Kubernik: The Pretenders' Chrissie Hynde

At the turn of the 80s, Pretenders announced themselves to the world with what is widely regarded as one of the greatest debut albums of all time. They solidified their status as one of the most exciting bands around with their follow-up album Pretenders II, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year.

Consisting of their most famous line-up with Chrissie Hynde (vocals and guitar), James Honeyman-Scott (guitar), Pete Farndon (bass), and Martin Chambers (drums), the Pretenders first two albums created a rock sound that perfectly blended glistening guitar hooks, striking vocals with undertones of punk that still sound fresh to this day.

On November 5, Pretenders’ first two albums will be touted in two brand-new 3CD deluxe editions curated by Chrissie Hynde and will be available from all music retailers. Pretenders and Pretenders II will also be pressed on limited edition red and white vinyl respectively on Rhino.

Assembled by Chrissie Hyndeboth Pretenders and Pretenders II are each presented in 12x12 3CD deluxe sets, featuring a high-quality book with brand-new liner notes by journalist Will Hodgkinson. They include a myriad of rare and unseen photos of the band.

PRETENDERS (DELUXE EDITION) houses the original album remastered by Chris Thomas, alongside demos, rarities, and many live performances. These include BBC sessions on The Kid Jensen Show, and performances at The Paris Theatre, London, and Paradise Theater in Boston. PRETENDERS II (DELUXE EDITION) also features a remastered version of the album by Chris Thomas, demos, and alternates alongside two live performances; one from Central Park, New York City in 1980, and an electric show from The Santa Monica Civic Auditorium in 1981.


The Pretenders’ first endeavor came almost a year earlier to the album’s release, with their Top 40 debut single, a cover of the Kinks’ "Stop Your Sobbing" produced by Nick Lowe. Next came "Kid," another UK Top 40 hit and their first originally written single. Following both singles would come one of Pretenders’ biggest tracks to this day, "Brass In Pocket." Leading with a glorious guitar rhythm embodied by a luscious chorus, "Brass In Pocket" launched Pretenders onto a different level, with the track finishing reaching #1 in the UK, Ireland, Sweden, and South Africa, as well as Top 5 in Australia, Belgium, Canada, France, New Zealand and more. It was also a success in the US, reaching #14 and becoming the 7th music video aired on MTV. The album continues to be highly acclaimed to this day, regularly featuring amongst best of the 1980s lists, as well as being certified Platinum in USA, and Gold in UK, Netherlands, Belgium, and New Zealand.

During the year between Pretenders and Pretenders II, the band continued their momentum releasing two singles in the UK, "Talk Of The Town" and "Message Of Love," with the former reaching #8 and the latter #11 in the UK singles charts.

The appetite in the US maintained too, with Pretenders releasing an EP simply named Extended Play, containing five tracks that would later be on the Pretenders II album. Pretenders II was released on August 15, 1981, to great fanfare. The album would end up peaking #7 in the UK and #10 in the US, being certified Silver and Gold respectively in the process. Further highlights of the album include another cover of the Kinks, in the form of "I Go To Sleep."

In 2001 I interviewed Chrissie Hynde over the telephone from New York about her studio work, Pretenders’ drummer Martin Chambers, the Gram Parsons tribute album, and her involvement with a Burt Bacharach television salute. She also provided insights into her own vocal recording techniques and commented on Bob Dylan’s Time Out Of Mind and the Rolling Stones’ Exile On Main Street.

When I interviewed Hynde it was after she and the Pretenders finished a fall 2000 US tour opening for Neil Young. In their set the band covered Young's “The Loner” and “The Needle and the Damage Done.”

Photo by Heather Harris

In the summer and fall of 1999, Hynde and the Pretenders performed at select live play dates and scheduled appearances at Lilith Fair.

I saw the Pretenders’ debut US tour in 1980, including a stop at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium in Southern California. Their records came to life, although the sound mix in the hall was a little too loud, but she sang well and I liked the way she danced, too.

Before the show, I was walking down Sunset Blvd. in Hollywood veered into a building and surprisingly shared an elevator ride with Chrissie when she and James Honeyman-Scott had departed radio station KWST-FM.

I was also in attendance at the Pretenders’ September 5, 1981 show at Perkins Palace in Pasadena when Bruce Springsteen joined Chrissie and the band for a raucous version of Jackie Wilson’s “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher.”

Chrissie Hynde has always been a confident rocker, an autobiographical lyricist and is still blessed with a set of lungs and gorgeous voice coated with honey and sprinkled at times with vinegar.

Hynde could sing the US National Anthem and it would sound great - which she did in the mid-90's when her Cleveland Indians were in the baseball World Series and she tossed it out in the stadium and on worldwide television.

In the VH-1 Year In Rock 1970 TV episode which just aired, Chrissie had some poignant comments about her short-lived stay in college at Kent State in Ohio.

A very perceptive writer and a real yenta when it comes to opinions and discussion about her life, songs, band and music favorites, Hynde has also been busy the last couple of years doing benefit work, and recording and appearing on some special events and programs.

