With the benefit of Chrissie Hynde sight: Pretenders at 40

If there had never been such a thing as Chrissie Hynde someone would certainly have needed to invent her. Ohio, native Christine Ellen Hynde emerged from the teeming hothouse of late ’70s London like Athena cracked forcefully from the skull of Zeus.

This wannabe rock star at any cost (she lost her virginity to Ron Wood of the Rolling Stones: how fucking cool is that?) moved to England in the middle of the decade to work for music rag NME, in whose inky pages she once opined: “Raymond Douglas Davies is the only songwriter I can think of who can write such personal material (and he is always very personal), and never get embarrassing. One of the true romantics of our time.” More on him later.

She’d been peripheral. Sure, you’d heard of her: Akron sassy, worked at McLaren and Westwood’s SEX, ingratiated herself with Sex Pistols Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious, almost managed to form a succession of great punk bands, Chrissie Hynde was rock’s ‘nearly’ girl.

London, 1974: Chrissie Hynde and Nick Kent are the best dressed men in town. Or something.

Hynde also spent a short time with The Moors Murderers.

Not Myra Hindley and Ian Brady but a brief ‘phantom’ band named after the notorious pair of 1960s child-killers, the revolving line-up featured future Visage frontman Steve Strange on vocals and on guitar duties Mark Ryan (a.k.a. The Kid, formerly of Adam & The Ants).

After the band failed to take flight, Malcolm McLaren placed her as a guitarist in Masters of the Backside, but she was asked to leave the group just as it became The Damned. A distinctly feminine (and feminist) counterpoint to the nearly overwhelming crush of alpha-male performers, eventually she founded her own band in 1978.

Then this happened.

And so into this rock fraternity strode Hynde and her Pretenders, every bit as tough and self-possessed as their peers and taking a backseat to no one in terms of talent. Hot on the heels of 1979’s sassy cover of the Kinks’ curio Stop Your Sobbing, Hynde proceeded to issue Pretenders, which remains one of the most audacious and fascinating debuts in rock music history.

Released seven days into the new decade (in the UK at least), here was sharp, intelligent, classy mid-Atlantic pop-rock with one foot forward in the Eighties and the other rooted in Kinks-literate old-wave classicism. Street-smart, but with lashings of Brill Building nous, Detroit-leaning chutzpah. Brass In Pocket, that voice, that surfeit of attitude: “I’m special.” Brilliantly, it sets its narcissistic swagger to music that’s languid and sensual rather than aggressive. It flew straight to No.1. How could it not?

That album established Chrissie bonafides as a staggeringly artful tunesmith with a remarkable gift for pulling indelible choruses seemingly out of thin air. Her lyrics were tough, funny, and intelligent, co-mingling the personal and political in a manner both deeply coded and highly sophisticated. A central tension in her writing emerged: in a the music industry awash in a sea of capricious idiocy, the pugnacious Hynde did not gladly suffer fools, or difficult customers.

The Pretenders were a matter of time and timing. The first one was a drummer with the unlikely name of Gas Wild, who hailed from the town of Hereford and knew an itinerant bassist named Pete Farndon. Hynde and Farndon – a swarthy, stocky veteran of various Hereford outfits and an Australian group called the Bushwackers – hit it right off from the start, but Gas Wild had to go.

Just to complete a framework in which to audition new drummers, Farndon called on crack guitarist James Honeyman-Scott, then between gigs and scratching out a tenuous existence dealing rare guitars. These three plus another temporary drummer recorded that first great two-sided single, Stop Your Sobbing b/w The Wait, with producer Nick Lowe.

Manager Dave Hill released it on his own Real Records (with distribution by Warners), and though not quite a smash, the record touched off a flurry of coverage among the British weeklies. By this time, drummer Martin Chambers had signed on for keeps, and Lowe—who didn’t think the band had enough strong material for a whole LP, ooops!—had been replaced by veteran helmsman Chris Thomas (The Beatles, Roxy Music, Sex Pistols).

