James Honeyman-Scott: An Appreciation

❉ Writer Paul Matts praises the Pretenders’ late, great “ragged lieutenant”.

‘one of the most original and versatile guitarists of the early-80s new wave movement.’ – Allmusic.

Some things stay with you in life. Your first gig, your first kiss. Your first day at school. The first time you see the Pretenders on television as a kid.

At least that was the case with me. Chrissie Hynde in a red jacket. Her sultry tones combining with a gorgeous guitar line to produce a timeless classic, loved by millions. I’m talking about Brass in Pocket, of course. And the angelic, skinny figure standing to her left? Not ‘just’ a guitar player. No way.

James Honeyman-Scott (Jimmy) was Chrissie’s ragged lieutenant. His way of playing, song-writing, and contribution to the first two Pretenders albums was immeasurable. He tied it all together with his melody, crunch and arrangements. Jimmy made a huge mark in early new wave and popular music and influenced many a guitarist in doing so. Including me. Not that I made any sort of impact as a guitar player, incidentally. But he got me started with that Top of the Pops performance in 1979.

The Pretenders are the ultimate underrated band. Easy to take for granted. They’ve been around for a long time, some forty years, in fact. Albeit with a few breaks along the way. Not that Chrissie appears the sort who would dwell on such anniversaries. They particularly had a pivotal role in the UK music in scene in 1979-80. The effects of the first wave of punk rock were still vibrating across society. And obviously, across the music scene. But what would happen next? Would it continue to grow and become the norm? Hundreds of leather-jacketed, spiky haired bands taking over the world and the airwaves? Or would it just pop and fizzle out, leaving the rock dinosaurs and cheesy pop acts to continue where punk had threatened to destroy them and their kind. Some folk, in each respective camp, would have you believe their side ‘won’

The truth is, of course, neither extreme prevailed. Something in between happened. Which was the logical conclusion. Many liked punk rock’s energy and revolution but weren’t ready to throw away classic albums by the likes of the Who and the Stones just yet. Those albums were stuffed with good tunes, see. James Honeyman-Scott knew this.

The Pretenders combined punk attitude with palatable songs. The band’s songs had a sense of class, right from the beginning. Plenty of energy, and beautifully lucid and to the point. They were an early example of ‘new wave’. Of ‘post-punk’. Of what punk did next. They bridged the gap between the two camps and chalked up success along the way. It’s easy, see. Make music people like. Make good music people like.

“When I met him, I was this not very-melodic punky angry guitar player and singer, and Jimmy was the melodic one. He brought out the melody in me.” – Chrissie Hynde, Uncut, 1990.

James Honeyman-Scott was born in 1956, in Hereford, England. He started playing the guitar aged eleven. His early musical influences included the heavy blues of Cream, the ambition of Yes and the melodic southern rock of the Allman Brothers. Later influences, and quite direct ones too, included Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds; “I started listening to (Dave Edmunds) and Nick Lowe a hell of a lot and I liked what they were doing. They always seemed to do nice little guitar sounds that you can sing along to. That’s what I started trying to do.” James told Guitar Player in1981.

His early musical career included an embryonic version of The Enid with Rob Godfrey. He played on a 1974 release, Fall of Hyperion. He was also in The Hawks, and The Cheeks with Verden Allen (Mott the Hoople) and Martin Chambers. The latter remains the drummer to this day with the Pretenders.

There is a very good reason to thank the Hereford mid-1970s music scene. It provided us with Jimmy, Martin and Pete Farndon. The founder members, together with a certain woman, of one of England’s finest bands. The Pretenders.

“As soon as I heard Jimmy Scott, I knew I was getting close. Jimmy and I turned out to have musical affinity.” – Chrissie Hynde, 1980, NME.

Jimmy was formally asked to join the band in the summer of 1978. A critical time in music, as alluded to already. Chrissie was well known in London punk rock circles and was putting together tunes. These came to the attention of Dave Hill via a demo and he asked her to put together a band. Pete Farndon, a bass player, was playing with Cold River Lady when he met Jimmy. Pete recruited Jimmy in 1978 for a series of rehearsals and recording sessions. Martin Chambers was the drummer. Voila, the band were formed.

