One of the great things about being in a band is sitting around listening to records together. That’s what got me on this Pretenders kick in the first place. I walked out of the basement and grabbed a beer from the fridge. Jenny and Sara were already on the futon, Roxie was stationed in one of the day-glow 70’s kitchen chairs by the end table and Todd was digging into his current listening bin of vinyl. He pulled out a record and proudly proclaimed, “Here’s where I’ve been stealing those guitar hooks from.” He held up a copy of Pretenders II. Growing up in the Midwest during the eighties, I always found The Pretenders to be somewhat confusing. They’re an English band whose singer is from Ohio. They’re associated with the original 77 punk movement, yet their first single “Brass in Pocket” was pure pop. I looked at the cover while Todd cued up the vinyl. Two of the guys look like they’re in a rockabilly revival act with their pomaded quiffs. The other guy looks like a typical new waver with his shaggy haircut, sport coat and tie. Chrissie Hynde looks slightly androgynous with her bangs over her eyes, her Edwardian teddy boy jacket and ruffled shirt. The first song came on and I could see exactly what Todd was talking about. The chunky chords alternating with ringing harmonics was exactly what he’d been laying down on one of our new songs. I’d never thought of The Pretenders as a guitar band, but “The Adulteress” has some great guitar going on. It’s like a hybrid between Gang of Four and Loverboy. There’s a lot of post punk ringy dingy tempered by arena rock strut. The narrative persona of the song is tough; matter of fact and unapologetic. The next song is even tougher. I could hear traces of punk in the noise and the S&M tinged lyric. “Don’t be a punk all your life. Bad boys get spanked.” It’s not a great song, but it sounds like they’re rocking out and having fun. It was during “Message of Love” that my ears really opened. It starts with a great use of interplay and space then builds into a huge jangle of guitars that fill the room. I was telling myself that the next time I saw this in the used bins for five or six bucks I had to get it. The capper was The Kinks cover that followed. Todd looked over at me. “I used to buy this whenever I’d see it back and give copies away. You used to be able to pick this up for a buck or two at Half Price Books.” I searched the back of my mind for what I knew about The Pretenders…didn’t the band break up after their second album because somebody OD’d?…wasn’t Chrissie Hynde married to Ray Davies?
I remember being a thirteen year old kid taking guitar lessons and my “hippie” guitar teacher trying to get me to listen to The Pretenders. At the time I was moving away from Heavy Metal and getting into Punk and I didn’t think of women as being rockers. Cindy Lauper and Madonna were my models of women in music and Chrissie Hynde didn’t fit that mold. Of course at the time I didn’t know that she played guitar and wrote the songs. Yes I was guilty of the very mindset that this blog/magazine is trying to fight. Maybe that’s why I felt the need to write this article.
For the longest time the only album by The Pretenders I owned was Learning to Crawl. I got my copy for a $1.99 at Half Price Books and it was in my collection as a guilty pleasure. Every now and then I’d pull it out to listen to “My City was Gone” then put it away without giving Chrissie Hynde her due. Part of the pleasure of getting older is being able to go back and reassess previous opinions.
As I began to do some research, I was thrilled to find out that Chrissie Hynde wrote a memoir Reckless-My Life as a Pretender. I flipped my recently acquired copy of Pretenders II and requested that a copy of her book be sent to my neighborhood library branch. Her memoir covers her life up until when the original recording line up of The Pretenders fell apart after their second album. That’s why I wanted to write about Chrissie. The Pretenders were always her band. She put it together, wrote the songs and kept it going even when fame and drugs tore everything apart. The third album Learning to Crawl was the big chart-buster and it was her with a new band. It’s the album with the most hits and the easiest to find. It’s also the album that proves she was a woman who wasn’t just the pretty face singing, but a songwriter, musician and band leader. That’s were her book ends, but were it begins is what I wanted to know.
