Chrissie Hynde was originally from Akron, Ohio, and was a student at Kent State University. Hynde moved to London in 1973 and began writing for the weekly music paper, New Musical Express. After several years of false starts, including the band, The Moors Murderers, she moved definitively from writing to performing. The Pretenders formed during the tail end of the original British punk movement, in 1978. Hynde’s eventual band comprised a set of acquaintances from provincial Hereford, near the Welsh border — talented young players with a pop aesthetic who had missed out on the punk explosion of 1976, but were eager to catch up. Farndon was the first to join the band, following a medium-noteworthy run with the Bushwackers, an Australian folk-rock ensemble. Hynde and Farndon were romantically linked. Farndon recruited Honeyman-Scott, at the time a clerk in a music store, while Honeyman-Scott recruited Chambers.
Following their 1978 signing to Real Records on the basis of a demo of the song “The Phone Call”, the band quickly rose to critical attention with the January 1979 single, “Stop Your Sobbing” (written by Ray Davies and produced by Nick Lowe). It was followed in quick succession that year by the popular singles “Kid” in June and “Brass in Pocket” in November — the last regarded as a somewhat tame and commercial song compared to the rest of the band’s early output, which nonetheless cracked the U.S. market for the band (reaching Number Fourteen on the Billboard Hot 100).
The album, Pretenders, was released in January 1980, and was a great success in both the United Kingdom and the U.S., both critically and with chart-topping sales.
That The Pretenders were led by a hard-rocking woman was no small factor in their early breakthrough. With her trademark dark bangs, dark eyeliner, and dark jeans, Hynde appealed to both genders. And due to, as the 1982 Rolling Stone Record Guide would say, “her sheer authenticity as a three-dimensional woman whose sexuality is completely in sync with a superb rock sensibility,” she was able to escape many of the cliche roles of women in rock music.
Hynde’s girl group-influenced vocals were also crucial to the band’s success, although the early group was very much an ensemble, adept at playing interlocking musical parts, shifting mood and tempo on cue, and responding to subtle signals from one another. Their recordings were mostly performed live in the studio, with only lead guitar and vocal overdubs. (Among the interesting features of the first two albums are casual shifts into odd time signatures, as in the 15/16-time “Tattooed Love Boys”). Another major element of the band’s early success was producer Chris Thomas (famed, with engineer Bill Price, for the sound achieved on the Sex Pistols’ album, Never Mind the Bollocks). Fans familiar with the band’s U.S. chart singles are often unaware of how loud and aggressive the early Pretenders could be, and how loose and experimental some of their early recordings were.
In March 1981 the EP Extended Play was released, a holding action containing the UK and US hits “Message of Love” and “Talk of the Town” and a live version of “Precious”.
The second full-length album, Pretenders II, was released in August 1981. Most critics at the time called it disappointing, although it is now generally considered a great album. Pretenders II is more spread-out than the debut, and included the Extended Play hit singles, the MTV video hit, “Day After Day”, and popular album-radio tracks “The Adulteress”, “Birds of Paradise”, and “The English Roses”.
At this early peak of the band’s success and potential, Hynde kicked ex-lover Pete Farndon out of the group for ongoing drug problems. Two days later, June 16, 1982, Honeyman-Scott was dead of a cocaine overdose. While the band tried to regroup in the following year, Farndon overdosed on heroin and died on April 14, 1983. Honeyman-Scott is now regarded as an important rock guitarist, while Farndon is widely admired as a rock bassist.
Hynde’s subsequent attempts at continuing The Pretenders never recaptured the Herefordshire band’s original intensity, although the first comeback single, the death-haunted “Back on the Chain Gang”, marked a new level of musical sophistication for the band. Featuring session work from Rockpile guitarist Billy Bremner and Big Country bassist Tony Butler, it was recorded in July 1982, shortly after Honeyman-Scott’s death, and released that October. The single’s flip-side, “My City Was Gone”, in which Hynde expressed dismay at industrial pollution and rampant commercial development in her home state, was equally strong.
