In his 2001 cultural history/memoir, FM: The Rise and Fall of Rock Radio, former WNEW-FM deejay Richard Neer recounted one of his most disastrous encounters with a musician. Chrissie Hynde, frontwoman for The Pretenders, was in no condition for a scheduled on-air interview to promote the group’s debut album. She “stank of sweat and alcohol,” admitting to being “out late last night drinking and screwing around with my mates.” With an ingrained hostility to the star-making machinery that matched her “bedraggled” condition, she finally bolted from the studio in disgust before the interview could even begin.
Neer may have been peeved by the unexpected turn of events, but he was forced to admit that The Pretenders’ LP was “too good to ignore.” Since then, countless rock fans have come to the same conclusion. I know that it formed an unforgettable part of the musical background of my college years.
The self-titled The Pretenders—released 35 years ago this month—is, by fan consensus, close to perfect. The standard it set was so high, in fact, that the band’s subsequent estimable work sometimes seems to suffer by comparison, in much the same way that Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls is found wanting next to the two early works that created a whole new literary style, In Our Time and The Sun Also Rises.
Just how much this record quickly began to worm itself into the consciousness of the young generation might be illustrated by one of the essential Brat Pack films, St. Elmo’s Fire. The LP becomes part of a nasty aural division of the spoils when Ally Sheedy’s Leslie splits from Judd Nelson’s Alec.
“You cannot have the Pretenders' first album!” he yells. “That's mine.” Then, in an attempt at placating that sounds more like an insult, he offers a consolation prize of sorts: “You can have all the Carly Simons.” Ouch!
(It would appear that Ms. Simon may also have thought “Ouch!” after an encounter with Ms. Hynde. The story goes that, at a Joni Mitchell appearance in Greenwich Village in November 1985—her first appearance in 10 years—the Pretenders singer was so inebriated that she yelled, “We love you. Joni!” At this point, interpretations of what happened next differ. By her own account, Simon, sitting next to her, asked her to be quiet, whereupon Hynde “started choking me in a loving way and said, ‘you’re great too, Carly; get up there, you need to do this too!” Other eyewitnesses insisted that Simon’s initial suggestion was more sharply worded--more like, “Shut up!”--and that Hynde’s response was less “loving” as she put her hands around the throat of the “You’re So Vain” singer.)
At Sheryl Crow’s live Central Park appearance in 1999, fans were undoubtedly thrilled to see Hynde join her in an electrifying duet on “If It Makes You Happy.” But, in truth, the central force behind the Pretenders was, far more than her song partner, “not the type of girl you take home.”
Perhaps more than any of their other albums, The Pretenders is a product of the band’s socioeconomic environment rather than personal circumstances: late Seventies Britain. Hynde, alienated from her native Akron, Ohio, and still at sea after three years as a Kent State art student, crossed the Atlantic in 1973 in pursuit of her dream of joining a rock ‘n’ roll band, only to find that “swinging London and Carnaby Street had finished," she told Brant Mewborn in a November 1980 interview.
But she still found the city congenial, as the seeds were already being planted for punk and New Wave. Through the rest of the decade, even as eked out an existence through assorted jobs such as music journalist, working at the Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood clothing store SEX boutique, drawing fake coats of arms, and waitressing, she met such up-and-comers as John (Johnny Rotten) Lydon, David Johannsen, Chris Thomas and Nick Lowe. (The last two, in particular, became key to her success when they handled production duties for The Pretenders’ first LP.)
While absorbing the sounds and textures of the musicians in her new environment, Hynde also brought her own more far-ranging set of influences, such as The Beatles, The Kinks, Jimi Hendrix, Iggy Pop, Dionne Warwick, Jeff Beck, and Candi Staton.
After knocking around for serious years, trying to hook up with one band or another, the expatriate met three musicians from Hereford, England: lead guitarist James Honeyman-Scott, bassist Pete Farndon, and drummer Martin Chambers. This became the lineup of the original Pretenders.
“My only agenda in getting into a band was to not be a waitress somewhere in Akron -- and to have some fun,” Hynde said in a 2006 interview with Billboard Magazine. “Outside of that, I have absolutely no ambitions.”
The album marked what represented part of the opening wedge of the Second British Invasion, groups or solo artists informed by New Wave and punk such as Elvis Costello, Dire Straits and the Police, which paved the way for MTV-propelled musicians such as Duran Duran, Billy Idol, Duran Duran and the Eurythmics. The Pretenders not only eventually reached number one in the U.K. but proved nearly as successful in Hynde’s native country, entering the Top Ten.
"Brass in Pocket," which became the first #1 single to debut in the Eighties in the U.K. (and which reached number 14 in America), was a fascinating amalgam of Hynde’s melodic sense, an assertiveness that answered male braggadocio in kind, and her unwillingness to play by record-industry rules. As an expatriate, she was intrigued by the words “brass in pocket,” a Northern English slang expression for money on one’s person. As she built the song, the emphasis swung away from the financial to the lead singer’s frankly sexual interests (“gonna use my arms, gonna use my legs”). In the hands of producer Thomas, the song took on an even more pronounced strut.