It seems that from a counter-cultural, historical perspective that Chrissie Hynde was always at the right place at the right time. She graduated from Firestone High in 1969. Akron was the rubber capitol back then, so it only makes sense that her school was named after a tire. Her first rock-n-roll epiphany was when she saw Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels at a local fairgrounds. Her first kiss was when she was pushed towards the stage and Jackie Wilson laid one on her. Growing up in Akron and Cleveland she was able to listen to groundbreaking FM radio and see bands like The James Gang, The Velvet Underground and The Stooges. After high school she attended Kent State and was at the legendary protests that left ‘four dead in Ohio.’ When she flunked out of art school she left Ohio and went to England. That’s when she realized what a rock-n-roll education she’d received. She fell in with rock journalist/ex-Stones roadie Nick Kent and began writing for N.M.E. She bounces over to Paris, goes back home to Akron. She sings with Mark Motherbaugh’s pre-Devo attempt at a band then joins a local bar band that introduces Akron, Ohio to ska and reggae when they cover “Pressure Drop and Johnny Too Bad.” She then returns to London to meet Vivian Westwood and Malcolm McClaren. She’s caught up in the Sex Pistols explosion and vows to get a band together. She meets Mick Jones when he’s playing covers with The Heavy Metal Kids. She convinces him to try writing songs and they start a song writing partnership. She comes up with the idea that “…a band should be like a gang, but with guitars instead of motorcycles.” It almost happens, but then Mick Jones meets Joe Strummer and The Clash is formed without her. Her next failed attempt is when Malcolm stuck her with a drummer and two guys named David and dubbed them Masters of the Backside. One of the Davids didn’t show up, but a “hippie” bass player did. They played one show, then the drummer changed his name to Rat Scabies, the bass player cut his hair to become Captain Sensible, David Zero became David Vanian and Chrissie was replaced by guitar hero Brian James. They became The Damned and Chrissie was still looking for a band.
Even without a band she was still definitely a part of the original London punk scene. Sid Vicious’s iconic padlock came from Chrissie’s squat and used to guard her guitar and amp. Johnny Rotten offered to marry her to keep her in the country, but couldn’t leave the housedue to the public backlash after the Bill Grundy incident. Sid offered to step in, then couldn’t do it because he had to go to court. She was roommates with Roxy DJ Don Letts who shot the seminal documentary “The Punk Rock Movie.” Chrissie isn’t in the audience shots because she was part of the film crew.
Chrissie got herself a manager who wanted to market her as a solo artist. She recorded a two song demo supported by pick-up musicians and produced by ex-Velvet John Cale. Future Pretenders manager Dave Hill heard the demo and offered to manage her. It was then that her pal Lemmy from Motorhead pointed her in the direction that would get her gang together. Lemmy told her to be on the look out for a drummer named Gas Wild from Hereford. Gas brought along Peter Farndon. They were a three piece “…short of a guitar hero.” In an attempt to steal Motorhead’s drummer they staged a rehearsal with Peter’s pal James Honey-man Scott. They didn’t get Philthy Animal Taylor to join, but Chrissie had found her guitar hero. Jimmy Scott recorded some demos with Peter, Chrissie and a Irish drummer named Gerry. Then Jimmy went back to Hereford. In order to get him in the band, they arranged to record a single with his hero and Chrissie’s pal Nick Lowe. By this time it was clear that Gerry wasn’t fitting in. That’s when another Hereford boy Martin Chambers stepped in. They named themselves The Pretenders after Chrissie’s outlaw biker boyfriend’s guilty pleasure, Sam Cooke’s “The Great Pretender.”
They made their debut the night Sid Vicious died. Their single “Brass in Pocket” took them to The Top of the Pop. Chrissie started a relationship with Peter. They toured the world and took what ever drugs were handed them. When Chrissie dumped Farndon for Ray Davies, Peter turned to Heroin. After touring the world for Pretenders II, Jimmy and Martin left the group frustrated over Peter’s drug use. Ironically Jimmy Od’d eight months before Peter drowned in the tub after shooting up a speed ball. Chrissie was pregnant and finally sober. That’s where the memoir ends.
I have yet to score a copy of the first album. I found a copy at a flea market in Dayton, but someone had used it to ham fistedly scratch beat a sample of the intro to “Brass in Pocket.” I couldn’t bring myself to pay seven dollars for it. I listened to Todd’s copy though and it definitely shows their punk roots.