This article originally appeared in the December 1986 issue of SPIN.
She’s the Great Pretender. She used her eyes, she used her legs. She used her style, her fingers and her imagination to make you see there’s nobody else like her.
The turning point in Chrissie Hynde’s life came when she was 14 and she and a few girlfriends went to see Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels at the Chippewa Lake Park Appreciation Day show, to which all the greasers from Northeastern Ohio migrated. She wanted to be the guitar player. He played good and, naturally, if he played good, he looked good. He looked like he was plugged in. Chrissie saw the afternoon show, which ended with a fistfight onstage. She was so knocked out by it that she stayed for the evening show, which also ended with a fistfight onstage, and she realized she had been fooled.
Like every teenager in the 1960s, she wanted to be Brian Jones in the Rolling Stones. She was more inclined to be Brian Jones than to sleep with him. She wasn’t thinking about things like that when she was 14. She didn’t do anything like that until she was 19. She was thinking more about how cool it was to wear white trousers and a white shirt and play harmonica in a really rocking band and look really great and have a rock teardrop guitar. It was real ’60s.
When she was 16, Chrissie and a girlfriend met Ron Wood and Rod Stewart in a hotel room after a Jeff Beck Group concert in Cleveland, and it looked like she and Ron Wood would be spending the night together, except Chrissie, not quite understanding what was going on, insisted on leaving because she had a driver’s training class in the morning.
Back then Chrissie wasn’t thinking, “Gosh, I want to be Jimi Hendrix,” but she related to him strongly and thought he was very, very happening. She still does, especially when she looks at who’s around now.
The Beatles were her all-time favorite. The Stones were really rock ‘n’ roll and gutsy, but there was something about the Beatles that was out of this world. They touched her spirit. When she thinks about the Beatles and the Stones, she’s reminded how so many people fail to see how much they were influenced by The Kinks. All she has to do is listen to something like “Autumn Almanac” and she hears it all in some of Dave Davies’s chops, especially in the Beatles. One of Chrissie’s favorite quotes is Dave Davies’s: “It wasn’t called heavy metal when I invented it.”
Bob Dylan, of course, was real special—she tried to learn to play guitar from one of his early songbooks—and so were the Velvet Underground. There was no one in that band who she identified with; they were a kind of dark band she heard on the underground radio stations who made a noise that appealed to her. King Floyd’s “Groove Me” was very, very hip and really sexy, and she was big on ? and the Mysterians, the Kingsmen and her hero of all time, Iggy Pop, although with Iggy, she came in a little after the fact, not until Raw Power. Chrissie was from Akron, where her dad worked for the telephone company and her mom was a part-time secretary, and Iggy was up in Detroit, back in the early days, when he was with the Stooges.
Chrissie would have traded bodies with Jeff Beck in a second, just to get her hands on a guitar like his. She’d always been a guitar freak. She loved B.B. King when she first heard him on the radio. And, of course, she thought, and still thinks, there should be a statue of James Brown in every park in America. She thinks he had the greatest influence of anyone on contemporary music.
That was back in the days when all the people who had influenced her were happening, before people were gossiped about and put under a microscope. When you never saw the person, there wasn’t very much to read about the person, there wasn’t that much information available. Chrissie’s imagination could run wild. Like, Chrissie is sure Brian Jones never poured his heart out to the press, and if he did, he was probably a twass anyway, trying to get laid. Now, especially with videos, you get to see people too much.
The truth is, Chrissie Hynde couldn’t imagine being in the Detroit Wheels, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, or any band, including the Pretenders. She can’t imagine herself in videos, in history, or as anybody else. She doesn’t even believe she’s herself. When she sees herself in a video, or hears herself on a record, that’s not her. When she looks in the mirror she doesn’t see Chrissie Hynde, doesn’t identify with that body, much less somebody else’s. There isn’t anybody she would want to be, not even for a moment, but there are people she wouldn’t mind smelling for a moment, or being near, or touching, like Patrick Macnee, who played Steed on The Avengers, or Bobo Bolinski—”Believe me, folks, I’m no big deal”—in R. Crumb comic books.
The available information: Chrissie Hynde got her first period when she was 13, on a day she was supposed to go horseback riding. (Before she was into rock ‘n’ roll, Chrissie was into horses.) Her period freaked her out. She had a vague idea what it was, but it embarrassed and pissed her off. She was absolutely sure it was never going to happen to her. In her school they made all the guys go to a study hall, and all the girls went off to watch a film about periods, and Chrissie couldn’t look a guy in the eye for the rest of the day after what she had just seen.
