Chrissie Hynde - lead vocals, guitar; James Honeyman-Scott - lead guitar, vocals; Pete Farndon - bass, vocals; Martin Chambers - drums, vocals
Canada's legendary 1980 Heatwave Festival was the brainchild of concert promoter John Brower, who was based in Toronto. Brower established his reputation a decade prior, as the man behind the 1969 Rock and Roll Revival concert at Varsity Stadium (AKA "Live Peace In Toronto," which featured John Lennon's debut live performance outside The Beatles) and the three-day Woodstock-esque Strawberry Fields Festival held at Ontario's Mosport Park the following summer. For Canadians, as well as thousands of Americans and Europeans who traveled to this event, Brower's Heatwave Festival would become one of Canada's most memorable musical events.
Held at Mosport Park, a 500-acre auto racing facility located approximately 100 kilometers east of Toronto, the aptly named Heatwave Festival took place on a hot August Saturday and presented the cream of the crop of post-punk new wave bands, just as many were breaking big internationally. Promoted as the "New Wave Woodstock" or as the poster for the event proclaimed, "The 1980s Big Beat Rock And Roll Party," nearly 100, 000 fans would converge that day to witness some of the greatest American, British and Canadian bands to emerge in recent years all on the same stage.
The first major outdoor new wave musical event to be held anywhere, nearly 85,000 fans would purchase the $20 tickets to hear the likes of Rockpile with Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds, The B-52s, The Pretenders, Talking Heads, Elvis Costello and The Clash, along with Canada's own Teenage Head and The Kings and with lesser known groups like Holly and the Italians and The Rumour (Graham Parker's former group) performing earlier that day.
Like the original Woodstock Festival, Heatwave presented an incredible roster for that moment in time, but was likewise fraught with logistical and legal problems and would end in financial failure. When headliners, The Clash, pulled out at the last minute, rumors began spreading about the integrity of the festival. During this pre-Internet era, mass communication was difficult at best and wild speculation was running rampant about who else might cancel or who might replace The Clash. Lines were also being drawn, with the inevitable cries of "sellout" being aimed at some of the bands on the bill. On the plus side, unlike Woodstock, Mother Nature was quite cooperative and the festival took place under sunny blue skies on a hot summer Saturday, with thousands camping out the night before and already settled in by sunrise on the day of the concert. Other than the heat, for the audience it was a relatively comfortable experience for most of the day, until Brower himself became responsible for one of the logistical issues. During a backstage radio interview with his friend, Dan Aykroyd (in character as Elwood Blues), Aykroyd humorously encouraged Brower to put all the radio listeners on the guest list. Going with the flow, Brower laughingly agreed that it was a bright idea and within 90 minutes, another 15,000 ticketless fans turned up, swelling the crowd to estimates of 100,000 by sundown, just as Talking Heads were taking the stage.
As the new decade dawned, another generation of serious talent was emerging, but these groups were still experiencing only modest commercial impact. Prior to 1980, most of them were heard only on college radio stations and had little experience performing beyond the college and club circuit. Few had ever performed before a crowd of this magnitude and several had never even played outdoors. Much had changed in the past several months; The Pretenders (presented here) were now scoring Top 10 singles and Elvis Costello, Talking Heads, The B-52s and Teenage Head also had albums and singles charting. Within the next year, MTV would also begin championing videos by many of these groups while significantly altering the music industry landscape.
This is certainly the case for The Pretenders, who burst onto the international music scene the previous year, during the second British Invasion that featured legendary punk groups like the Sex Pistols, the Clash, and Siouxsie & The Banshees. Spearheaded by the tough, leather-clad American expatriate Chrissie Hynde, the group churned out street-smart punk 'n' roll anthems that would also provide radio directors with a hot new sound.
It had taken Hynde several years and a few false starts, but in rustic Hereford, England, she discovered the original and most definitive Pretenders lineup of guitarist James Honeyman-Scott, bassist Pete Farndon and drummer Martin Chambers. These four musicians created an explosive combination of precision and flamboyance. Their melodic hard-driving sound combined punk and New Wave approaches, but being older and more seasoned than their punk peers, they also drew inspiration from bands of the first British Invasion, including The Who and The Kinks, in addition to American soul music. Serving as a vehicle for Hynde's breathy, dark-timbered alto, these musicians brought a melodic sheen to Hynde's songs which often featured unconventional time signatures and blunt, unsentimental lyrics. As the primary songwriter and bandleader, Hynde came across as tough and experienced, and her songs could be extremely brutal or sweet, but rarely anything in between. The group signed with Seymour Stein's Sire records, which gave them the financial backing they needed to spread their message.
