By Eleni P. Austin
Chrissie Hynde has packed a lot of living into 62 years.
She was a student at Kent State University in Ohio when the historic shoot-out took place in 1970. She was in seminal figure at the birth of the British Punk scene. She has been making records for 35 years, and she is finally releasing her solo debut.
Chrissie Hynde was born and raised in Akron, Ohio. She never had much use for school and became obsessed with Rock & Roll before puberty hit. Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones, and Iggy Pop seemed infinitely cooler than local boys, so Hynde eschewed the usual teen rituals like dating and proms. She also became a vegetarian at age 17.
Hynde attended the Art School at Kent State for three years, and began a nascent career in music. Her first band included future Devo visionary, Mark Mothersbaugh. An avowed anglophile, she saved her money in order to move to London, England.
By 1973 Hynde had accrued enough dough get to London. Her art school background landed her a job with an architecture firm where she worked for several months. After meeting infamous rock journalist, Nick Kent, (they became a couple), she began working for New Musical Express, London’s leading music weekly.
Hynde’s first stint at NME was short-lived. She worked briefly at SEX, the notorious clothing boutique owned by (future Sex Pistols manager) Malcolm McLaren and designer Vivienne Westwood. She spent a couple of years ping-ponging between England, France and the U.S. She almost convinced Sid Vicious to marry her so she could stay in the country legally.
Intent on pursuing music as a career, she placed an ad in Melody Maker looking for like-minded musicians. She briefly collaborated with guys who later skyrocketed to fame; Jon Moss from Culture Club, Tony James of Generation X and Mick Jones from the Clash.
Finally, in 1978, Hynde recorded a demo and hired a manager. She hooked up with bassist, Pete Farndon, guitarist James Honeyman-Scott and drummer Martin Chambers. They settled on the name Pretenders, partly inspired by the Platters’ hit “The Great Pretender.”
Musician/producer Nick Lowe was behind the boards on their first single, “Stop Your Sobbing” b/w “The Wait” which was an immediate hit. Their self-titled debut arrived in December, 1979 and was a critical and commercial success on both sides of the pond.
The Pretenders’ sound was a revelation. Spiky and melodic, it walked a fine line between Punk, British Invasion and New Wave. Hynde flipped the script for women in Rock & Roll.
She wasn’t a shambolic Blues belter, like Janis, she wasn’t a punk-poet androgyne like Patti Smith nor was she a gypsy nymph swathed in patchouli and crushed velvet, (hello Stevie). Hynde swaggered like Jagger in her (faux) leather pants. She radiated charisma, not unlike Jim Morrison. But she wasn’t afraid to appear tender and vulnerable.
The Pretenders released an EP in the spring of 1981 and a full-length follow-up, Pretenders II that August. Despite the swift success, drug issues plagued them. Pete Farndon’s heroin abuse was so excessive he was fired from the band in June 1982. Two days later James Honeyman-Scott died of heart failure as a result of cocaine intolerance. (A year later, as Farndon was collaborating with ex-Clash drummer, Topper Headon, he was found dead from an overdose, in his bath tub).
Hynde and Chambers soldiered on, recruiting guitarist Robbie McIntosh and bassist Malcolm Foster. Their third album, Learning To Crawl, was released in the Spring of 1984. It was definitely a triumph over tragedy.
By 1986, drummer Martin Chambers left the fold, and Hynde was the only original Pretender. Starting with the fourth album, Get Close, the line-up was basically Hynde and a rotating cast of musicians. That continued through the albums Packed! in 1990 and Last Of The Independents in 1994.
The Pretenders released three more studio albums, Viva El Amour, in 1999, Loose Screw in 2002 and Break Up The Concrete in 2008. Martin Chambers drifted in and out, playing on some recordings but mostly touring with the band. By now it was basically the Chrissie Hynde Experience.
The Pretenders went on permanent hiatus after Break Up The Concrete and Hynde began collaborating with Welsh singer/songwriter JP Jones and his ragged compatriots, the Fairground Boys. She hinted that the partnership was more than professional. Their alliance yielded one album, under the unwieldy moniker of JP, Chrissie & The Fairground Boys. Fidelity! was loose and playful: a nice antidote to the tightly wound Pretenders catalog.
Now, Chrissie Hynde has finally recorded a proper solo album. As the title suggests, Stockholm was recorded in Sweden. Produced by Bjorn Yttling, (of the whiste-y Indie-Pop trio Peter, Bjorn & John), who also co-wrote most of the songs.
The album opens with the Spector-ian grandeur of “You Or No One.” The arrangement is a sideways homage to Phil Spector’s signature Wall Of Sound. Roiling tympani, rippling finger-snaps and Hynde’s multi-tracked vocals, frame lyrics that are a naked plea for unconditional love.
The mood of this album is mellow and (ahem), somewhat mature. But Chrissie Hynde has always been a walking contradiction. The woman who taunted “I shot my mouth off and you showed me what that hole was for,” on the song “Precious,” also gracefully paraphrased Oscar Wilde on “Message Of Love,”(“We are all of us in the gutter, some of us are looking at the stars”).
Three songs, “Like In The Movies,” “You’re The One,” and “In A Miracle,” balance cynicism and optimism. On the sleek and propulsive “…Movies,” Hynde bluntly warns that real life romance rarely has a Hollywood ending. “Happy ending, a Hollywood storyline, good pretending/But don’t fuck with this heart of mine.”
“You’re The One” is more hopeful. Anchored by a hiccup-y stop-start rhythm and whistle-y synths, Hynde seems almost giddy and girly with love… “An ordinary cynic is all I ever was /But look at me, I’m laughing like a child and all because you’re the one.”
Hynde reclaims her wary and cautious nature on the stately ballad, “In A Miracle.” Propelled by sinewy guitar riffs, fluid bass lines and low-key synths, she equates love with the evanescence of sand castles.
The best tracks here are equal parts tough and tender. On the cowbell-riffic “Dark Sunglasses,” Hynde is biting and sarcastic. Her taunting vocals ride roughshod over galloping guitars and a loping rhythm. Here she lambastes a pal’s blatant hypocrisy. “You’re reverting back to type never mind you lost your nerve/A kind of glamour you can lend yourself, like dark sunglasses.”
“Down The Wrong Way” features Neil Young’s astringent guitar licks and a ragged rhythm. The lyrics are a study in cryptic self-flagelation, “I’ve become what I criticized, the porn queen in my deck of lies.”
The guitars on “A Plan Too Far” pivot between Spaghetti Western grandeur and scabrous, splintery riffs. Over a rock-steady riddim, Hynde’s mien is arch and dismissive toward a philandering ex-lover, finally getting his comeuppance… “You’re as consistent as a weather vane cock, and still pretending you can beat the clock/Hey the slope gets slippier, the women get lippier, Oh no, you can’t come back to me.”
Other interesting tracks include “Tourniquet (Cynthia Ann)” and “Sweet Nuthin’.” The former is wiry treatise on sexual obsession. The jangly melody on the latter belies Hynde’s cavalier tone…”I don’t need a lie, to see your other side/You can save it for your solo album.”
The album closes with the sweet and tender “Adding The Blue.” Once again, Hynde sheds the tough Rocker Chick façade, giving us a glimpse of her softer side.
Chrissie Hynde is ageless. Her appearance remains unchanged since 1980. More importantly, her warm contralto seems untouched by time. A strong argument for a vegetarian lifestyle.
Way back when, on the song “Brass In Pocket,” Hynde foretold the future. “There’s nobody else here, no one like me/I’m special, so special I gotta have some of your attention, give it to me.” Stockholm, assures our continued focus.