Chrissie’s individuality as a vocalist and a personality needed an appropriate partner. Jimmy soon became her ‘musical right hand’. “He really was the Pretenders sound.” Chrissie Hynde would later say, speaking to Uncut magazine in 1990.

Jimmy would add sympathetic and tasteful touches to Chrissie’s punk rock swagger and attitude. To make music that was exciting, contemporary and classy. With a nod to the future. Early new wave. Taking the punk revolution forward.

From their first recordings, they hit the ground running. The Pretenders’ debut album, released in 1979, is one of the great debut albums. Brimming with top, top, tunes. Jimmy’s role seemed to be understanding and implementing what was needed to complete the songs. To add touches that elevated them from being merely words, chords and rhythm. To another plane, another level. To make the songs special, and vibrant.

The jangly opening fanfare and riff to Brass in Pocket is an obvious example. It grabs the listener instantly, opening his/her ears and introducing Chrissie’s vocal. A lot of Jimmy’s work on the album is similar; it allows Chrissie to shine as a vocalist, as well as directing proceedings. On Private Life the hypnotic, haunting riff holds the track’s floating, dangerous vibe. Chrissie’s vocal is threatening and demanding over it, with plenty of room to emphasise those lyrics.

But not before a barnstorming distorted guitar solo dives in to deliver a tornado to blow away any listener thinking they had heard all the track had to offer. You see, versatility was key to Jimmy’s playing. The melodic beauty on Kid. The crunching opening to Up the Neck. The solo work and overdubs on Tattooed Love Boys. As well as the tour-de-force of Space Invader, where Jimmy really rips it up, the guitar lines on Stop your Sobbing are breathtakingly simple and beautiful. Take them away and the recording would be without soul. Subtlety is an over-looked quality in life, as well as in music. Especially in punk and new wave music. Jimmy had it by the ton and had more class in the handful of notes he played on this track than most guitar players achieved in their entire career.

“The melodic parts of the numbers really all started coming together by me putting in these little runs and licks. And then Chrissie started to like pop music, and that’s why she started writing things like Kid.” Jimmy would tell Guitar Player, in 1981. He worked in conjunction with Chrissie’s own rhythmic playing; “I don’t know anybody who plays like her. It’s real distinct, and I can’t count her beat half the time. Instead, I just put a little guitar line over it.” (ibid.)

On Kid, Jimmy showed his ingenuity and invention. To achieve the harpsichord-style sound towards the end of the track, Jimmy removed the bottom three strings from his guitar and replaced them with a second G, B and top E string. A combination of picking and equalisation, and playing the notes at half speed, resulted in that fantastic sound. All played on a Gibson Dove guitar: “It’s very difficult, but it turned out great.” (Guitar Player, 1981.)

The second Pretenders album, The Pretenders 2, was released in 1981. On Talk of the Town, Jimmy delivers a guitar line that is perfect. A guitar line that is so melodic you find yourself humming it. Full of individual moments. The Dave Edmunds/ Nick Lowe influence shone through here. Jimmy’s hopes were realised. The fanfare introducing the verses, the almost slightly out of time twang of the intro. The low-level rumble underneath Chrissie’s vocal during the chorus. Musical affinity indeed. It is possibly my favourite guitar track of all time.

Again, the variety in Jimmy’s playing set the tone for the band’s sound. The strong, full playing on The Adultress, the subtlety on I Go to Sleep, allowing the vocal and tragic sounding horn to take centre stage. The bright pop of Message of Love. All held together by Jimmy’s guitar lines, laid down using a combination of Rickenbacker, Fender Telecaster and Zemaitis guitars. Accompanied by Chrissie’s own Telecaster, once more.

In spring 1982, Jimmy was called back by Chrissie and the band, from Austin, Texas where he was co-producing a recording for Stephen Doster. His reputation was growing, see. The October 1981 interview with Guitar Player magazine often quoted here* must have been a proud moment for Jimmy since he was an avid reader of the magazine. A Pretenders band meeting was called to discuss the drug dependency of Pete Farndon: he was subsequently sacked from the band. Two days after Pete was fired, Jimmy himself was dead. His death was a result of an intolerance to cocaine which in turn, led to heart failure. He was just twenty-five years old.

