Tuesday, February 12, 2013

THE PRETENDERS: Chrissie Hynde and the Mystery Achievement

What did you do when you were eighteen? Me, I played in a rock’n’roll band. As I type that, I’m aware of what an arch cliché it is - but I’m proud of it, nonetheless. Far sadder, in both senses of the word, would be NOT to have been in a rock’n’roll band when I was eighteen. If you didn’t do it, you really missed out. If you ARE eighteen, or even younger, and you DON’T play in a band (these days, it doesn’t have to be rock’n’roll), then what are you waiting for? Go out and join one immediately. Get out from behind that computer and find some like-minded souls, get some instruments and amps together, rehearse up some songs, even write some of your own, get some gigs, have some FUN! Build some memories…

Yes, that’s how easy it was when I was a kid in the late 70s. In autumn 1978, I was already on my second band – I considered myself a professional - and I was eighteen and I thought I was one hotshot guitar player. Punk had just changed everything so that people like me could get in there and PARTICIPATE and we had a singer with a small but plausible profile amongst the In-Crowd of the day and who could therefore get us some reasonable gigs. Thus it was that one day I finished my day’s work at the off-license (liquor store sounds so much more rock’n’roll but I can’t quite bring myself to type it), went home, got changed, picked up my recently acquired blond Gibson SG Standard and put it in its case and headed off to the Moonlight Club in West Hampstead where I was to meet the van carrying all our amps and drums and help unload it before setting up and doing a sound check for the evening’s gig. We were to be the supporting act for a new band called The Pretenders. They were already there when we arrived. They’d been there all afternoon apparently driving the engineers crazy by playing the same song over and over (“Up The Neck”) and NOT being happy with the house PA. Still, they were gracious enough when they saw that we were ready, and relinquished the stage fairly promptly (a lot more promptly than many other bands would have done -“sound check etiquette” remains a much under-discussed area of rock’n’roll folklore). As we had been unloading they had played a version of Sandie Shaw’s “Girl Don’t Come” which immediately made me like them, being the 60s trivia buff that I was (and still am). Their singer was a tough looking American woman named Chrissie Hynde. I knew who she was because I remembered reading her pieces in the New Musical Express and thinking she was a good writer. In those days, the NME was still a very good paper with a very high standard of journalism and I would still read it every week with a close to religious devotion. Chrissie Hynde wrote from the perspective of the bemused American, and it was very effective: even amongst the very best writers in the genre (Nick Kent, Ian MacDonald etc), her voice stood out and her pieces were very memorable. What no one could have guessed was how true that would prove to be of her work as a singer and songwriter. Then, she was just a writer wannabe who had somehow got sidelined by punk, despite having been right in the thick of it from the very beginning. She watched me as I got out my Gibson from its case.

“That’s a nice guitar!” she said, in a loud and friendly voice. She had a blond SG as well. We exchanged guitar talk; it turned out that, while she liked the SG, she liked her blond Telecaster better. The Pretenders lead guitarist joined in the conversation and motioned me over to a large flight case containing several smaller flight cases. He pulled out an Ice Blue Gibson Firebird and handed it to me with a reverential air. I accepted the complimentary camaraderie this gesture represented with some surprise: there was none of the usual petty one-upmanship that bands, and particularly guitarists, are prone to. These people were not trying to be cool, which usually translated as rude and standoffish, they just WERE cool. I handed back the beautiful blue guitar and went up to do the sound check. I reached in my pocket and realized I had forgotten to bring any picks with me. Disaster! I proclaimed the problem to the air. “D’you wanna borrow my pick?” rang out Chrissie’s voice. I gratefully accepted her offer and used the pick until it got lost and went to wherever it is that all lost plectrums go.

