The Pretenders’ classic first album was released January 19, 1980 which is 40 years ago this week!
To celebrate, let's look at Chrissie Hynde’s younger days – how a young rock’n’roll fan from Cleveland ended up in London, her early involvement with future members of DEVO, The Sex Pistols and others, and the beginnings of a recording career that is still going strong.
The Pretenders, as we all know, were – and remain – the brainchild and musical vehicle of Chrissie Hynde, who seemed to appear out of the blue with any fully-formed vision and vocal and songwriting style with the band in 1979. The Pretenders were the first band with whom she finally got to make a record, but they weren’t her first band, and Chrissie was not some debutante who struck gold on the first attempt. Not by a long shot.
Ohio born and bred, Chrissie arrived in London in 1973, legend has it, with three albums in her possession: the first two Velvet Underground albums and Iggy & The Stooges’ Raw Power. She’d already been part of a group called Sat. Sun. Mat., along with Mark Mothersbaugh, later of Devo. While attending Kate Stent University in 1970, she got caught up in the Kent State Massacre, in which the National Guard opened fire on students protesting the Vietnam War, killing four of them. She hung out with – and, shockingly, was raped by – a gang of local bikers; an event she wrote later wrote about in the song “Tattooed Love Boys”.
Not long after her arrival in London she met hugely influential NME writer Nick Kent – one of the most influential rock critics of the 70s, and a friend of the likes of Iggy Pop and Keith Richards – and was soon writing for the NME herself. Her 1974 review of The Velvet Underground’s 1969 Live album included a description of seeing the band back in the late 60s in Ohio that must’ve made her the envy of her boyfriend and every other critic in England: “Takes me right back to the teenage years of my virginal innocence; the evening I spent in some dingy hall, eyes fixed on that cat in the striped T-shirt and wrap around shades, those songs made my eyes water like I was chewing on a wad of aluminum foil, me hoping I could score some dope after the show; me wishin' I could be like them.”
Writing about it wasn’t enough for Chrissie – she wanted to do it. By mid-decade she was working at Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood’s fashion boutique SEX, and in the thick of the fledgling punk scene. She nearly became an original Sex Pistol; in fact, she almost married Sid Vicious to get a work permit, but the registry was closed when they went to do it. In 1975 she played one show a singer for The Frenchies – a French band, natch - opening for the legendary Flamin’ Groovies at the Olympia in Paris. She was also briefly involved in the legendary front-room band The London SS, which included at different times the likes of Mick Jones before he formed The Clash and Tony James before Generation X, and she briefly played guitar for a band called the Masters of the Backside who would change their name to The Damned after her departure. She was also briefly a member of Johnny Moped (as was The Damned’s Captain Sensible) and had a short-lived band called The Moors Murderers with Steve Strange, who would later form Visage. She later described this period to Rolling Stone: "It was great, but my heart was breaking. I wanted to be in a band so bad. And to go to all the gigs, to see it so close up, to be living in it and not to have a band was devastating to me... All the people I knew in town, they were all in bands. And there I was, like the real loser, you know?"
Chrissie made her first appearance on record in 1977, providing backing vocals on the album Hurt by guitarist Chris Spedding, known for his work with Bryan Ferry, John Cale and others, and for producing early demos for the Sex Pistols. You can hear clearly her voice on the backing vocals on the track “Hurt By Love”.
In 1978 Chrissie would join friends including Steve Jones and Paul Cook of the Sex Pistols and Peter Perrett of The Only Ones on the sessions for So Alone, the legendary first solo album by New York Dolls and Heartbreakers guitarist Johnny Thunders. She sang back up on a revamp of the old Dolls tune “Subway Train”.
The boss of Thunders’ label Real Records, a guy named Dave Hill, became Chrissie’s manager and helped her start putting a band together. He also had her record some demos, including a version of the old Ronettes’ tune “Do I Love You” with Steve Jones (duetting and playing guitar) and Paul Cook. It sounds like it was cut at the Thunders sessions, with producer Steve Lillywhite doing a decent Phil Spector. Luckily for us, this fabulous track has been knocking around YouTube for some time.
From there, it happened quickly. Bass player Pete Farndon was first in. Bizarrely enough, Pete had spent some time in Australia playing with folkies The Bushwackers. The band, named The Pretenders, was completed with lead guitarist James Honeyman-Scott and drummer Martin Chambers. Dave Hill’s Real Records label had a deal with Sire, so that side of things was sorted. They recorded their first single, a cover of the obscure Kinks track “Stop Your Sobbing”, with Nick Lowe producing (Nick was producing Elvis Costello at this point and was hot) before they even played a show; the single was released in January 1979 and went straight into the UK Top 40. Chrissie’s fantastic original “Kid” followed mid-year, and then came “Brass In Pocket”, which hit #1 in January 1980, literally on the same day that the first album hit the stores.
Success came quickly everywhere, including Australia and the US. Chrissie ran with it. The overdose deaths of both Honeyman-Scott and Fardon in 1982, after the release of a second album that wasn’t as well-received as the first, would have stopped most artists in their tracks, but Chrissie pushed on, and The Pretenders’ stature grew as most of their contemporaries faded.
Pretenders is as assured a first album as anyone has ever released. Produced for the most part by Chris Thomas, who had also produced the previously-mentioned Chris Spedding album and co-produced The Sex Pistols’ Never Mind The Bollocks, it has a timeless sound, and it put classic rock’n’roll songwriting into a post-punk context when many others, especially in England, were looking to ska, jazz and funk or synths for inspiration.
Check out some other great tracks from the album below, as well as an amazing 1979 rehearsal version of “Brass In Pocket” and a handful of mid-79 live tracks from French TV.
Brass In Pocket rehearsal
Paris, 11th June 1979
Here is the Expanded & Remastered Edition of the album, which includes some early demos and BBC live tracks.
Listen on Spotify
Listen on Apple Music