Learning to Crawl
First Appeared in The Music Box, July 2007, Volume 14, #7
Written by John Metzger
Fri July 20, 2007, 05:30 AM CDT
In the two years that separated Learning to Crawl from its predecessor, a lot had happened to the Pretenders. The group already had been struggling to come to grips with the nearly instantaneous success of its self-titled debut when it began recording its sophomore effort. Not surprisingly, Pretenders II turned out to be a lesser endeavor, one which had been dragged, kicking and screaming, into the world before it was ready. The events that followed the album’s release would have caused the demise of most outfits, but for the Pretenders, everything that happened seemed to bolster rather than crush its spirit. The turmoil surrounding the band escalated considerably in June 1982 when bass player Pete Farndon was tossed from its line-up after his drug abuse issues became intolerable. Two days later, guitarist James Honeyman-Scott overdosed and died. Never one to give up, front gal Chrissie Hynde recruited Rockpile’s Billy Bremner and Big Country’s Tony Butler to fill their shoes, and the newly minted incarnation of the Pretenders did precisely what it had to do: It quickly ventured back into the studio to record a new single. Against all odds, Back on the Chain Gang and its equally stellar B-side My City Was Gone became the best songs that Hynde ever had written.
Nevertheless, the Pretenders’ troubles weren’t over. In early 1983, Hynde gave birth to a child, the result of her affair with Ray Davies. At, the same time, though, their relationship was beginning to disintegrate, and by May 1984, she would be married to Jim Kerr of Simple Minds. In the midst of this, Farndon — who also was a former lover of Hynde — overdosed and died. Meanwhile, she had continued searching for more permanent replacements for Farndon and Honeyman-Scott, and she eventually swapped Bremner and Butler for Robbie McIntosh and Malcolm Foster, respectively. Once the Pretenders’ line-up was solidified, she proceeded to guide the group through the sessions for Learning to Crawl. While the set didn’t pack the same shock-and-awe punch as the band’s self-titled debut, the truth of the matter is that not only is the album better, but it also is the best effort that the Pretenders ever managed to make.
The reason that Learning to Crawl is so successful is because it merges the intensity that marked the Pretenders’ early work with a newfound sense of maturity. Strongly informed by its history, the effort deals directly — and quite personally — with issues of life, death, love, and loss, and it stands as a testament to the strength of Hynde’s will to do more than just survive the hardships of her then-recent experiences. Her wounds had not yet hardened into battle scars. Instead, they bled freely on the floor.
The decision to cover The Persuaders’ Thin Line between Love and Hate was particularly telling. Like the song’s main character, Hynde was a woman who had been pushed to the brink, and from her anguished reading of the tune, it’s easy to glean how fully and purely she connected with the tale’s emotional content. The aching sorrow, the frustration, and the anger that she herself had been feeling — all of it comes pouring through her vocals, and it seeps into the ominous circular cycle of pain that is outlined on the subsequent track I Hurt You. While Back on the Chain Gang took a defiant stance against the demise of the Pretenders, the hard-charging fury of Watching the Clothes and the crash-and-burn garage-rock of Middle of the Road served as rebel yells that were designed to stave off what she viewed as the numbing ennui of settling into middle-age as a housewife.
Still, it was motherhood that proved to be Hynde’s saving grace. It sharpened her pen, and it pulled her out of the downward slump that had plagued Pretenders II. Previously, Hynde’s social conscience largely devoted itself to causing upheaval to the relationships between men and women, thus leveling the playing field. On Learning to Crawl, she began to tackle issues from a global perspective. Middle of the Road lashes out at those who bury their heads in the sand and ignore the world around them, while My City Was Gone turns Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi inside-out to create a muscular indictment of the policies that led to the urban sprawl that was ravaging her home state. Tucked within the R&B shimmer of Show Me was a message to her daughter, one that was filled with optimism and hope in the wake of adversity, and set during the holidays, the concluding 2000 Miles highlighted her vulnerability.
Rather than receive the same treatment as its predecessors, the recently remastered installment of Learning to Crawl is adorned with only seven bonus tracks. There’s no filler, though; all of them are good. Sung by drummer Martin Chambers, Fast or Slow (The Law’s the Law) might be a curiosity to some, but it, nonetheless, is remarkably infectious. The same could be said for McIntosh’s instrumental Ramblin’ Rob. On the other hand, Tequila, which was featured as a demo on the reissued version of the Pretenders’ self-titled debut, now sounds as if it has been realized fully, while When I Change My Life offers a preview of the group’s subsequent album Get Close. An alternate take of I Hurt You is less complex than the version that eventually appeared on Learning to Crawl, but the directness of the song’s anger and resentment is captured perfectly by the ensemble’s rough, ragged, and raw delivery. A pair of stellar concert cuts completes the set: A rousing rendition of My City Was Gone is laced with prickly guitars, and the Motown staple Money is transformed into an exhilarating, barn-burning romp. All in all, the extra tracks are a nice addition to an exemplary outing. Learning to Crawl could have been a prime example of a band stuck in a holding pattern — or worse. Instead, it was a miraculous rebirth that has only improved with age.
Learning to Crawl is available from Barnes & Noble.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2007 The Music Box