In the summer of ‘79, with its alluringly ambiguous lyrics, the lovely, lilting Kid edged into the British Top 40, and by January of 1980 the Pretenders had scored chart toppers in both the UK singles and album charts. Yet at the time of the album‘s recording, the group had played only fifty live gigs.

Neither difficult nor lightweight, the Pretenders inherited the wits and guts of a multiplicity of influences all the way from the eye-for-detail of the Kinks to the primal touchstone of The Stooges. They appeared to be in command of an impossibly wide range of subtle shadings, enabling them to assume universal appeal with no loss of credibility. People believed what they wanted to believe about the Pretenders.

Chrissie’s Hynde’s best songs were just the right blend of yearning and attitude; her femininity was neither played upon nor denied, with the result that what normally passed for ‘image’ was nowhere in sight. What was left was pure and uncluttered. Like the best of everything – be it jazz, rock or schlock – it had an integrity all its own, and even Simon Bates and his ghastly goggles could see that.

With that third single, the strutting bit of neo-Motown that is Brass In Pocket, all of the elements really came together: a cool semi-soul groove and an especially sultry vocal for this wanton declaration of female sexual assertiveness. Stomping around like a troupe of clog-dancers having a tantrum, Chrissie Chrissie Hynde licked each word until it squealed — berating the object of her lust, begging herself up as “special, so special” and promised she was going to make you notice.” There weren’t too many who argued her claim and in fact, plenty would have been willing to give her the attention that she was seemingly craving within the lyrics.

With her scary attitude and even scarier hair, Hynde’s historic achievement was to take all the credibility and confidence and attitude of punk and inject them directly into pop songs that would get radio airplay for the rest of time. Preceding the second album (imaginatively titled Pretenders II), Talk Of The Town and Message Of Love were instantly accessible hits for fans of rootsier post-punk. Essentially, they were new wave dance ditties written by a woman burnishing a sneering and utterly fearless “fuck with me at your peril” persona.

As always, Hynde’s commanding vocals take precedence, but somehow that doesn’t detract from the rest of the band’s vibrancy or sense of freedom. For example, on Message Of Love Pete Farndon brings a churning bass line to the top of what is a furious musical display. This may be Chrissie at her most optimistic, but that doesn’t mean the tune lacks any of the typical Pretenders edge. Hynde namechecked Brigitte Bardot in the lyrics and said this about the French actress when asked to play name association by Billboard magazine in 2006:

“She didn’t crap out. She said she prefers her dogs to her husband. And I read something recently where she said she’s always been the man in her life. What’s not to like?”

In 1982, the band visited Australia and New Zealand for the first time, and during a spirited television interview with Donnie Sutherland on Channel 7s Saturday morning pop show Sounds, biker-attired bassist Pete Farndon mentions how he’d just caught the band he’d ditched to join Hynde & co., Aussie folk-rock combo The Bushwackers, at the Manly Vale Hotel, a staple of the Sydney music scene back in the day, and a five minute drive from where I’m writing this article.

The Pretenders are the archetypal rock ’n’ roll band – with an excess and death (lots of it, resulting in Hynde being the only line-up mainstay) and songs to break your heart. Not to mention departures. First, Farndon, who was once Chrissies lover, who had become a hopeless junkie, and was kicked out of the band just weeks after the Oceania tour. Two days later, James Honeyman-Scott, the guitarist whose lyrical playing formed the bedrock of the group’s sound, died of a cocaine overdose. Ten months later, the bass player, still addicted to heroin, was dead, too.

Almost immediately, Hynde and drummer Martin Chambers immediately recruited bassist Tony Butler (on loan from Big Country) and ex-Rockpile guitarist Billy Bremner to help them record the brilliantly breezy Back On The Chain Gang (backed with fan favourite My City Was Gone).

Nominally an ode to James Honeyman-Scott, Chain Gang weds an unforgettable Americana melody and a gorgeous, chiming Byrds-style riff to one of the saddest meditations on loss in the rock music tradition. ‘I saw a picture of you,’ she reflects to her long gone friend, ‘those were the happiest days of my life.’” The public responded, and the song became the Pretenders’ first 45 to make the American Top 10, and was recently covered by her comrade-in-charms Morrissey.