- Chrissie’s bangs were inspired by a picture of Jane Ascher she saw in 16 Magazine when she was 14. Ascher was Paul McCartney‘s big flame for years, before he met Linda. She had ginger, or red, hair, which Chrissie thought was really cool. Greaser girls always dyed their hair red or black.
- Chrissie prefers stockings to pantyhose because she doesn’t like to wear panties. Stockings are better because she can hold them up with a garter belt and can pull off her underpants without undoing the whole thing every time she goes to the bathroom. Pantyhose may be more convenient when she’s wearing her miniskirt, but if she’s wearing a dress all day, stockings are better; but she rarely wears a dress all day. She’s not a dressy girl.
- Before becoming a musician, Chrissie was into painting, but not commercial painting. She didn’t want to use any talent or skill she had for anything other than being creative. She would rather have been a waitress and paint on the weekends. But she didn’t want to be a waitress, either. Then she thought she could make a go of it with music and make money at her hobby.
- Chrissie waitressed at Stouffer’s and worked as a cocktail waitress for a while in Cleveland, when she was 23 or 24, after she went back there in 1975. “I was a lousy waitress because I had to serve meat to people. It really pissed me off. I could never be courteous or polite when I really wanted to take the thing out back and bury it. I never took very well to people hissing at me, either. Also, I was very flaky with bills, getting meals to people on time, and having to talk to them. My heart really wasn’t in it.”
When she was at Kent State, the year they shot those students, she worked at this diner, and she found it humiliating when guys she fancied came in and she was in her waitress garb, with her hair in a hair net, and she had to serve them. She wouldn’t have minded serving them in other capacities.
“Also, I hated it when I worked in this snack shop and had to make banana splits. For some reason I found it humiliating if a guy saw me making an ice cream sundae.” She got fired because this guy kept coming around on his motorcycle and revving his engine and motioning for her to come out, which she usually did.
Sometimes you’ll lose something in one place and find it, much later, in another. These kinds of occurrences happen to Chrissie constantly. In fact, she made a career of them. Like when she was 12, Chrissie’s teacher told everyone in class to write their favorite word on a piece of paper. Then she told them to write a poem about the word. Chrissie’s word was England. The poem she wrote turned out to be a complete outline for everything she did over the next 20 years.
When Chrissie was 21, her folks thought they’d buy her a watch for her birthday, but she really wanted a Melody Maker guitar that was advertised in the paper for $60. So they bought it and she later traded it for a hollow-body Ovation guitar. Soon, she sold the Ovation and split for England and France. Meanwhile, her girlfriend went to the music store where Chrissie traded the Melody Maker and bought it. A few years later, when Chrissie went back to Cleveland and joined a band, she borrowed the Melody Maker from her friend.
Chrissie had a copy of NME, an English music paper, with a picture of Iggy Pop in it, which she framed and hung on her wall. She went to England in 1973, because she was influenced by this picture. She thought everyone there was interested in the kind of music she dug. All she took with her were three albums, Raw Power, Fun House and White Light, White Heat, and about $500. She felt she might need the records for a fix somewhere along the line, but about three months after she got to England, she lent them to some guy and he left the country.
One night, she went to a party, and walked into a room full of strangers, really bummed out because someone had stolen her prize possessions. Some guy in the room said, “What was that?” “Somebody took my Iggy Pop album,” she said. Then a voice said, “Oh, I know Iggy Pop,” which floored her, because she could never find anyone in London who even knew who Iggy was. The voice belonged to the guy who had written the NME article about Iggy. He said he needed a place to stay, and when he came over and saw the pictures she had on her wall he said, “This is the girl for me.” But she didn’t think this was the guy for her. He did, however, get her a job writing at the NME.
Before Chrissie left Ohio, a guy named Duane, who was in a band, called her. He had heard that she wanted to join a band and invited her to audition. But she told him she couldn’t because she was moving to England. After spending a couple of years in England and Paris, where she failed to get a band together, she returned to Ohio in 1975 to rediscover her roots. After all she had gone through to get out of there, the last place she ever wanted to go back to was Ohio. While she was there, she ran into a drummer named Tony Fier, who later became Anton Fier, the drummer in the Golden Palominos. He was working in a record store and thought she was some kind of big shot because she had lived in England and wrote for the NME. He said he had a band and needed a singer. He took her over to another guy’s house he was working with, and it turned out to be Duane.
