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Akron's Chrissie Hynde Is Leading Her British Pretenders to the New Wave Throne

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In 1978 Chrissie Hynde was just another one of the unknown punk rockers living in London. At home in Akron, her dad, Mel, a 30-year employee of Ohio Bell, and her mom, Dolores, a secretary, were more than worried. “We had tried every possible way to get her to come home and do something respectable,” says Mrs. Hynde. When they finally flew over to see her, Chrissie recalls, “I went to their hotel wearing ripped black trousers and a stinky motorcycle jacket. My hair was in spikes. My mother started crying. She said, ‘I can’t be seen with you in public’ ”

Chrissie hung on in England and that winter formed a band with bassist Pete Farndon, drummer Martin Chambers and guitarist-keyboardist James Honeyman-Scott—all natives of Hereford. With a name lifted from the Platters hit (they let the fans supply “the great”) and Hynde’s own tunes, which mixed a ’60s sense of melody with hard-edged punk energy, the Pretenders were a quick sensation. Their first LP entered the British charts at number one and went Top 10 in the U.S. early last year.

For the group’s second album, Pretenders II, Hynde provided 11 more songs (the only cut she didn’t write is by the Kinks’ Ray Davies, her boyfriend). The LP broke into the Top 10 here in September, six weeks after release.

Chrissie, 30, has justifiably been the focus of the group’s triumph, but she insists, “This isn’t me with a backup band.” As Debbie Harry once did, she refuses photo sessions that don’t include her bandmates. Farndon says admiringly, “It’s different working with a girl, but she can cope with it.” “We’re very democratic,” adds Chambers, “but Chrissie has more say.”

The responsibility of being first among equals has almost mellowed Hynde—”Now if I want to piss off and go to Mexico, I just can’t do it.” She’s had to change her drinking habits; during a 1980 tour, Chrissie reportedly got into a drunken brawl in a Memphis restaurant and bit a doorman. She has vowed to drink nothing harder than wine while on tour, Farndon says. In any case, success has not gone to her head—or her closet. Like the other Midwestern American women who have conquered British music—Suzi Quatro, Rachel Sweet and Lene Lovich—Hynde affects a gang-girl look, complete with the inevitable leather pants. In her songs, sex is quick and sometimes violent (“Lust turns to anger, a kiss to a slug”).

One of two children, Christine found Akron “alienating.” She admired touring rock stars from afar and dreamed of having a band of her own.

Chrissie did enroll at Kent State and was there during the bloody 1970 confrontation with the National Guard, but not as a participant. She realized after three years of studying art, “I didn’t know what I wanted to do. But I knew what I didn’t want to do.” She saved $1,000 waitressing and moved to London, partly because she had seen pictures of English equestrians—”I was one of those little girls who like horses.”

Her first and only fling at journalism was covering rock for the weekly New Musical Express. Later, she spent six months in Paris with a dead-end band, then finally went home to Akron “to find my cultural roots. Instead, I realized if I had to live there and get married like everyone else, I’d go mad.” Returning abroad, she toured with Mick Jones and the Clash but didn’t perform, and had nowhere spins in London with such groups as the Damned and Johnny Moped’s rhythm section.

Now Hynde says, “I’m a rich rock star.” She owns a sparsely furnished flat in London’s raffish Baker Street area. Davies, seven years her senior, was an idol of her Ohio youth. She met him last year in New York, but because of his divorce proceedings, Chrissie won’t talk about him. She does go on about: vegetarianism (she took that up 10 years ago), numerology (27 is lucky for her, she says) and black magic.

The three men in the band also have new apartments near hers. Pete, 29, whose dad was a shopkeeper, has a motorcycle he rides at not exactly moderate speeds. Jim, 24, has what amounts to a kinky predilection in rock circles: eating in good restaurants. His latest indulgence is a home pinball machine. Martin, 30, whose father plays a trumpet in a brass band, was a driving instructor pre-Pretenders.

Chrissie still suffers from stage fright. “I feel like people want me to make a mistake,” she says. “I don’t feel big time. I’m like just passing through.”

The band’s breakthrough has meant a revolutionary change for her parents. Back in Akron, they tune in FM rock (to the same stations they used to make her turn down) and now read Billboard magazine. The Hyndes have watched their daughter’s unrepressed displays of sexuality at Pretenders concerts during their U.S. tours. “Our friends make fun of us,” concedes Mrs. Hynde. “We don’t care. We’re thrilled.”