Music Saturday, October 15th Words by: Mark Bowen, pictures by: Mark Bowen

Pretenders drummer Martin Chambers on Chrissie Hynde, Live Aid and playing with a Beatle

Music Saturday, October 15th

Pretenders drummer Martin Chambers on Chrissie Hynde, Live Aid and playing with a Beatle

Topping the charts with The Pretenders, playing Live Aid, being inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, drumming for a Beatle; these are just some of the highlights of the extraordinary life lived by Martin Chambers.

As a founding member of The Pretenders, alongside fellow Herefordians James (Jimmy) Honeyman-Scott and Pete Farndon, Martin hit the limelight with the the band led by the hugely talented Chrissie Hynde.

The story of how three lads from Hereford ended up topping both the UK album and singles chart, fronted by an American singer-songwriter, is one of rock's most unlikely tales.

That it happened at all is largely due to Martin's talent as a drummer, as a top draw musician he, along with Jimmy and Pete, formed the perfect backing for Hynde's classic songwriting - it really doesn't get any better than 'Brass in Pocket', 'Back on the Chain Gang', and '2000 Miles'. 

Tragically Jimmy and Pete are no longer here to tell the tale. Fortunately, Martin is and he doesn't hold back. He is frank about his fractious relationship with Chrissie Hynde and fortunately there is something on the horizon to look forward to - a Pretenders US tour with Fleetwood Mac's Stevie Nicks starting on October 25.  

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How are you?

I’m looking forward to getting out there and playing because rehearsing is rehearsing.

So it’s better to get out there and play?

Yeah. When you have had lay-offs like we have had you’ve got to get back up to speed and it takes a while.

Are you playing on the new Pretenders album? I only ask because I know it started off as a solo album for Chrissie.

The thing is for many years now there’s been a very fine dividing line between what is a Pretenders album and what isn’t. The fact is there hasn’t been a Pretenders album made for a very long time despite the fact that we lost Jim and Pete.

‘Learning to Crawl’ (1984) was halfway house and then it kind of went downhill a bit because the albums that Chrissie has made, in my opinion, were totally in her own way - whenever you do that you get a certain type of album. The great thing about an album being made by a band … is they put their stamp on it, so it’s a band album.

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The Pretenders (original line-up) at Dominion Theatre, London, December 1981. From left Pete Farndon, Martin Chambers, Chrissie Hynde, and James Honeyman-Scott. Photo: Wikipedia. 

I really didn’t like the idea very much of Charlie Watts being called ‘my drummer’ by Mick Jagger.

What it is really is the fact that what you are supposed to do is just play the basics and let the band play it and that is a band album because then the band interpret the songs and make the album.

Ok. There is a lot of compromise but it shouldn’t be a big deal because you just let the band play it because those people in the band are really good.

So what Chrissie has done over the years is just become a little bit too precious with the songs she has written. I can understand this but at the same time it is not a band album.

Sometime ago, I think it was about 2007, I just went ‘you don’t have to use me on this record if you don’t want to’ because I just allowed her to make the album she had to make and that is what she did.

So she he got Jim Keltner (legendary session man who has worked with John Lennon, George Harrison, The Travelling Wilburys, Bob Dylan, Brian Wilson, and Neil Young) on the drums. Keltner came into the studio and said ‘where’s Martin?’. But the thing was I couldn’t stand the aggro to make a record.

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Martin in the Brass In Pocket video.

So how many tracks on the new album are you on?

I’m not on any of it. Because Chrissie, and this is a big plus and a big slap on the back from me to Chrissie, recognised this guy Dan Auerbach (producer of the new Pretenders album ‘Alone’) has got something about him. Her instincts are good and I think this album is being well received. I think it’s a pretty good album but the band album per se doesn’t really exist.

What is your relationship like with Chrissie?

How long have you got? The point being Chrissie is very smart, she’s very interesting, she’s incredibly difficult to work with, she’s not necessarily particularly musical, she’s not a very good guitar player, she’s not very prolific and she’s not a natural front person.

I have managed to understand those reasons because I’m an extraordinary human being and the fact is I understand the awkwardness of Chrissie and the way it is.

