Review – Standing In the Doorway: Chrissie Hynde Sings Bob Dylan, A Surprise Gem

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I think Chrissie Hynde has just always been cool. Born in Akron, she moved to London to work in the Malcolm Mclaren/Vivienne Westwood boutique SEX and was smack dab in the middle of the burgeoning punk rock scene. I think she was even involved in an early incarnation of the Clash. Finally she formed her own group, seminal rock band The Pretenders with James Honeyman-Scott (guitar), James Farndon (bass) and Martin Chambers (drums). We all loved the Pretenders. I can still remember sitting in study hall in junior high school and hearing “Brass In Pocket” for the first time. There was this gorgeous blonde girl who was a year older than me – and what teenage boy isn’t fascinated by an older woman? – and she was walking across the room with a Coke in her hand… dirty blonde hair slightly out of control (and this was before the Big Hair 80s) as Chrissie sang, “I’m gonna make you, make you, make you notice…” Oh, I noticed. I always think of that blonde gal when I hear that song…never knew her name, but I digress.

Sadly after their great second LP, the creatively titled Pretenders II, they sacked bassist Pete Farndon who later OD’d. Right after they sacked Farndon, lead guitarist Honeyman-Smith also died from a narcotic misadventure. Heroin and coke are treacherous my friends. But Hynde (rhythm guitar/vocals) soldiered on with Chambers still on drums. Three years after that second LP, the last with the original line-up, they released Learning To Crawl (1984). I remember my old college roommate Drew bringing that one back from the record store. It was virtually the soundtrack to that semester in college. Drew played the crap out of that record. That’s what inspired me to go back and finally purchase their first two albums. I’m still very glad to have that precious vinyl.

I’ve only seen the Pretenders once in concert. And, I’m embarrassed to say it’s only because they were opening for the Stones. Not that I’m embarrassed about seeing the Stones, I’m embarrassed that I’ve never made more of an effort to see the Pretenders as headliners. Chrissie was awesome that night. She introduced a reggae song they were going to play by saying, “Mick and Keith and the Stones have introduced us to so much great music, but I don’t think they get the credit they deserve for helping to introduce the world to reggae music.” Like I said, Hynde is just cool. They were a great opener that night and Hynde’s voice is still amazing. Her vocals are tough yet sexy.

I reconnected in a big way with the Pretenders when they released their last LP, Hate For Sale. I thought that was a great, late career record from them. It went into high rotation here in the B&V labs in much the same way Learning To Crawl did back in Drew’s college room. Alas, due to Covid the Pretenders were unable to tour behind Hate For Sale. When they do, I’ll be standing at the ticket counter with my money in my hand… Hynde was like a lot of us, I suppose, and was stuck at home last year. The story goes she heard Dylan’s epic single, released last year, “Murder Most Foul” and was inspired to explore his catalog. She started recording acoustic versions of Dylan’s tunes at home and sending them to Pretenders’ current lead guitarist James Walbourne. He’d add something and send it back. Collaborating has served them well.

I think Hynde put a lot of these performances out on the Pretenders’ website over the course of last year… or maybe it was their YouTube channel. There are so many avenues artists have to get their work out, I have trouble keeping track. I did hear at some point early this year that Hynde was going to release a Dylan covers LP. But, speaking of being unable to keep track, while I was anxiously awaiting Hynde to release this Dylan covers LP, it had actually been released already… in May. Either I had my head stuck up my proverbial rear-end or Hynde’s publicist is for shit. I was reading something about Dylan recently and in the comments someone said, “Chrissie Hynde does a great version of “Blind Willie McTell” on her Dylan’s cover LP.” Argh, I couldn’t help but think… how’d that one get by me?

Coincidentally I’ve been listening to Dylan quite a bit lately. He’s just released Springtime In New York, Volume 16 of the Bootleg Series and like Neil Young’s Archives Volume 2, I’ve been immersed in that for the last few weeks. It’s no secret around B&V that I’m a huge Dylan fan, of all his music not just the Bootleg Series. I am such a fan that I also love cover versions of Dylan’s songs. With Chrissie Hynde’s (relatively) new LP, Standing In The Doorway: Chrissie Hynde Sings Bob Dylan, I’ve had a confluence of a lot of things I love: Dylan, covers songs and Chrissie Hynde’s vocals. I do so love a cover song. It’s like a two-for-one. You get to enjoy the performance by the artist covering the song but it also evokes the memory of the original. To find out that Hynde did that rare thing – recorded an entire album of covers and in this case, rarer still, to record an entire LP of songs by another artist – I had to jump in with both ears.

This starts and ends for me with Hynde’s voice. She uncovers the vulnerability and in some cases melancholy in these songs in a whole new way. The entire album is awash in velvety acoustic guitars that feel like they’re gently massaging my temples. There are no drums or messy adornments here. It’s the raw emotion of the track focused on Hynde’s vocals. This is a great record to accompany a late night bourbon. I absolutely love her song selection on this LP. She didn’t gravitate toward big “hits” from Dylan’s catalog. This isn’t her doing “Like A Rolling Stone” or “Mr. Tambourine Man.” For the most part, she dug deeper into his catalog and, much to my delight, mined a lot of gold from his later catalog. She chose some of Dylan’s most intimate and intensely personal tunes. It all makes for an absolute gem of a record.

