Over the years, the Pretenders became a vehicle for guitarist/vocalist Chrissie Hynde's songwriting, yet it was a full-fledged band when it was formed in the late '70s. With their initial records, the group crossed the bridge between punk/new wave and Top 40 pop more than any other band, recording a series of hard, spiky singles that were also melodic and immediately accessible. Hynde was an invigorating, sexy singer who bent the traditional male roles of rock & roll to her own liking, while guitarist James Honeyman-Scott created a sonic palette filled with suspended chords, effects pedals, and syncopated rhythms that proved remarkably influential over the next two decades. After Honeyman-Scott's death, the Pretenders became a more straightforward rock band, yet Hynde's semi-autobiographical songwriting and bracing determination meant that the group never became just another rock band, even when their music became smoother and more pop-oriented.
Originally from Akron, Ohio Hynde moved to England in the early '70s, when she was in her twenties. British rock journalist Nick Kent helped her begin writing for New Musical Express; she wrote for the newspaper during the mid-'70s. She also worked in Malcolm McLaren's SEX boutique before she began performing. After playing with Chris Spedding, she joined Jack Rabbit; she quickly left the band and formed the Berk Brothers.
In 1978, Hynde formed the Pretenders, which eventually consisted of Honeyman-Scott, bassist Pete Farndon, and drummer Martin Chambers. Later in the year, they recorded a version of Ray Davies' "Stop Your Sobbing," produced by Nick Lowe. The single made it into the British Top 40 in early 1979. "Kid" and "Brass in Pocket," the group's next two singles, were also successful. Their debut album, Pretenders, was released in early 1980 and eventually climbed to number one in the U.K. The band was nearly as successful in America, with the album reaching the Top Ten and "Brass in Pocket" reaching number 14.
During an American tour in 1980, Hynde met Ray Davies and the two fell in love. Following a spring 1981 EP, Extended Play, the group released their second album, Pretenders II. Although it fared well on the charts, it repeated the musical ideas of their debut. In June of 1982, Pete Farndon was kicked out of the band due to his drug abuse. A mere two days later, on June 16, James Honeyman-Scott was found dead of an overdose of heroin and cocaine. Pregnant with Davies' child, Hynde went into seclusion following Honeyman-Scott's death. In 1983, two months after Hynde gave birth, Farndon also died of a drug overdose.
Hynde regrouped the Pretenders in February 1983, adding former Manfred Mann's Earth Band guitarist Robbie McIntosh and bassist Malcolm Foster; the reconstituted band released "2000 Miles" in time for Christmas. The new Pretenders released Learning to Crawl early in 1984 to positive reviews and commercial success. Ending her romance with Ray Davies, Hynde married Jim Kerr, the lead vocalist of Simple Minds, in May of 1984.
Apart from a performance at Live Aid, the only musical activity from the Pretenders in 1985 was Hynde's appearance on UB40's version of "I Got You Babe." Hynde assembled another version of the Pretenders for 1986's Get Close. Only she and McIntosh remained from Learning to Crawl; the rest of the album was recorded with session musicians. Get Close showed the Pretenders moving closer to MOR territory, with the bouncy single "Don't Get Me Wrong" making its way into the American Top Ten in 1987. Hynde recorded another duet with UB40 in 1988, a cover of Dusty Springfield's "Breakfast in Bed."
Hynde's marriage to Kerr fell apart in 1990, the same year the Pretenders released Packed!, which failed to ignite the charts in either America or Britain. She was relatively quiet for the next few years, re-emerging in 1994 with Last of the Independents, which was hailed as a comeback by some quarters of the press. The album did return the Pretenders to the Top 40, with the ballad "I'll Stand by You." In the fall of 1995, the Pretenders released the live album Isle of View, then remained silent for a few years. Hynde finally returned in 1999 with an album of new material, Viva el Amor. Three years later, the Pretenders left their longtime label for Artemis. The reggae-tinged Loose Screw appeared in November and a tour followed in January 2003. In March 2006, the Pretenders released their first-ever box set, Pirate Radio, via Rhino. The four-disc package included over five hours of music and a DVD of rare performances. Two years later, the Pretenders released Break Up the Concrete, their first album in six years; it debuted at 32 on the Billboard charts and 35 in the U.K.
Following the release of Break Up the Concrete, the Pretenders spent the next few years touring, but after 2012, Hynde put the band on hiatus. In 2014, she released Stockholm, her first ever solo album, which was followed in 2015 by her memoir Reckless: My Life as a Pretender. In 2016, Hynde revived the Pretenders to record a new album with Black Keys guitarist Dan Auerbach as producer. Alone emerged in October 2016. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine