Mission: Re-Listen-Learning To Crawl by The Pretenders

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Each month we’re re-listening to a classic album that was released that same month.
Learning To Crawl by The Pretenders (Released in January of 1984)

The Pretenders exploded on to the music scene in the late 70s. Their debut album was one of the most astonishing beginnings in the history of rock. The band consisted of founder, guitarist and lead vocalist Chrissie Hynde, guitarist James Honeyman-Scott, bassist Pete Farndon and drummer Martin Chambers. Their first single was a cover of the Kinks song “Stop Your Sobbing” which was released in January of 1979. It was followed six months later by the second single “Kid”. The songs gained critical attention and radio airplay which built anticipation for a full-length record.

In January of 1980, the band’s self-titled debut album was released. It was an immediate success in both the UK and the U.S. A combination of rock, punk and pop music led by Hynde’s unique vocal style, the album made the band famous. It debuted at number one on the UK Albums Chart the week it was released and stayed there for four consecutive weeks. It also made the top 10 on the Billboard 200 and was later certified platinum in 1982. Not only is the album regarded as one of the best debut albums of all time, it has also been named as one of the best albums of all time by numerous publications.

In addition to the two previously released songs, the record contained the single “Brass In Pocket” which went to number one in the UK and hit number 14 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the States. The Pretenders rode this wave of popularity throughout 1980. They opened for The Who during a spring tour and quickly moved to headliner status for a late summer tour of the U.S.

In March of 1981, the group released a five song EP titled Extended Play which featured the songs “Message Of Love”, “Talk Of The Town” and “Cuban Slide”. In August, they released their second full-length album Pretenders II. It included the Extended Play singles as well as popular album radio tracks like “The Adultress” and “Bad Boys Get Spanked”. The next month they appeared as the musical guest on the late night sketch comedy show Fridays performing three numbers. The Pretenders were one of the hottest bands in rock.

But their meteoric rise would soon come to a crashing halt. In the fall of 1981, the band was forced to cancel their North American tour as Martin Chambers injured his hand so badly that he couldn’t play drums for several weeks. Due to his escalating drug abuse, bassist Pete Fardon was fired from the band in June of 1982. Two days later, guitarist James Honeyman-Scott died of heart failure as a result of a cocaine overdose. While in the process of forming a new band, Pete Fardon drowned in his bathtub in April of 1983 after taking heroin and passing out. In just three short years, The Pretenders were left with only two living members.

This kind of adversity would have caused many bands to call it quits. But Hynde and Chambers decided to continue on. However, many in the music industry wondered how The Pretenders could possibly survive. Their trademark sound was forged through the tight interplay between the original four members. With that gone, many felt the band would not be able to recapture that energy.

In July of 1982, the remaining members decided to fall back on a strategy that had worked for them in the past. Rather than face the challenge of writing an entire album’s worth of songs, they agreed to record a single that would hopefully re-introduce this new edition of the band as well as reduce the critical scrutiny that an album would face.

Hynde and Chambers reached out to Rockpile guitarist Billy Bremner and Big Country bassist Tony Butler to assemble a caretaker lineup that would enter the studio to record two songs for a new single. The A-side was called “Back On The Chain Gang”. It was backed with “My City Was Gone”. The single was released in October and it became The Pretenders biggest success in the U.S., staying at number five on the charts for three consecutive weeks.

Having overcome this first hurdle, the group went to work recording their next full-length album. As the sessions got underway, Graham Parker’s bass player Andrew Bognar and Paul Carrack, formerly of Squeeze, Ace and Roxy Music, were brought in to contribute.

During the recordings, Chrissie Hynde recruited well-known session guitarist Robbie McIntosh and bassist Malcolm Foster to join the band. With Chambers still on drums, this collective of musicians would become the new lineup of The Pretenders.

Although the new songs were successful, the question on everyone’s lips was could the band recapture the magic of its previous lineup. No one knew that the album they had begun to record would define The Pretenders for the rest of their career. It would also propel Chrissie Hynde to rock superstar status.

