One of the most acclaimed female artists in rock-n-roll, Chrissie Hynde was the sultry singer and chief songwriter for the Pretenders, who generated hits through the 1980s and 1990s with spiky, soulful tunes like "Brass in Pocket," "Middle of the Road," "Back on the Chain Gang" and "I'll Stand By You." Hynde escaped the drudgery of her Midwestern upbringing by escaping to London at the dawn of the punk movement. There, she formed the Pretenders, a quartet whose sound owed as much to American garage rock and Motown as it did to The Clash. An immediate success with the release of their self-titled debut in 1980, the Pretenders would undergo numerous lineup changes over the next two decades which would at one point leave Hynde the only original member. For many fans, Hynde was the heart of the Pretenders, delivering songs and performances that were alternately tough and tender, heartfelt and defiant - in short, the work of a true romantic. The induction of Hynde and the Pretenders into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2005 underscored her numerous contributions to popular music over the course of a three-decade career, as well as her pioneering status as a female rocker with no apologies for her gender.
Born Christine Ellen Hynde on Sept. 7, 1951 in Akron, OH, her childhood was marked by loneliness and boredom with her middle-class, suburban existence. Her sole outlet was the vibrant rock-n-roll scene in nearby Cleveland, where she saw major American and international acts like the Rolling Stones and the Kinks, as well as homegrown groups like the proto-punk Stooges. Hynde joined her first band, Sat. Sun. Mat., which featured Mark Mothersbaugh of DEVO, while a student at Kent State University's Art School. There, she also witnessed first hand the shooting of students by the National Guard in May 1970.
Disenchanted by the American counterculture of the 1970s, Hynde saved enough money to move to London in 1973. There, she met journalist Nick Kent, with whom she would become romantically involved, and secured a writing job at the music magazine NME. The position paid too poorly to allow Hynde to support herself, and she soon landed a second job at SEX, a London-based boutique owned by self-styled music impresario Malcolm McLaren and designer Vivienne Westwood. The shop was a focal point for many disenchanted young people, including John Lydon and John Ritchie, who would later gain infamy as Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols. Hynde would attempt to convince Vicious to marry her in order to gain a work permit, but he resisted, forcing her to relocate briefly to France before returning to Cleveland in 1975.
Hynde returned to England the following year, when punk rock was beginning to infiltrate the music underground. There were auditions for and brief stints in various groups, including early incarnations of the Damned and a pre-Clash band with Mick Jones, but Hynde spent much of 1976 through 1978 in a state of frustration. Finally, her demo found its way to Real Records owner Dave Hill, who was impressed by her soulful vocals and defiant attitude and offered to manage her. Hynde soon enlisted drummer Martin Chambers, guitarist James Honeyman-Scott and bassist Pete Farndon to form the Pretenders, which drew its name from the Platters' "Great Pretender" single. After recording a demo that included early versions of subsequent hits like "Precious" and a cover of the Kinks' "Stop Your Sobbing," the Pretenders began to attract an audience on the British club scene. In 1980, they released their self-titled debut, an assured collection of back-to-basics rock-n-roll with elements of soul and pop that included a Top 20 hit with its lead single, "Brass in Pocket." The album itself rose to No. 8 on the Billboard album charts while skyrocketing to the top of the U.K. albums chart, establishing them as a breakout act on both sides of the Atlantic.
Nearly two years would pass before Hynde and the Pretenders would release their sophomore album, 1981's Pretenders II. It failed to match the popularity of its predecessor, due in part to the band's lack of new material; both of its hit singles, "Message of Love" and "Talk of the Town," had been released earlier in the year on an EP titled Extended Play. The band was wracked by internal troubles as well, including debilitating drug problems that led to the deaths of Honeyman-Scott in 1982 and Farndon in 1983. At the same time, Hynde dove into a relationship with the Kinks' Ray Davies that produced a daughter in 1983.
The following year, Hynde reformed a new version of the Pretenders with Chambers, Manfred Mann Earth Band guitarist Robbie McIntosh and bassist Malcolm Foster. This second configuration scored a major hit with 1984's Learning to Crawl, a tough, streetwise album filled with some of the group's strongest singles, including "Back on the Chain Gang," the propulsive "Middle of the Road" and the wistful Christmas tune "200 Miles." Hynde capped the comeback year by ending her relationship with Davies to marry Jim Kerr, singer for the Scottish New Wave group Simple Minds in May of 1984.
Hynde and the Pretenders would be largely absent from the music scene for the next two years, save for a performance at Live Aid and her duet with UB40 on a cover of "I Got You Babe." In 1986, they returned to the studio for Get Close, another success thanks to the poppy single "Don't Get Me Wrong." The new direction did not sit well with Chambers, who departed the group following the album's release, which left Hynde the sole original member of the Pretenders. Four years would pass, during which Hynde divorced Kerr, before the band would release Packed! (1990). The record failed to reignite the band's fortunes, and Hynde mothballed the group for nearly a half-decade while contributing vocals to a variety of projects, including singles by Morrissey, Frank Sinatra, Cher and Neneh Cherry.
Hynde was frequently cited in publications and by other artists as an inspiring female figure in rock, but sadly, she lacked the industry clout and record sales to underscore that fact with her own music. Finally, she re-assembled the Pretenders for 1994's Last of the Independents, which featured not only a Top 40 single with the ballad "I'll Stand by You," but also the return of Martin Chambers, who would reassume a permanent role as the band's drummer. A live album, Isle of View, would precede another long gap between records, during which Hynde married artist Lucho Brieva in 1997. Two years later, Viva El Amor! was released to effusive critical response, but only tepid sales. In 2003, the band left their longtime label, Sire Records, for upstart Artemis, which released Loose Screw. More listeners, albeit much younger ones, heard her as the voice of a leopard on the soundtrack for "Rugrats Go Wild!" that same year.
Hynde and the Pretenders were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2005 amidst a flurry of new projects, including her collaboration with German dance act Tube & Berger on the single "Straight Ahead," which ironically provided her with her first No. 1 single in the United States. Hynde also shared the microphone with Ringo Starr on the single "Don't Hang Up" and Incubus on "Neither of Us Can See," which was featured on the "Stealth" (2005) soundtrack. The first Pretenders box set, Pirate Radio, was released in 2006, while Hynde, a dedicated vegan, opened a popular restaurant called The VegiTerrean in her hometown of Akron. While continuing to tour with the Pretenders, Hynde also enjoyed a side project with Welsh singer J.P. Jones called J.P., Chrissie and the Boys, which released a debut album, Fidelity (2010).
By Paul Gaita