In 1979, Pretenders released their seminal debut LP Pretenders. The group’s success was cemented as soon as the record hit the shop shelves – miraculously marrying the angsty voice of punk rock, the bitter-sweetness of jangle-pop, and the formal experimentation of New Wave. In 2023, Pretenders – now only with front-woman Chrissie Hynde present from the original line-up – released their twelfth LP Relentless. How does the record and its ensuing tour live up to the band’s tumultuous and beloved legacy? Hynde and co integrated the old and the new live at Manchester’s 02 Ritz with a star-studded setlist.
Vocalist, guitarist, songwriter, ex-NME-journalist, animal rights activist, punk icon. Chrissie Hynde already has a few ribbons to her bow, and now she can add triumphant rock ’n’ roll veteran to the list. Make no mistake: Pretenders is, now more than ever, Hynde’s band: her image, her identity; an extension of herself. With wiry hair, a sparkly purple Telecaster, and a graphic tee that’s seen better days, she commanded the stage with an untameable punk disposition, no less withered than at the movement’s angsty heights. Part whine, part moan, part sneer, part leer, her voice remained as sensual as it was sentimental, and there was a palpable sigh of relief from long-time fans of the band… ‘Oh, she’s still got it’.
Hynde’s knack for sparking reactions was still very much present, too. After wishing Manchester’s revered guitar hero Johnny Marr a happy birthday (communicated directly through a real-time phone call with his son Nile Marr, who was present in the audience), Hynde expressed her love for Marr’s estranged songwriter partner, Morrissey: “I love Johnny… I also love Morrissey… a bit controversial, I know.” The remark was greeted with the passionate cheers of those who see him as a landmark, life-changing songwriter, and the boos of those who see him as a misguided jingoist. Hynde couldn’t care less about her audience’s sudden split, drawling “I don’t care. I love you, Morrissey” before leading her band into a cover of Morrissey’s ‘Everyday Is Like Sunday’. The singer wore an infectious grin as she indulged in Morrissey’s Mancunian melancholy.
The flame of Hynde’s 70s self arose too in a quick and rightfully vicious retort to the sexualising jeers of a heckler: “Who the f*ck asked you, anyway?” Hynde’s liberating, quick-witted femininity was as present in between the songs as it was during them.
Not only had Hynde maintained her vigour, but so too had the Pretenders’ music. Tracks from the new LP Relentless were played with blistering enthusiasm: ‘Losing My Sense of Taste’, ‘A Love’, and ‘Domestic Silence’ seeping with the carnal urgency of the band’s 1979 debut. The group’s new material was jagged yet melodic, echoing Bowie’s Americanised, rockabilly-esque glam rock of Aladdin Sane or Diamond Dogs. James Welbourne, the band’s current guitarist, tore into the searing solos like someone who’d watched thousands of hours of Mick Ronson footage. With an Alex Turner hairdo and a loosely hanging guitar, he miraculously managed to live up to the energy of the group’s past guitarists – the ill-fated genius, James Honeyman-Scott and the aforementioned Johnny Marr to name but a few. Bassist Nick Wilkinson followed form, neatly running through the snarling, yet subtle, parts of the late Pete Farndon. This was no small feat for both Welbourne and Wilkinson.
Pretenders, whilst committed to expressing themselves in their new material, weren’t afraid of falling back onto older material when the time was right, material undoubtedly tinged with millions of memories from the predominantly middle-aged crowd. The gems of the group’s back catalogue were present in all their crashing sadness and sensual swagger, from the star-struck romantics of ‘Don’t Get Me Wrong’, to the night-time desires of ‘Mystery Achievement’. The classic cover ‘Stop Your Sobbing’ rang out with visceral emotion, prompting many a drunken sway and shaky, unfocused iPhone video. The Kinks’ mod-rock ditty turned glittery New Wave staple was – and is – clearly one of those songs that has soundtracked life’s troughs and crescents for Pretenders’ audiences for decades.
Pretenders’ Manchester show seemed to glow with a specific passion towards the city, hinted at already by Hynde’s expression of affection to The Smiths’ Morrissey and Marr. The intertwining histories of Pretenders and The Smiths are written into the very fabrics of the two bands, which materialised in the group’s jangle-pop-meets-punk-rock back-catalogue, sung out across the 02 Ritz.
The bitter-sweet guitar melodies of James Honeyman-Scott, always somersaulting somewhere between joy and despair, on Pretenders’ timeless debut (before the guitarist tragically died of an overdose in 1980) acted as a loose blueprint for The Smiths’ jangly indie rock three years before the band put out their similarly-self-titled debut. It’s arguable that there is no ‘Hand In Glove’ without ‘Kid’, or no ‘Miserable Lie’ without ‘Tattooed Lover Boys’. Just as Honeyman-Scott was a hero for a young Marr, Morrissey’s lyrical precision was a beguiling mystery for Hynde – and the mystery has clearly yet to be solved, with the singer still paying homage in her live sets.
Then, in 1987, Marr became the guitarist for Pretenders, applying his deft, six-stringed finesse and undying respect of Honeyman-Scott to Hynde’s shape-shifting group. The dialogue between Pretenders and The Smiths is still very much alive in the 21st century, with Morrissey releasing a poignant cover of ‘Back On The Chain Gang’ in 2017, and Marr joining the band on stage at this year’s Glastonbury Festival. The intriguing web of influence between Hynde, Honeyman-Scott, Morrissey, and Marr continued to effervesce live in concert, perhaps nowhere as potently as live in Manchester itself.
Hynde’s motley crew of musicians put on a wonderful show at Manchester’s 02 Ritz. Hynde asserted her unwavering inner punk, new band members bravely (and successfully) stepped in to fill some large shoes, and a love letter was sent to Manchester’s finest flower enthusiasts. One wonders when the return will be posted. Morrissey, Marr… the ball is now in your court.