My story originally appeared in IE Weekly
One of Martin Chambers’ first trips to the IE involved excessive heat, massive dirt and a few hundred thousand people. We’re talking about the 1983 US Festival at Glen Helen Regional Park in Devore, where the Pretenders shared a bill with U2 and David Bowie.
“We had lost my best friends [and band mates] James Honeyman-Scott and Pete Farndon in ‘82 and ’83 and more or less finished the Learning to Crawl album,” recalls the drummer, in a recent interview. “We did a few warm up gigs, then the dusty festival miles from anywhere that took ages to get to. The first thing I did when I walked on to start the show was go to the front edge of the stage, bend down and kiss it. The rest is a complete blank…I missed the boys that day more than I could ever express and I still think of them every day; it’s hard not to.”
The Pretenders’ current tour finds members returning to the IE with a performance at Agua Caliente in Rancho Mirage on Friday. When the veteran band plays casinos, does Chambers dabble in any gambling?
“Oh, yes. I go for the roulette table that has ‘No 0 or 00 Win’ on its board. With this technique, I have won big with the max table limit [and] regularly lost more often.”
Lady Luck shined on the Pretenders soon after they formed 31 years ago in London.
Beginning with the classic eponymous debut in 1980, the quartet – led by sassy onetime U.K. music scribe and Ohio expat Chrissie Hynde – immediately became an AOR radio fave thanks to several attitude-laden tunes (“Mystery Achievement,” “Tattooed Love Boys,” “Message of Love,” “The Adultress”).
Mainstream success (“Brass in Pocket,” “Back on the Chain Gang,” “Middle of the Road”) came quickly too. The Pretenders earned two platinum and four gold records during the first half of their career.
Unfortunately, original lead guitarist Honeyman-Scott and bassist Farndon both died of drug overdoses. A low period in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s saw Hynde fire Chambers and use multiple musicians under the Pretenders moniker. The drummer returned to work on 1994’s solid Last of the Independents in a lineup that remained intact until a couple years ago.
“Chrissie - very bravely - sacked guitarist Adam Seymour, although he always played great,” explains Chambers, who turns 58 on Friday. “Luckily, I had a friend, James Walbourne, who is fantastic. So, along with Nick Wilkinson on bass and Eric Heywood on pedal steel, we have, what I believe is without doubt, the best lineup since the original band. I am proud I have played a huge part in enabling this line up for the Pretenders’ diehard fans…I’ve now found a guitar player that can set a fire under her.”
After Hynde went to Joshua Tree National Park to see where the ashes of Gram Parsons were scattered, she decided to take the Grievous Angel’s lead on latest studio album Break Up the Concrete.
Recorded live in less than two weeks in L.A. (oddly without Chambers), Hynde co-produced the rawer, roots rock-leaning collection and released it on media mogul Steve Bing’s Shangri-La Music label. Concrete was the Pretenders’ highest charting album since 1986’s Get Close.
Among the highlights: No. 1 Triple A radio hit “Boots of Chinese Plastic,” where Hynde sings about various religious deities, countrified “Love’s a Mystery” (also top 10 at the format), the Bo Diddley-influenced title track with references to Hynde’s Buckeye state home, rockabilly stomper “Don’t Cut Your Hair” and bluesy “Rosalee,” elevated by Walbourne’s ace slide work.
Following the Pretenders’ silver anniversary, the band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
“Chrissie didn’t necessarily want to do it,” but Chambers wasn’t missing the ceremony. “It’s a great honor, really, to be in a room with many of those people. They’re just legends…and a lot of them are so cool. It’s nice when you look in a dressing room mirror and you’re standing next to someone like Aretha Franklin. You look at yourself, going, ‘what am I doing here?’ The whole point for me though was to accept the honor for [Pete and James].”
The band also got the deluxe box set treatment on 2006’s Pirate Radio. One fascinating tidbit from the liner notes revolved around the recording sessions for Pretenders. Chambers and Farndon used to arrive at the studio early to work out arrangements because of Hynde’s unusual rhythmic timing – particularly on “Phone Call” and “Tattooed Love Boys.”
“What I had to do with Pete was decipher where she was coming from and try to make sure it all rolled along. It must never stop and can’t be angular or too jazz-like.”
Chambers and Hynde have a unique “push/pull” element between their playing styles. “She’s first to admit she’s not the greatest guitar player in the world. What she can do is provide what she needs to write a song and portray that song…if you listen to the music, take Chrissie’s guitar out and put her back in, you’ll understand. It’s like the wheel chugging along with bits of metal coming off.”
Pretenders at The Show, Agua Caliente Casino Resort & Spa, 32-250 Bob Hope Drive, Rancho Mirage, (888) 999-1995, www.hotwatercasino.com/TheShow. Fri., Sept. 4, 9PM. $45-$85.