“She FAN-cies you”, said my objectionable fourteen year old sister in a blazingly audible and witheringly scornful stage whisper. My sister had only just loaned us £90 to buy a van so we had to put up with her. Still, I chose to ignore this painful intrusion. It was too frightening a prospect to consider. Chrissie Hynde wasn’t like any of the girls I knew. She was older and smarter and infinitely more worldly. Her manner – although very friendly – was frankly intimidating. You knew instinctively at first glance that this was NOT a lady to be trifled with.

We did our set of Chuck Berry and Larry Williams covers to what I thought was an appreciative audience (the place was packed to the rafters with hip cats and trendy’s and NME groupies who had come to see Chrissie Hynde’s debut). I waited eagerly for the glowing review to appear in the next issue. And lo! There it was, written by Nick Kent himself, but he didn’t mention us at all. Life is full of small betrayals. Bastard… “No pretence about this lot”, he wrote, and I remember it to this day.

Back at The Moonlight Club, I watched The Pretenders set from a high vantage point. I was alone, my sister had taken the 159 bus home and the rest of the band had packed up and returned to somewhere called South London. The friendly guitarist was playing lots of loud solos. This seems unremarkable now but at the time it was tantamount to heresy. The bass and drums thumped and rumbled rather than clattered, it was a powerful sound. Not like the neurotic trebly noise of Punk at all. Out front, Chrissie was having problems with the monitors but you could hear this strange vibrato in her voice, this keening sound. It was something old and new. It bruised, and once heard, it stayed with you.

Sometime in the next few days I went down to the Rock On stall in Soho market and bought their single off Shane from The Nips who worked there. In those days Shane McGowan (for it was he) was a friendly jug-eared Irish speed freak that liked to talk records but that day he was a bit subdued. Seems he wasn’t interested in The Pretenders. The single was a cover of an obscure Kinks song – “Stop Your Sobbing”. On the other side was an original called “The Wait”. As a die-hard Kinks fan I knew “Stop Your Sobbing” well; it was one of Ray Davies’s first published songs and was an entirely generic exercise in 1964 Pop filler. Myself, I love things like that but I am always surprised when other people do. Meanwhile The Pretenders, with producer Nick Lowe, had inflated it to epic proportions. The arrangement had been thoroughly re-jigged: Davies’s original throwaway bridge was now a passport to longing. It sounded superficially like Blondie but with a vulnerable catch in the voice that Debbie Harry could never muster. The guitars chimed like lonely Byrds, the thump and rumble was present and correct, and Chrissie – Chrissie would like to break your heart. Nick Lowe had had the brilliant notion of double-tracking her over the long fade, thus she duets with herself until both voices join together in a long cry of joy and pain. I was totally sold. This was Pop music I could dream to. But “The Wait” on the other side was something else entirely. Almost punk, almost heavy rock, unintelligible lyrics, Chrissie doing the tough rock chick routine. It was OK. The guitar solo was a guilty pleasure but it was strictly a ‘B’ side.

Then: nothing. Didn’t hear from The Pretenders again for months and months, which is an eternity when you’re eighteen. Before you know it, you become nineteen. They did a gig at The Lyceum that I couldn’t go to for some reason (probably had a gig myself) that apparently did NOT go well. Badly promoted, poorly attended, bad reviews spoke of the dreadful sound, Chrissie having tantrums. Despite considerable airplay, “Stop Your Sobbing” had only been a very minor hit and it looked like maybe it was all over before it started. But then the second single came out, “Kid”, and I loved it and played it over and over. This was an original song with a tune in the bass strings of the guitar like a love struck Duane Eddy while Chrissie sang a bittersweet song of sympathy to a heartbroken child. Meanwhile, over on the ‘B’ side, Chrissie sang a story song called “Tattoo’d Love Boys” about being the subject of a Hell’s Angels gangbang (“I shot my mouth off and you showed me what that hole was for”) – all in 7-4 time. Captivating, you might say. Then, a month long weekly residency at the Marquee was announced for November 1979.