I love her very much, most of the time I don’t really like her, but I love her very much. She is very difficult to work with.

I think the first part of doing what we do as support players, team players in a band, is to understand the logistics within which you have to work.

Chrissie is an exceptional singer/songwriter there is no question about that but it is an extremely difficult job for me to do.

One of the things I have managed to do over the years, apart from not dying, is to become thick skinned. 

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Where is it you live in Herefordshire?

I’m not telling you. I like to be quiet. The trouble is when I first moved here the bloody post man turned up and started asking questions about the f***ing group. It’s so difficult to remain anonymous, insanely difficult.

Chrissie is the same, she just wants to be a normal person, and be left alone and nowadays more than ever before you have this incredible celebrity culture, and there’s social media which makes everybody want, as Andy Warhol said, to be famous for 15 minutes.

You do go out to local gigs in Herefordshire though?

Of course, because it’s the buzz isn’t it? It’s always about the buzz, you go out and see a band playing that’s supposed to be really good. That is what I remember most from the past is you go out and you’ve heard this band and they are bloody brilliant, you go and tell your mates and there is no other feeling like that.

Are there any local bands that you have been impressed with and that have stuck in your memory?

I haven’t really seen any for a long time to be honest -nothing that is really exceptional. I haven’t seen anything in Hereford at all because I haven’t really been here that much.

But I get tempted out now and again, it’s good to go out, I always see people I haven’t seen for ages, but a lot of the time I just like to be quiet and the opposite of what it is like on the road, which is very hectic, busy, noisy and here where I live I’m in the middle of nowhere.

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James Honeyman-Scott in the Brass in Pocket video. 

Tell me about when you started out because was it ’67 you started drumming?

Yes, that’s right.

Weren’t you asked by James Williams if you could play drums, and you said you could but in actual fact you had never played.

I was absolutely lying through my teeth, I had never touched a drum kit in my life. So basically what I did was play with knitting needles playing on the arm of a sofa with a couple of cushions either side of me. I would play along to all the music we had on the radiogram.

In ’67 when I heard James Williams putting a new band together I heard him say 'we are looking for a drummer' I said ‘I can play the drums’ and I had never touched a drum kit in my life.

Within a week we were rehearsing. We did our first gig in St.Mary’s Church Hall, Ross-on-Wye, I guess it would have been the Summer of Love.

Pete Watts and Buffin (from Mott The Hoople) came along. Buffin leant me his drum kit, a full drum kit. The very first time I played in front of an audience I was playing a full drum kit which I had never touched before. I had hell of a time.

The album ‘Are You Experienced?’ was just out, we immediately rehearsed the songs that were on this album and we would be playing them that night.

There was a certain amount of natural talent going on and of course never having played before I was in a band with a bunch of people that had played before so everybody was better than me. That is always the way to go - have people better than you.

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Your first band was called Blues Reunion?

The first band was The Blues Reunion and that turned into County Farm Blues Band. After that we started Karakorum.

With Karakorum didn’t you do a benefit gig at Hereford United?

That was August Bank Holiday in ’71. (Martin reads out the line-up from a poster which included Mott The Hoople.)

Were you playing on the pitch?

A big stage was built and it was just like doing a festival only at Edgar Street. We made some money for Hereford United and six months later they were playing Newcastle, that was the Ronnie Radford goal.

After that you became a driving instructor?

This whole business annoys the f*** out of me. Because what it’s about is I was going nowhere I worked in bands, I was fed up of living in a van, and not having any money.

Punk was starting to happen. There were a lot of bands starting, I had been doing progressive rock so I could play practically anything. I’d done a year in a big dance orchestra which was a different skill set completely.

I had done all of the basic training, I was looking for something really good to latch on to. I thought what I will do is go to the labour exchange because I’m fed up of literally living on the street and I was prepared to do anything. I thought I need to get a job with a car ideally so I can get around, get back to Hereford and find out what is going on in London.

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Martin in the video for Kid. 

That was the thinking it was nothing to do with getting a job as a driving instructor.

