Let’s discuss Learning to Crawl, the extraordinary third album by the Pretenders which was released thirty five (35!) years ago this year. To say that Learning to Crawl was brought to bear under difficult circumstances would amount to an understatement of irresponsible proportions. By 1984, Chrissie Hynde’s Pretenders had recorded two records that incontrovertibly established her as one of the singularly brilliant singer-songwriters of her time. Their self-titled 1980 debut was a tour-de-force statement of purpose which adroitly threaded a razor sharp needle through punk, new wave and glam on tracks like the take-no-prisoners ‘Precious’ and the timeless Stax-referencing “Brass In Pocket”. The next year’s follow-up Pretenders II was less consistently brilliant, but the highs- “Pack It Up”, “Talk Of The Town”, “Message Of Love” – were arguably the equal of anything on the first record. From that exalted moment, things commenced to unravel spectacularly and tragically.
Drugs took their fair share of casualties from the London scene that launched the Ohio-born Hynde, and the Pretenders were particularly hard hit. In 1982 innovative guitarist James Honeyman-Scott died at the age of 25 as the result of complications from a cocaine bender. The next year founding bassist Pete Farndon drowned in his bathtub following a heroin overdose. Fifty percent of the original band gone in the miserable blink of an eye. A total rebuild, in the sports parlance. A less resilient, resourceful band leader might have understandably seen no pathway forward. Chrissie Hynde, in her grief, surged on.
Learning to Crawl is a survivor’s album, as wounded and defiant in its way as AC/DC’s Back in Black or the Stones’ Sticky Fingers. Hynde’s first formal gesture following the death of her bandmates was to record a classic single in 1982 – one of the greatest of the decade and indeed the rock tradition. “Back On The Chain Gang” backed with “My City Was Gone” is a 1-2 punch of soaring personal and political doctrine, situating the immense singular sadness of The Pretenders’ circumstance in songs which both give voice to that private pain and extend its meaning out to the overlooked, disregarded and marginalized everywhere.
With those two stalwart tracks in place, Hynde began the process of finishing her third album, recording eight additional songs that mostly measure up to the high bar of that remarkable opening salvo. Let’s take a track-by-track look at one of the 80’s great records, one born of hellish circumstances but which feels like a triumph.
Middle of the Road
Part savage take down of lascivious music industry creeps, part introspective consideration of rock & roll excess as seen through the lens of a new mother, this is a whole new kind of bruising rocker. Never before has a “woman in rock” provided such a complete view of the insult of her objectification at the expense of her artistry. The key line is: “I’m not the kind I used to be/ I’ve got a kid/ I’m 33”, but for those pathetic men who somehow imagine their privilege makes them desirable, she offers a taunting come on: “Come on baby/Lets get in the road”. Like they’d actually dare.
Back On The Chain Gang
“I saw a picture of you/ Those were the happiest days of my life”. So culminates a broken-soul classic on the order of “Heard It Through The Grapevine” or “Don’t Let Me Down”. As Hynde’s first act following the death of her compatriots Honeyman-Scott and Farndon, the aura of building-back-up-from-the-ashes melancholy is palpable enough to stop you cold. The inspired decision to bring in the great former Rockpile guitarist Billy Bremner pays incalculable dividends, as his stunningly lyrical lead playing provides a perfect compliment to Hynde’s crushingly beautiful vocal. A legitimate standard – it really is a shame Marvin Gaye didn’t live long enough to cover it- and as close to perfect as rock & roll gets.
Time The Avenger
Coming on the heels of back to back show stoppers, it is only natural that the third track on “Learning To Crawl” would suffer slightly by comparison. Just the same, “Time The Avenger” succeeds on its own terms by dint of a nervy tempo and a soaring chorus that sweetens the rough vituperation of Hynde’s sentiments. A close musical cousin to the classic early Pretenders track “Mystery Achievement”, she is back to insulting the vain, feckless men of the professional class: “And you’re the best in your field/ In your office with your girls/ You thought time was on your side.” The punchline is that time is decidedly not the friend of these creepy charlatans, but instead is stalking them with imminent heart attack and disease by dint of their indulgent lifestyles. Chrissie don’t play.