I can’t remember what night of the week it was but I went to every gig. They would open their set with an instrumental, “Space Invaders”, and then follow it up with “Precious”. They would play a long reggae flavoured track called “Private Life” (that Grace Jones covered and made her own) and of course they would play “Stop Your Sobbing” and “Kid” and “Tattoo’d Love Boys” and “The Wait”. I was sad that “Girl Don't Come” seemed to have disappeared from their set but another song called “Cuban Slide” was a real compensation. They usually encored with a song with a Spencer Davis Group bass line that I later learned was called “Mystery Achievement”. They were growing into something really special before my eyes and ears. It was such a joy to have something so exciting to look forward to every week. Being the teenage ligger that I was, I would go early and look for them in “The Ship” – the pub in Wardour Street – just a few doors along from the Marquee. I caught up with Chrissie there, asked her if she remembered me. She looked flustered. “No”, she said, “but I’m such an acid casualty I can't remember anything.” She was friendly and funny and kind. The guitar player, James Honeyman-Scott, was there too. He seemed changed, more aloof, but he was friendly enough to me. I didn’t bother him. It was just a buzz to see him there.

The residency ended and I was in mourning. I wanted so much to join in, to be part of their journey but couldn't find a way. I wrote a gushing fan letter to Chrissie, telling her how much I had enjoyed the shows, and wondering if there was any chance that my band might ever get to support them again. Their third single, “Brass In Pocket”, was due out any day. I thought if I went along to the record company office in Covent Garden I might be able to buy a copy before it was officially released. I pressed the bell marked Real Records at 39 Floral Street. A window opened above me and there was Chrissie herself poking her head out and looking down. She saw me and nodded. Her head disappeared and a moment later the door buzzed and I was inside. With butterflies in my stomach I climbed the stairs, wondering what I was going to say. When I got to the top I was greeted by Dave Hill, The Pretenders manager. He asked what I wanted. I could see the four members of the band in the next room watching our exchange. I had obviously interrupted a meeting. I stammered with embarrassment. “I am so sorry to bother you”, I said, “I was just hoping to get a copy of the new single”. I could see boxes of them all around the office. “What? Are we supposed to just GIVE you one”, manager man asked with some irritation. “No, no, of course not, I’ll pay for it. Here…” I proffered a pound note. Somewhat mollified, Manager Dave took the money, pulled a single out of an open box and handed it to me. Then he reached into his pocket, pulled out 10p (singles were 90p at the time) and gave it to me. I thanked him, nodded in the direction of the band who were still watching and left quickly, feeling like an unwelcome intruder, like a pushy third former being thrown out of the sixth form common room.

Still, I had the record, and I played it and played it when I got home. I recognized it from their set, “Brass In Pocket”, it wasn’t one of my favourites but it was a grower. It was a song about confidence, about convincing yourself that you were special. But I didn't feel special. I had overstepped the mark. I was uncool. I was cast out.

But then something marvelous happened…

A couple of days later I awoke with the outro of “Kid” in my head. I remember it distinctly. I went to the kitchen and made some breakfast and then there was a ring at the doorbell. It was the postman. He had a package addressed to me. Inside were copies of the three Pretenders singles. On the copy of “Brass In Pocket” were scrawled the words “90p to you pal” and there was also a letter, hand written on Real Records notepaper that is worth quoting in full:

Nov 22. ‘79

Dear Adam

Wow – your letter makes me want to stay in this completely fucked up business. (I only realized it was you after Dave (manager) sold you a copy of the single.) I felt like a prick.

Your fab.

Love Chrissie

Do you want to support us at The Marquee 22 or 23? Let Dave Hill or myself know. Hope you do.

To say this made me happy would be something of an understatement. It was one of the happiest moments of my life. I phoned and was told that we could support The Pretenders on both nights.

