Pretenders invented transatlantic guitar pop and Chrissie Hynde still reigns over the genre

Words & curation by David Hepworth, cover art by Ray LS!

I’ve been writing a book about what pop history came to call the British Invasion. This began with the Beatles in 1964 and came to an end with the arrival of Boy George and pop video in the early 1980s. I wanted to write this book because I was interested in how the traffic between the two countries created new ways of playing music, ways which would never have been found had both sets of musicians remained at home. The Beatles and Stones played American music in a new way, a way that quickly inspired American bands like the Byrds to play European music in an American way and since then the music of the two countries has been, for good or ill, intertwined.

Chrissie Hynde is a product of this transatlantic trade in sounds and styles. The music the Pretenders make they could never have made in America. That music could not have been made in Britain if the band had not had an American leader. It is Anglo-American music, a direct product of two countries who are, as a wise man once said, divided by a common language.

Born in Akron, Ohio, Hynde was a teenager during that first invasion and was one of that generation of enthralled American kids who saw faraway London, in the days of its Swingingness, as the shining city on the hill, who modelled their stances on the calculated surliness of the Rolling Stones and the Who and the girls among whom sought to look like Patti Boyd and Jane Birkin. As soon as the opportunity arose Chrissie came to London and, like so many rank outsiders before her, found it was easier to penetrate the inner sanctum — writing for the NME, hanging around with Malcolm McLaren in the early days of punk, making the scene — in a country thousands of miles across the ocean than it would have been if she’d made the shorter journey to New York. Americans like Jimi Hendrix and Scott Walker had found the same thing ten years earlier.

If you were the kind of person who read the NME in the mid-70s you knew Chrissie Hynde by name and by 1978 it certainly wasn’t surprising to hear she was leading a band. Everybody at the time seemed to feel the same need to assert themselves. In most cases the records these people made were best heard about rather than heard. Hers was different. The first Pretenders single “Stop Your Sobbing” was an old Ray Davies song which was produced by Nick Lowe so it had no shortage of credentials. But what was astounding then and remains exceptional now is that Chrissie Hynde had the one thing that almost everyone else in punk/new wave lacked. She had a voice.

In the years since debates about the merits of singers have all too swiftly descended into discussions about this or that vocalist’s ability to be detected by dogs on distant mountain sides or another’s use of actorly tricks to convince you that they are going through the extremity of feeling their song describes. People who talk of singing increasingly use the vocabulary of sport, speaking of singers who “nail it” and praising those who “own” a song. It’s seen as an essentially strenuous rather than sensual activity. The same people who admire actors who appear to be doing a lot of acting seem to admire singers who sound as though they’re doing a lot of singing.

Chrissie Hynde doesn’t really go in for any of that. She has the gift of a voice which falls gently on the ear, a voice equally at home acting the vamp on expansive headbangers like “Bad Boys Get Spanked” as singing to herself on a tearjerker like “I Go To Sleep” and, most importantly, which doesn’t wear out its welcome before the end of side one. If we close our eyes right now we can all hear “Kid” or “Don’t Get Me Wrong” playing in our own internal jukebox and they will replay with every subtlety intact. This intimacy is the sign of a great singer of popular music.

Something similar can be said for the band. Although much water has gone under the bridge since the Pretenders first came together at the end of the seventies and many members have been and gone, they have continued to avoid sounding like anyone else, somehow continuing to summon the ghosts of hundreds of earlier records but nothing in particular, the guitarists still mining a rich seam of glistening fills, their drummer Martin Chambers maintaining that springy optimism that is The Pretenders signal quality.

Throughout that time their music has avoided the dominant cliches of both the UK and the USA. It continues to sound as though it was formed by the music that she heard in the mid-60s, from the obvious influences like the Beatles and Byrds to the soul music and garage rock that she grew up with in Ohio. She was a child of the days when AM radio played all kinds of things, when you expected to be surprised, when you didn’t just tune to the radio to hear more of what you already liked and you also expected to be able to sing along.

Her breakthrough song “Brass In Pocket” was a classic meeting between the old world and the new. Inspired by a phrase overheard in a Yorkshire dialect she turned it into a ringing advertisement for female empowerment. Her new album “Hate For Sale” has a song called “Turf Accountant Daddy”, which is a similarly arcane term, unknown in the United States. In fact it doesn’t matter what it meant originally. What matters is what her voice is capable of making it mean.

Unlike her fellow Americans of the sixties who came to the UK to make their names simply because the place was smaller and therefore easier too shine in, she’s still doing it all this time later, still flying the flag for music that could only have been made between these two countries and still standing up for the only Special Relationship that matters.

Check out the accompanying playlist on The Song Sommelier.

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