‘Punk let me sneak in with my guitar. I wasn’t a novelty’

No one drips attitude quite like Chrissie Hynde. More than any of her post-60s peers, she redefined the notion of female rockers, bringing a commanding sensuality to her role as leader of The Pretenders. The band’s classic songs, from early hits Brass In Pocket and Message Of Love through to later anthems like Hymn To Her and I’ll Stand By You, seemed to embody Hynde herself – scornful and abrasive

Hynde has lived an eventful life thus far. Since she arrived in England from Ohio in 1973 she has sold upwards of 25 million records, survived two marriages to fellow rock stars (The Kinks’ Ray Davies and Simple Minds’ Jim Kerr), endured the drug-related deaths of Pretenders guitarist James Honeyman-Scott and bassist Pete Farndon within a year of each other, and poured much of her energy into campaigning for animal rights and green issues.

Now, with The Pretenders on indefinite hiatus and six years after their last studio album, she’s back with her new record, Stockholm. She’s keen to point out that this is a solo record in name only, seeing as it was recorded with a coterie of Swedish musicians that includes co-writer/producer Björn Yttling of Peter, Björn & John. A terrific piece of work it is too, full of fire and imagination, flinty wisdom and bristling melodies. Hynde says she wanted to make something you can dance to, a pumping hybrid of “ABBA meets John Lennon”. Plus there are a couple of unexpected guest cameos.

I have to confess to being a little wary. Warranted or not, Hynde has a reputation as a ‘difficult’ interviewee, prone to sudden outbursts and animated digressions on whatever issue is gnawing away at her on any given day. At one point during our conversation I mention her mate Morrissey, who, in his autobiography, says Hynde is the funniest person he’s ever come across. “I saw him the other week,” she offers, “and he goes: ‘You might be the funniest person I’ve ever met, but you have no sense of humour.’ I told him to fuck off. Hynde laughs as she says it. There’s certainly no unwanted attitude today. Sitting in her publicist’s office in London, sipping herbal tea, she’s affable, eloquent and often impassioned. At 62 she still very much looks the part: skinny jeans, trademark fringe, dashes of kohl framing dark eyes. And for more than an hour she’s happy to hold court on subjects that span celebrity culture, vegetarianism, the music that moves her, and why it’s unlikely she’ll ever board Willie Nelson’s tour bus again.

How did the Stockholm record come about?

I didn’t want to go solo, I wanted to try some other things. My publishers asked if I’d like to do some co-writing and I said: “I guess, if someone asked me.” So they played me some songs that I quite liked, and eventually arranged a meeting with the writer, who was Björn Yttling. I went over to Stockholm, and also wrote a few songs with Joakim Åhlund, who’s in the Teddy Bears and The Caesars. Actually, I had to really fight Björn to get him to do it. He goes: “Look, I’m not even a producer.” And I said: “Just fucking do it!” But after the first five or six songs he started thinking that actually this sounded pretty good.

Tennis champion John McEnroe even plays guitar on A Plan Too Far.

I’ve just known him for a long time and he loves rock’n’roll. I think I bought him a guitar once. So when I’m in New York I’ll say: “Hey John, come up and get on stage with us.” And he’s so fearless, he’ll get on stage with anyone. If Jeff Beck said come and play, he’d go for it.

Didn’t you write the song Don’t Get Me Wrong for John McEnroe?

It was inspired by him. I had this idea of John, because he’s actually a lovely guy but was such a badass on the tennis court. And I thought people misunderstood him, so I wrote that song.

The other special guest on the album is Neil Young, whose guitar playing is all over Down The Wrong Way.

If this had been a planned solo album, I wouldn’t in a million years have thought of calling on Neil Young. But I was trying to fuck with Björn, because the Swedes are so stoic. They’re not like Yanks, who are really gushing. I don’t work with Yanks for that reason. I like working with English people and I’ve got a Viz magazine mentality. Anyway, I know Neil and he’s everything you want him to be. So because I was trying to get a reaction from Björn, I called Neil, and he seemed amenable to the idea while he was in London. Of course, Björn’s on the next plane. It was fucking awesome. When Neil came in and played, everyone in the studio was just fucking blown away. It was insane.