After Jack Rabbit, the band she and Duane were in, broke up, Chrissie moved to Tucson, Arizona, with a girl named Ann, who had been her mother’s hairdresser. Chrissie didn’t like Tucson because it was really hot, and nobody there had ever heard of Bobby Womack. She was pretty bummed out. She was only there a week and already she was heartbroken. She missed Paris and wished she’d never left. The whole thing seemed like a big mistake, and she didn’t know how she was going to get back or what the hell she was even doing in Tucson. Then, one day, out of the blue, she got a phone call from a guy she’d met in Paris who she didn’t think even knew her. He was getting a band together and wanted her to sing. He sent her a plane ticket. The next day she was back in Paris, in a band called the Frenchies.
In 1976, Chrissie went back to London. She’d had this feeling about London. She knew something was going to break loose there. She tried a few different things with a few different people. She started a band with Mick Jones, a very London-type guy who was a Mott the Hoople fan. They put together a few songs, some of which appeared on the first Clash album. She also tried to do something with Malcolm McLaren. She had worked in Malcolm’s clothes shop in London in 1974. Later, when she was back in Cleveland, he wrote her a letter asking her to front, as a boy, a band he was forming called the Love Boys. He even offered to pay for her plane ticket, but Chrissie declined the offer because she was still in Jack Rabbit. Now that she was back in London, Malcolm came up with another idea for a band called the Masters of the Backside, in which she was just going to play guitar. The drummer was going to be Chris Miller, who became Rat Scabies, the drummer in the Damned. They rehearsed and played a few songs, and everything was looking pretty good, but, like all Chrissie’s previous bands, everyone went off to do something else and she was left behind. She didn’t fit in because she was American and a couple of years older, and they were London kids who were part of the punk explosion.
Some guy Chrissie knew, who had been painting a ceiling for manager Tony Secunda, told Tony about this chick who could sing and play guitar. Tony, who had handled Steeleye Span and Marc Bolan, wanted to break into the punk thing. He’d been an innovative manager in the early ’70s and was now feeling a little bit left out. He may have seen Chrissie as a potential way back in.
“So I went to his office with a guitar and an amp,” says Chrissie, “and started playing the chords for the song that became ‘The Phone Call.'” She just played the chords and looked at the guy and said, “That’s it.” And he said, “Great.” And she said, “Well, that may be great for you, pal, but I’ve got to really get some money together, and I don’t have time to hang out in your office and play for you, and stuff.” She was delighted to see him write out a check for her rent. She thought, if this guy wanted to be her manager, it was OK with her. For six months she went to Tony’s office, and every week he gave her the rent, which was about five pounds, and he gave her 15 pounds a week for nothing, and he’d buy her lunch and sandwiches. She made him take down all his gold records from his previous acts, because she said they looked like bowling trophies. “I sort of punked the place up a little, but I was still unsatisfied ’cause I still didn’t have a band.” Finally, he said she had to put something on tape, because he couldn’t get her a record deal otherwise. So she went into the studio and made “The Phone Call.” John Cale went down to a pub to call so they could get the beep from the phone. Tony took the record to some record companies, and things looked really good. “Then, one day I was talking to Tony on the phone, and he hung up on me, ’cause I said something he didn’t like, and in those days, if someone hung up on me I’d never talk to them again.” And she never did.
What Chrissie isn’t saying is the big role drugs played in this series of coincidences. There are always some drugs going around. Back when Chrissie was at Kent State, there was a guy named Randall, who used to go to England. He was the only guy she ever met who’d gone to England, and the only one she thought was really happening, because he came back with all these hip records, before he came back with a heroin habit. He wore English clothes and was a bit of an Anglophile. Chrissie really didn’t know him, but she sure tried to get in on his scene. She met him again on the street in England, after the falling out with Tony Secunda. He was selling shirts in a stall in the Portobello Market. She started selling shirts for him and he was going to manage her. Then, the day before he was to introduce her to Dave Hill (a key player in the story), Randall and Chrissie had a falling out. But while looking through some notes and stuff, Chrissie came across a letter from Greg Shaw, who had this little record label, Bomp Records. Once, probably because she was so loaded, she had stayed up all night with Greg Shaw and tried to show him how to play “Louie, Louie” on guitar. (That’s when Chrissie realized she wasn’t such a lousy guitar player after all.) Nobody had ever spent that much time trying to help Greg Shaw do anything before, or else he probably wouldn’t have sent Chrissie a letter telling her that if she ever wanted a record deal, to call him and he’d put her in touch with Dave Hill. Today Dave Hill is her manager.
Before the Pretenders, Chrissie knocked around with Lemmy from Motörhead. He told her to get in touch with a drummer named Gas, who lived in Lambert Grove. One day, Chrissie was in a flat in Lambert Grove, looking out the window, when a guy fitting Lemmy’s description of Gas suddenly walked by. Gas turned her on to a bass player from his hometown of Hereford named Pete Farndon. She liked the way Pete held a guitar and didn’t play with a pick. All the other punk bands played with the guitar down toward their knees and with a pick, and Chrissie didn’t think that was the way to play bass. She liked the way Pete played and looked, but Gas used to get so loaded all the time he kept falling off his stool. He also didn’t take criticism very well. Chrissie fired Gas and kept Pete.