More familiar fare included Hymn To Her, Don’t Get Me Wrong, and the sublime I Go To Sleep (rarely has the French horn sounded more swoonsome); while the all-too-raw and autobiographical deep cut Tattooed Love Boys brims with attitude and driven by a riff so urgent it almost falls over itself, showing what can happen to a young woman when she is faced by men corrupted by violent language and violent deeds.

The Pretenders can also lay claim to a musical double reserved for only a very select breed: they’re responsible for a truly great Christmas song, the hypnotic 2000 Miles, from 1983. The video is seasonably kitch too.

 

Befitting of its title, 1987’s If There Was A Man was an elegantly elegiac James Bond theme that in no way got the attention it deserved. Romantic and evocative with a lilting, jazzy piano and lavish orchestration by John Barry, it’s so perfectly nuanced that no one but Chrissie Hynde could’ve pulled off the vocals in such a beautiful yet commanding way.

The team up with Barry more than delivered the goods, even if it was unceremoniously shunted to the end credits by some other band’s main title song for The Living Daylights.

Still, this rejig video kinda gives you an idea what could haver been. a-Ha!

Taking her cue from the Pretenders song that Grace Jones later made famous, Chrissie leads a relatively private life in her modest flat in London’s West Kilburn. Oh, and whenever the Pretenders play live, they usually post signs asking people in the audience not to use cell phones while they’re onstage.

Of course, people don’t comply too often, and so she’s prone to unload on the audience, cursing them out (last year, Dubai gig goers were told to “shove your cell phones up your ass. We ain’t Lady Gaga or Katy Perry, so if you wanna use your fucking phones, go and see them.”) and sometimes even storming offstage early. As is evidenced from the archive clip below, Hynde has form, though it’s kinda comedy gold when she’s clearly forgotten the performance is being filmed for the tellybox.

A take-no-shit frontwoman in the male-dominated scene, Hynde has never stopped writing great songs, serving as an inspiration for female artists across the spectrum. Her band followed nobody — until the drug-related deaths of Pete Farndon and James Honeyman-Scott at least.

Even so, she recorded Learning To Crawl, one of the great roaring-backs in rock and one of 1984’s quiet blockbusters. With the exception of 1986’s Get Close, produced by Jimmy Iovine and Bob Clearmountain and sounding like it, she recorded no duds. And before you say Packed!, know that this quiet, modest collection addresses (the fear of) commitment without the verities of adult contemporary. That would come with the torch song tear-jerker I’ll Stand By You.

Hynde’s sensitive performance very quickly lifted it to full-fledged anthem status, a musical moment of inspirational hope for anyone struggling to find their way, and not so long ago, gave Girls Aloud a chart-topping smash ten years after the original. As her fellow Midwesterner Madonna once recalled, “She was amazing: the only woman I’d seen in performance where I thought, ‘Yeah, she’s got balls, she’s awesome!’ It gave me courage, inspiration, to see a woman with that kind of confidence in a man’s world.”

With slightly improbable duets with UB40, Frank Sinatra and Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys under her tightly fastened belt, Chrissie Hynde issued a well-received solo album, Stockholm, in 2014. Most comfortable with her distinctive talk-sing contralto indifferent to iambs but so intuitive about listener expectations that she has always understood when to sustain a phrase, Hynde has been imitated by few. Like many first-rate vocalists who write, her stresses come at the beckoning of her melodies, always beneath that wildly mysterious fringe.

Now a bit of a bottle blonde, the icon of Akron is still one of the most unique women in rock. Happy birthday Pretenders.

Steve Pafford, Manly

BONUS: My favourite Pretenders single? Well, I guess we’ve come full circle, because it’s probably that other Ray Davies-penned hit for Hynde.

After all, he is the father of daughter.

An earlier version of this article was published in 2018

 

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