Back in the heyday of new wave, band names were often dipped in irony, like The Pretenders. But now, some two decades later, The Pretenders have proved themselves anything but false icons. For at a time when so much rock seems forced and/or faked, The Pretenders are one of those truly rare real deals. The band started out with a savvy mix of punk attitude -- the way Chrissie Hynde snarls fuck off in "Precious" is still one of the sexiest moments in rock and roll -- and pop savvy. Here was a band not only sharp enough to cover The Kinks ("Stop Your Sobbing"), the one British Invasion band that never quite succumbed to the lash of popular Stateside appeal, but whose singer would also later charm (seduce?) Kink Ray Davies into marrying her. While Hynde's late-'70s contemporaries were rejecting the notion of pop stardom, Hynde instead saw it as a challenge to be conquered on her own terms.
She still does. On last year's ¡ Viva El Amor!, maybe the band's best album (well, at least in a decade or so), Hynde remains as uncompromising as ever in her lyrical stance. "So your girlfriend wants to be a popstar, and beat the charts outta me," she taunts an ex-lover (Davies? Jim Kerr?) on the song "Popstar." And in another tune she asks, "If this is public transportation, what are you doing here?" Where others have embraced the pop myth, sometimes even after decrying it, Hynde has continued to keep it at arm's length, and all for the better.
After all, ¡ Viva El Amor! is an album of love songs in the same distanced fashion that The Pretenders was a punk album -- never buying into the myths even as it embraces their power. "Popstar" is all three-chord fuzztone sassiness that praises Caesar while it also buries him ("No, they don't make 'em like they used to."), while "From the Heart Down" asks for passion, be it good or bad ("Love me from the heart down, if it hurts or if it's bliss"). As Hynde once sang on one of her inspired covers, it's a thin line between love and hate. And the difference between genuine rock toughness and self-parody is just as narrow.
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Thankfully, Hynde has never erred in the wrong direction, which in a musical career of such length is indeed a meritorious accomplishment. On "Dragway 42" (from Viva), she asks, "What's the price of fame?" even though for her the question may indeed be rhetorical. Both original guitarist James Honeyman-Scott and bassist Pete Farndon are gone now, destroying one of the most potent rock quartets ever to take the stage. But with pile-driving drummer Martin Chambers still behind her -- even after a brief hiatus from the band -- Hynde has soldiered on like the dyed-black-in-the-wool rocker she is.
For my tastes, there's very little rock and roll left with the sort of balls and swagger that Hynde now has down to a science. She knows how the sneer must be matched by a tender kiss, that inherent contradiction that drives the music at its best. While others of her era are rapidly approaching the moves of the nostalgia circuit (Blondie, anyone?), Hynde remains enough of this year's model to end up playing Lilith Fair, yet she's never abandoned that essential bit of ironic detachment that separates the merely good rock from the great. And yes, as Hynde notes, they sure don't make 'em like they used to. Hence her band offers a chance to savor the glory of three chords from four players at its very finest before the music dies with its makers.
The Pretenders perform February 6 at the Bronco Bowl. Gay Dad opens.