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Chrissie Hynde

Updated: Nov 26, 2020

Music Contributions: Chrissie Hynde is the founder, lead vocalist, guitarist, and primary songwriter for The Pretenders. She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2005.

Biographical Highlights: Hynde's story is full of surprises and incredible durability. Reading her memoir, Reckless, I was truly amazed that she made it out of the 70s alive. The title is more than a fitting description of her early years. Her toughness is remarkable and inspiring.

Born in 1951 in Akron, Ohio, she had a rather typical Midwestern 50s upbringing. She described thus: "We lived in a world where fearing for our safety was an unknown, as likely an idea as a flying saucer landing in the front year. We were safe, fed, warm and provided for. We were the last of a dying breed." Growing up Chrissie loved to draw but had no real ambitions. In fact most of her first two decades were directionless.

Her first foray into music was in elementary school when she got a baritone ukulele and a Mel Bay book of chords for an Easter present. She would often "borrow" her dad's harmonica and rig up a holder out of a coat hanger to do her best Bob Dylan impressions, a foreshadowing of her 2020 Dylan covers.

As with most every musician of the 70s, her music inspiration came

from The Beatles. For Hynde it was seeing their "I Want to Hold Your Hand" album in Clarkins discount store. She stood and stared at it for half an hour. "I'd heard it on the radio but the long hair and Pierre Cardin suits threw me. I'd never seen a band that looked like them. In fact, I'd never seen an English band. This was a huge turning point. I abandoned by baritone uke and got a big-necked nylon-stringed acoustic guitar that said Zim Gar on the headstock."

After high school she attended Kent State University with her only incentive being to get out of her parent’s home. Music was everywhere that summer of ’69 and Hynde was engulfed in it. She was also becoming politicized, especially as a vegetarian, one of her lifelong commitments and causes. As she describes it, “Being vegetarian was to inform everything, the course of my destiny. I was baffled that the entire hippie nation hadn’t become vegetarian en masse. It made no sense as eating meat went against the whole dialogue. Were the hippies just as hypocritical as the rest of them? I couldn’t admit that but I understood why I loved songs like ‘The Loner’ so much. I didn’t want to be like the majority anyway. The majority were always wrong.” Of course, being at Kent State in 1970 put her in the middle of the famous Kent State protests and shooting, memorialized in Neil Young’s “Ohio” written just weeks after the incident.

After several random experiences in Canada and Mexico during her time at Kent, Hynde found David Bowie and Iggy Pop. In her book she recounts a hilarious story of her Bowie concert experience in 1972. The short of it is she ended up taking Bowie to dinner in her mother’s car. At the end of the show, after the crowd had left, Hynde was strolling around in front of the stage and locked eyes with Iggy Pop. “He saw me—the only girl left in the empty hall—and looked into my eyes. I couldn’t speak during the hundred-mile journey back to Akron.”

Most of Hynde’s time at Kent State, however, didn’t revolve around music. It revolved around drugs and alcohol. As I said at the outset, I am truly amazed she survived all of this. Reading her memoir was sad for much of the time. Her description was thus: “I would like to take a moment to acknowledge that I was not twenty-one and the drugs had worked their magic on me. I was well and truly fucked up most of the time, or at best, reeling from the effects of the day before. I don’t like how much of this story is influenced by them, but they were the defining characteristic of my generation. And all our heroes. And in the end, this story is a story of drug abuse.” We have all been blessed that she made it out alive or we wouldn’t have the decades of great music she has given us.

After a few horrifying experiences with some nasty bikers she was hanging out with, a rather comical “evening” with Rod Stewart and Ron Wood after a concert, and an article in New Musical Express about the Iggy Pop, Hynde finally left for England. Of course, she quickly found out there were few Iggy Pop fans in England and the radio sucked. She worked at a local market in London and one night while attending a party she met Nick Kent, a journalist for NME at the time, and soon to become one of the most important and influential UK journalists of the 1970s. Their relationship will begin in earnest after Hynde started working for NME. Her pieces for NME became well known for their critical attacks on the current state of music.

