In 1979 Chrissie Hynde, a versed pro of the punk rock scene, finally made her unlikely dream come true. Together with the Pretenders, she recorded her first album, one of the most celebrated debut records of all time. Here’s a brief look at the making of The Pretenders.
Chrissie Hynde’s early life and musical influences
It’s difficult to imagine just how popular Iggy Pop and the Stooges might have been in Akron, Ohio the city where Chrissie Hynde was born, during the late 1970s. Common wisdom would suggest that there weren’t many around proto-punk fans, an important reason for the future songwriter deciding to depart.
Hynde would often recall in interviews the lack of connection she felt with others in her home city. By her own admission, she had a passion for visual art, as well as the music of Iggy, Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, and The Doors.
Nick Kent recalls in his book autobiography Apathy for the devil just how special it felt to meet another young person interested in the Stooges and music of a similar kind. At the time, groups like these were earning the endless admiration of critics like Lester Bangs, but very little commercial success.
By 1973, Hynde had saved up money and moved to England. It was a daring move, especially for a young woman without a clear sense of direction. Kent recalls that when she met the future Pretenders frontwoman, Hynde had begun writing songs on an acoustic guitar. Little suggested, however, the force of her future compositions.
Using her own agreable personality, love of counterculture, as well as her connection with Nick Kent, Hynde worked for a brief, but well remembered spell for British music magazine the NME. At the time, she was dating Kent who was the magazine’s most famous and acerbic voice of criticism.
Meeting Malcolm Mclaren
Soon, Hynde befriended Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren. The couple owned the fashion store SEX. It had once sold 50s rock n’ roll related attire, but by the mid-70s had begun promoting the difficult to ignore clothing, BDSM-related apparel especially, that would become part of punk’s uniform.
McLaren and his shop were, for a while, Ground 0 for the burgeoning punk explosion. The designer had turned music manager, having had a brief, but a controversial stint as the director to the New York Dolls’ final gasp. His attempts to start a similar band in England had had little success initially.
His chance encounter with SEX shoplifters Steve Jones and Paul Cook gave him a basis to build upon. After taking various forms, his garage rock outfit was completed by the addition of the shy, yet charismatic singer John Lydon whom he later rechristened Johnny Rotten.
The shock and awe with which the Sex Pistols were greeted in England provided McLaren with a new level of fame and influence. He desired to start more bands and Chrissie Hynde, her friend and protege, was briefly included in a few of these plans. She was almost a member of the Clash, the Damned and 999, but nothing panned out.
Forming the Pretenders
By 1978, Hynde who had departed England for a short spell, had greatly developed her songwriting talent, as well as her singing. The only problem was that most of her acquaintances had moved on, either becoming punk-rock stars, or succumbing to various addictions.
Worries that her chance might have escaped her could have proven justified, had Hynde not made the brave choice to start her own band. Dave Hill of Real Records had heard a few demos and was impressed. Motorhead’s Lemmy Kilmister also extended a hand in recommending musicians. Using the lure of a potential record deal, Hynde was able to recruit Martin Chambers, Pete Farndon, and James Honeyman-Scott to join her new group. This was to be the classic, albeit short and doom-fated original lineup of the band.
She called the band the Pretenders, a reference to the classic doo-wop song by the Platters. In a year’s time, they would be one of the U.K.’s biggest groups.
The Pretenders’ legendary debut
The quartet wasted little time and set out to rearrange and record Chrissie Hynde’s demos. The acoustic sketches together with the punk and rock n’ roll sensibilities of the band members helped create a muscular, yet melodic sound. Most great bands spend years developing their style. The Pretenders didn’t. Perhaps the time that their singer had had to observe her friends’ bands had already helped shape her own direction.
In many ways, The Pretenders’ debut turned out to be a crossover punk album that record labels had been dying to try and manufacture since the early success of the Pistols. It was a radio-friendly punk record made with integrity.
Songs like Precious and The Wait announced this to be a group that shared DNA with the punk revolution. The Phone Call and Tattooed Love Boys played on Hynde’s considerable charisma. Kid and, especially, Brass in pocket showed that the band could reach for the top of the charts. This is just what they did.
The Pretenders was a nearly impeccable power-pop record. Unlike some of the other albums of the same ilk released around this time, it quickly received the recognition it deserved. Greatest albums of all time lists most often include it.
The band’s cover of Stop Your Sobbing, originally by the Kinks, made the charts. Later, so did Kid. However, by January 1980 the Pretenders had a #1 hit single in the UK and top 40 in the US. Brass in Pocket would prove to be one of the most beloved pop-rock singles of the early 1980s.
Perhaps, it was good karma or fate coming good for Hynde. Where some of her friends had spent years attempting to achieve worldwide success, The Pretenders had done in on the strength of their first singles.
While Hynde and the Pretenders would prove to have staying power, their original line-up, wistfully would not. The success of their debut record had made the group into something of a prized commodity. Endless touring and promotion of the record soon took a toll on the band members. Legal disputes, also, did not help.
The band had to delay their follow-up, Pretenders II, for 1981. It was a top 10 hit on both sides of the Atlantic, but only increased the pressure on the band members.
Following a series of cancelled tours and unreliable performances, the decision was made to alter the band’s lineup. Bassist Pete Farndon was fired, supposedly because of execssive drug use. A year later he would be found dead, drowned in his bathtub.
Sadly, shortly after the desicion to dimiss Farndon, guitarist James Honeyman-Scott would also pass away from heart failure, thought to have been the result of cocaine use.
Faced with unspeakable tragedy, Hynde did what she’d always known how to do. She carried on. Together with Martin Chambers she reassembled the Pretenders. And, against the odds, the band would go on to achieve even more fame and recognition on the strength of singles like Back on the Chain Gang, 2000 Miles, Don’t Get Me Wrong and I’ll Stand by You.
The Pretenders are still active today and many fans of the group would claim that Hynde and co. are at the top of their game. Having heard their most recent album, I’d have no reason to claim otherwise.