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Chrissie Hynde and the Pretenders rock VH1 Classic special

Malcolm X Abram
Akron Beacon Journal

If you have digital cable, way up the dial, probably some-where in the 100s -- where average TV viewers may start to wonder if, perhaps, they have a bit too much television -- sits VH1 Classic. It's the channel where rock, pop and, recently, hip-hop veterans are still celebrated as alive and musically useful.

While its sister channel, VH1, continues its mission to gross out the entire world by locating obviously damaged women willing to kiss Flava Flav on camera for the privilege of being on television, VH1 Classic is arguably the only place on national television you might still see a Michael Stanley Band video.

It's also the place where Pretenders fans can whet their appetites with the premiere of "VH1 Decades Rock Live: The Pretenders," premiering at 8 p.m. EDT Friday.

The 90-minute special features the band in Las Vegas playing many of its hits with a gaggle of guests, including Incubus, Garbage's Shirley Manson, Iggy Pop and Chrissie Hynde's current favorite band in the world, the Kings of Leon, jamming on old Pretenders tunes and tunes by Garbage, KOL and Iggy.

The show opens with the Pretenders being dubbed "legendary," prompting Hynde to say to the crowd, "I like that, it has a ring of finality." Then the band tears into a hot version of "The Wait" from its debut album, followed by songs from later albums, including the soul-infused ballad "The Losing" and "Back on the Chain Gang," as well as "Precious," "Mystery Achievement" and the venerable "Brass in Pocket."

The band and guests all perform well and, perhaps more importantly, appear to be having a good time.

"I've never been a fan of music on television -- rock videos, MTV -- I always prefer music on the radio," Hynde said Tuesday during a telephone interview from London, where the band is rehearsing before embarking on its winter swing through the States, including some dates opening for the Who.

"It's very compelling and it's easy to watch, but I think it takes something away from the music and isn't very rock. It's all setup and there's too many lights and it all feeds the industry.

"I don't like to worry much about if I'm playing a garden shed or a private party. We're a band, so we play. But when VH1 asked us to do that and we realized we could get some artists that I adore, we thought, `Let's just hope that we can pull it off and that it works on television,' and I have to tell you, VH1 did a great job with the editing and the lights and so I was relieved."

Hynde and company didn't make it easy for VH1.

The Decades Rock Live concerts are first and foremost television tapings; consequently, often (and forgive me if I'm ruining anyone's "magic-of-television" fantasy) the artists will play a song a few times to ensure that it looks as cool as possible on television -- a practice in which Hynde wasn't interested.

"When we actually did the show, we just banged through it. We never redid a song -- I thought that would be (expletive) for the audience to have to sit through a song a few times. After all, we're a rock band, so I wouldn't want to crap out with our audience and I was surprised.

"We'd been on tour and the band was playing great ... inspired, of course, by our guests."

The guests do quite well, with Manson trading verses with Hynde on "Talk of the Town" and Garbage's "I'm Only Happy When It Rains."

The band of Tennessee brothers, the Kings of Leon, performs its own "The Bucket," and Incubus, which recorded a song with Hynde ("They were really nice, so we asked them to do it," she said) takes a shot at "Message of Love" and its own "Drive."

Iggy Pop adds his unique energy to the diatribe "Fools Must Die" and turns his lightweight '90s single "Candy" into a cute duet with Hynde.

Throughout the show, you can see the participants using the teleprompter and occasionally quizzically looking at each other.

"I think I listened to all the songs we were going to do in a van on the way to the sound check, just to remember if I knew what songs they were," she said. "We had one day of rehearsal and then it's rock, so you don't want to over-rehearse and you want it to be spontaneous. It's not the Philharmonic.

"We kind of figured out who would do what when we were rehearsing. If you watch, you can see half the time we're looking at each other like who's line is this and whoever backed off the mic, the other would take the line."

The show ends with the ensemble on stage for a loose, guitar-heavy "Middle of the Road."

"It was a blast. Are you kidding me?" Hynde said of the experience. "To be able to play with the Kings of Leon and Shirley -- forget about it -- and my all-time hero Iggy Pop?

"It went really well; I was pleasantly surprised."

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