Then Hynde, ever restless, left NME and got a job at Malcolm McLaren & Vivienne Westwood’s famous SEX shop, the boutique that defined punk rock fashion. While that job didn’t last long it was there that she met Steve Jones, the eventual guitarist for The Sex Pistols. Hynde again was on the move, first to Paris to join a band which fizzled out, then back to Ohio where she sung with a bar band, then to Arizona, back to Paris and finally back to London. As you can tell, Restless is Hynde’s middle name. She was 25 and while singing was becoming increasingly her passion, there was little direction and few prospects for the future that awaited her. That would all change when she went back to London. As she said, “It was right before it all started to kick off. You could feel it brewing like the ions in the air before a storm; I made it back just in time.”

Malcolm McLaren invited her to see a band he was working with. That is where she met Mick Jones, who will go on to start The Clash. This connection helped spur her desire to be in a band but her lack of self-confidence was apparent: “Mick and I would swap ideas but I wasn’t really sure who I was in all of it. I had the idea of a band like a motorcycle club: outlaw, outside, antiestablishment. The goal was modest, just to be in a little band somewhere, shomehow. I wasn’t sure what I sounded like as a singer and had little faith in my guitar playing. I used the guitar to write, but would I say I was a guitar player? No. I didn’t think I was qualified as a musician. But we were on the brink of punk so, you see, I was in the right place.”

Over the course of the next year Hynde will be a central part of the London punk scene. She played in a band with Jones before being dumped in favor of Joe Strummer, played in an early version of The Damned, gave Johnny Rotten guitar lessons, became friends with Viv Albertine (of the Slits), Don Letts, Chris Spedding, David Johanson, and, of course, Lemmy. In fact, it was Lemmy who introduced her to Gas Wild, the drummer who would help her start The Pretenders. I love her description of Lemmy: “Lemmy was built like a brick shithouse. He was big, hard and looked like he could only belong to one of the world’s more savage motorcycle clubs—except he didn’t. He played bass in a band. Pretty much everything a girl like me was looking for.”

It took awhile to assemble the band, but when it came together it was phenomenal. The name came from Sam Cooke’s version of The Great Pretender, a song loved by one of Hynde’s ex-boyfriends. The first single was a cover of The Kinks’ “Stop Your Sobbing” backed by “The Wait.” The recording of “The Wait” is a representative story for women in rock. The song is entirely written by Hynde, but her bassist Pete Farndon did suggest a change in the drums. For that, and under his pressure, she agreed to give him half the songwriting credit. Later, the press and others assumed he had written the music, while she had written the lyrics. This was the typical public reaction: women can by lyricists and singers but they don’t write or craft music. Her thoughts: “My songs weren’t well crafted; I knew that. They didn’t have traditional choruses or whatever they were meant to have, but I had something unique. Now people assumed I was just the singer/lyricist and that one of the guys was the musical director.”

“Brass in Pocket came out in December of 1979, by early 1980 it had reached #1 in the UK. The album Pretenders came out shortly afterwards and debuted at #1 in the UK. The album was remarkable; one of the best debut records of all time (Rolling Stone magazine named it the 13th best debut album of all time; the 155th best album of their 500 Greatest Albums; and the 20th best album of the 1980s). It was unique in its post-punk sound and in its layout with side one being much more aggressive and side two more laid back. It was an incredible achievement that Hynde doesn’t get enough credit for. The second album (Pretenders II) is nearly as good; a fantastic sophomore effort.

Then tragedy struck as two of the key members (bassist Pete Farndon and guitarist Jame Honeymoon-Scott) died shortly after its release. This left Hynde with having to create a new band (and new sound) for their next album. Learning to Crawl released in 1984 showed a more pop sound but is still a fantastic album, climbing to #5 in the U.S. and eventually going platinum.

Hynde has gone on to put out albums for the next 40 years. The quality is varied but the determination and toughness that she has exhibited over this time is truly inspirational. Hynde has always downplayed herself and her role in music. She opens up a lot about her past in her memoir but says very little about all the fame and fortune that came her way. She’d prefer the focus be elsewhere. Meredith Ochs, in her Rock and Roll Women book, wrote: “That’s how you get closest to Hynde—a true rock ‘n roller, a loner who is also a leader, a determined artist whose image involves a degree of obfuscation so that fans will focus on what’s important: the music.”

Here is a good recent story from Rolling Stone:

All unattributed quotes are from Hynde's book Restless.

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