Chrissie Hynde: Beyond the fringe

17:00, May 24 2014
chrissie hynde
THE PRETENDER: "I feel comfortable being a stranger. On my own, I'm a lone wolf on the street."

John Lydon from the Sex Pistols remembers a young Chrissie Hynde as a "hard girl"; journalist Julie Burchill told The Independent the young Hynde was "half John Wayne, half Cleopatra"; and Hynde's former lover, the blackleather-clad rock critic Nick Kent, once described his ex as a "harridan".

She is, undeniably, the quintessential rocker.

A fiercely independent woman with a singular style; a staunch vegetarian and an animal rights activist.

chrissie hynde
KEEN ON KIWIS: "I've had some memorable times there," Hynde says of New Zealand.

And who could forget the tough-as-nails image of Hynde on the cover of the first Pretenders record in 1979? Red leather, lace fingerless gloves, that trademark heavy, blunt fringe, lashings of tar-black eyeliner and an unflinching gaze.

And those songs. From the snarling Private Life to the unabashed sultriness of Brass in Pocket, and later the chiming catchiness of Back on the Chain Gang, Hynde, with her group the Pretenders, has created some enduring hard-edged pop classics.

While I can vouch that Hynde swears like a trooper, in our interview she is warm, chipper, enthusiastic and frequently exclaims "Yay!" in delight. It's far from the spiky demeanour of songs such as Tattooed Love Boys in which she crankily demands, "stop snivelling".


One defining thing about the Pretenders was that they were a gang. Chrissie and her boys.

Hynde has said she loves being in bands, that it's a band that makes a song a 'rock' song. But now, for the first time in her 30-year musical career, she has struck out on her own.

While the Pretenders made riffy new-wave pop, her debut solo album Stockholm is glossier, more power-pop - with an extremely catchy first single, Dark Sunglasses.

"I love that you say it's power-pop," says Hynde.

"It's really fun, basic rock. We've got some great guitar performances on here. For me, it's all about the guitar. With the Pretenders, people were always saying, 'Yeah it's just you, yeah it's just you, yeah it's just you.' I'd say, 'Oh, f*** off!' And now, ironically, it's just me."

It may be a solo album, but Stockholm might actually be one of Hynde's most collaborative projects yet.

worked closely with musician and producer Björn Yttling - from Swedish indie darlings Peter Bjorn and John - and enlisted her friend, the legendary Neil Young, to lend his epic and sprawling guitar playing to the track Down the Wrong Way.

And, bizarrely, tennis rebel John McEnroe plays guitar on A Plan too Far.

"I saw a tennis racquet in the studio and I said to Björn, 'Oh, you like tennis?' I know [McEnroe], and he loves rock and roll. I got John to come into the studio, and I could see Björn s****ing himself," she recalls.

"Björn was delighted. I even got John to hit a few balls with him in New York."

In 1973, aged 22, with no job or accommodation in mind, Hynde bought a solo one-way ticket to London from her hometown, Akron, Ohio.

Her wandering disposition is present in her music, which has a timeless and placeless quality - not exclusively

American or British-sounding. "I'm a real solo person," she says. "I suppose I have always felt like a bit of a stranger... I feel comfortable being a stranger. On my own, I'm a lone wolf on the street. But in a band, I'm a team player."

Hynde landed in London at the right time, just as punk rock was starting to gestate. Arriving in the edgy counter-culture hotbed, she quickly fell in with the right crowd, a heady cast of punk movers and shakers.

Journalist Kent opened the door for her to join him writing for the New Musical Express and she found herself interviewing a diverse range of musicians, including Brian Eno, Suzi Quatro, Tim Buckley and David Cassidy.

Hynde didn't form the Pretenders until she was 26, which she believes gave her a musical edge over her
peers. "I was older. I had more of a musical background than just punk."

Her recent collaboration with Yttling - best known for indie-pop hit Young Folks - was an inspired idea, but
it wasn't hers.

"It was put together - and this is commonly done these days - by my manager. He took me to my publisher and asked me if I would like to write with someone else. They said, 'Listen to some stuff, tell us what you like.'"

Hynde met Yttling a few times and confessed she didn't actually have a notebook or any notes, hadn't played the guitar in a while, and had no new ideas.

She says the first thing he played her sounded like he was whistling into his phone.

"He just played me a little tune he had on his computer, eight bars of something, some chords. I loved how basic it was."

She says they each brought their own strengths to the album.

"I don't care about the business end. I don't pay so much attention to that. Björn is very much more focused on the whole, 'we need to be on the radio' thing. I went over to meet up with him three times before I even knew what band he was in. I kept thinking they were called Peter, Paul and Mary," she laughs.

"With half of the vocals, I'm just reading from the page into the mic. Most of it is pretty rough, to be honest. All of the lyrics were written on the day. Homework is not my thing. I've had 35 years of experience, I've had enough disappointment in my life to draw from."

Hynde thinks the secret to sustaining an engaging and exciting relationship with music is not to overdo it - to refrain from boiling over.

I ask how she will approach playing this new material in concert.

"You don't want to bore the public," she replies. "I don't know, are people going to stand for me just playing 11 new songs? Will they say, play [Pretenders song] 'Brass in Pocket'? I can't keep saying, 'F*** off!'

"Playing in a band is when you're most yourself. When you're on stage, you're portraying something, it's like storytelling, interpreting. But it can be really tedious as well. I've spent hours and hours waiting and sitting around in a dressing room with a candle. Life is an endless meditation on waiting and then it's just one hour and 15 minutes on stage."

One of her oldest friends, Devo lead singer Mark Mothersbaugh, recalls a young Hynde in his band's biography.

Hynde desperately wanted to form a band, but was too shy, so everybody had to play in the next room while she sang in a room on her own, sitting on top of a washing machine.

It's hard to imagine the gutsy, defiant Hynde being shy.

"Shyness? You just have to get over it," she says.  "It took me about 400 shows to get over it. People would
say, 'Ooh, you're playing Madison Square Garden,' and my blood would just run cold at the mention of it.

"[But] after a few hundred shows, I started to get used to it."

New Zealand is a significant place for Hynde. Not only does her bass player, Nick Wilkinson, live in Christchurch, it was here in 1984 - playing at the Sweetwaters festival - that she met her former husband, Simple Minds frontman Jim Kerr.

"My real impression of New Zealand was the trees and the botanical gardens. It's just so spectacular looking. I've had some memorable times there. What's that place... Plymouth? New Plymouth? That was great.

We played in front of a lake and the audience was very rough and ready. They were bikers and I was like, 'Yeah! This is my kind of crowd.' "At Sweetwaters, with Jim Kerr, I just remember seeing all these flares. But [in New Plymouth] I was like, 'hooray!' I love that s***. Now that's a real rock audience."

One memory in particular has pride of place: "So we were in front of this lake and the audience was on the other side of the lake, and the audience was like 'f*** this' and they all got into the lake and were swimming towards us. I think I threw a tambourine into the lake and they dived down into the slimy bottom of the lake. And someone pulled up a giant eel. It was a definitive rock moment. I don't remember shows much. I don't remember anything, to be honest. But I do remember that."

Sunday Magazine