The Pretenders, originally three Englishmen and an American woman, emerged at the close of the '70s as one of the new wave's most commercially successful groups. Its focal point was Chrissie Hynde, the band's songwriter, lead singer, and rhythm guitarist, whose tough songs and stage persona put feminist self-assertion into her own distinctive hard rock.
A single gig with an Akron band, Sat. Sun. Mat. (which included Mark Mothersbaugh, later of Devo), was Hynde's sole performing experience when, after three years of studying art at Kent State University, she left (with money earned as a waitress) for the rocker's life in London in 1974. She began writing savagely satiric reviews for New Musical Express; but after playing cover girl for a story on Brian Eno, she moved to France to form a band. When nothing materialized, she returned to Akron, where she joined Jack Rabbit; it broke up, and Hynde returned to France and then to England by 1976, as punk rock was burgeoning. She tried to enlist a young guitarist, Mick Jones, into her would-be group, but Jones committed himself to another new group, the Clash.
She was then hired by punk fashion entrepreneur and Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren (in whose boutique, Sex, Hynde had worked when she'd first come to London) to play guitar in Masters of the Backside. After months of rehearsal, she was dismissed; the group turned into the Damned. Hynde played guitar or sang backup behind Johnny Moped, Chris Spedding, Johnny Thunders (the New York Dolls, the Heartbreakers), and Nick Lowe. With these contacts and a growing repertoire of original songs, she recorded a demo tape. Dave Hill, founder of Real Records, became her manager and advanced her the money to audition and hire a band.
Bassist Pete Farndon had recently returned to England from Australia, where he had played for two years with a popular Aussie group, the Bushwackers. He called James Honeyman-Scott, who had toured with several bands, notably Cheeks, a group led by ex–Mott the Hoople keyboardist Verdon Allen. Honeyman-Scott joined Hynde, Farndon, and drummer Gerry Mackleduff to record two Hynde compositions — "Precious" and "The Wait" — and a 1964 number penned by Ray Davies of the Kinks, "Stop Your Sobbing." Nick Lowe pegged "Stop Your Sobbing" b/w "The Wait" for a hit and offered to produce a single, which he did in one day in the fall of 1978. The next day, the Pretenders left for Paris for its debut gig and a weeklong club engagement.
Mackleduff was replaced by Cheeks' former drummer, Martin Chambers, then working as a drummer and driving instructor in London. In January 1979 "Stop Your Sobbing" was released in Britain. Soon it was in the Top 30. The followup, "Kid," written by Hynde and produced by Chris Thomas, did well, too. By spring, the Pretenders were selling out performances all over the U.K. In May the band began work on an album, with Thomas producing. The Pretenders, released worldwide in January 1980, was universally lauded. "Brass in Pocket" hit Number One in the U.K. and Australia and reached Number 14 in the U.S. After whipping off another single, "Talk of the Town," for the British market, Hynde brought her band stateside, where its album was rising to Number Nine.
It took the band over a year and a half to produce a followup, although a five-song EP was issued in the interim. Finally, in August 1981 Pretenders II (Number Ten) was released to mixed reviews. It included another tune by Ray Davies, "I Go to Sleep," and Hynde showed up so frequently on the Kinks tour that summer that her relationship with Ray Davies soon became public knowledge. (The two never married but had a daughter, Natalie, in 1983.) A 1981 tour of the U.S. was postponed when, in October, Chambers badly injured his hand; the eventual tour was the last time the original Pretenders played together.
Farndon was booted from the group on June 14, 1982; two days later Honeyman-Scott died of a drug overdose. Farndon himself would die of a drug overdose the following April. Surviving members Hynde and Chambers recorded the gorgeous, wistful "Back on the Chain Gang" (dedicated to Honeyman-Scott) with ex-Rockpile guitarist Billy Bremner and Big Country bassist Tony Butler; it hit Number Five in 1983. The intro to its flip side, "My City Was Gone" (also featuring Bremner), later became the theme song of Rush Limbaugh's radio program.
Another year passed, however, before the release of the aptly titled Learning to Crawl, which introduced new members Robbie McIntosh and Malcolm Foster. The album (Number Five, 1984) went platinum and spawned hits in "Middle of the Road" (Number 19, 1984) and "Show Me" (Number 28, 1984). In May 1984 Hynde married Jim Kerr, lead singer of Simple Minds; the two had a daughter but soon split up. Hynde got married again in 1997, to Colombian sculptor Lucho Brieva.
Since 1986's Get Close, the Pretenders have consisted mostly of Hynde and a succession of musicians, with spotty results. "Don't Get Me Wrong" (Number Ten, 1986) was the group's last Top Ten hit. McIntosh went on to play and record with Paul McCartney; former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr stepped in for the band's remaining tour dates. For Last of the Independents (Number 41, 1994), the band's first album in four years, Chambers came back on board, joined by Adam Seymour, formerly of the Katydids, and ex-Primitives bassist Andy Hobson. The album spawned a Top 40 single in the ballad "I'll Stand by You," and the lineup remained intact for the acoustic live album, The Isle of View (Number 100, 1995) and 1999's ¡Viva El Amor! (which also featured Hynde's hero Jeff Beck on the track "Legalize Me"). ¡Viva El Amor!'s cover photo, featuring Hynde holding her fist in the air in the fashion of a classic Colombian propaganda poster, was taken by Linda McCartney a month before her death.
Although the long waits between LPs have dulled her group's once shining commercial career, Hynde remains an influential performer and songwriter. Her performances with the Pretenders on the 1999 Lilith Fair were regarded by many critics as the highlight of the woman-centric festival tour. Hynde is also an outspoken crusader for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. In March 2000 she was arrested on felony charges of third-degree criminal mischief in New York for destroying an estimated $1,000 worth of merchandise during a protest of what she termed "black-market" leather from India at a Gap clothing store (a charge the Gap disputes). Manhattan Criminal Court adjourned the case "in contemplation of dismissal," contingent upon Hynde's staying out of trouble for six months.
This biography originally appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001).