Of the nine tracks, only three would be considered to be from Dylan’s “Classic” period. “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” is beautifully rendered here. It’s all Byrds-y chiming guitars. “Tomorrow Is A Long Time,” a song made famous by Rod Stewart, is a beautiful finger-picked track. The last track is from the seminal LP, Blood On The Tracks, “You’re A Big Girl Now.” I think Hynde just knocks “Big Girl Now” out of the park. I felt the sadness or pathos of a breakup in this song to my core. Hynde’s voice milks the regret out of this song for all it’s worth. It’s a real highlight. Her voice is like the warm hug of an ex lover saying a final farewell.

Perhaps because I’m spending so much time with Dylan’s work in the 80s lately, I was delighted to see that the bulk of this material dates from that time. “In The Summertime” is a great opener and in Chrissie’s hands comes across as a warm greeting. It’s downright joyful. “Sweetheart Like You” has always been one of my favorite Dylan songs. Rod, who is no stranger to covering Dylan, also did this track. I wake up every morning with Chrissie singing in my head, “She used to call me sweet daddy when I was only a child…” Again, the emotions she wrings out of the song has me cheering for more. “Blind Willie McTell” is a wonderful addition here. Hynde acquits herself well on one of Dylan’s greatest tracks. I also really liked “Don’t Fall Apart On Me Tonight.” One of Dylan’s most personal tracks, “Every Grain of Sand” is also deeply moving in this version as well. It feels like Hynde – who has seen a lot – is in the confessional…

This is one of those little, fabulous records that will never get much attention. But to hear how committed and into these performances Hynde is makes it quite a gem. I keep listening to this record and find myself looking up at the speaker having discovered some new nuance Chrissie pulled out of the lyrics. I urge everyone to check this one out. It’s good for the soul. And lets all thank God Chrissie Hynde is still out there making a wonderful noise.

LP Review: Pretenders ‘Hate For Sale’ – A Late Career Classic With Attitude!

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“He’s got a curly tongue and a curly tail, but mostly he’s got hate for sale” – Pretenders, “Hate For Sale”

Could any of us expected, this far down the line, this gift of a fabulous Pretenders’ album? I, for one, needed this record!

I was an early adopter on the Pretenders. Their seminal debut album Pretenders came out when I was in high school and I bought it immediately. I think of the album cover as iconic. I have always considered the Pretenders to be a punk band, but since their first record didn’t come out until 1979 in the UK and 1980 in the US (and I’ll admit I thought it was 1978) perhaps they were post-punk or even New Wave or Next Wave? Labels be damned in this case. Ohioan guitarist/singer/songwriter Chrissie Hynde was living in London in the 70s immersed in the punk scene when she formed the original Pretenders’ with James Honeyman-Scott (guitar), Pete Farndon (bass) and her once and future drummer Martin Chambers (if I can sneak in a T.H. White reference).

The songs on that first album still blow me away. The Kinks’ cover, “Stop Your Sobbing” was the first single, but that isn’t the track that sticks out in my mind – although it is great. The opening salvo “Precious” was a call to arms. When she sang in “Tattooed Love Boys” the lyric “I shot my mouth off and you showed me what that hole was for…” I was smitten. “Kid” and “Mystery Achievement” remain favorites today. Although I’m going to admit – with a touch of embarrassment – the song that drew me in was the big hit single, “Brass In Pocket,” an admittedly “pop” tune.

There’s a reason that song hooked me. I was a sophomore in high school and in my Study Hall (aka “free period”) there was a girl who was a senior. She was tall with long legs and dirty blonde hair that always seemed to be in a fashionable mess. As a lowly sophomore I never had the temerity to even look her in the eye let alone speak to her, she was a vaunted senior, high above me socially – such is the fear and inexperience of youth. There were two sides of Study Hall, the silent side for well, studying, and then the social side. I know this can’t be true but I have this memory that they played music on the social side of Study Hall. While it may be apocryphal, I have this memory of her walking toward me in an angora sweater, to her gaggle of friends – who I viewed with a mix of awe and fear – while that song played in the background…its like the whole world slowed down… My memory is like a scene from Fast Times At Ridgemont High. There’s just something about a strong woman like Chrissie Hynde singing and that senior who was also pretty damn strong that stuck in my psyche. Paging Dr. Freud.