Enjoy this classic album re-listen of Learning To Crawl by The Pretenders

1. Middle Of The Road
2. Back On The Chain Gang
3. Time The Avenger
4. Watching The Clothes
5. Show Me
6. Thumbelina
7. My City Was Gone
8. Thin Line Between Love And Hate
9. I Hurt You
10. 2000 Miles

 

(click player for Learning To Crawl by The Pretenders)

 

Learning To Crawl is the third full-length studio album by The Pretenders. It was released in January of 1984 though several songs on the album had already been released as singles. “Middle Of The Road” was released in November of 1983 in the U.S. and it reached the top 20 creating much anticipation for the ensuing full-length record.

The B-side, “2000 Miles” was released a single in the UK. It became a popular Christmas song often interpreted as a tale of two lovers apart during the holidays. However it was actually a song written by Hynde for her former bandmate James Honeyman-Scott after he died.

The record was considered to be a triumph of art over adversity with Hynde reinventing The Pretenders. One critic said “if the new edition of the group lacks some of the spark of the band that made the first two LP’s, through sheer force of will Hynde has created a masterpiece. While Hynde hardly held back in her emotionally potent songwriting in The Pretenders’ early work, on Learning To Crawl there’s a gravity to her lyrics that, blended with her tough but wiry melodic sense and streetwise intelligence, creates a set of truly remarkable tunes”.

Another reviewer stated “Three albums into her recording career, Chrissie Hynde found herself having to put the past to bed and carve out a new beginning for herself. With Learning To Crawl, she pulls it off with a striking mixture of courage, strength and great rock & roll. With the exception of the instant-classic debut album, Learning To Crawl is The Pretenders’ finest work”.

 

With this new set of songs, Hynde truly established herself as a songwriter with a unique view. The album is about life, death, love and transcendence-subjects that weren’t discussed in the dance-heavy songs of the 80s. It not only placed her clearly as the driving force behind the band but also confirmed Hynde as one of the most forceful female artists in rock.

Kurt Loder of Rolling Stone observed “to say that Learning To Crawl reconfirms Hyde as the most forceful female presence in rock demeans her achievement. The matter of gender aside, Chrissie Hynde is the most unaffectedly personal contemporary singer/songwriter, and surely the most astringently intimate lyricist working within a real rock & roll context. And, if this third Pretenders album lacks the sense of revelation, of a new voice being heard, that so distinguished the group’s first LP, the insights here are deeper, the wisdom harder won.

The unusual richness of this material becomes more readily apparent with a bit of background. The story so far: Chrissie Hynde leaves her home in Ohio and sets out for London. There, she gets caught up in the mid-Seventies punk-rock ferment and forms her own band with her drug-loving English boyfriend, who’s a bass player, and a previously unheralded guitarist and drummer from his provincial hometown.

Their first single is a hit, as is the group’s debut album, released in January 1980 to international acclaim. It is dream-come-true time. Hynde meets her idol, Ray Davies of the Kinks, and becomes pregnant by him. Then the dream starts to sour. The Pretenders’ bass player, Pete Farndon, has become a junkie and must be sacked from the group. Two days after Farndon’s departure, the band’s guitarist, James Honeyman-Scott, another longtime drug enthusiast, dies of cumulative abuse. Ten months later, Farndon also dies, from drug-related causes. Kaboom, as they say.”

 

The songs and lyrics of Learning To Crawl tell the story. On the opening cut “Middle Of The Road” she sings “standing in the middle of life with my past behind me”. After the trials of the previous 18 months, one could understand if Hynde wanted to chronicle the hard times. Instead she emerges from the human wreckage with her cold eye and cleansing anger intact. There are no outright sob stories on the album. But the heartbreak comes through between the lines.

Part of this might have been due to, in the midst of The Pretenders’ personal and professional nightmare, Chrissie Hynde gave birth to a daughter. It profoundly altered her world view and gave this set of songs a reaffirmation of life amid the death and decay around her.

But she doesn’t exploit the baby’s significance for the usual weepy purposes either. Instead she overlays her new maternal instincts upon the larger world around her. “There’s corrugated tin shacks filled up with kids/And man, I don’t mean a Hampstead nursery/When you own a big chunk of the bloody third world/The babies just come with the scenery.”

