Chrissie Hynde and Terry Hall have known each other since 1979, when the Pretenders frontwoman contributed backup vocals to a song from the self-titled debut by Hall’s band, the Specials.
Or at least that’s when they think they met.
“God, I can’t remember exactly,” Hynde said on the phone this week. “Can you, Terry?”
“No,” replied Hall, who was also on the call. “But I can’t remember yesterday, to be honest.”
The two musicians, both veterans of the British punk and new wave scene that also included Elvis Costello (who produced “The Specials”), had taken a few minutes to catch up ahead of the Arroyo Seco Weekend festival in Pasadena, where the Pretenders and the Specials will perform Saturday.
“I do remember being in the studio up to a point,” Hynde said. “Until I got too wasted.”
How did you end up working together in the first place?
Terry Hall: We must’ve been introduced through Elvis or [Costello’s manager] Jake Riviera.
Chrissie Hynde: Right — I knew them because I did my first single with Nick Lowe [who also produced Costello’s early albums]. But, you know, I was a fan of the Specials. I thought they were magnificent.
You’re describing a scene with lots of interplay between acts.
Hynde: I don’t know about that. It actually wasn’t very friendly — not a social scene, as such. Everyone was in a band or trying to get in a band, so by the time you got in one, you were too busy to hang out. But I didn’t live in Coventry, where the Specials were. I was in London, and I think generally bands who weren’t in London looked down on the London scene a little bit because it sort of dominated everything.
Hall: It was slightly different where we were because we had our record label [2 Tone], and bands like the Beat and UB40 were our neighbors, so we’d run into each other. But Chrissie’s right: Nobody was jumping onstage with the Police or anything.
Hynde: Oh, good lord.
Hall: It would have been nice to jump onstage onto the Police.
The Pretenders have been consistently active since those early days. But the Specials were dormant for a while.
Hall: We just got back together 10 years ago after a very, very long break. We were all at a weird point. I’d just gotten over a really bad illness, and my eyes had been opened to other things. But we got together and sort of liked each other again.
Hynde: If the lineup of a band doesn’t drop dead like mine did, I think there’s more of a chance that you’re going to break up. It’s really hard to keep a band together — just philosophically you start having other ideas. But because two guys in my band [guitarist James Honeyman-Scott and bassist Pete Farndon] died in one year, it gave me a kind of will to keep the music alive. I didn’t want the thing we’d been working toward to die.
Hall: We’ve lost members along the way. Our drummer [John Bradbury] died two years ago, and that’s really weird. But fundamentally it comes down to, this is what you do. From the age of 19 I was the singer in the Specials, and I’ve been that pretty much ever since, whether I’ve been in music or not. If I was a plumber, I’d be the plumber who was the singer in the Specials.
Different people have been in the Pretenders and the Specials. Do you ever think about your bands in terms of an irreducible essence?
Hynde: I’m constantly thinking, “What is a band?” Terry and I, we grew up with bands. Bands for me were everything. As a matter of fact, I know it’s Paul McCartney’s birthday today because I’ve known that June 18 is Paul McCartney’s birthday ever since I was 14. Bands informed everything about my whole consciousness. Now, the whole ethos of a band has sort of diminished. There are still bands, but it doesn’t reign supreme the way it used to.
How important is new music to the existence of a long-running band?
Hall: For the first time in 40 years we’re starting to write again as the Specials. We had to wait for the right minute, and it’s been good fun. But as far as going to play in front of people, it’s always been about the same thing, which is communication. No matter what’s coming out your mouth, it’s the act of doing it that’s important.
Which is more rewarding to play, Chrissie, a new Pretenders song or an old hit?
Hynde: There isn’t really more rewarding. The reward is the process of being surrounded by your band and bringing out the best in them and having this platform to do the thing that you dig doing. If people like a new song, great. If they want to hear an old song, throw ’em a bone. It’s all the same.
From physical records to downloads to streaming, the music industry has changed dramatically in just the last decade. Does anything about it resemble the old days?
Hall: I’ve never really given too much thought to the industry. We sort of operate outside it: We say we want to do some gigs, and then we do some gigs. You do what you do, and some people will like it and some people won’t. But it’s about whether I like it or not. And when it’s left me, I don’t care what happens to it. Whether it gets on the radio doesn’t matter.
Hynde: Oh, come on — it’s better to be on the radio than not be on the radio. But the thing is, people like us have managers because we can’t deal with that stuff. I’ve never read a contract in my life, nor will I. I’ve never even looked at my bank account. I just want to do what I want to do, and then the manager can do all the stuff that I can’t be bothered with.
Hall: I agree with Chrissie — though in hindsight I must say I wish I’d read the first Specials contract.