Lead Pretender Chrissie Hynde is the real deal

The life of The Pretenders' Chrissie Hynde is a study in determination and a love of rock, writesMathew Scott

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 17 September, 2012, 9:25am

When the call comes through from Chrissie Hynde, she has only just returned to her home in London after a trip back to her native United States to visit family and friends. She's readying herself for the first rehearsals before taking her band, The Pretenders, back on the road after a break of about 18 months.

The 61-year-old says the gap in between performances will benefit those in Hong Kong who turn up for The Pretenders' gig at the Kowloon Bay International Trade & Exhibition Centre on Thursday as it has left the band "gagging for it".

As for the singer-songwriter-guitarist herself, while she is happy enough with her time out of the limelight ("Away from the band I am a very, very ordinary person," she says), getting up and doing her thing centre stage is quite simply what she was put on this planet to do.

"My fans pay me to goof off and have a good time," says Hynde. "I don't think they want to see me as some ambitious, intense person and I don't want to be. Not everyone gets to be a rock star and I take it pretty seriously. If my fans want me to have fun and look cool and that's all I have to do, then I take that very seriously."

Fans who have followed Hynde since The Pretenders emerged at the back end of the late-1970s punk movement may be surprised to learn that, in the very beginning at least, that she found playing live "torture".

"Probably for the first 200 shows, I just hated it," she laughs. "I found it really, really uncomfortable. I was a natural showoff with my friends, but the idea of going to theatre school or drama school horrified me. I only did this because I like rock'n'roll music. I thought at one time I would be a painter, but I got waylaid by rock'n'roll. But this was the way it was meant to be. I just loved rock'n'roll then and I love it now."

This love was the driving force behind Hynde's move - at just 22 years of age - from the wide open streets of Akron, Ohio, to the grubby confines of inner London squats. "I knew I didn't want to stay in the States but I didn't know anyone [in London]. I just came over and stayed," she explains.

"In London you connect with people on a street level. You travel on buses and on the Underground and you connect. I had come from a car culture where you don't connect and I was trying to escape that car.

"To start with I was just cleaning houses and s*** like that. I just worked wherever I could. After a couple of years I could feel something was in the air and I decided to get a band together."

It's part of music industry folklore now how Hynde found herself moving in exactly the right circles, from nights spent at the short-lived Roxy club in Covent Garden, where bands such as The Damned and The Stranglers got their start, to days hanging out with the likes of Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood.

At one time or another, Hynde played alongside the musicians who drove the punk movement across the globe - Mick Jones (The Clash) among them - but was determined to make her own way. "The punk scene encouraged anyone to have a go. It was a good moment," she says. "I didn't think being a girl would be a novelty. There were a few of us knocking about. The Slits, Siouxsie Sioux, Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex. So I just got into it with my guitar and started to write songs. It was great because I wasn't a novelty. I was just a girl in a band."

The Pretenders' story from there - about 1979 - is pure rock'n'roll. Chart-topping hits such as
Brass in Pocket, world tours and tragedy as the band lost founding members James Honeyman-Scott to cocaine-induced heart failure and Pete Farndon to a heroin overdose. But somehow, Hynde was able to keep things together.

"When the band started to happen we were working all the time. I had tried so hard over five years to get a band together and then everything happened so quickly," Hynde reflects. "We did a couple of world tours, half my band died, I had to find replacements for the band when I was pregnant for the first time and didn't know the first thing about babies or anything. It was full-on for years. I toured with small children, then I took eight years off while they were in school and from then I have been on the road, basically, which is doing what I know how to do."

It now seems remarkable in this age of the relentless 24-hour news cycle, and despite all the dramas, that Hynde was pretty much able to keep to herself. Even more so when you consider she had children with Ray Davies of The Kinks and Jim Kerr of Simple Minds. "In the early days the celebrity culture that we have now really didn't exist yet so I was fine with that," she says. "I'm not one who really likes attention. The only time I really like attention is when I am on stage, otherwise I'm not really comfortable with it."

Hynde is similarly and engagingly honest when it comes to explaining how she dealt with the loss of her bandmates. "I think everyone is resilient in the face of death," she says. "You have no choice and it is incredible what you can do when you have no choice. People find all sorts of inner strengths they didn't have when faced with some sort of calamity. I don't think mine has really been any worse than anyone else my age. Everyone has lost people they love. It's just part of life."

By keeping some distance between herself and the press - she says she finds the interview process "hell" and never reads anything written about her - Hynde has been able to maintain some semblance of sanity.

"No one has publicised their ups and downs less than me," she says. "I've never gone to the press and been a crybaby. Or milked it. I have always just tried to keep it about the music. I know I am in a privileged position, but I am still saying f*** off. Maybe I should play the game more but I don't think it is going to happen."

The focus is now - as it always has been - on the music and on the thrill she gets when she steps out into the spotlight. "I've got to make music and that's what I always wanted to do. From when I was 16 when I listen to all those bands and thought, 'Well that must just be the best thing in the whole world, to be in a rock band.' And that's what I've got to do.

"I look in the audience, especially if I see people my age, and there still are a few. I think 'Wow, man, you had a bass guitar when you were 18 and you put it in the closet and got a job. Or you wanted to be a singer but then you got married.' I can see them all out there and I see them thinking 'Wow, she's cool.'

"And I think 'You guys gave up too f***ing easy'."


The Pretenders,
Thu, 8pm, Kitec, 1 Trademart Drive, Kowloon Bay, HK$590-HK$990 HK Ticketing. Inquiries: 2629 6240