That’s when it almost came undone. Her bandmates, manager, and Thomas were sure it would be a hit. Hynde’s contrarian streak and her resistance to commercialism flared up as she announced that it would be released as a single over her dead body. Thomas had to persuade her that it would be fine—and though time has proven him right, Hynde remains ambivalent about the song, admitting a few years ago that it seems “so obvious,” but that she continued to play it for audiences that had come to expect it.
Hard on the success of this platinum album, the band toured and released follow-up material. But all of Hynde’s strength and independence would be called on over the next several years, when Honeyman-Scott and Farndon would die because of drug abuse (Farndon’s death coming after he was fired from the band because of the problem) and Chambers left for nearly a decade. If Hynde wasn’t the Pretenders, she was, as its principal songwriter, lead vocalist, rhythm guitar, and one consistent member through the years, its anchor.
If a definitive history ever gets written of the punk and New Wave movements, it might be impossible to top the Sex Pistols for sensationalism, but it would also be unbelievably difficult to keep to only one chapter on Hynde. It is not just because of the length of her career, but because of the bright, fierce flame with which she lived. (Even the cover photo of The Pretenders is a giveaway of sorts: her bright red leather jacket not only differentiates her from her black-clad male bandmates, but testifies to a passion for music, rebellion and life.)
There was the tumultuous extramarital affair with Ray Davies of The Kinks (which inspired the hard-hitting “The Adultress” on The Pretenders II), typified by them being told to go home by a justice of the peace when they quarreled loudly just before they were to marry; an anecdote recounted in Viv Albertine’s memoir Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boys, in which Paul Simonon of The Clash tried to scrub off Hynde’s tattoo with a pumice stone while she read aloud from the Bible; her arrest and jailing in Memphis after a drunken barroom brawl; and the time she took Farndon to her rehearsal space, "the scummiest basement” the bassist had ever seen.
And there are the causes: animal rights, opposition to domestic violence, anti-militarism, to name a few.
Hynde’s mercurial personality is so overwhelming that the temptation becomes enormous to focus on it to the near-total exclusion of the music. That urge should be resisted, as I’m about to do here, in explaining why she—and, by extension, the Pretenders and their first LP—matter:
*Hynde is a fine songwriter. In March, New York’s Loser’s Lounge will feature a kind of “battle of the bands,” between the Pretenders and Blondie—or, rather, artists covering these groups’ hits. It’s also a way of confirming that others find her material compelling. Over the years, her songs have been interpreted by Lily Allen, Robin Danar, Kelis, the Pernice Brothers, and Marie Schumacher. Built around what Rolling Stone contributor Kurt Loder called “treacherously eccentric meters,” they deal with sex and love without, despite the frequent impression they made, necessarily being autobiographical (the narrator of “Kid” sounds like a prostitute embarrassed by her child’s discovery of what she has done to survive—“I know you know what I’m about/I won’t deny it”). Often, you can judge a song's durability by how well it stands up under stripped-down instrumentation. Such is the case here in this performance by Hynde from the VH1 Storytellers series of "Kid."
* Her voice is a marvelously supple instrument. Has any other female rocker’s voice moved so swiftly but seamlessly from snarling to caressing as Hynde’s? Her alto can be whispering or keening, enraged or warm. Early on, producer Chris Thomas recognized that she had a “great voice,” but he strongly suggested that she develop her own material. Had he not done so, listeners would have focused on her skills as an interpreter of the likes of Bob Dylan (“Forever Young”), Burt Bacharach (“Baby It’s You”), Chip Taylor ("Angel of the Morning") and Hugh Martin (“Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas”). Her outstanding cover of another song is, of course, the first single from the first album, The Kinks’ “Stop Your Sobbing.” And, for all the legion of stories about her ferocity, the vulnerability that comes through so often in the vocals expresses another quality she may be at pains to hide under normal circumstances.
*She is an underrated guitarist. Hynde herself is probably as responsible for this as anyone with her occasional dismissals of her work on rhythm guitar, but she should not be. She learned from the best, paying special attention to the licks of Keith Richards and Joni Mitchell. The Pretenders’ first LP benefited from her instrumental interplay with Honeyman-Scott.
In its later iterations, the Pretenders continued to have hits, but the band’s first album, all these years later, remains unique for its go-for-it unconventionality. As a tough, take-charge female musician, Hynde has influenced a whole set of female musicians that followed, including Sheryl Crow, Tori Amos, Katy Perry and Madonna. (Last year, like these other artists, she finally dispensed with the formalities and issued a solo CD, Stockholm.) And, in a development that surely must have astonished her, her wiry frame, dark bangs, kohl-rimmed eyes, black leather pants, and brassy attitude combined to make her a sexy symbol of sorts for many male music fans.
At the end of “Brass in Pocket,” Hynde crows, then implores: “I’m special, so special, / I’ve gotta have some of your attention,/Give it to me.”
“So special”? Indeed she is. Our attention? She’s got it.