Following a very tumultuous period where two band members lost their lives due to drug overdoses, Learning to Crawl, was a bit of an early career comeback album for The Pretenders. The group’s third overall album, this early 1984 release was their first in nearly three years and contains recordings that date back to the summer of 1982. With the personnel turmoil, group leader Chrissie Hynde took a more active role in shaping the group’s sound and compositional direction, adding some maturity to the raw intensity of the Pretenders’ core approach. The result is an original blend of later-era new wave rock, which propelled the group to the height of its popularity.
After the great success of their self-titled debut album, the group released Pretenders II in 1981, but felt that album was rushed in order to take advantage of their popularity. The following year, original bass player Pete Farndon was fired due to his increasing drug dependency. Just two days later, original guitarist James Honeyman-Scott died of heart failure from cocaine intolerance, leaving the Pretenders cut in half almost overnight. Still, Hynde and drummer Martin Chambers continued on and began recording just a month after Honeyman-Scott’s death.
In 1983 Hynde brought on guitarist Robbie McIntosh and bassist Malcolm Foster as new permanent members of the band. One of the first recordings made by the new lineup was the B-side “Fast or Slow (The Law’s the Law)”, which was sung by drummer Chambers and has a folk/dance riff and beat throughout. The song, which seems to be about an actual altercation with the law, was released two months ahead of Learning to Crawl.
Learning to Crawl by The Pretenders
|Released: January 7, 1984 (Sire)
Produced by: Chris Thomas
Recorded: AIR Studios, London, 1982–83
|Middle of the Road
Back On the Chain Gang
Time the Avenger
Watching the Clothes
My City Was Gone
Thin Line Between Love and Hate
I Hurt You
|Chrissie Hynde – Lead Vocals, Guitars, Harmonica
Robbie McIntosh – Guitars, Vocals
Malcolm Foster – Bass, Vocals
Martin Chambers – Drums, Vocals
The album commences with the thundering “Middle of the Road”, a straight forward, three chord rocker. With a catchy vocal chorus hook and rapid-fire lead vocals, the song seems rather simple on its surface, but actually has a deeper underlying meaning interpreted from the Tao Te Ching. Hynde’s harmonica lead at end of the song completes the track which reached the Top 20 in America. “Back On the Chain Gang” may be the best song ever recorded by The Pretenders. Recorded and released as a single in 1982, the song features a smooth lead guitar by Billy Bremner, who was a temporary fill-in at the time. In spite of the odd lyrical tempo, Hynde’s vocals are catchy and delivered in a near weeping manner, making the song at once uplifting and melancholy, and with a good, inventive bridge. The song became the band’s biggest hit in the US, reaching number 5, and pays homage to Sam Cooke’s 1962 hit “Chain Gang” with workman vocals dubbed in the background.
“Time the Avenger” is another good, upbeat rock song with lots of little guitar riffs on top of Foster’s repeating 2/4 bass phrase. On this track, Hynde’s vocal style is much like that of Joni Mitchell, while she delivers more deeply philosophical lyrics such as; “Nobody’s permanent, everything’s on loan here”. After the brief new wave screed “Watching the Clothes”, the album’s first side concludes with the melodic “Show Me”. This upbeat and jangly track is a true a singer’s song, with each word maximized for melodic effect in the repeating vocal areas (there is not really verse/chorus setup). With slightly differing musical arrangements and approaches, the mixture of acoustic, electric, bass carries the song through its pleasant fade-out.
The second side is filled with songs of diverse styles, with mixed results. “Thumbelina” has a Country-rock, Johnny Cash-like rhythm and, like many lyrics of songs on this album, this appears to be written about Hynde’s daughter, Natalie (fathered by Kinks’ leader Ray Davies). In fact, Hynde named the album “Learning to Crawl” because that’s exactly what her daughter was doing at the time. “My City Was Gone” is another track that dates back to 1982 and features a consistent bass riff by Tony Butler with heavily-effected drums by Chambers. Lyrically, the song is about changing landscapes, and change itself and never really relents from straight-forward riff and beat.
The album’s only cover, “Thin Line Between Love and Hate” features piano by former Squeeze member Paul Carrack along with crooning vocals by Hynde. In contrast, “I Hurt You” takes a pure new wave funk approach with multiple voices and vocal melodies and another driving, simple bass line. This song is most interesting at the very end with overdubbed, slightly strummed guitars and a cool lead by McIntosh. The album concludes with the beautiful and steady “2000 Miles”, with a sweet synth and guitar intro, which fades in with the perfect vibe for this song. The musicians add the right mixture of rhythm and effect to keep the song on a steady pace and provide the canvas for Hynde’s vocals. Written for the departed guitarist Honeyman-Scott, the tune is often considered a Christmas song, due to its lyrical content;
“In these frozen and silent nights, sometimes in a dream you appear / Outside under the purple sky, diamonds in the snow sparkle, our hearts were singing, it felt like Christmas time…”
Learning to Crawl was critical and commercial success that launched the Pretenders to the upper echelon of pop/rock groups. However, the inner turmoil continued as both Chambers and Foster left the band before the completion of their next album, Get Close, leaving Hynde as the only original group member through their later years.
Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1984 albums.