On September 7, 2021, Chrissie Hynde turned 70 years old. Granted, the lead singer, songwriter, and co-founder of the Pretenders was young when she started turning punk into something brainy, clever, and insightful, but it could be argued that she’s always been a very old soul. Maybe it was Hynde’s American influence on the British band, or maybe they recognized that there should be more to the genre; whatever the reason, the Pretenders brought rebelliousness in music to a whole new audience.
Ohioan Hynde moved to London in 1973, working for the music magazine NME (New Musical Express) and playing her own songs around town. In 1978 Anchor Records’ Dave Hill put together a makeshift band to record some of her tracks but urged her to form something more permanent. She teamed up with three Brits: guitarist James Honeyman-Scott, bassist Pete Farndon, and drummer Martin Chambers.
They had their first hit with the single “Brass in Pocket,” produced by Nick Lowe, but he wasn’t interested in working on the rest of their first album, Pretenders (1980). They ended up instead with Chris Thomas, whose wide-ranging background included the Beatles and the Sex Pistols; having him on board was surely an advantage. The album was No. 1 in the UK and did very well in America.
From those sessions comes “Porcelain,” originally the B-side to the single “Message of Love,” a track not included until the extended play version of the album in 1981. The first minute and a half of this four-minute song is entirely instrumental, proving beyond a doubt that everybody in that band had serious rock chops.
Pretenders II followed in 1981 to more acclaim, but things were not going well for the band on a personal level. Honeyman-Scott died of a drug overdose in 1982, right after they fired Farndon for drug use; Farndon would die a few months later. Those losses would probably have destroyed most bands, but since the Pretenders had always really been Hynde & Co., it was possible for her to replant the seeds and try to grow again.
Learning to Crawl (1984) is the result; Hynde got Robbie MacIntosh to play lead guitar, with Malcom Foster on bass. Before this was decided, however, she recorded what would be the album’s biggest single, “Back on the Chain Gang,” with guitarist Bill Bremner and bassist Tony Butler (from Big Country). Learning to Crawl turned out to be the Pretenders’ best-performing album in the US. One of the highlights is the rhythmic punch packed by “Time the Avenger,” originally the B-side to “Thin Line Between Love and Hate.”
The bands biggest singles, “My Baby” and “Don’t Get Me Wrong,” came from Get Close (1986). But once again, the commercial success belied real-life trauma for the band. Hynde decided that Martin Chambers’ playing had become so poor and uninspired that she needed to fire him. For this album, she brought in various drummers, including Simon Phillips and Blair Cunningham. Bassist Malcom Foster felt he and Chambers had had a musical rapport, so he quit and was replaced by Bruce Thomas from the Attractions, as well as some other players. A host of people came in to play keyboards and synthesizers, too, making this the band’s longest personnel list.
It might have been a cast of thousands, but it worked. The album’s non-single gem is the beautiful, exotic melody of “Tradition of Love.”
Packed! followed in 1990, really another Hynde solo project with session musicians. But Martin Chambers returned in 1994 for Last of the Independents, which made it feel more like the Pretenders. Hired hands included The Smiths’ bassist Andy Rourke and Tears for Fears’ keyboardist Ian Stanley. “I’ll Stand by You” was the album’s big single.
An advantage of having a big pool of artists to choose from was that Hynde could employ different styles for different songs. Guitarist Adam Seymour brought a grinding rockabilly sound with a touch of psychedelia to the hard-rolling “Rebel Rock Me.”
This process of Hynde mustering forces and laying down a new album continued every few years, with ¡Viva el Amor! in 1999, followed by Loose Screw in 2002. When Hynde was ready to launch Break Up the Concrete (2008), they put in some extra work to bring a multifaceted bonus feature to fans. They released several versions of the album, each with a new recording of an old Pretenders song re-imagined as country.
Chambers sat this one out, replaced by Jim Keltner, a session drummer with a stellar resume, having worked with the likes of Bob Dylan, three of the former Beatles, and Carly Simon. The politics of not using Chambers seems to be a complicated and ever-shifting story, but the short version is that Hynde wanted a sound he couldn’t deliver. Specifically, she wanted country. “Don’t Cut Your Hair” showcases Keltner’s touch.
For the next several years, nothing much happened with the Pretenders. Alone (2016) is another Hynde & Co. project, but when Dave Auerbach of the Black Keys is the one stepping in on guitar and keyboards, it’s going to be good. There’s also some nice work by Russ Pahl on pedal steel, and Richard Swift plays drums and other instruments, as he has done with various indie groups, including the Black Keys.
Best of all is an appearance by Duane Eddy, who helped define the reverberant electric guitar sound of late-1950s rock and roll. His contribution can be heard on “Never Be Together.” His distinctive sound is the perfect foil for Hynde’s deep, sultry delivery.
The Pretenders carry on, with Hynde the only through-factor. Despite a COVID-related delay, the band’s most recent album, Hate for Sale, came out in 2020. Chambers was back on drums for the first time since Loose Screw. The other personnel, besides Hynde, are James Walbourne on guitar and Nick Wilkinson on bass. Producer Stephen Street was back at the sound desk after a couple of decades away from the band.
Walbourne co-wrote all the songs with Hynde, and Street keeps the sound as realistic as possible. The only flight of fancy is the presence of the Duke String Quartet on the final track, “Crying in Public.” The sentimental harmonies, a nod to classic country ballads, support the unusually lyrical singing by Hynde. In other hands, this song would be impossibly maudlin; because it’s the Pretenders, you listen hard for the nuance and the micro-barbs, and you’re not disappointed.