How the Pretenders Roared to Life With Their Self-Titled Debut
Few artists who came out of the British New Wave mixed credibility with commercial success as well as the Pretenders. Their remarkable self-titled debut arrived in the U.S. on Jan. 19, 1980.
It helped that Telecaster-wielding frontwoman Chrissie Hynde positively oozed rock n’ roll history. A native of Akron, Ohio, Hynde moved to London in 1973 after dropping out of Kent State University (a friend of hers, Jeff Miller, was killed during the National Guard shootings). She began writing at the venerable NME newspaper and was on the scene when the Sex Pistols, the Clash and the Damned were kicking off the U.K. punk movement, but none of her own bands at the time managed to reach the levels of her friends’.
It wasn’t until her 1978 demo tape wound up in the hands of Dave Hill at Real Records that things began to take shape. Over the next few months she met Pete Farndon (bass), James Honeyman-Scott (guitar) and Martin Chambers (drums), and the foursome took their name from the Platters 1955 hit "The Great Pretender."
The success of their first single, a Nick Lowe-produced cover of the Kinks’ "Stop Your Sobbing" in 1979 made way for a full album. The opener, "Precious," sets the tone perfectly, with Hynde purring suggestively over Honeyman-Scott’s phased guitar and Chambers’ pounding rhythms. Other tracks, like "Up the Neck" and the closer "Mystery Achievement," worked off a similar template. The changing time signatures of songs like "The Phone Call," "Tattooed Love Boys" and "The Wait" might have clashed with punk’s back-to-basics sensibilities, but the attitude and aggression more than made up for it.
Unlike most of her contemporaries, Hynde wasn’t afraid to be vulnerable on "Private Life" and "Kid," the latter of which featured a wonderful solo from Honeyman-Scott, whose contributions to the album cannot be overstated. And then there was "Brass in Pocket," the hit single that helped push the album into the Top 10. Pretenders was quickly certified gold and went platinum two years later.
A year after their second album, 1981’s solid Pretenders II, Farndon was fired due to his drug use. Two days later, on June 16, 1982, Honeyman-Scott was found dead of a cocaine overdose. Hynde and Chambers, with replacements in tow, would rebound with Learning to Crawl, the only other Pretenders album as consistently brilliant as their debut.