By Gillian G. Gaar
In January 1979, the Pretenders released their first single, “Stop Your Sobbing.” Though formed in the UK, the Pretenders were fronted by American Chrissie Hynde, who was the group’s lead singer and rhythm guitarist. Hynde had grown up a fan of British Invasion groups, and “Stop Your Sobbing” was a lesser-known number by the Kinks, and in the Pretenders’ hands was an engaging slice of pop rock that reached #34 in the UK charts.
It wasn’t at all a bad performance for a first single from an unknown group. But there had to be some momentary concern when the Pretenders’ second single, “Kid,” released in June, didn’t fare much better, peaking at #33. But in November, the release of “Brass in Pocket” would be third time lucky for the group; the single would be #1 in the UK by January 1980. That success was soon followed by the success of the band’s first album, “Pretenders,” released at the very end of December, which went on to top the UK charts and reach the Top 10 in the US. “Pretenders” is now considered a classic of the post-punk period of the late ‘70s/early ‘80s; not punk, not new wave, not power pop, but drawing on all three genres to create a sound that was uniquely the band’s own.
The main reason for the band’s classic song structures was due to the enduring love the Pretenders’ primary songwriter had — and still has — for rock ‘n’ roll. Hynde, born Christine Ellen Hynde on September 7, 1951, was raised in Akron, Ohio, 40 miles south of Cleveland. In addition to the Kinks, Hynde loved other British Invasion groups like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, quickly moving on to home grown talents like Mitch Ryder & The Detroit Wheels, and especially the Stooges and Iggy Pop. As she grew older, she made regular jaunts to Cleveland to see as many bands as she could. “I was not the model teenage girl that anybody’s parents would have wanted,” she later told “Us” magazine. “I didn’t date boys and I was a lousy student. All I wanted to do was go out and see bands.”
Hynde taught herself harmonica, ukulele, and guitar, though she didn’t yet consider being in a band herself. “I just felt that there might not be a place for me,” she later told writer Andrea Juno. She also told “Us” she had no ambition to be in a band: “It was simply a dream.”
At age 16 that dream started coming true, when she worked briefly with Akron-based band Saturday Sunday Matinee. (which also featured future Devo guitarist/keyboardist Mark Mothersbaugh). “We used to rehearse down in some guy’s basement,” she recalled to “Melody Maker” writer Vivien Goldman, “and I was so shy that I wouldn’t stay in the same room as the band to sing. I’d take the mike into the laundry room and shut the door.” Putting music aside for the moment, she next headed off for college in 1970, attending Kent State University for three years, studying art. But a desire to escape America, and a long standing interest in the British music scene, caused her to drop out in 1973 and move to England.
Hynde supported herself by working odd jobs. “People always took me in,” she told “Us.” “I’d do their dishes and become part of the scene; they’d let me stay and sleep on the floor.” It was an indication of Hynde’s knack for making contacts that would serve her well in the future. After a stint working for an architectural firm, she began writing for the British music weekly the “New Musical Express” (“NME”) covering the arrival of teen idol David Cassidy on his first British tour, and interviewing another American ex-pat, Suzi Quatro, among other stories.
Despite getting positive feedback from her editors, Hynde soon gave up writing; “I was a bad writer and there was nothing happening in music worth writing about,” she told “Us.” But she continued to hover around the fringes of the UK music scene, making a key contact when she took a job at a clothing shop at the far end of King’s Road in London’s Chelsea district, owned by Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood. The shop, which had first opened under the name Let It Rock, carried ‘50s rocker-style clothing, but was now heading in an edgier direction, carrying bondage clothes; the shop would eventually be renamed SEX.
Hynde eventually quit the job to leave for Paris, France, where she joined a band called the Frenchies; her first show with the group found performing at legendary Parisian theater the Olympia. Her tenure with the group was short-lived, and by 1975 she was back in Cleveland.
She joined R&B band Jack Rabbit, but the band fell apart. She next moved to Tucson, Arizona, but became depressed by the heat and the prevailing musical tastes (“Everyone was into country music”). She ultimately decided to give Europe another shot and returned to France. But she quickly sensed the musical action was now in England and was on the move again. “I left everything I had in France at the beginning of 1976,” she told writer Jon Savage. “I could smell something was happening in London. When I saw the Sex Pistols, I remembering thinking London was the thing.”
Hynde’s former boss, Malcolm McLaren was working with the Sex Pistols, and eager to expand his empire. Hynde was by now anxious to get in a band herself, and worried that, at age 24, she might be too old. While very much a part of the scene gathering around the growing punk movement, Hynde spent the next few years in limbo, working with various bands McLaren tried to set up (such as Masters of the Backside, who, sans Hynde, later became the Damned), and numerous other groups and musicians, including future Clash guitarist Mick Jones. None of them made any lasting impression; as Nick Kent later wrote in “NME,” “Some lasted one day, some three, but none lasted more than a week.”