Chrissie is heard in a duet with Emmylou Harris on the song “She,” about Janis Joplin, on the Gram Parsons Return Of The Grievous Angel album, and in 1998 was part of the New York televised salute to Burt Bacharach, where she sang two of his songs written with Hal David, “Baby, It's You” and “A Message To Michael.”

Chrissie Hynde was also booked on the TBS cable TV show, One Love reggae concert tribute to Bob Marley rendering a version of “Waiting In Vain.” Hynde appeared with Sheryl Crow at her recent Central Park concert in New York, during which she and Sheryl backed Keith Richard on a live version of “Happy” from the Rolling Stones' Exile On Main Street.

Chrissie Hyde and Harvey Kubernik 2002 Interview

Q: How do you traditionally write songs?

A: There’s no real set formula, but one thing is for sure. Number One, I sit down with a guitar. Number Two, I have a pen and a pad of paper. I don’t use anything else. That’s all I do. If I get an idea I write it down. And then the next time I sit down with a guitar, and if I remember it then, well lucky me. If I don’t, then that was a waste of time. But I don’t have much more structure than that to it.

Q: Drummer Martin Chambers rejoined the Pretenders five years ago. What has it been like to record with him in the studio again and play gigs over the last half decade, after not working with him for a period of time?

A: Martin is playing better than ever because we had some down time. I think the trauma of losing Pete and Jimmy kind of did our heads in a lot. And neither of us were playing any good.

In the Pretenders, no one expects me to play very good, but you know, that's just how I play. But I expect excellence out of all the other players or... I can't have everyone play like me. Martin's timing is impeccable. I think in the early band that was down to the other players, too.

Like I said, there were some traumas. He lost his two best friends when Pete and Jimmy died. And I desperately needed some other inspiration to keep myself alive too because I was sinking after that, because that was a big kick in the teeth for us.

So I played with a couple of other guys, and worked with other producers, went out into the wilderness on my own to kind of re-discover what the fuck it was that I did. Suddenly I had Chris Thomas, the Pretenders, and there was this great formula. And one day it was gone. So I felt I had to go out and find my feet again. But what I missed about Martin, his real forte, is that no one plays those mid-tempo Pretenders songs the way Martin does.

He has a particular "lolloping" feel that also includes a sort of shuffle beat that he's really good at. And these days, he plays on stuff like “One More Time” on this album, the more sort of conversational R&B based stuff, which at one time I thought he wasn't very good at. Again, when we were going through our traumatic period, we were losing our feel a bit. But he's come back so strong, it's frightening. And he's the most entertaining drummer to watch, which I always thought was probably the funniest part of watching a band, apart from the guitar player, of course. If the guitar player is great, you can't replace that. An entertaining drummer is just a joy to watch.

I don't ever like to turn my back to the audience when I'm playing, but these days I just can't resist watching Martin because he's just such a fuckin' riot. If I watch him, he shows off to me and he's even funnier. We now have Martin play behind a plexi-glass screen so there's a lot of separation in the sound. That gives our sound mixer a lot more flexibility, and Martin doesn't have any spillage into the vocal mikes. And also he's not playing right behind my head, which I find a tremendous distraction as a singer. So he can really play out more. Consequently, he has to use headphones otherwise the cymbal sound would be so loud that he'd be deaf.

So I insist he use headphones at all times, because the sound comes right back at him. But that's also why anyone who goes to see a Pretenders show always walks out and says, 'That's the best sound I've heard in that hall.' And it's down to the fact that we play minimum volume on stage, and we always use the screen, and we're very careful about our on-stage sound to make sure, because that's the most important thing. It's the unseen factor of a show that ordinary people probably wouldn't really notice, but the sound can ruin the whole show. If the sound isn't excellent, it will ruin the show.

Q: When you record, do you wear headphones for the vocal session?

A: I do find that I can really struggle with them and these days I find the most satisfying way to do it and the fastest way is to go into the control room and stand in front of the monitors and just play the track and sing it live. That's an easy way and it's like you're singing along to the track with no headphones or anything.

With head phones you can use a better mike and stuff. I like using a hand held mike. Like on 'I'll Stand By You' on the last (studio) album, I just sat up on the back of a sofa and I was just struggling so much getting that vocal - we tried all sorts of different arrangements with the headphones and speakers - so I said, 'Fuck it, fuck it'. Went in, sat on the back of the sofa, and said, 'Let me at least get a fuckin' guide vocal on this thing and we'll worry about it later.' No headphones, faced the monitor and just sang along a guide vocal and that's your vocal used on the record. Usually we use one vocal and, if there are some lines that might happen in another take, we'll go for that.

Q: You participated in the tribute to Burt Bacharach, One Amazing Night video and audio compilation and Return Of The Grievous Angel a various artists homage to Gram Parsons. You did a rendition of "She.” Bacharach and Parsons.