I called the singer of the band I was in to tell him the news. Strangely enough, he wasn’t as ecstatic as I was. He was much more excited about the weeklong residency he had booked for us to play in a nightclub in Paris. We were due to leave on the 23rd to take the overnight ferry in time to play the first gig on Christmas Eve and doing a gig on the night of the 23rd was going to be cutting it fine. I couldn’t believe it. Surely nothing could be more important than playing at The Marquee with The Pretenders? Could it? Somehow, the logistics were worked out. On the first night I brought my newly acquired 1966 Fireglow Rickenbacker 360-12 to show to James Honeyman-Scott – a belated quid pro quo for the blue Firebird. But when I got to the gig, The Pretenders were nowhere to be seen. I left the guitar in the dressing room. We did our sound check and I returned to the dressing room to find Honeyman-Scott playing my guitar and enthusing about a film he had just seen of The Beatles on their first American tour where George Harrison was playing the very same model. “Is this yours?” he asked me loudly. I admitted that it was. “Would you like to borrow it?” I offered, with as much nonchalance as I could muster. “Naaah, thanks mate”, he demurred, smiling. “I’ve got a couple of chorus pedals hooked up to get me that sound if I need it”. At the time I didn’t even know what a chorus pedal was but I nodded with infinite understanding. Suddenly the room was full of Pretenders. “Has anyone seen my fucking gloves?” called out Chrissie. “They were a present from my mother.” She looked at me: “It’s kinda depressing, you know.” I nodded as if I too knew the pain of losing a pair of fingerless black lace gloves that had been a present from my mother.

She must have found them because she was wearing them when she appeared on stage later for The Pretenders set. Our set had gone over well with the audience. We had managed to gather together what fan base we had and had done as good a set as we were capable of. But I was impatient for it to end so that I could watch The Pretenders. It turned out that Chrissie was coming down with the flu so her performance was a bit subdued. By this time, they had outgrown the Marquee and the place was too full for comfort. “It’s just jukebox music!” the voice of our bass player boomed loudly in my ear, full of disdain. I just smiled. Yes, yes, it was, beautiful jukebox music.

After the gig, packing up, the atmosphere in the dressing room was getting a little rowdy. Chrissie had gone home to nurse her flu. Steve Peregrine-Took, the original bongo player from Tyrannosaurus Rex, appeared and warmly greeted Pete Farndon, the Pretenders bassist, and then immediately fell down on the floor in a dead faint. He was a big fellow and he fell heavily and this became the subject of much hilarity. Alarm bells were ringing in my head. It was time to leave.

The next night was an anti-climax. We had virtually none of our people in and our set failed completely to make an impression on The Pretenders audience. We didn’t play so good and Chrissie’s flu was like a pall over The Pretenders set. I never saw them again.

Our week in Paris is another story. When I got back I slept for eighteen hours straight and woke to find that “Brass In Pocket” was number one. Allegedly, this was the result of a frenzied hype campaign on the part of the record company but whatever, it worked. The Pretenders were on their way.

But the rock superstardom that had seemed so inevitable never happened. James Honeyman-Scott died of a heart attack brought on by cocaine abuse in June of 1982, and heroin took out Pete Farndon less than a year later. Prior to this, though, they had continued to knock out some truly great singles. “Talk Of The Town” hadn’t managed to repeat the success of “Brass In Pocket” but I loved it so. “Maybe tomorrow, maybe someday…”, sang Chrissie, and I knew exactly what she meant. And on the ‘B’ side there was “Cuban Slide” which remains the closest to how I remember the way they sounded back then, featuring, as it does, perhaps their best ever recorded ensemble performance with poor doomed Jimmy playing his little heart out through his pair of doubled-up chorus pedals. “Message Of Love” married up a classic one-up one-down punk guitar riff with a mysterious bridge and chorus that seemed to come from somewhere else completely, full of chords sprung from a vintage Brian Wilson fantasy. And then there was “I Go To Sleep”.

Chrissie always talked up her love for Ray Davies in interviews and so it came to pass that they eventually met, fell in love, had a child together, and parted. “How’s your relationship with Ray Davies these days?” asked a rude journalist for the gutter press. “Who the fuck wants to know?” Chrissie snarled straight back – and I fell in love with her all over again. But the journalist only had to listen to the version of Davies’s “I Go To Sleep” that The Pretenders released as a single in 1981 to have his question answered. It’s surely their best ever record. A masterpiece of heartbreak, Davies wrote it when he returned from a tour to find his wife had left him. He never recorded it with The Kinks, preferring to give it to Peggy Lee (of all people).