Hynde found some work doing back vocals on records by Mick Farren, Chris Spedding, and Johnny Thunders, but she later admitted her lack of progress in establishing herself as a performer in her own right often reduced her to tears of frustration. But her luck was about to change. By the end of 1977 she was working with Tony Secunda, formerly the manager of Steeleye Span and the Move. Secunda told Hynde that a friend of his, Dave Hill, then working for Anchor Records, was planning on setting up his own label, Real Records and suggested the two should meet. Hynde had fallen out with Secunda by the time of the meeting, clearing the way for her to develop a stronger business relationship with Hill. For his part, Hill quickly became a strong supporter of Hynde, confident enough in her abilities that he’d introduce her by saying, “This is Chrissie Hynde, she’s a star.”
“Dave just got more and more keen,” Hynde later told “Melody Maker.” “I said, ‘Look, I’ve got a rehearsal place, but I’m about £70 in arrears and basically I’ve got fuck all, man, I haven’t got a band or anything.’ So I expected him to say, ‘Well, come around when you’ve got something together’ but he didn’t. He said, ‘Look, I’ll pay off the debt you’ve got here … and we’ll just advertise for musicians and I’ll leave you to it and I’ll just aid you.’ And as he got more involved he decided to leave having the record label, even, and just manage us.”
Through Hill, Hynde met drummer Gas Wild, who in turn introduced her to bassist Pete Farndon, a friend of Wild’s from Hereford. Farndon had recently returned to England after a two year stint in Australian band the Bushwackers, and was actively looking for work, so he readily accepted the invitation to join the new group. Farndon also got another Hereford friend, James Honeyman Scott, to join on guitar.
Gas Wild was soon replaced by session drummer Gerry Mackleduff, and the group recorded more demos, putting together a tape that included, “The Wait,” “I Can’t Control Myself,” “Tequila” (not the Champs’ instrumental) and “Stop Your Sobbing,” recorded on August 12, 1978. The demos are available on Rhino’s 2006 expanded edition release of “Pretenders,” and make for fascinating listening. “Stop Your Sobbing” is slower, almost tentative in comparison to the confidence of the later single. “The Wait” has the trademark Pretenders’ jagged guitar style, but different lyrics. “I Can’t Control Myself” is taut and edgy, and would’ve worked well on the debut album; in contrast, “Tequila” is a slow country & western weepie — perhaps the kind of music Hynde found herself listening to during her brief tenure in Tucson.
Hynde took the demo to her friend Nick Lowe, who was immediately interested in working with the group, telling Hynde, “Chrissie, I’m amazed and stunned. I definitely want in on this act.” The group entered the studio, and, with Lowe producing, recorded their first single in a single day: “Stop Your Sobbing”/“The Wait.” Both songs sound fuller in comparison to the earlier demos, and the single perfectly encapsulates the band’s musical intentions, as Farndon explained to an interviewer; to combine the energy of the Who with the toughness of ‘60s girl groups like the Shangri-Las.
With a single now ready for release, the band needed a name. Hynde had already shot down one obvious choice, telling “NME,” “From the first day I met Dave, I made it perfectly clear that no way would it be just the Chrissie Hynde Band.” One name under consideration was the Rhythm Method, but it was dropped because of concern it might prove too controversial. The group finally settled on the Pretenders, inspired by Sam Cooke’s version of the Platters’ hit “The Great Pretender.” It fit in nicely with the band’s down-to-earth” style; “totally unpretentious,” Hynde explained to “NME.”
Though Mackleduff’s work on the single had been fine, the other Pretenders decided he wasn’t quite what they were looking for in a drummer. Honeyman Scott and Fardon suggested yet another friend they knew from Hereford, Martin Chambers, who’d previously played with Honeyman Scott in the band Cheeks (led by ex-Mott The Hoople keyboardist Verdon Allen).
1979 began with the release of “Stop Your Sobbing,” and the Pretenders playing in Paris. The band soon became regulars on the UK club circuit, with their next single, “Kid”/“Tattooed Love Boys” (produced by Chris Thomas) helping to build their growing reputation. “Kid” was a surprisingly contemplative number, with a fine vocal from Hynde, while “Tattooed Love Boys” was an out and out rave up, with a stinging guitar line, propulsive drumming, and a particularly tart vocal from Hynde (“Stop sniveling/You’re gonna make some plastic surgeon a rich man”).
By the time of the single’s release, the Pretenders were already working on their debut album. The previously released “Stop Your Sobbing,” “Kid,” and “Tattooed Love Boys” would appear on the record, though “The Wait” would be re-recorded. The album would kick off with one of the Pretenders’ most potent rockers, “Precious,” matched by up tempo numbers like “The Phone Call” and the closing track, “Mystery Achievement.”
But the album also demonstrated the group’s versatility. The band’s slower songs drew one’s attention to Hynde’s lyrics, which tended to serve up devastating critiques of relationships. “Up the Neck” makes the pointed observation “Lust turns to anger/A kiss to a slug,” while “Private Life” dismisses a would-be lover too caught up in his own turmoil with the nice kiss-off line (“You asked me for advice I said, ‘Use the door’/But you’re still clinging to somebody you deplore”). The somber “Lovers of Today” also has a highly expressive Hynde vocal.
