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The Pretenders

Led by charismatic American-born expat Chrissie Hynde, the Pretenders rose out of London's late-'70s punk/new wave scene, effectively bridging the gap between that world and the Top 40 with a series of lean, spiky singles that were also melodic and immediately accessible. Released in 1980, their first album topped the U.K. charts and is widely considered one of the greatest debuts of all time. Their initial run yielded a clutch of smartly-written, successful singles like "Brass in Pocket," "Back on the Chain Gang," and "Middle of the Road." As the '80s wore on, the death of two original members and a succession of replacements essentially turned the Pretenders into Hynde's project, though her semi-autobiographical songwriting and distinctive vocal phrasing continued to define their sound. 1984's Learning to Crawl and its 1986 successor, Get Close, went gold on both sides of the Atlantic and 1994's Last of the Independents yielded a perennial rock ballad in "I'll Stand by You." In the 21st century, the Pretenders' output slowed, though records like 2008's Break Up the Concrete and 2016's Alone continued to perform well on the U.K. charts and Hynde's songwriting never lost its bite and vitality. Those attributes were in full effect on their 12th album, 2023's Relentless. Born and raised in Akron, Ohio, Hynde moved to England in 1973 where she found a job writing for the weekly New Musical Express. She also became involved in the early punk movement and worked at Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren's legendary boutique Sex while also playing in bands like Jack Rabbit, Masters of the Backside, and the Moors Murderers. With some encouragement from Anchor Records' Dave Hill, Hynde formed the Pretenders in 1978 and recorded a demo with a short-lived early lineup. Hill formed a new label, Real Records, to showcase his newest signing and by the time they'd begun recording in earnest, the Pretenders consisted of Hynde on lead vocals and guitar, James Honeyman-Scott on guitar, Pete Farndon on bass, and Martin Chambers on drums. Their first single, a version of Ray Davies' "Stop Your Sobbing," was produced by Nick Lowe and made it into the British Top 40 in early 1979. Its follow-up, the Hynde original "Kid," also performed well, but it was 1980's hooky "Brass in Pocket" that effectively launched the Pretenders' career. Both the song and their eponymous debut album climbed to number one in the U.K. while faring nearly as well in America. While touring in America later that year, Hynde met Ray Davies and the two began a romance that would last three years and result in the birth of their daughter. An EP, simply called Extended Play, was released in March 1981 while the Pretenders finished up work with producer Chris Thomas on their sophomore album. Pretenders II was issued by Sire Records in August of that year and, in addition to another Davies song ("I Go to Sleep"), it contained a handful of standouts like "Talk of the Town" and "Adulteress." Although it made the Top Ten on the U.K. and U.S. charts, its critical reception was more muted, with some arguing that it simply repeated the musical ideas of their debut. By June of 1982, Pete Farndon's drug abuse had become such an issue that he was fired from the band. A mere two days later, on June 16, James Honeyman-Scott was found dead of an overdose of heroin and cocaine. Still reeling from the shock, Hynde and Chambers briefly regrouped with a pair of guest players to record a new single, "Back on the Chain Gang." Featuring Rockpile guitarist Billy Bremner and Big Country bassist Tony Butler, it was released in late 1982 and became the Pretenders' biggest American hit, staying in the Top Five for several weeks. On April 14, 1983, tragedy struck again when former bassist Farndon was also found dead of a drug overdose. By this time, Hynde had put together another lineup, adding guitarist Robbie McIntosh and bassist Malcolm Foster; the reconstituted band released two more singles, "Middle of the Road" and "2000 Miles," before the year's end. Learning to Crawl, the Pretenders' third album, was released in January 1984. Its blend of introspection and tight, jangling rock struck a chord with fans and critics alike and it became their most successful American release, reaching number five on the Billboard 200 on its way to platinum certification. After performing at Live Aid in July 1985, the band began recording its fourth album. This time, contention between Hynde and Chambers ended with the latter's dismissal, prompting Foster to quit of his own volition. Hynde and McIntosh completed sessions for Get Close with various session musicians and the album was released in October 1986. It found the Pretenders moving in more of a mainstream direction and produced the last of their big '80s singles in the bouncy "Don't Get Me Wrong" and the midtempo ballad "Hymn to Her." By the time their fifth album, Packed!, was released in 1990, the Pretenders were more or less Hynde's solo project; the album was made entirely with session musicians, and she was the only credited member. Aside from the modest jangle pop single "Never Do That," it failed to ignite the charts in either America or Britain. Hynde remained relatively quiet for the next few years, re-emerging in 1994 with Last of the Independents, an album hailed as a comeback by some quarters of the press. It featured new guitarist Adam Seymour and bassist Andy Hobson, and marked the return of Chambers on drums. It also placed the Pretenders back in the Top 40 with the ballad "I'll Stand by You." Surprisingly, this mid-'90s Pretenders lineup stuck around to make not only the 1995 live set Isle of View, but also another studio album. 1999's ¡Viva El Amor! was one of their most focused albums in years with tight, unembellished production and a crop of solid songs from Hynde. That same year, she led the memorial concert Here, There and Everywhere - A Concert for Linda, honoring her friend Linda McCartney. The Pretenders served as the backing band to guests like Paul McCartney, George Michael, Elvis Costello, and Tom Jones, the latter of whom invited them to collaborate on a cover of Iggy Pop's "Lust for Life" for his album Reload released that September. The Pretenders entered the 21st century in good form with a successful Greatest Hits package in 2000, followed in late 2002 by the reggae-tinged Loose Screw. The lineup of two previous albums persisted both in the studio and on tour. 2006 brought the career-spanning box set Pirate Radio, which included over five hours of music and a DVD of rare live performances. For their next studio album, Hynde once again retooled the lineup, adding James Walbourne on guitar, Nick Wilkinson on bass, and Eric Heywood on pedal steel. Studio great Jim Keltner sat in for 2008's well-regarded Break Up the Concrete, though Chambers continued to be the Pretenders' touring drummer. Their first album in six years, it was a critical and commercial success, debuting at 32 on the Billboard charts and 35 in the U.K. Following its release, the Pretenders spent the next few years touring, but in 2012, Hynde put the band on hiatus. Two years later, she released Stockholm, her first-ever solo album, which was followed in 2015 by the publication of her memoir, Reckless: My Life as a Pretender. When the band reconvened a year later to tour with Stevie Nicks, the previous lineup remained intact, though they did not participate in the making of 2016's Alone. For that album, Hynde worked with Black Keys' Dan Auerbach and a stable of players who ranged from rockabilly legend Duane Eddy to indie producer Richard Swift. 2019 saw the belated release of The Pretenders with Friends, a CD, DVD, and Blu-ray package that documented a 2006 concert in which Hynde and her bandmates were joined on-stage by Iggy Pop, Shirley Manson of Garbage, and members of Incubus and Kings of Leon. In 2020, the latter-day lineup of Walbourne, Wilkinson, and Chambers released Hate for Sale, the Pretenders' 11th album. In addition to being Chambers' first studio appearance since 2002, it marked the emergence of Walbourne as Hynde's primary songwriting partner; he was credited as her co-writer on every song. Seen as something of a back-to-basics record, it was a critical success that also made a strong showing on the U.K. charts at number 29. Three years later, the Hynde-Walbourne creative partnership resumed on Relentless, another sharp set that leaned into the band's strengths.
© Stephen Thomas Erlewine & Timothy Monger /TiVo


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