet people and it starts changing the dynamic of things. It’s inevitable. You start out like it’s us against the world and you’re really united. [But] it doesn’t take long for lives to set in and everyone starts having other priorities. So it was a very turbulent time.
When I read your book [Reckless], I was struck by the difference [between] Jimmy Scott and Pete Farndon. Your love for Jimmy Scott came through loud and clear in that book. I was left feeling like his death was just really bad luck.
Yeah, it was an accident. No one saw that coming at all! He was a sort of speed freak when I met him, when he was about 22. It was one of those unfortunate cocktails of drugs that he took when he went out one night. And it just — his heart stopped
And my love for Jimmy, you know, it was a musical thing. In our lives, music was really the only thing. He made whatever I had sound good. And I got him out of Hereford and out of the music store where he was working and put him onstage and in the studio. So we offered each other what we both needed. I mean, I loved Martin and Pete too — and they were absolutely integral to the sound of the band. But frankly, a band is about electric guitar. That’s my opinion. I had my little tunes and my little guitar parts, but Jimmy Scott made them sound a whole lot better. And he invented the Pretenders sound with [the] very simple effects he had and the way he played. I mean, he died when he was 25. He didn’t really have that much time.
Anything else that you want me to cover for this piece, Chrissie. Will there be a Pretenders tour at some point?
Well, eventually, yeah! If there are any tours in the future, we will be on one of them.
And let me see, what else can I mention… Oh, I’ll tell you a recent show I saw, last year: k.d. lang. Now there’s an artist that I really look up to! The first time I met her, she was cutting up a carrot backstage at a Pretenders show. I don’t even know if she had a record deal yet. I guess we were playing up in her hometown and somehow she got in. So I knew her from the early days. Vegetarian, of course — that’s how we bonded. She really does her own thing [and] doesn’t participate in the sort of celebrity culture, which I don’t either. I don’t feel like a celebrity and I don’t really get in that world. But when I saw her show, I’ll tell you — what a fucking great singer. It was unreal! She would sing and the whole audience was just stunned.
[Bob] Dylan, k.d.… You see something, you think “forget the rest of it.” Sometimes you see something that gets you back in focus for why you do what you do — and why you love doing it.
10 great deep cuts by the Pretenders:
[We all know “Brass in Pocket,” “I’ll Stand By You” and “Back on the Chain Gang.” But there’s so much more in the band’s catalog…]
1) “Tattooed Love Boys”
This rocker from the band’s self-titled debut boasts a bizarre time signature and graphic lyrics. Worth it alone for the line “I shot my mouth off and you showed me what that hole was for!”
2) “Lovers of Today”
Another one from their debut. “Lovers” showcases a totally different side of The Pretenders, in the form of a lullaby-ish ballad.
3) “What You Gonna Do About It”
The original lineup issued this cover of the Small Faces rocker as a UK flexi-disc between their first and second albums. A rarity.
From “Learning to Crawl,” the first album from Pretenders Mk. 2. “Thumbelina” follows Chrissie and her young kids across America as she escapes from an ex. Contains the great closing line “What’s important in this life?/Ask the man who’s lost his wife!”
5) “Sense of Purpose”
Most people ignored the Pretenders fifth album “Packed,” which came out in 1990. But there were a couple of gems on it, and this mid-tempo come-on is one of them.
6) “When Will I See You”
Also from “Packed.” In this writer’s opinion, “When Will I See You” is probably Chrissie’s best love song… Utterly haunting.
7) “Money Talk”
Most people associate the 1994 album “Last of the Independents” with the schmaltzy “I’ll Stand By You,” which became a smash. But the album was actually heavy on rockers, as “Money Talk” demonstrates.
The opening track from 1999’s “Viva El Amor.” “Popstar” boasts blazing guitars, witty lyrics and a great, ad-libbed exchange with David Johansen at the end.
9) “You Know Who Your Friends Are”
A reggae-tinged tune from the 2003 disc “Loose Screw,” about drugs and violence. Contains the immortal couplet, “You were hoping you could leave here with some teeth still in your head/But your friends on curtain row would rather see you dead.”
The title track from the most recent Pretenders album, this song is an ode to the joys of solitude.