Watching The Clothes
A tough little working class rocker, this account of the day-to-day struggles of those trying to make ends meet reaches back to Hynde’s modest Ohio roots, and is the rare and welcome song more interested in the realities of the working poor than the asinine exertions of the born-on-third crowd. A cool solo and arguably the best song ever written about doing laundry.
A key component of Hynde’s genius is her capacity to both dwell on the worst, most capricious aspects of human existence and also represent the highest, most exalted potentialities of human love. Never has this wondrous duality been expressed better than on “Show Me”, a sparklingly lovely tribute to a newborn that conveys all the wonder and terror of early parenthood. Over one of the most ingratiating melodies of her career, she puts it this way: “Welcome to the human race/ With its wars, disease and brutality.” But then also: “You with your innocence and grace/ Restore some pride and dignity”. A marvelous song that gets to bone-deep questions of fear, faith and hope.
A rockabilly-style road song filled with plenty of suggestion but not many answers, “Thumbelina” is a genially ambiguous moment in an album typified by a strident specificity. As a vehicle makes its way west to Tucson, the narrator continuously calms someone – child or lover or both – with the repeated admonition “Hush little darling.” When the journey is nearing its conclusion – someplace near Amarillo – the final lines are these: “What’s important in this life?/ Ask the man who’s lost his wife.” Comparatively minor relative to some of the other tracks, but still mysterious and moving.
My City Was Gone
Maybe the single most interesting and revealing song in the entire Hynde catalog. There was little from the first two records to suggest the imminent occurrence of a five minute Sly Stone-style funk-rock meditation on her Midwestern heritage, but the second it kicks in it makes absolute sense. In a deranged turn, the indelible riff that runs through the song’s five minutes is now most immediately associated with Rush Limbaugh’s radio program, but in one regard this makes a kind of sense. The lowercase C conservatism of the sentiments expressed in “My City Was Gone” are a meaningful window into the mindset of Rust Belt citizens attempting to metabolize the unseen consequences of globalism. Ultimately this is a funnier, more danceable reportage of the similar facts-on-the-ground statement Bruce Springsteen makes on the same year’s “My Hometown”. Letters sent to the Democratic party of that time, regrettably never received.
Thin Line Between Love And Hate
In addition to being a canon-worthy songwriter, Hynde has always been one of the great interpreters of others’ material, dating to the band’s first single, a masterful cover of the Kinks’ “Stop Your Sobbing”. Here she tackles the 1971 hit by New York-based R&B group the Persuaders, with results fetching at first and eventually harrowing. A darkly funny two act drama about a woman whose patience is pushed too far, Hynde masterfully sells the sweetness of the first verse: a man stumbles home at 5 A.M. without explanation, his spouse nevertheless dutifully cares for him, taking his coat, feeding him and asking no questions. All of which makes the sudden Scorsese-like turn in the second verse that much more delicious, and Hynde digs into this swerve with evident relish: “I see your in the hospital/ bandaged from foot to head.” While the arrangement is largely faithful to the original, Hynde’s reading changes the context from cautionary tale to dark feminist comedy.
I Hurt You
Extending the theme of emotional and even physical abuse, the reggae-tinged “I Hurt You” is a bit of a grind, extending a tense and not extravagantly melodic composition to nearly five minutes. It’s not the most rewarding passage on a record full of them, but it feels earned and consonant with the polarities of rage and yearning that comprise an album of extremes.
The moving grace note to a document of mourning, catharsis, rage and redemption, the final track on Learning to Crawl is at once a simple admission of personal loneliness and a universally relatable description of the experience of being estranged from a loved one, maybe temporarily, or maybe forever. Over an achingly beautiful melody Hynde evokes the dream state that so often accompanies pain and grief: “In these frozen and and silent nights/ sometimes in a dream you appear”. The album’s final image of Christmas cheer mitigated by fathomless melancholy is one of the most powerful moments in music history – truly a classic closer to a classic album.