A: I knew Gram Parsons' Grievous Angel album when it came out in 1973 and loved it. And meeting Emmylou Harris has been such a fantastic thing for me, 'cause I think she has one of the greatest voices of all time. I've crossed paths with her a couple of times. Her long-time road manager (and Parsons pal) Phil Kaufman was a biker who had a Harley Davidson in a garage where I used to have a squat in London, and I used to walk by there and read his "Easy Rider" magazines - this is way before I was in the Pretenders.

I met Emmylou, we both did something for the Neil Young Bridge Concert one year. And I was enthralled being on the same bill with her. Then we met and had a few conversations on the phone and she said she was putting together this album. I told her, 'You ask me to do something and I'll do it. I don't even have to know what it is.' So she came up with the idea to do "She". That was the first song actually that she recorded for this tribute album.

Q: Years ago you covered the Burt Bacharach and Hal David tune, "Windows Of The World", for the film, 1969. In 1998 you sang their medley, "Baby, Its You"/"A Message To Michael," at a Bacharach event. Were you always an admirer of Burt's music and the work with Hal David?

Photo by Heather Harris

A: The Bacharach and David team. I was always a fan ever since I heard them. Dionne Warwick was always one of my favorite singers so, naturally, those were the songs of the late sixties. They were like the great melodic songs, they weren't just records. I got to take my pick of what was available for the show and I mentioned those two and they said, 'you could do half of each.'

Q: Is your mindset or approach to "covering" a song different, when you perform it, from a song that you wrote yourself and later sang?

A: Not particularly. In some ways it's fun because it's different and I can interpret one of my favorite songs, which is great. It's like a freebie. There are hundreds of fantastic songs out there and we can do any of them and we're free to do whatever we want. That's a great thing.

Obviously, singing my own songs I'm expressing myself, but I would only sing a song that I feel. Anyone who can relate to a song will enjoy singing it. To interpret it my own way - I would never cover a song and do it if I didn't think I could give it a "Pretenders-esque" twist, or lend something to the song.

Q: On an earlier Pretenders album, you did a wonderful version of Bob Dylan's "Forever Young.”

A: It's got such a beautiful lyric. I just love it. He's the pride of our generation. The song is genius. I'll tell you another great Dylan album, that was not one of his most popular ones, was Shot Of Love. The song, "Lenny Bruce.”

Q: And I know in a recent issue of the U.K. music magazine, Q, you really endorsed Dylan's Time Out Of Mind. I heard Dylan's office sent you an advance copy of the CD.

A: It’s one of his best albums. He just sings magnificently, for a start. They're just great songs. Bob always writes impeccable songs, but my suspicion is that he's a little impatient in the studio. On this one, he really stuck it out and got gorgeous vocals. The singing is fantastic. The songs are so well crafted and they just got the great sound for each song. You don't feel like he just got a band in, wheeled them in and played all the songs and left. Each song is very carefully thought out. Obviously that's a lot in the production and I'm sure that's Danny Lanois who masterminded that.

Q: Jim Keltner said some of the same things to me, and he played drums on Time Out Of Mind.

A: Jim Keltner is the perfect drummer for any band if you ask me. He's great with Bob Dylan. Keltner is a genius drummer. I love that guy. And the Booker T. band is the best band in the world.

Q: Also in that Q “Chrissie Hynde Record Collection” article, you mention the Rolling Stones' Exile On Main Street as "the definitive rock album." Why does it hold up so well?

A: It's just one of those great records and had a great resonance in the time it was made. The band was really hot. I still play it. Another thing about Exile was that it was a double album. And double albums don't digest very easily 'cause there's so much information on them. Nowadays I think people make the mistake of putting too much information on a CD because you can afford to, time-wise. But Exile was a slow, slow thing. It wasn't as immediate as albums characteristically were in those days, 'cause there were two albums. I think another thing with Exile - now that I think about it. - yeah... It was a very 'Keith-spirited-by-Keith' album.

Harvey Kubernik is the author of 20 books, including Canyon Of Dreams: The Magic And The Music Of Laurel Canyon and Turn Up The Radio! Rock, Pop, and Roll In Los Angeles 1956-1972.   Sterling/Barnes and Noble in 2018 published Harvey and Kenneth Kubernik’s The Story Of The Band: From Big Pink To The Last Waltz. For November 2021 the duo has written Jimi Hendrix: Voodoo Child for the publisher.

In 2015 Palazzo Editions published Harvey’s Leonard Cohen: Everybody Knows, and Neil Young, Heart of Gold published in 2016. Otherworld Cottage Industries in 2020 published Harvey’s book, Docs That Rock, Music That Matters.

Kubernik’s writings are housed in book anthologies, most notably The Rolling Stone Book Of The Beats and Drinking With Bukowski.

Harvey has written liner note booklets to the CD re-releases of Carole King’s Tapestry, Allen Ginsberg’s Kaddish, Elvis Presley The ’68 Comeback Special and the Ramones’ End of the Century.

During 2020 Harvey Kubernik served as a Consultant on the 2-part documentary television series Laurel Canyon: A Place in Time directed by Alison Ellwood.