The Pretenders, Scala, London, ****

Pure pop gems and sex appeal

James McNair
Friday 02 May 2003 00:00
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For the past quarter-century, Chrissie Hynde's look has remained fairly static. It comprises tight blue jeans, black eyeliner, black boots, hooped earrings and a low-slung Fender Telecaster. Hers is a slightly tomboy-ish image which, when combined with her feisty stage-presence, still has a combative sex-appeal. "Want to know how to get a body like this?" she quips when wolf-whistles greet the removal of her jacket. "Just be male, under 35, and come backstage after the show."

In truth, blokes under 35 are in short supply tonight. Not that this stops Hynde, now 52, from further enjoying her self-prescribed role of predatory woman. After a punchy airing of "Talk of the Town", she propositions a young heckler. And having summoned a meek roadie up on stage to adjust her mic stand, she then dismisses him with: "That's what men are for." As a male critic I probably shouldn't be laughing at Hynde's ritual humiliation of the guy, but I do so because it's just an act. Anyone familiar with her songwriting knows that it's underpinned by a love of masculinity, and a keen understanding of male/female psycho-sexual relations.

The Pretenders are in town in support of Loose Screw. It's their first studio release since 1999's Viva el Amor, and despite its awful, punning title, much of its content is strong. Tonight, the Sly and Robbie-esque "Complex Person" is dedicated to the late Joe Strummer, one of the Brit punks whom Hynde discovered reggae with in mid-Seventies London. "You Know Who Your Friends Are", meanwhile, confirms that The Pretenders still have a flair for timeless-sounding pop. The best of the newies is "The Losing", an affecting ballad that pairs sensitive subject matter with an unforgettable melody, which some have suggested is about a woman hooked on abusive relationships. You can tell from Hynde's body language that she rates the song, and well she might.

Pleasingly, the group are delighted to air the hits. We get "Back on the Chain Gang", "I Go to Sleep" and "Kid". And just when it seems the pack has been divested of aces, three more appear in the shape of "Don't Get Me Wrong", "Stop Your Sobbing" and "Brass in Pocket".

The rest of the band are exemplary, drummer Martin Chambers, bassist Andy Hobson and guitarist Adam Seymour providing an invigorating back-drop. The jewel in the crown though, is Hynde's 24-carat larynx. Listening to her deliver "I'll Stand By You", it's clear that her voice has lost none of its range, power or malleability, but what makes it special is that rich, idiosyncratic vibrato. The deployment of it involves a rapid-fire pouting of lips that's redolent of a PG Tips chimp. It's a small price to pay for such a heavenly sound.

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