A trio of English men fronted by an expat American woman from Akron, Ohio, singing moody rock songs in the midst of the British punk explosion? When the Pretenders formed in London in 1978, the odds were stacked firmly against them. But through the drug-related deaths of founding bassist and guitarist Peter Farndon and James Honeyman-Scott, the band pulled it off and became New Wave legends and, this year, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees.
Their self-titled 1980 debut blasted them onto the international scene, with the melodic gems like “Brass in Pocket,” “Mystery Achievement” and “Kid.” But it was singer Chrissie Hynde’s deadpan, honeyed vocals, signature chopped bangs and tough-girl image that helped them become icons in the burgeoning music video age. With Hynde as the guiding force, the band went through a variety of lineups throughout the Eighties and Nineties, racking up more hits like “Back on the Chain Gang” and “Middle of the Road.” Though he was sacked for a time in the Eighties, longtime drummer Martin Chambers has been back on the chain gang for nearly fifteen years.
Did you ever think you’d make it to the Hall of Fame?
At the Hall’s opening in 1995, I remember being in a room with James Brown and Jerry Lee Lewis thinking, “What am I doing here?” “Well, you’re allowed to be here, Martin, because you’re still alive.” It was a very long time ago — 1982 and 1983 that Jim and Pete died. I’ve been holding a banner for my friends. It’s a way of going, “OK, lads, you’re on your own now.” I can let go of the banner, because it’s starting to get real heavy. It’s completing a circle in many respects.
How do you think they’d have reacted to this honor?
They’d have been over the moon. Jim, Pete and I had the same feeling: We just wanted to conquer the world. Once you got the first album and you’re out on the road it’s really empowering. I think they’d be completely gobsmacked.
How do you plan to honor them?
I’ve thought of various things. I’ll do whatever comes up on the night. I’m certain there will be words said about them and all the Pretenders who have helped out over the years.
What do you think made the music you four created together so special?
The fact that it was us. Chrissie came from Ohio, and she could have just as easily broken in America. We’re not really English or American. Like the classic bands, there’s always an element of childhood or school friendship going on — like with the Who, the Stones. It’s personal. Jimmy, Pete and I were like the three stooges.
Please share a memorable recording moment.
During Learning to Crawl, I remember sitting on the other side of the glass from [producer] Chris Thomas and “Middle of the Road” needed something to kick it off. Chris said to me, “Just do some crazy drumming at the top.” I said, “What do you mean, ‘crazy drumming’?” And that became the crash, bang, wallop intro to the song.
What are your favorite songs to play live?
The ones that are really rocking out. “Up the Neck” and “Middle of the Road.” There’s one section in “Night in My Veins” where we kind of go Who Live at Leeds for about sixteen bars. I guess it comes from my love of the older rock & roll stars like Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent . . . when they’re really screaming.
How did you hear about your induction? Did Chrissie call you?
Someone from the office called in October to say that we were up for it. Chrissie and I do our talking in the rehearsal room and on the stage, and that’s about it. I’m sure we’ll have many a cups of tea during rehearsals and we’ll talk about it then.
What will you play at the event?
We’ve been invited to do three songs. We’re going to do a couple of songs from the first album, any two will suit me. I won’t even know until two days before. We’re going to be playing for six and a half minutes, but it goes by in six and a half seconds. It’s like Live Aid: We were scheduled to play for seventeen minutes and we played for seventeen minutes and two seconds because it was my job to time us. Chrissie would always ask me at rehearsal, “What are you doing?” Because I had a stopwatch and I was timing every time we were doing a song. And the last rehearsal we did she said, “How long is it, how long is it?” Suddenly she was interested.
What was it like being fronted by an American woman in the British punk scene? That was a pretty daring move at the time. Did she have a difficult time being accepted?
She’s a very private person and whatever she went through, unless it was obvious to see, she would never speak about her hard times.
How did she strike you the first time you met her?
As quite an individual. We said hello and then she sat there and read a book.
She didn’t chat you up or try to get to know you?
No. I met with Jim and Pete at a pub and she said, ‘Hello, yeah.’ And then she sat there and read a book, so I played pool with Jim and Pete. She’s a funny one, isn’t she?
What’s your relationship been like over the years?
Chrissie and I have been fairly level. We’ve had very few raised voices between us. I’ve tried to step back and give her freedom, even when she sacked me from the band in the late Eighties. I just said, “I’m sorry I can’t perform what you want me to.” It was me being apologetic, but, of course, she missed me [laughs] and the inevitable happened.
Is she a difficult person to get along with?
I don’t think she’s difficult to get along with . . . as long as you do what she says.