The job on the wall (at the labour exchange) that came with a car was a driving instructor and it was a six week course to become an approved driving instructor.

I did that and next thing I know I’m working on Baker Street. I meet this guy at Baker Street and I got a flat so I’ve got a car, a job, and a flat.

I was going around trying different bands so I could get some playing time. I hadn’t played at that time for nearly a year so I was aching to play. I would go to auditions, because I had got the car, ring them up and say ‘have you got a drum kit there?’ and if they said ‘yes’ I would go to that one. Anywhere where there wasn’t a drum kit I wouldn’t go to. I had my drum kit but you can’t really transport it around.

Every hour I was playing with a different band for a couple of months to get some playing time in. Because I had the car I went back to Hereford and found Andy Watt who was a camera person, Jimmy and Pete were living in his house in London. It was literally six, seven hundred yards from where I was living. So that is how I found Jimmy and Pete and Chrissie.

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Hereford lads altogether: Martin, Jimmy and Pete in the Brass In Pocket video. 

I was going to ask how you met Chrissie?

I found them. Critical point.

It wasn’t that long after that that you had a number one album and single.

That’s right and it was hell of a steep learning curve for Chrissie because she hadn’t been in a band per se at that point. I had been on the road for 11 years. She hadn’t really done anything at all apart from talk a lot and stand with her back to the audience doing back-up vocals. She hadn’t done very much at all.

She really thought she was too old at 26, it’s a bit past it really for making it in your band. She was almost giving up and then she found Pete and she found Jimmy and they were looking to complete the line-up because the drummer they had wasn’t committed to doing what they wanted to do, which is go the whole way, so I found them and then we did it.

But it was hard work for Chrissie especially in that climate with punk in ’77, in the provinces they still thought gobbing and everything was the thing to do because it was punk. Actually punk barely lasted 18 months.

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Tell me about Jimmy and Pete because I saw an interview with you and you said you still dream about them. Is that the case?

Yeah. I haven’t dreamt about them for a long time but I used to have these very strange dreams where they would be dressed up. They were Jim and Pete the way I remember them but they were in these odd situations like in a cafeteria, in the queue of a cafeteria holding a tray, things like that and I would just go ‘where have you been?’.

People say ‘oh you’ve got to get over it, it’s all in the past now’. The thing is it’s alright for you, you don’t do what I do, what I do is exactly what I used to do when they were alive.

How good were they as musicians?

Perfect. That’s the point about Charlie Watts and the Stones, and Ringo in The Beatles. It all works for whatever reason. But if you put Ringo with The Stones …?

All this media driven thing, the hundred best albums, the best drummer, the best guitarist, it’s just bullshit. It’s about the combination and I think a lot of the classic bands knew one another when they were young.

In a way we were very classic in as much as Jim, Pete and I we were on the same wave and when Pete found Chrissie and got Jimmy involved they were looking for me so when I found them Jim and Pete were just great because we worked together so well. It was almost telepathy. They reacted to the band and it was a band mentality.

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The charismatic leader of The Pretenders Chrissie Hynde. Photo: Wikipedia.

Did you play with Jimmy and Pete pre-Pretenders?

I never played with Pete. Pete and I knew one another and he did approach me one day with Paul Cheshire, a great Hereford musicians and guitar player, and they were talking about putting a band together. This was probably about ’72 or ’73 or ’74.

But I was already doing something else and I said I cannot do it, I’ve got commitments with these people, so I never worked with Pete.

But Jimmy, of course, I did because I had known Jimmy since probably ’67. We became very close but he went with a couple of bands. Jimmy came along and played with Verden (Allen of Mott The Hoople) in The Cheeks. He was probably in that band for about a year. But nothing really happened unfortunately for that line-up.

Fast forward a few years, I remember seeing you play Live Aid. What was that like?

We did the JFK Stadium (in Philadelphia). It was pretty hectic because believe it or not it was bigger than Wembley and very hot. I think Wembley was hot but JFK was ridiculous.

It was a hell of an experience because I was a known musician in a happening band everybody was your friend. I’ve got some great stories about Jack Nicholson.

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Martin on stage in Philadelphia at Live Aid. 