This 1980 Heatwave Festival performance literally captures The Pretenders at that breakthrough moment, just as their debut album began climbing the North American charts and their first American single, the soulful and sensual "Brass In Pocket" had become a bona fide hit. That same week, the New York Times began coverage on the band in anticipation of The Pretenders' upcoming Central Park performance (also available here at Wolfgang's) a week after the Heatwave Festival.
Performing in the afternoon between Rockpile and the B-52's, The Pretenders performed during the major influx of the 15,000 ticketless radio listeners descending on Mosport Park. With a take-no-prisoners approach, they kick things off with a lacerating "Precious," signaling to the audience that this is a band with plenty of attitude and swagger. This pummeling opener is followed by the taunting and playful "The Adultress," a full year prior to its release. Destined for the lead off spot on The Pretenders' second album the following August, this features one of Hynde's most immortal couplets of "I'm the adultress I didn't want to be" with "But I'm convenient and I make good tea." These two challenging openers are next counterbalanced by the sweet vibrato purr of "Kid," displaying the two extremes of Hynde's songwriting.
Farndon's beefy bass work propels "Space Invader," an all-too-rare rock instrumental that remains intriguing throughout, followed by the moody and atmospheric "Private Life." By this point the Heatwave Festival audience is charmed and the band digs in to "Brass In Pocket," a collaboration between Hynde and guitarist Honeyman-Scott. With a chiming Rickenbacker intro courtesy of Honeyman-Scott and a loping, insistent beat, Hynde declares "I'm special...so special" and the audience agrees! This song's straightforward clarity and beauty sparkle and by the time Hynde declares, "Going to make you, make you notice," it's a done deal and The Pretenders have the nearly 100,000 festival attendees firmly under their spell.
The only cover of the set is next with an urgent reading of "Stop Your Sobbing," a Ray Davies-penned Kinks song from 1964 that Hynde had loved as a child back in Akron, Ohio. Although a rather conventional pop song, the breathy waver in Hynde's voice is undeniably captivating and the band's precise and spare treatment bring restrained power to the performance. "The Wait," on the other hand, is pure (but not reckless) abandon. Co-written with bass player Farndon, this is one seriously wild ride, fueled by Chambers' powerful drumming and Farndon's muscular, melodic bass, pummeling the audience into submission before literally skidding to a halt.
Two more early previews surface next with Hynde's rocker "Louie, Louie" (an original, also destined for their second album, not to be confused with the 1960's garage-rock anthem) and "Porcelain," another great collaboration between Hynde and Honeyman-Scott that would turn up on the band's Extended Play EP the following year. Over the forceful rhythmic intro on the latter, Hynde sarcastically exclaims "Cut your hair and get a job!" just before Honeyman-Scott's guitar slashes in. In addition to Hynde's delirious vocal, this is a great example of the band's control of dynamics and features several tempo shifts. With just a split second to catch their breath, they immediately follow this by accelerating into "Tattooed Love Boys," sending the audience into a frenzy with its frantic tempo.
Amidst ecstatic applause, The Pretenders next tackle the unsparing and snarling "Up The Neck," ending the set on an edgy dismissive note. This demonstrates their penchant for writing nuclear hooks while maintaining their rawness, vacillating between vulnerability and cathartic release.
Just as the sun was setting, The Pretenders returned to the stage for their encore, with Chambers' martial drumming launching the group into the dark rocker that also closed their debut album, "Mystery Achievement." With its sing-along chorus, fiery guitar breaks and a bass hook that doesn't let go, this concludes one powerful performance.
At present, The Pretenders have now been a powerful force in music for nearly three decades, although only Hynde and Chambers remain from the original lineup. Following their first few albums, the band primarily became a support vehicle for Hynde's songwriting but when this concert was captured, they were truly a band of collective strength and talent. Throughout the band's volatile history, which included the drug-related deaths of Farndon and Honeyman-Scott, the Pretenders have remained a vehicle for Hynde's songs, but they have rarely matched the consistent intensity level of that classic initial lineup heard here.
-Written by Alan Bershaw