“This is Brighton, right? The gay capital? Why aren’t I a gay icon?” asks Chrissie Hynde in the middle of The Pretender’s set. It’s said in jest, of course, although there are a fair few women here who – rather audibly – invite her back to theirs, after the show. She is very much an icon to many, though, a personification of rock’n’roll, living the dream, and being a trailblazer; from a time when it was still very rare for women to be leading bands, let alone playing electric guitar. For a 66-year-old she’s looking in fine shape too, resplendent in a tight black T-shirt (advertising her own band!), gnarly old jeans, studded belt, and Beatles boots. It’s a classic look that could be from anywhere these last 50-plus years, and she wears it extremely well.
Tonight, The Pretenders delivered a two hour masterclass: in show(wo)manship, musicianship and, well, how to be classy. A setlist studded with practically all the hits, along with a few lesser known oldies, and some newer songs. A set that is, rather impressively, partly improvised. Of course there’s ‘Message of Love’, ‘Kid’, ‘Talk of the Town’, ‘Back on the Chain Gang’, ‘I’ll Stand By You’, their one and only number one hit ‘Brass in Pocket’, and the song that started it all, the brilliant cover of The Kinks’ ‘Stop Your Sobbing’, released back in 1978, when new wave and post-punk were just getting into the swing of things.
The Pretenders, despite Hynde’s well-documented participation in the early punk scene, were never, musically speaking, really part of the post-punk movements. Hynde’s heart was more webbed to country-rock, classic rock’n’roll (the band then and now, still sport classic rock’n’roll and country-rock styles and postures, and feature original drummer Martin Chambers, as well as brilliant guitarist James Walbourne), and timeless pop and rock. Her lyricism, in particular, is a brilliantly engaging mixture of sass, intelligence, and romance, with Hynde’s outer strength an overriding feature that brought it all together. Moreover, she brought a strong, and often sublime, ear for melody to the table. There’s also that voice, the idiosyncratic and exaggerated vibrato. It’s in fine shape, as if no time had passed at all. It is no accident that The Pretenders were hit makers for over 20 years, and timeless ones at that.
Now, although their output is limited, and the hits have all but dried up, Hynde is still writing great songs, and there are a batch of good ones here tonight; from the most recent band albums, including last year’s Alone, but also from her latest solo work (Stockholm). They aren’t nearly as well known, but they fit seamlessly into the set, as do some lesser known songs from their deep back catalogue, including ‘Tequila’, a song that has only ever appeared as a demo, the original version from 1978 that got them a record deal in the first place. It was also this song, as Hynde informs us, that told her what a great guitarist James Honeyman-Scott was, and that this represented the beginning of the band.
It’s Hynde’s strength that has seen her lead a band for nigh on 40 years, as the principle writer, and singer. It’s this strength that allows her to tell members of the audience to not take any pictures (“I don’t want to freak you about the phones, but basically fuck off!”). To facilitate what is, after all, a band effort, where even the crew get a look in towards the end, setting up on stage rather incongruously while The Pretenders are in full swing, before congregating around a couple of mics, doo-wop style, to sing some backing vocals! It’s great fun, everyone seems to be thoroughly enjoying themselves, the sound is great, and the audience are feeding off it all. Of course, there was a prolonged full house standing ovation towards the end. An icon to all here, a living legend.