“I go to sleep, and imagine that you’re there with me…”

In The Pretenders version the line assumes proportions of tragedy rarely hinted at in the Pop charts. But this is what Pop music is for: to express emotions this deep. Isn’t it? With the guitars reined in, a lone horn takes the melody at the beginning and end. The arrangement is as delicate as the mood. Coming when it did, in 1981, it was almost unbearably good.

After Honeyman-Scott died, Chrissie found a temporary replacement and released a song called “Back On The Chain Gang” – not a version of the Sam Cooke song, though it referenced the sound of the men grunting from that record, but a paean to her lost friend.

“Those were the happiest days of my life”, she sang, and once again, I knew exactly what she was talking about.


As I write it is February 2013. I am 52, I have a daughter older than I was when all this was going on. She is so much more sensible and adult than I was then. Is it just a boy thing? I realise I am eulogizing trivial events that happened 33 years ago. Romanticizing throwaway pop music – “Jukebox music” - from as long ago as that. That would have been like a 52 year old in 1980 remembering the hits of 1947 – unthinkably irrelevant! The modern age of instant information has done strange things to our measurement of time, which is, after all, only a human construct. Noel Coward’s quote: “how potent cheap music is”, is surely his best known because it is an absolute truth. Nothing brings back my youth and invokes nostalgia like the early records of The Pretenders. It all seemed so important then. Rock’n’roll, Pop - whatever you want to call it – it was the most important thing in the world. Everything was done or left undone to its soundtrack. It was the heartbeat of my whole life, and I know I was far from alone. Maybe it’s that monstrously disproportionate emotional investment that my generation made to the music that makes it so hard to forget. Oh, I know, many people do. They get proper jobs, they take on adult responsibilities, they become…indentured. They lose sight of the confused and entranced teenagers they once were. This is as it should be. People who spend their lives constantly refusing to grow up can be tiresome and often, ultimately, pathetic. But I know, as sure as I am alive, that there will be music from that time that would take the sternest adult straight back to when things were strange and confusing, exciting and frightening.

With hindsight, (Hyndesight, hah!) the end of the 70s marked the end of the great experiment of the mid-20th century – the great cultural and artistic renaissance that flowered in the 60s, withered in the 70s and died in the 80s. Thatcher and Reagan were about to unleash their cruel visions. Nothing would ever be the same again. So maybe it’s not just me, not just my fond nostalgia. There was something special about that end time and the music that was its soundtrack. At the time, many people were absolutely messianic about “the death of rock’n’roll” and all that that meant – the posturing of groups like Public Image Ltd and the whole ‘Industrial’ thing of Cabaret Voltaire, Throbbing Gristle etc which all seems so silly now – but the empty rhetoric was tailor made for dramatic teenagers. Add drugs to the mix and stir vigorously. Ultimately though, the commodity of Rock’n’roll proved to be far too durable, too lucrative to be finished off by a bunch of spotty scag heads. The Rolling Stones approach their seventies and play vast stadiums where tickets for admission have a face value of over £400. Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey regularly front a gang of session musicians and have the unmitigated effrontery to call it The Who – and are believed by huge audiences unwilling to admit that they missed out on being there when it mattered. And on and on and on…

“To a place in the past we’ve been cast out of” – Chrissie Hynde, “Back On The Chain Gang”

I would like to thank Chrissie Hynde, James Honeyman-Scott, Pete Farndon and Martin Chambers for all these memories, for providing me with such a dependable soundtrack at such a turbulent time of my life. It was a good choice I made, The Pretenders. The records still sound good. They never depreciated. They have never embarrassed me and I don’t think they ever will. So thank you.

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