Just as he was getting into his stride, Jimmy was taken from the world. An ultimate example of the good dying young. It is easy to contemplate, quite rightly, what he may have gone on to achieve had he lived. Like to so many who died young, from Sid Vicious to Kurt Cobain. However, in Jimmy’s case, his spirit talent ensured he would not just be remembered for what he did during his time on earth.

You see, the influence of Jimmy on new wave music is immense. His legacy is considerable.

Chrissie felt that their work together had to continue. Her musical affinity with him was that strong. Jimmy even suggested bringing Robbie McIntosh into the band in some form, so impressed was he with Robbie’s musicianship. Robbie went on to become the guitarist in the Pretenders for the years following Jimmy’s death.

“One of the things that kept the band alive, ironically, was the death of Jimmy Scott. I felt I couldn’t let the music die when he did…I had to finish what we’d started.” Chrissie Hynde, Pirate Radio Box Set.

It is well known the band’s classic 2000 Miles was written about Jimmy. Back on the Chain Gang is dedicated to him. When the band played in 2018, Chrissie spoke of Jimmy and Pete (who also sadly passed away in 1983), and the contribution they made to the band: “We wouldn’t be where we are without them.”

Jimmy had set the wheels rolling for one of England’s finest acts. One that has continued to produce classy, edgy rock throughout its career. The shows in 2018 were top quality. The spirit of Jimmy has been there from the band’s third album, Learning to Crawl, right through to Alone, their superb 2016 release. Listen to Roadie Man off the latter and you’ll see what I mean. Melodious, dreamy, classy.

Watching and observing his contribution to The Pretenders, and listening to his melodic lines, were several youngsters dreaming of making a similar mark themselves. One individual was to become one of the most important musicians in any era of music.

Any player who influenced Johnny Marr is significant. Period. The Smiths are one of England’s most influential bands, icons to indie fans the world over. Marr’s affinity and musical relationship with Stephen Morrisey is very similar to that between Jimmy and Chrissie. Distinctive vocalists and guitarists, working together to produce a sonic tapestry few have equalled.

“most of all, the jingle-jangle came from James Honeyman-Scott of the Pretenders. He was the last important influence on my playing before I went out on my own.” Johnny Marr, Guitar Player, January 1990.

The crowd reaction Marr’s 2019 Glastonbury’s set was stunning. Brandon Flowers’ response when Marr guested with The Killers during their headline performance was that of a fan meeting his all-time hero. To have been the main influence on an individual (Marr) revered by so many, including a big name contemporary like Flowers, speaks volumes about Jimmy.

An angelic, beautiful, man. Who played the guitar so with class, melody and vigour. I wonder if he had any idea how brightly the candle he lit would burn? And for how long? An inspirational, significant, figure.

“The tracks he did commit to tape on the Pretenders first two studio albums, however, are nothing short of revelatory: Punk can, in fact, coexist with a sophisticated melodic – it’s just that most of us, unlike James Honeyman-Scott can’t crack the code.” Tom Beaujour, Guitar Player, January 2018.

❉  To read the complete October 1981 Guitar Player interview see here: http://jasobrecht.com/james-honeyman-scott-the-pretenders-qa/

❉ A regular contributor to We Are Cult, Paul Matts is a writer from Leicester, England. His debut novel ‘Toy Guitars’ is due to be published in 2019, and a further novella, ‘Donny Jackal’ is currently being edited. He previously promoted live shows as 101 Productions and owned The Attik night club from 2001-2007. He was also a songwriter and guitarist in The Incurables. Paul runs a music blog and has recently started a series entitled 101 Significant Figures. This focuses on under-appreciated individuals in the punk and new wave movement. See www.paulmatts.com for more details.

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  1. A great report here about the Pretenders, Chrissie Hynde and the musicians who went through this saga with her, all talented, mostly James Honeyman-Scott. I had the opportunity to cross them in that night-club in Paris, the Gibus Club in 79. With the band I was in, we had played all the week before the Pretenders, and when I saw their show I really enjoyed it. When we crossed, us leaving and them arriving, in the afternoon, James had asked to play on my Stratocaster and Acoustic amp. Of course, I left him play and I no saw he was a real good guitar player. He liked to try another equipment. The other Pretenders were quite distant, but it made me a memory and I’ve been sad when when I read somewhere he was dead, what a waste! I still like this band. Thanks again for your report, nice to read and watch those clips.

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