The Pretenders’ success continued on their strong sophomore effort, creatively named Pretenders II, in 1981. “Message Of Love” and “The Adultress” continued the riff rocking theme established on the first album. Especially commendable is the guitar playing of James Honeyman-Scott. Then tragedy struck. The band fired Pete Farndon because of his drug addiction…namely heroin. I read somewhere that Honeyman-Scott was the one who insisted on Farndon’s dismissal but who really knows outside the band? Ironically, two days after sacking Farndon, Honeyman-Scott died from what Wikipedia calls “cocaine-intolerance,” which sounds like an O.D. Less than a year later Farndon drowned in his own bathtub. That’s Allman Brothers level tragedy. And then, as the saying goes, there were two – Chrissie Hynde and drummer Martin Chambers.

Somehow, Hynde and Chambers were able to shoulder on. It took three years, but the follow up, 1984’s Learning To Crawl with Robbie McIntosh manning the guitar and Malcolm Foster on bass may have been their biggest album. It had the huge songs “Back On the Chain Gang,” and “Middle of the Road.” The latter song finds Chrissie confessing, “I’m going home, I’m tired as Hell, I’m not the cat I used to be, I’ve gotta kid I’m thirty-three.” I have to admit, after that stunning success, I sort of lost track of the Pretenders. I was always aware they were out there. I’d hear the occasional hit on the radio like “Don’t Get Me Wrong,” but I wasn’t paying the same level of attention to them. I also knew that there had been numerous line-up changes, including Chambers coming and going. When they were inducted into the Rock Hall of Fame – Chambers thanked the “drummers who’d been keeping my seat warm” and Chrissie quickly jumped to the mic and said, “I had to remain true to the music.”

It would be easy to describe Hate For Sale as the Pretender’s best album since Learning to Crawl or quite possibly since Pretenders II. Its really that good – in this case, believe the hype. However, that does discount some of the fine music the Pretenders have put out since the early, salad days. Their last album, 2016’s Alone produced by the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach felt more like a Chrissie Hynde solo project. The record companies like to press artists into “staying with the brand” and force people like Billy Corgan or Chrissie Hynde into putting out solo albums under the moniker of the old band. However, if you go back to 2006’s Breaking Up the Concrete you’ll discover a great Pretenders’ record. Despite Chambers being replaced by famous session drummer Jim Keltner, Concrete felt more like a “band” record.

That band feel carries the day on Hate For Sale. It’s really nice to see Martin Chambers back on the drum kit for the first time in ages – although he does play drums on tour, its nice to see him back in the studio with Hynde. I think they have a chemistry that can’t be duplicated. Joining Hynde and Chambers are James Walbourne on guitar, Nick Wilkinson on bass with Carwyn Ellis on keyboards. Hynde’s wit and wisdom are fully present in these lyrics. What I really like is that she cowrote all the songs with Walbourne which again, gives this more of a full band feel. The rockers are energetic and punchy. The ballads are beautiful and wistful. This is truly a complete Pretenders’ record without a dud on it.

The title track opens the record. They actually have a false start that they kept on the song. It sounds like a band jamming, losing the thread but being tight enough to pull it back together. I thought it was kinda cool. “Hate For Sale” is punky, energetic with a great riff. It’s the perfect kick off to this album… and even has some nice harmonica. “Turf Accountant Daddy” is another strong rocker with a big riff and galloping gait. “I Didn’t Know When To Stop,” with crashing drums and guitars (and again, harmonica) has a great guitar solo and simply rocks. I also liked the atmospheric “Junkie Walk,” with its fuzzed out guitars and heavy riff. I actually added that one to our Heroin playlist, B&V Playlist: Chasing the Dragon – Songs About Heroin.

“The Buzz” was the first single from the album and it’s a great pop-rock tune. Hynde provides us with her typical great vocal on the track. The woman is a legend. It’s their best single in a long, long while. “Lightning Man” is a great reggae tune. I saw the Pretenders open for the Stones in Chicago years ago and Hynde said on stage, “The Stones have brought us a lot of great things but one of the best was spreading reggae to a bigger audience.” The Pretenders certainly deliver on this track – I put it on my Rockers Playing Reggae list, B&V Playlist: Rockers Playing Reggae: It’s Not Just For Vacation Any More. “Didn’t Want to Be This Lonely” may be my favorite track here. It just sticks in my head. It’s got a great rockabilly feel and Bo Diddley beat. I find myself mumbling “I didn’t want to be this lonely but losing you was a relief…” Ah, mixed emotions. “Maybe Love Is In NYC” is another bang up track. With all of these great songs, this record should be as big as Learning to Crawl. 

There are the classic, Chrissie Hynde ballads, sung with full emotion. “You Can’t Hurt A Fool” has another great Hynde vocal. “Crying In Public” is a heart wrenching track with Hynde singing over piano. Ballads aren’t for everybody, but I dig these two. The Pretenders do everything they do well perfectly on this album.

Hate For Sale is the kind of late-career gem that B&V was created to extoll. It’s just so great to hear a classic band pull it together and release something this vital and alive this far into their career. I’d love to see some of this played live, but alas, pandemic. I urge every rock fan out there – or Pretenders’ fans out there – to check out this rewarding album.

Be Safe!