Chrissie Hynde: A Musical Biography

Chrissie Hynde: A Musical Biography
By Adam Sobsey
[University of Texas Press]

When Chrissie Hynde published her 2015 autobiography Reckless: My Life as a Pretender, the reviews indicated that it was not as revealing or comprehensive as many would have liked. This journalist, originally excited upon learning of its publication, did not seek it out after learning its story ended in 1983…the year after the original quartet ceased. With this in mind, the publication of Chrissie Hynde: A Musical Biography by Adam Sobsey was met with excitement…at least by me. The formation and perseverance of The Pretenders, the Ohio gestation of Hynde as a musician and her relationships, both musical and romantic, were just some of the topics that had reportedly gone untouched in Reckless. Sadly, Sobsey’s book is a shallow and elementary attempt to fill in the gaps that even he indicated needed filling in due to Reckless’ omissions.

Immediately the reader is struck by his flippancy and lack of detail. He does chronicle her life but not with any real depth and reveals that Reckless did serve as his overall Hynde puzzle with his book an attempt to fill in the pieces. And he takes liberties with style and substance. We do learn of Hynde’s eagerness to attend most rock shows within driving distance of her hometown of Akron, Ohio. During a 1968 sojourn to a Jeff Beck concert she and a girlfriend avoid the oft-scripted romantic encounter with a rocker (she would end up with Ron Wood years later onstage, but not with him in bed). Another English musician was on hand. Sobsey writes, “Brian Jones, the Rolling Stone, who was just hanging around – and would soon be dead, joining the 27 Club with Jimi, Jim and Janis. She wouldn’t even form her band until she was twenty-seven.” Although this does put Hynde’s career path in perspective – 27 is old age for band starters – his approach to the premature dead-end of a rock career path is tasteless and shortsighted.

Sobsey does provide many educational tidbits. It was Sam Cooke’s version of The Platters’ “The Great Pretender” that gave her band its name. One of her bandmates in Sat Sun Mat, an early Ohio band, was a high school classmate, Mark Mothersbaugh, who later formed Devo. The cover photo of ¡Viva El Amor! was Linda McCartney’s last professional photo shoot before her life was claimed by cancer.

Furthering her musical evolution, we follow her early global travels and land with her in London during the ’70s. Sobsey writes, “She didn’t just want out of Akron; she wanted out of America.” In London she gets a job writing for the New Musical Express. “Working for the NME, she was asked to do a retrospective of The Velvet Underground,” Sobsey writes. “She was appalled by the assignment. She thought, ‘Why [are we] always looking back?’” With this in mind and her passion for forward-thinking music, she gets a band together with three men from Hereford, England. Before this she puttered around London. She got a job at Sex, Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood’s now-legendary punk fashion boutique. McLaren and others made her musical offers but none satisfied her. “For someone who wanted to rock as badly as she did,” Sobsey indicates, “and who, at the same time, was already worried that it was too late, she was surprisingly stubborn about what kind of band she’d consent to join.” Her stubbornness eventually paid off as between 1978-1982 The Pretenders were one of the hottest and best rock bands around. They rode the new wave but were not a part of new wave. She almost marries Johnny Rotten and has a child with Ray Davies, whose band The Kinks provided Hynde with direction as a girl and songs as a young woman. She married Jim Kerr of Simple Minds and had another daughter.

What is unfortunate, again, is how Sobsey presents her tale. His track-by-track analysis of every Pretenders LP is tiring. He goes way deep on song structures…too deep even for this musician who actually enjoys song dissections. He goes on and on regarding “chords, sliding grace notes, horsey momentums, complex two-step clusters on ninths (she’s fond of ninths and elevenths), etc…” There’s a big analysis of the English slang usage of the word “cunt.” There are portions devoted to the influence of the Bhagavad Gita and astrological signs.

He inserts his shallow interpretations throughout. Regarding the song “Talk of the Town” he writes. “The double-tracked ‘you’ve changed’ suggests that both admirer and admired, rocker and fan, are singing the line to each other.” He also criticizes Morrissey’s Autobiography and writes that “Reckless manages to be at once brutally honest and carefully guarded.” This level of literary analysis should be dismissed. At one point he writes that “young people make shallow, unconsidered decisions.”

The photos are sparse and all but one come from the same source. To further separate Chrissie Hynde: A Musical Biography from critical acclaim is his mention of The Pretenders’ inclusion in “George Harrison’s benefit Concert for Kampuchea.” I’m sure, to some, all Liverpudlians look alike but confusing one Beatle for another is unacceptable.

Although Hynde’s timeline and life is well chronicled, a quality biography of Chrissie Hynde has yet to be published.