100 Best Albums of the Eighties
"To summarize the Pretenders, says Chrissie Hynde, the band's vocalist, songwriter and founder, "all I can say is that we were the genuine article. In fact, we were so genuine we killed ourselves." She is referring to the drug-related deaths of original band members James Honeyman-Scott and Pete Farndon in the early Eighties. "We never had any pretensions," she continues. "If it sounded dangerous, it was because it was dangerous."
Indeed, on Pretenders, the band backs Hynde's potent vocals with fast, aggressive playing. She wastes no time on politeness or protocol; her songs are blunt, hard-nosed treatises on social and sexual politics, such as the dark, carnal "Tattooed Love Boys." A sense of defiant self-worth emerges in the soulful, chugging "Brass in Pocket," in which Hynde sings, "I'm special, so special/I've got to have some of your attention/Give it to me!"
As Ken Tucker wrote in a Rolling Stone review, Pretenders tells stories "about how good, tempestuous sex can be redemptive; how bad relationships thrive on degrees of contempt; how passionate self-absorption can sometimes open up into a greater understanding of the people with whom you're involved."
By 1980, Hynde — who grew up in Akron, Ohio — had been living in England for the better part of a decade. As a part-time writer for the British music weekly New Musical Express, she'd found herself sometimes questioning the validity of that line of work. "In 1973, I realized that there was no point in being a journalist and just knocking everything that was going on at the time," Hynde says. "Then it occurred to me, 'What the hell, why not me?' About 1976, I saw that the moment was coming when I could get away with it. It's all about timing, you see. If you wait long enough, your number comes up."
She met three musicians from Hereford, near Wales — guitarist Honeyman-Scott, bass player Farndon and drummer Martin Chambers — and they formed the Pretenders. Their music was more diverse than the machine-gun rhythms of punk, because the three Britons were accomplished musicians and Hynde had grown up on a diet of AM radio. "I didn't quite fit into the London punk scene because I'd been listening to too many Bobby Womack albums, you know?" says Hynde. "My musical background was a little too rich for the punk thing."
The Pretenders did share with punk an outsider's contempt for society, however. The debut album was an uncensored expression of the motivations that drew Hynde and the others to rock & roll in the first place. "I thought being in a band was an antiestablishment lifestyle," he says. "It's only ever been my interest to maintain that, and to maintain my freedom as a bum. I don't want to be recognized; I don't want to be hassled. I just want to play guitar in a rock & roll band."