Interestingly, though “Brass in Pocket” would end up being the Pretenders’ first #1 hit, Hynde didn’t care for the song. She sounds almost dismissive of it when talking to “Sounds,” describing it as a “very lightweight pop type of song, nothing heavy about it. It’s along the lines of the guy who is feeling very insecure, not about pulling a girl but, say, trying to be accepted by the guys down the pub. It’s a front he’s putting up.”
Compared to the song’s demo, the final version is taken at a slightly faster pace, with an almost reggae-ish lilt. The song also has one of Hynde’s best-ever vocals, a perfect mix of swagger and insecurity. But Hynde still wasn’t that pleased. “When we recorded the song I really wasn’t very happy with it and told my producer that he could release it over my dead body,” she told the “Observer.” ��But they eventually persuaded me.”
The album’s cover was destined to be equally iconic; simply the band’s name and the four musicians photographed against a stark white background. While Farndon looks tough in his black leathers, Honeyman Scott and Chambers, more formally dressed in the height of new wave fashion, grin playfully. But your eyes are drawn to Hynde, standing just off center, and the only one wearing anything colorful; a bright red leather jacket.
There was great anticipation for the album, and the Pretenders’ stock had risen so high they were invited to appear at the Concerts for the People of Kampuchea charity shows in December, benefiting Cambodian refugees; the Pretenders performed on December 28, opening for the Specials and the Who. The group was also now so busy, Dave Hill resigned from Real Records to become the Pretenders’ full-time manager.
And the new decade would begin on a high note. “Brass In Pocket” had been released in November (b/w “Swinging London” and “Nervous But Shy”), and held down the #1 spot in the UK charts for the first two weeks of 1980. Given her initially reluctance to record the song, “I remember feeling a bit sheepish when it went to #1,” Hynde later admitted to the “Observer.” “I remember walking down Oxford Circus and hearing it and just being quite embarrassed.
“It is good to have a #1 because it gives your career some kind of grounding. I just wish we’d got it with a better song! … It’s never been my goal to have a #1. The thing with getting to the top of the charts is that the only place you can go is down. I prefer to stay in the background a bit. Maybe I’m a bit of a spoilsport, but I tend to feel uncomfortable in the limelight.”
It was going to be hard to avoid the limelight over the next year, for the “Pretenders” album soon matched “Brass in Pocket” by topping the UK album charts. The band was about to find success in the US as well. The “Pretenders” album was released in the US on December 27, 1979, and peaked at #9 in the charts, while “Brass in Pocket,” released in January 1980 (b/w “Space Invader”) reached #14. The band’s music was also critically well received. “The songwriting of the Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde is the first indication I’ve had that we’ve finally progressed beyond the Me Decade,” Ken Tucker wrote in “Rolling Stone.” “‘Pretenders’ stands as some of the freshest, most provocative music around.”
A year after releasing their first record, the Pretenders were now flush with success. “It’s weird when it happens,” Honeyman Scott told “Guitar Player.” “When you’re eight years old and you see the Beatles’ ‘A Hard Day’s Night,’ you think ‘My God! That’s the answer to everything!’ Then you have a #1 record and you think, ‘What happens next?’”
What happened next for the Pretenders was lots of touring, as the band spent most of 1980 on the road. The band had another hit in the UK with “Talk of the Town,” released as a single in March, which reached #8, while the US played catch up with the band’s previous singles, releasing “Stop Your Sobbing” (b/w “The Phone Call) in May, which reached #65, and “Kid” (b/w the same B-side as in the UK, “Tattooed Love Boys”) in July, which failed to chart. While in New York, Hynde finally met the Kinks’ Ray Davies, with whom she began a relationship.
After years of struggling to get a band together, Hynde was pleased to have found commercial success. “The important thing to me is songs on AM radio,” she told “Us.” “That’s what I was brought up on, that’s what I love. I want to make music that’s accessible to anybody.” But the Pretenders original, classic lineup was not destined to last. The group released their second album, “Pretenders II,” in July 1981; just under a year later, on June 14, 1982, Pete Farndon was fired from the group due to his escalating heroin use. Two days later, on June 16, James Honeyman Scott was found dead of a cocaine-related heart attack. It was a brutal double blow for the band. Farndon would finally succumb to his own struggles with drugs the following year, drowning in his bathtub after OD’ing on heroin on April 14, 1983.
Hynde managed to keep the Pretenders together, though the original lineup is generally regarded as the best version of the band. Indeed, without Honeyman Scott and Farndon the Pretenders seemingly became less of a group, and more what Hynde had said she never wanted to be, a charismatic lead singer in front of interchangeable backing musicians — “The Chrissie Hynde Band” incarnate.
But through all the ups and downs of subsequent years, Hynde has never failed to acknowledge the importance of her former bandmates, as during her speech when the Pretenders were inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2005. “I know that the Pretenders have looked like a tribute band for the last 20 years,” she says. “And we’re paying tribute to James Honeyman Scott and Pete Farndon, without whom we wouldn’t be here. And on the other hand, without us, they might have been here, but that’s the way it works in rock ‘n’ roll.”
And the best tribute of all is the “Pretenders” album itself — a classic piece of rock ‘n’ roll that has stood the test of time.
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