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How Hynde's rock Pretenders became real deal

This weekend marks the 40th anniversary of The Pretenders' arresting self-titled debut, an album which made Chrissie Hynde's band one of the most thrilling acts of the decade before tragedies struck

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Original line-up: The Pretenders in 1979, from left, James Honeyman Scott, Chrissie Hynde, Pete Farndon and Martin Chambers.

Original line-up: The Pretenders in 1979, from left, James Honeyman Scott, Chrissie Hynde, Pete Farndon and Martin Chambers.

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Original line-up: The Pretenders in 1979, from left, James Honeyman Scott, Chrissie Hynde, Pete Farndon and Martin Chambers.

In the early years of The Pretenders, when Chrissie Hynde and friends were trying to work out what their sound could be, they toured small venues in Britain alongside a band called Strangeways.

The group - a tiny footnote in the history of British music - hailed from Yorkshire and Hynde was fascinated by their distinctive use of English. On one occasion, at a show in the cathedral city of Wakefield, she recalled frontman Ada Wilson indicating that a pair of trousers found in the communal dressing room was his if there was "brass in pocket". It was, she thought, a much more interesting choice of words than money or cash.

A year or so later, while working on their debut album, Hynde once again thought about that quirky turn of phrase from the Strangeways singer and it became the title of a song that would help make The Pretenders one of the most thrilling bands of the early 1980s.

'Brass in Pocket' remains an emblematic recordings in the extensive Chrissie Hynde catalogue as well as one of the most beloved songs in the alternative rock canon. It weighs in at a perfect three minutes - an anthem to youth and confidence and seizing life by the scruff of the neck.

But when they were on the road with Strangeways, few could have predicted just how good the young London-based American and her English band - named in honour of The Platters' song, 'The Great Pretender' - could be. Nick Lowe, celebrated for his production work with Elvis Costello, certainly didn't think so: he had produced their debut single, 'Stop Your Sobbing', but decided to step away as he thought the band was "not going anywhere".

Sex Pistols producer Chris Thomas was duly drafted in and he helped to create an album - simply titled Pretenders - that is still regarded as one of the greatest debuts of all time. It was released in the UK and Ireland 40 years ago this weekend. It had been brought out in the US a few weeks earlier.

The album was an instant success, and was top of the UK chart for four consecutive weeks. It reached a creditable number 9 on the other side of the Atlantic. Its performance was no doubt buoyed by the excitement that greeted the release of 'Brass in Pocket' - the band's third single - it topped the singles chart for two weeks in January 1980, replacing Pink Floyd's 'Another Brick in the Wall' and becoming the first new song to go to number one in the new decade.

Ever contrary, Hynde apparently hated the song when Thomas had finished his production work. "I never thought it was that great," she said some years ago. "Was it pop? Motown? Rock? It didn't seem to know what it was. I used to cringe when I heard my voice on those early Pretenders recordings, and then that fucker went to number one! I remember walking around Oxford Circus [in London] hearing it blasting out of people's radios. I was mortified."

Happily, most of those who heard 'Brass in Pocket' had no hang-ups and the album is full of such thrillingly arresting tracks. 'Kid', 'Tattooed Love Boys' and 'Up the Neck' demonstrate the gifts of the band as a whole. Hynde's delivery veers from insouciance to passionate - sometimes over the course of the same song - but the efforts of her bandmates should not be forgotten.

The arrival of guitarist James Honeyman-Scott was a key reason why the embryonic Pretenders moved up several gears. He was a songwriter of considerable talent too and he and Hynde work together beautifully on this album. Bassist Pete Farndon and drummer Martin Chambers are ever-busy too but that muscularity rarely comes at the expense of the pop sensibility that is threaded through the entire album.

Lyrically, it's all about the sometimes glamorous, often seedy world that the young Hynde then knew. She had moved to London from the so called 'Rubber Tyre Capital of the World', Akron, Ohio in 1973 and had immersed herself in the city's rich cultural life. A curious soul who already harboured ambitions to be a singer in a rock band, she tended to seek out outsiders for friends.

Her work included a short-lived stint at the NME - then at the peak of its popularity. She had got the gig through her friendship with the famed rock journalist Nick Kent although, years later, she was admirably honest about her contribution to music journalism - it was "half-baked philosophical drivel and nonsensical tirades".

Then, there was a job in Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood's soon-to-be notorious clothing store, SEX, and it was there that she encountered Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious. She had even planned to marry the latter, in order to be legally able to stay in the UK, but on the day they turned up to the registry office, it was closed.

It's impossible to listen to the first Pretenders album and not think about drugs. After all, much of Hynde's social circle were heavy users. So too were Honeyman-Scott and Farndon and both, tragically, would die of overdoses within a few years of the release of Pretenders. The latter died at 30; the former was just 25.

Besides the obvious emotional void, their deaths robbed the band of a jagged edge and while future members helped deliver some of the best love songs in The Pretenders story - the effervescent 'Don't Get Me Wrong' from 1986 is, justly, a perennial favourite - the truth is they were never again as great as they were on that very first record.

In Fear of Music, his absorbing book on some of the finest albums released between 1976 and 2003, Garry Mulholland writes: "Chris Thomas took the Pistols' wall-of-guitars and made it chime and float and trade off between the macho riff and very feminine pop eroticism... but it's Chrissie's voice in the end, ain't it? The ultimate in tender toughness, able to plead and kiss and seduce and weep without ever shedding its strength or tipping into self-indulgence. The best pure voice of its era, surely, and one that made, say, Debbie Harry or Siouxsie [Sioux] seem harsh and soul-less by comparison."

I interviewed Hynde for this newspaper in 2018 in advance of an appearance in Dublin. She was wonderfully spiky and engaging, especially when talking about what rock music should be. "Frankly, rock 'n' roll is not for everyone," she told me, "but these days it feels as though it's not for anyone.

"For me, there are a few things that rock 'n' roll has to be. First of all, it has to be subversive or it's not rock 'n' roll. It has to be irreverent or it's not rock 'n' roll. It has to be funny or it's not rock 'n' roll. It has to make you dance or it's not rock 'n' roll. And it's not for everyone. It shouldn't be mainstream. It's for outsiders. It's not easy listening."

In its own way, Pretenders feels like a perfect distillation of that uncompromising world-view. Forty years on, and it still sounds absolutely essential.

Indo Review