 

“Middle Of The Road” is followed by the previously released single “Back On The Chain Gang”. It’s a touching tribute to her fallen comrades that still sounds bitterly rueful. “Time the Avenger” is a taut, literate examination of a businessman’s adulterous relationship. “Watching The Clothes” was an older song written before the band’s debut album. Hynde was inspired to write the song after the death of a close friend. “My City Was Gone” is largely an autobiographical song written about the changes Hynde observed when she went back to her native city of Akron, Ohio. It deals with the economic and cultural decay of the Midwest in a manner that is both pithy and genuinely heartfelt.

In “Thumbelina,” a rockabilly scorcher, Hynde, in the role of a mother on the run, tells her infant daughter that “what’s important in this world” is “a little boy, a little girl.” It’s a statement of true romance on two levels–love matters, kids matter, and fuck whatever’s supposed to be fashionable this week. The unending yin and yang, from birth to death, is “what’s important in this life,” she sings – and then, almost as a throwaway, adds, “Ask the man who’s lost his wife.” It’s a line that summons up whole histories of heartache.

Hynde’s romantic viewpoint was unique in popular songwriting and ahead of its time. It came from the assumption that women are every bit the equals of men, not the least in their power to wound. That is both the sad, knowing message and the implicit warning of the dark-hued, brooding song “I Hurt You.”

It is also the theme of the album’s one cover, a faithful and gorgeously realized rendition of the Persuaders’ 1971 soul hit, “Thin Line between Love and Hate.” Here, in one of the LP’s most luminous moments, Hynde wraps her extraordinary voice around the words as if she’d commissioned them herself: “The sweetest woman in the world/Could be the meanest woman in the world/If you make her that way…/She might be holdin’ somethin’ inside/That’ll really, really hurt you one day.”

But, if Hynde had been through the love mill more than once, she’s still a believer. But she’s beginning to suspect that “finding the right man” really isn’t the ultimate goal. In “Show Me,” another song addressed to her daughter, she says: “You with your angel face…/Welcome here from outer space/The Milky Way’s still in your eyes/You found yourself a hopeless case/One who’s seeking perfection on earth/Or some kind of rebirth.”

 

Beyond the lyrics, the sound of the new band still captured elements of that trademark Pretenders sound. However, some critics felt that it paled in comparison with the band’s earlier work. One critic stated “instrumentally, the band has its moments, but the late Honeyman-Scott’s latticework lyricism is often missed and probably irreplaceable. There’s also an occasional unevenness to the overall band sound–outside musicians were brought in to play on certain tracks before new bassist Malcolm Foster and guitarist Robbie McIntosh signed aboard–but producer Chris Thomas, for the most part, manages to pull things together.”

Another reviewer was more favorable saying “As a guitarist, Robbie McIntosh brings a simpler and more elemental style to the sound than James Honeyman-Scott, but his tough, muscular leads fit these songs well, and bassist Malcolm Foster’s solid punch fits Martin Chambers’ drumming perfectly.”

The album was recorded at AIR Studios in London and was completed in late 1983. With several singles already out, the public was eager for the full-length release. Learning To Crawl came out on January 11th in 1984 and peaked at number five on the Billboard 200. It was certified as a Gold Record in the UK and went platinum in The U.S. selling over one million copies. In March of 1984, “Show Me’ was released as the album’s fourth single followed a few months later by “Thin Line Between Love And Hate”.

 

Over the years, the lineup of the band has changed with Hynde being the only consistent member. Martin Chambers left the group back in 1986 during the sessions for Get Close. He returned for 1994’s Last Of The Independents. However, it has become obvious that the name The Pretenders is a vehicle for Chrissie Hynde’s songs. Under the group name, she has released eight more albums over the years and has had several hit singles including “Don’t Get Me Wrong”, “My Baby” and “I’ll Stand By You”. In 2005, The Pretenders were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame.

It was during the Learning To Crawl sessions that Chrissie Hynde became The Pretenders for all intents and purposes. It sprang from the necessity of picking up the pieces of a broken band. But Chrissie Hynde seized the opportunity and became more than just the front-person of a popular rock group. Through her talent and tenacity, she rose to become a rock star far greater than that as the leader of The Pretenders. Whether willingly or not, she became a feminist icon and pop culture figure. By re-inventing herself several times throughout her career, Chrissie Hynde has managed to stay relevant for over 35 years. That resiliency can be traced back to the achievement of rebuilding her band and, in the process, delivering their masterpiece Learning To Crawl.

 

 

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