“I really wanted to get Phil Taylor from Motörhead to be my drummer,” says Chrissie,” ’cause I thought he was great. I was really into this idea that my band was gonna be like a motorcycle club. I mean, like I was a bit of an asshole, I’m the first to admit, but that’s my vision of it. But Phil was in Motörhead, and I would have never dreamed of asking him to join my band and sabotage another band. But there were rumors that Motörhead was gonna break up. The Heartbreakers were in town, and I knew they’d already asked Phil to join them, so I thought, ‘Fuck that,’ I’ve got to get in there and let him hear how cool we are. Then, at least if Motörhead does break up, maybe he’ll come to me. So I had this idea, right? What we’ll do is tell Phil that we’re gonna audition a guitar player and we need a drummer to do that, and can he come down and just sit in with us. I thought that seemed like a pretty good scheme.”
Pete knew a guitar player in Hereford named Jimmy Honeyman Scott, who was married and had a couple of kids. “We told Jimmy the scheme and had Phil audition him. Jimmy and I didn’t get on so well ’cause he was a speed freak and he thought I was a punk. He wasn’t into punk music. But I was really taken with his guitar playing. I thought, ‘We gotta get Jimmy Scott to come down and help us with the demos we were doing with Dave Hill.’ But Jimmy had no interest in moving to London. He’d been working in a music store, which made him happy, and he had a girlfriend and a flat. But he said OK.” They did about six or seven songs, then Jimmy went back to Hereford and Phil Taylor went back to Motörhead. “But I had to have Jimmy in the band. He was amazing. He was this huge Nick Lowe fan and, of course, I knew Nick Lowe, so me and Pete dropped the tape off with Nick. He was so impressed he said there was a song on there he wanted to get in on. Of course, I knew it was gonna be ‘Stop Your Sobbing,’ cause it was so pop-y, so I was quivering with excitement when I called Jimmy Scott, ’cause I knew all I had to say was Nick Lowe wants to produce a single with us and Jimmy would want to join the band. It was the perfect trick. So I called Jimmy and he said, ‘Before you say anything, I’d really like to join the band.’ ”
Jimmy and Pete knew a drummer from Hereford named Martin Chambers, but they didn’t know where he was. The previous drummer, Jerry, was good, but he was divorced and had three kids in Ireland he had to keep sending money to, so he had to keep doing gigs on the weekend. But Chrissie needed complete commitment. She didn’t want people to even have a girlfriend, let alone alimony. It wasn’t Jerry’s fault, but he just didn’t fit into Chrissie’s plans. One day they bumped into Martin. It turned out that he lived two blocks up the road from the rest of them. They asked him to rehearse with them, and by the time they started playing the first song, “Precious,” they all knew they finally had the band. All they needed was a name.
Chrissie had been talking to a greaser girl the night before. “We were talking about this London Hell’s Angel we knew, and I was saying how he would shut his door and put on this Sam Cooke song, ‘The Great Pretender,’ so the other Hell’s Angels couldn’t hear him, and we were laughing about it. It just happened to be on my mind when Dave Hill called and said, ‘Look, they’re pressing this record now. What about a name?’ And I said, ‘Well, call it the Pretenders.’ ”
Chrissie and Pete had a romantic affair during the first two years of the band, and after that things were never right between them. They still worked together, but they really didn’t even want to see each other. Chrissie didn’t want to hurt him, but she couldn’t help it. He would play too loud and do things to wind her up, and she’d always take the bait. He was also very insecure about his playing. Actually, she didn’t think he was that good a bass player, but he had all the enthusiasm she wanted and he had the attitude.
After the band finished their first world tour, everyone started to crack up. Chrissie was drinking like mad, getting arrested and everything. Pete was shooting smack. It was really tacky. No one even realized he was doing it. No one could believe it. No one could accept it. It couldn’t be really happening. And he denied it. Toward the end of the tour, while they were in Australia, Jimmy took Chrissie aside and said they should start looking for another bass player when they got back. Musically, the band was plummeting. They took three months off, and when they got back together, Chrissie, Martin, and Jimmy decided to let Pete go. Two days later, Chrissie got a phone call from Dave Hill. He said something really strange had just happened. He thought Jimmy was dead.