He introduced you didn’t he?

He was compere for the day, certainly for the afternoon, and Jack is a great guy. Jack and I were comparing our watches.

It was a pretty good period. I’d had a daughter and so everything was looking rosy.

It was just a huge event and pretty amazing to be honest but what a pity most of the money raised didn’t do a damn thing for the people that needed it.

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You’ve also played with Paul McCartney too?

That was the tribute concert to Linda McCartney at The Albert Hall.

I went into Paul’s studio when he had it built. He phoned me up and I went down there.

He’s the most musical person I’ve ever worked with in my life. It was Paul, myself and Eric Stewart from 10cc.

We went in the studio. It was just fantastic because some people you can read and others you can’t, some people are so musical. Paul McCartney is epic. You just look at him and follow his body language and you know exactly where you are.

It is just the way it is with people and Paul had that ability to just carry you along and have fun at the same time.

When it comes to music Paul McCartney was a kid because it is the best thing you could possibly do and I’ve been doing it all my life. Paul has that musical ability that just gushes from him. He’s so musical it's ridiculous.

Very clever, without being too clever for clevers sake, because clever doesn’t really make it in music. Nobody wants anything too clever you just want it to be right. It just comes across and you go ‘f*** that’s good’.

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Tell me about playing with Mott The Hoople at the reunion gigs?

I was invited up. It was Verden’s initial idea because they tried with Buffin. They could see that he could play but it (Alzheimer's) was already taking hold of him. The illness, being a progressive illness, it was just going to get worse.

Buffin couldn’t keep the tempos and all that so they thought ‘let’s get Martin in’. I just slotted in and it worked for me because I was finishing up on a world tour so I said ‘yes absolutely’.

Then the wonderful thing was we could get Buffin up to do a couple of songs at the end of every night. That was the most wonderful thing. He would slow down so I would be screaming at him.

We had the most amazing five days. It was great seeing everybody come together again. To see them reacting to one another again.. was just memory lane stuff.

I didn’t know that there was friction between various members but it was a harmonious time in 2009.

Then we did a few more in 2013 but I had been ill, nobody knew that. I’d been very ill in early 2013. Luckily I came through that.

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Are you doing a book?

Yes. The book I’ve got mostly written I will be finishing the main writing of the first draft on the road. So I will have the book in the bag by Christmas. I’m 65% finished.

I’m just catching up to the present day. I’ve got everything because I’ve got diaries. Stan Tippins (Herefordshire based former Mott The Hoople road manager who took up the same position with The Pretenders) has got diaries that he kept quite specifically on everything.

So when I was lost for any more detail on a certain thing I could go to Stan and sit down and have a cup of tea for a couple of hours and he read out what days I was interested in.

So basically what I have got is a meticulous book, on the road, everything that we did, it’s almost forensic in its approach.

One of the ideas is to try to step away from the band for me because I need to. I’ve never had a time when I haven’t been thinking, eating and dreaming Pretenders.

I’ve started a website called pretendermc.com and that is an archive of photographs that is going to be launched over the coming months or so. It’s all part of me stepping back from my past because what I would like to have is a future. You can’t have a future if you are living in the past all the time.

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Talking about the future you are about to go on the road with Stevie Nicks aren’t you?

That’s right. Stevie’s great. She’s a real trooper. That came together, the idea of doing that, because I think Chrissie had it in her head that she wanted to do Pretenders work. And I’d been pushing Chrissie about how about doing some Pretenders gigs so it just came together rather quickly.

I’m looking forward to seeing Stevie again. We are doing the enormodomes but we are doing our own shows in between because there are only 27 shows with Stevie over two months.

So sometimes you have got three days off and that’s not just the way we have ever done things. We are used to five, six gigs a week.

I think at the moment we have got six or seven extra gigs. On those days off we will be driving off doing a gig and carrying on to the next Stevie gig.

It’s going to be fun because we are going to be doing different shows. We will be doing a show for the Stevie show which is going to be about an hour and 15 and then we will be doing about an hour and 40 for our own shows. We will be chopping and changing that is good because it keeps you on your toes.  

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