The song Adding The Blue mentions infamous Zap Comix artist S Clay Wilson, who you’ve said was a negative influence when you were growing up in the late 60s.

It was negative because his work was all about bikers, drugs, illicit sex, debauchery and violence. So if that’s what you want, you can get it with S Clay. He actually did the poster for The Pretenders box set that I put out some years ago [2006’s Pirate Radio]. I’ve always had a soft spot for him, because I love all that shit. He was definitely a big influence on me. S Clay really was a biker and very much defined the whole culture that I grew up in.

What about the music that inspired you?

I saw the Jeff Beck Group play in Cleveland in 1968, with Rod Stewart singing. Amazing. It was one of those major moments for me; great big turning points, pointing all the way to England. When I was a kid I loved horses, and then when I was a teenager I loved English music. So I just thought: “I have to be there.” I knew nothing else about the place.

When you landed here in the early 70s you were ideally placed for the onset of punk.

I’d met Malcolm [McLaren] and Vivienne [Westwood] and worked in their shop, Craft Must Have Clothes But Truth Loves To Go Naked, before it was called SEX. My journey to get in a band was long and convoluted. I’d gone home to Cleveland, then Malcolm invited me to come back and offered to pay for my ticket too, to put me in a band with a couple of New Yorkers he’d met. I think Richard Hell was one of them, and maybe Sylvain Sylvain. But I was already in a band in Cleveland, so I stuck with that. I was in Paris for a while too. But all roads were pulling me back to London. And then the punk thing happened in 1976, and lasted for about six months before everyone started taking smack. It was a small scene, so the ramifications and influences have been much greater than the actual thing.

How did you get involved in bands like London SS and Masters Of the Backside, leading up to The Pretenders?

Because of punk I could sneak in with my guitar and get away with it, because being a girl wasn’t a novelty. The defining thing about the whole punk movement was that it was all about non-discrimination. If anything it was easier because I was a girl. Feminists say to me: “Oh, but you must have had to work harder to prove yourself.” And I’m like, are you kidding me? Guys carry my guitars. I start to tune my guitar and someone snatches it away and does it for me. The secret to my success is that I make sure all the guys around me are better than I am. They see that I have no technical skills, so no one feels threatened. And I might be blowing my own horn here or else blowing out my ass, but I think I bring out good performances from people. I listened to a lot of radio when I was growing up, so I know what sounds good. If I hear someone playing something that works, I can pinpoint what it is, then put it together like a ringleader.

Were you motivated purely by the idea of being in a band, rather than by fame?

Totally. What we were trying to do, and what music was about when I got interested in it, was very anti-establishment. Fame and celebrity were two different things. Someone might become famous for discovering a vaccine, but a celebrity was Elizabeth Taylor. Whereas it’s so different now. The Faces or Stevie Winwood, for example, were famous to us, but no one else knew who they were. It wasn’t mainstream. And that’s where I liked it. That’s where I would still prefer my own thing to be. I don’t want the rest of the world in my face.

Is that why, during the 80s, when you could have been forgiven for cashing in on the celebrity value of your relationships with Ray Davies and Jim Kerr, you seemed to do the complete opposite?

Yeah. Only a few photos snuck out. I think privacy is having your own life. It’s how I feel about art. I’ve read many novels by a lot of people over the years – be it Joseph Heller or Graham Greene or Iris Murdoch – and had no idea what any of them looked like. They just offered me words, and that’s what I took. I wasn’t asking for any more. And that’s how I like it. But these days people want your gynaecological records. It’s never enough.

The Pretenders had the attitude and energy of punk, but were driven by a love of melody and hooks.

It was Jimmy [guitarist James Honeyman-Scott] who brought that out in me. I was into this punk thing and real angry and thought it was real hard. Then I met Jimmy, and he had no time for punk; he liked Rockpile and real melodic rock. Plus ABBA and the Beach Boys, stuff that no one would admit they liked at the time. And once I got together with him I realised that I’m very melodic too. He always said: “Look, I’m not a lead guitar player.” But he was. I brought out the hooks in him and he brought out the melody in me. That’s why I love bands.

Do you ever imagine how The Pretenders might have evolved had he lived?