“I don’t know how Jimmy died. He took something, but I don’t think they ever knew exactly what. I think it was some kind of cocaine cocktail.” He was in very poor health when Chrissie met him, even though he was very young. He was kind of a burned-out speed freak and he never looked very healthy. He was also the funniest man she’d ever met. She was really close to him. But anyone who knew Jimmy at all felt he was their little brother. He called Chrissie mother. “He would breathe life into my songs. I’d have a basic song that wouldn’t turn anybody’s head, and Jimmy would start playing to it, and that’s when it became a Pretenders song.” He told Chrissie not to give her songs away, and he didn’t want credit for writing them. He wasn’t interested in anything to do with punk. He liked the Beach Boys. Yeah, that was his favorite. In fact, that’s what they played at his funeral.
The next and last time Chrissie saw Pete was at Jimmy’s funeral. She knew exactly how Pete felt. He’d been fired because he was taking drugs and then Jimmy goes and tops himself. Pete just thought it was horribly unfair and was really bitter. Chrissie didn’t feel much better. Nonetheless, she and Martin had to carry on. Jimmy was replaced by Robbie McIntosh, who Jimmy, coincidentally, had asked to join the band the night before he died. Robbie is what Chrissie calls a guitar bore. “All he could do was play guitar and listen to old records. He was just like Jimmy Scott in that way.” Chrissie will always have a guitar bore in the band because guitar is the staple of the Pretenders sound. Robbie’s buddy, Malcolm Foster, replaced Pete Farndon on bass. Less than a year after Jimmy’s funeral, Pete was found dead in his bathtub from a drug overdose.
Chrissie was three months pregnant with her first daughter when Jimmy Scott died. Ray Davies of The Kinks was the father. They had been introduced in America by a mutual friend during the Pretenders’ first world tour and lived together for four years. Chrissie had read that she had tracked Ray Davies down, pursued him and hounded him, and ruined his marriage, but it isn’t true. “Sure, I wanted to meet him, but just like anyone who likes his music would want to meet him.” She also met Iggy Pop, David Bowie, Paul McCartney, and Keith Richards. One rumor was that Chrissie and Ray had planned to marry and have a child nine months from the wedding night but that they had a fight on the way to the ceremony and the magistrate refused to marry them. The fact is, Chrissie never believed in marriage. Their child was born nine months later. In any event, Chrissie was never the type to pour out her heart to the press, where she could be put under a microscope. But somewhere along the way, when she met Simple Minds‘ Jim Kerr in Australia or her last world tour, she got hip and suddenly marriage did mean something. They got married in May 1984; 10 months later Chrissie had a second daughter.
Chrissie thinks if you’re a woman and 35 years old and you don’t have kids, that’s unnatural. “Maybe it’s not unusual, but it’s unnatural, on a purely humanistic level. That would feel more odd than me having kids. People get carried away with their own self-indulgence if they’re having sex and they’re not having children; it can only make you go slightly off the rails mentally because it’s just unnatural. You shouldn’t be fucking all the time and not getting pregnant, because that’s not natural, so emotionally everything else is going to get out of balance. But if you have children, that keeps things in perspective and everything’s answered for. In the world we’re living in people fuck for ten years and don’t get pregnant because they’re taking drugs.”
Jim Kerr had been working with producer Jimmy Iovine and told him that Chrissie was going to try a different producer because she felt it was time for a change. Everything else had changed. The minute Jim told him Chrissie was without a producer, Iovine was ringing Chrissie’s doorbell. Chrissie was sitting with her baby. There was nothing rock ‘n’ roll about her at all. She had almost forgotten that she’d ever been in a rock ‘n’ roll band. But Jimmy made her remember. She couldn’t imagine what he saw in her at all. Chrissie can be really humble and pretty crazy on the side. Jim called her every day and said, “I’ve just gotten off the plane, have you written anything?” Chrissie said, “Why should I write anything?” “Because that’s what you do!” he said. “When you’re filling in your passport and it says occupation, you put songwriter.” He called every day and reminded her of what she did and who she was.
So Chrissie wrote the songs on her new Get Close album, and Martin, Robbie, Malcolm and she recorded it. It was a good album, but not great. The day after they thought they had finished the album, she brought in some new musicians and walked out with Robbie, bassist T.M. Stevens and Blair Cunningham, this year’s Pretenders.
Sometimes what you find, you never lost at all. Chrissie is full of contradictions. The closer you get, the further away she seems. Don’t get her wrong. Beneath that tough black leather jacket is a born-again hippie at heart. Her music sounds carnivorous, but she’s strictly vegetarian. For all her cockiness, she is a simple human female, from humble beginnings, trying by hook or by crook to somehow keep the world from toppling. She comes on like gangbusters, but believe her folks, she’s no big deal.