One of rock's many tragic drug-related casualties, Pretenders guitarist James Honeyman-Scott was one of the most original and versatile guitarists of the early-'80s new wave movement, making the senselessness of his 1982 death even greater. Born on November 4, 1956, in Hereford, England, Honeyman-Scott began taking piano lessons at the age of seven. Although he couldn't read music (he was entirely trained by ear), he graduated to guitar by the age of ten, soon picking up tricks by playing along to Eric Clapton and Hank Marvin records. Throughout his teenage years and his early twenties, Honeyman-Scott played with a variety of regional bands, including the band Cheeks, which included former Mott the Hoople founding member/keyboardist Verden Allen. It was during his tenure with Cheeks that Honeyman-Scott became friendly with fellow local musicians Martin Chambers (drums) and Pete Farndon (bass).
Honeyman-Scott paid the bills during these lean years by selling guitars in a shop and growing vegetables, as well as lending his guitar talents to albums by such obscure artists as Robert John Godrey and Tommy Morrison. Growing increasingly fed up with the stale rock scene of the mid-'70s, punk rock and new wave began to perk up Honeyman-Scott's interest in rock again, namely the jangly pop of Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe. Not long after, Honeyman-Scott received a phone call from his pal Farndon, inquiring if he'd like to try out for a new band he had formed with singer/songwriter/guitarist Chrissie Hynde. The tryout was a success, but Honeyman-Scott had second thoughts. To help make up his mind, Hynde and Farndon were able to line up Honeyman-Scott's hero Nick Lowe to produce the band's first single, "Stop Your Sobbing." By 1979, he was a full-time member, bringing Chambers along to play drums for the new quartet as well.
With "Stop Your Sobbing," a surprise U.K. hit, and its follow-ups, "Kid" and "Brass in Pocket," even more successful, the Pretenders' self-titled 1980 debut was an immediate hit -- giving the quartet instant worldwide acclaim. While the band's main attraction was Hynde's top-notch songwriting, Honeyman-Scott's varied guitar work was also a major ingredient for the band's sound (switching from spacious reggae-like breaks to country twang to punk rock riffs in the blink of an eye). While the album has become one of rock's all-time classics, the band's sudden success began to fracture the band, as both Honeyman-Scott and Farndon sank heavily into hard drugs. A month after the release of a stopgap mini-album in March 1981 (Extended Play), Honeyman-Scott wed model Peggy Sue Fender in London.
Pretenders II, released later the same year. The album was another hit, but drug problems still plagued the group. After the completion of a tour in support of the album in June 1982, Hynde, Chambers, and Honeyman-Scott decided that Farndon should be excused from the band due to his excessive drug use. But in a cruel twist of fate, Honeyman-Scott was found dead from a cocaine/heroin overdose on June 16th, only two days after Farndon's exit from the band (Farndon would die from drug-related causes as well a year later). Devastated, Hynde penned a tribute to Honeyman-Scott, "Back on the Chain Gang," becoming one of the band's biggest hits. The Pretenders continued on with replacement members, including guitarist Robbie McIntosh, whom Honeyman-Scott wanted to enlist into the Pretenders as a guitarist prior to his death.