It’s hard to say. I’ve thought about it a lot. In fact for at least ten years after Jimmy died [in June 1982] all my musical decisions were still based on what he would do – “Who would Jimmy get to play this? Oh, he’d get Billy Bremner.” I always knew the kind of thing Jimmy would like, it was so clear to me. Then of course as time went on it faded out and I was kind of left on my own. But for a long time I had such a strong sense of him.

Was he still in your head when it came to getting a new band together for 1982’s Back On The Chain Gang?

Oh yeah. On the day that we had a meeting to decide if Pete [Farndon, bassist] should stay or not – and they decided he had to go, which was a tragedy but he was too fucked up on drugs – Jimmy said: “Look, I’ve met this kid guitar player. It’d be great to have him play with us for live work or something.”’ I said okay. And within two days Jimmy was dead. We had auditions, and the first one we listened to was the guy he was talking about: Robbie McIntosh. And after about three days I said to the others: “This is madness. We already know who it is, Jimmy already found him.”

Have the deaths of Jimmy and Pete altered your views on drug-taking?

It’s a really complicated issue. If you smoke a lot of marijuana, as I’ve done, it can get very compulsive. But if you just roll a joint at night when listening to music, it’s an enhancer. And it can be a good, creative stimulant. I don’t want to advocate drug-taking, because we’ve all buried a lot of friends. We’ve all come dangerously close ourselves and all lost a lot of years. You just can’t stay the course. I read that even Lemmy’s knocked it on the head. Okay, Willie Nelson stopped drinking about forty years ago, but he can’t stop smoking. I know because I was on his bus once.

What happened?

We did this song together [2008’s Both Sides Of Goodbye], and he asked the band to come out to the bus. Nobody wanted to go, we were all afraid, but you can’t say no to Willie Nelson. He had this new thing called a vapouriser, which was sort of like a bong. And by the time he was halfway home to Texas, we were still in LA, huddled around in this little circle. None of us could move! It took me three days to recover from spending just fifteen minutes on his bus. I don’t know how he does it.

Have you always been an activist at heart?

Because I’ve been a vegetarian since I was seventeen, it means I’m in three per cent of the population. So I’m always at odds with everybody. Why anyone would want to buy anything from a slaughterhouse and eat it is beyond me. But people do. Which tells me that they just don’t care. So I feel that, as a human being, I’m a guardian to look after the planet. It’s my duty to do that.

How did you go about it?

I started that thing called Ark [an environmental pressure group]. That was thirty years ago, and we were talking about recycling and global warming. We tried to branch it out, because at that time people didn’t see the environment and vegetarianism as connected. And they still don’t. Now you look at all this food culture and the new ‘young’ people who go to these trendy restaurants. The trend is eating offal and stuff like that. It’s not rock’n’roll, because rock’n’roll is supposed to be anti-establishment. But now they don’t want to fight the oppressor, they want the oppressor’s spoils. Well have ’em! You can bathe in blood, choke on your offal.

Back on the band front, will The Pretenders happen again?

I think so. Martin [Chambers, drummer] is still breathing, and I definitely want to get James Walbourne, my guitar player, on stage. Man, he’s just the greatest rock guitar player. He’s got his own band, The Rails, and they’re doing really well. And I’m doing this thing. So it really was a case of how can you miss me if I never go away?

And are you likely to tour your new album?

What I’d really like to do is go into really small places, do forty-five minutes at half the ticket price and do two sets – one at 7.30 and one at 9.30. I think gigs have got too big, too long and too expensive. Just rein that shit in and start over, keep it small and elite. It’s not for everybody, but my thing is for the discerning music-goer. That’s how I’ve always liked it.”

Stockholm is out now via Caroline.

Rob Hughes

Freelance writer for Classic Rock since 2008, and sister title Prog since its inception in 2009. Regular contributor to Uncut magazine for over 20 years. Other clients include Word magazine, Record Collector, The Guardian, Sunday Times, The Telegraph and When Saturday Comes. Alongside Marc Riley, co-presenter of long-running A-Z Of David Bowie podcast. Also appears twice a week on Riley’s BBC6 radio show, rifling through old copies of the NME and Melody Maker in the Parallel Universe slot. Designed Aston Villa’s kit during a previous life as a sportswear designer. Geezer Butler told him he loved the all-black away strip.