Hynde then reformed The Pretenders with professional musicians Robbie McIntosh on guitar and Malcolm Foster on bass. The band’s first album with this lineup, Learning to Crawl, was released to respectful critical acclaim in January 1984.
“Middle of the Road” was the album’s first single, released in December 1983. Recapturing some of the group’s earlier hard-edged sound, the song dealt with, among other things, Hynde’s new motherhood (Hynde had a daughter with Ray Davies in January 1983), the pressures of stardom, and the indifference of wealthy nations to the plight of the world’s poor. The flip-side, “2000 Miles”, was a melancholy Christmas song that was especially popular in the UK. The rest of the album alternated between angry rockers (“Time the Avenger”) and hopeful ballads (“Show Me”) and included an effective cover of The Persuasions’ “Thin Line Between Love and Hate”. The subsequent tour (with an added keyboard player) successfully showcased a tight band centered around Martin Chambers’ forceful drumming. Live Aid (1985) was the last concert for this lineup.
Upon beginning recording sessions for the next album, Hynde declared that Chambers was no longer playing well and dismissed him. The new lineup, including Hynde, McIntosh, and a bevy of session musicians, released Get Close in 1986; the disc included the singles “Don’t Get Me Wrong” (helped by a popular video homage to the television series The Avengers) and “Hymn to Her” (a hit in the UK). The following touring lineup went through many difficulties, with two players fired, McIntosh eventually quitting, and ex-Smiths’ guitarist Johnny Marr joining for a final brief period in 1987. The Pretenders were a band in name only.
There was a hiatus in musical activity for Hynde until 1990, when she hired still more session players and released Packed! to a generally dismal reception. The closest thing to a hit from the album was “Sense of Purpose”.
In 1994 Last of the Independents also met with limited overall success, although it was critically well-received in many circles and the ballad “I’ll Stand By You” received some airplay. Chambers played on several tracks on the album, and was back as the drummer for the subsequent tour. Playing in small venues around the US, these Pretenders sometimes included a string quartet, with Hynde wistfully noting that a certain violin part “was a fine transcription of James Honeyman-Scott’s guitar solo.” Some of these arrangements are preserved on the 1995 The Isle of View live album.
Over time, Hynde had become increasingly focused on political activism, vocally supporting the environmental movement and vegetarianism, and her social and political views were woven into more than one of the band’s successful releases. Hynde was also given to interrupting shows with diatribes on her favorite causes, sometimes insulting the audience, to the chagrin of hired bandmates onstage.
Later performances at the 1999 edition of Lilith Fair were high-energy and inspiring, featuring clashes between the resolutely un-PC Hynde and festival organizers. While sometimes being strident, Hynde has also sometimes delighted in confounding expectations of her, such as flippantly saying she is no feminist icon and, in fact, “is just like any chick who likes to talk about makeup in the girls’ room.”
Viva el Amor was released in 1999, as was their collaboration with Tom Jones on the album Reload. In 2002 Loose Screw came out on a new record label, to the same indifferent response. By this time The Pretenders had established a fairly steady lineup of Hynde, Chambers, Adam Seymour on guitar, and Andy Hobson on bass.
Pretenders has been named one of the best albums of all time by VH1 (#52) and Rolling Stone (#155).
In 2005, The Pretenders were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Only Hynde and Chambers were at the ceremony. In her acceptance speech, Hynde named and thanked all the replacement members of the group, then said:
“We are a tribute band … We’re paying tribute to James Honeyman-Scott and Pete Farndon, without whom we would not have been here. On the other hand, without us they might have been here [meaning, still be alive], but that’s the way it works in rock ‘n’ roll.”
Flash Forward - 2008 - Think of the long awaited studio album, Break Up the Concrete (2008), as if it were the first Pretenders' record - musical turf that's defined by attitude, lyrical and melodic mastery, and the unexpected . . . . and Chrissie Hynde's voice as you've always known it. Break Up The Concrete is an authentic slice of rock Americana, ranging from blistering punk to the most delicate storytelling as told by the queen of rock royalty herself.