Their cathartic third proper album was really the last one under the Pretenders banner that could be considered something more than just a vehicle for frontwoman Hynde -- which is remarkable considering the ashes from which the album rose.
The 18 months preceding the release of Learning to Crawl should have destroyed the Pretenders. From June 1982 through the end of 1983, the band's original lineup was irreparably damaged by drug use, and a revolving door of replacements should have rendered the resulting album impotent. Yet singer/songwriter Chrissie Hynde and drummer Martin Chambers emerged from the wreckage with a commercial and critical masterpiece.
Coming together two years after punk's initial explosion, Hynde, Chambers, Pete Farndon, and James Honeyman-Scott formed the Pretenders in 1978 England. Two years later, their eponymous debut was proof that punk itself could evolve and survive. Universally acclaimed, Pretenders was stacked with standard-bearers like "Precious", "Tattooed Love Boys", "Space Invader", "Stop Your Sobbing" (penned by Hynde idol and future lover, Ray Davies), "Kid", "Private Life", "Brass in Pocket", and "Mystery Achievement". It would be perfectly acceptable to consider that a career fulfilled, but what followed were the Extended Play EP and the proper follow-up Pretenders II in winter and late summer 1981, respectively. While considered less-than-perfect upon their release, they share the stellar "Message of Love" and "Talk of the Town", and critical historical perspective has been kind to the sophomore release.
But the trappings of substance abuse were taking their toll within the band. Hynde's ex-lover Farndon was kicked out of the band on June 14, 1982 for his ongoing drug problems. Two days later, lead guitarist Honeyman-Scott died in his sleep at age 25. Official cause of death: Heart failure due to cocaine intolerance. The following April, 30 year-old bassist Farndon and ousted Clash drummer Topper Headon (also fighting a heroin addiction) were forming a new band when Farndon overdosed on heroin and drowned in a friend's bathtub. In the middle of the band's drug-related chaos, Hynde and Davies's daughter was born in January 1983. Again, there would have been very little criticism had Hynde and Chambers rolled up the Pretenders tent and gone in another direction. But instead of moving on, they moved ahead.
Pulling together Rockpile guitarist Billy Bremner and Big Country bassist Tony Butler, the stop-gap lineup recorded what would eventually become the double a-side of "Back on the Chain Gang"/"My City Was Gone". Shortly thereafter, Robbie McIntosh and Malcolm Foster were recruited to continue the band properly. This incarnation, again with Hynde penning the tunes, created what would become a legendary musical document: Learning to Crawl. More importantly, the album remains just as stunning a piece of work whether you know the history behind it or not. The music speaks for itself.
Chambers's stutter-start drums open Learning to Crawl with "Middle of the Road", a song that finds Hynde sandwiching the experiences of the previous two years around citizen-of-the-world observations. She declares "I'm standing in the middle of life with my plans behind me", before unleashing a derisive commentary on the Have's versus the Have Not's. She ultimately returns to the personal by proclaiming "I'm not the cat I used to be / I got a kid, I'm thirty-three, baby!" And Hynde's iconic harmonica solo takes the song out. The activist stance falls right in line with who Hynde was at the time and remains today, singing back-up on Amnesty International pal Bono's "Pride (In the Name of Love)" on U2's album that same year, participating in Live Aid a few years later, supporting Greenpeace, and now famously as an advocate for PETA.
The band turmoil never bleeds through the lyrics more than it does on "Back on the Chain Gang", which finds Hynde dealing with the then-fresh loss of Honeyman-Scott. She bares all without loosing an ounce of attitude, telling the world:
The powers that be
That force us to live like we do
Bring me to my knees
When I see what they've done to you
But I'll die as I stand here today
Knowing that deep in my heart
They'll fall to ruin one day
For making us part
The textural arrangements in this cathartic piece illustrate just how much Hynde had grown in the years since fleeing the same fertile ground of Northeast Ohio that produced such peers as Mark Mothersbaugh (she sang in his early band, Saturday Sunday Matinee) and Jerry Casale of Devo.
"Watching the Clothes", the single weak spot on the entire album, slides in between the pop brilliance of "Time the Avenger" and the disarming parental love song "Show Me". It's slight not only in time (clocking in at just under three minutes), but certainly in content. Face value is all that's necessary to enjoy this toss-off. While it could have ended up in a similar category as "Watching the Clothes", instead "Thumbelina" ends up a rockabilly rock-a-bye tour de force. Chambers and Foster's charging rhythm section is never more agreeable than it is on this cut. Like "Time the Avenger", this remains a worthy album cut for the Pretenders' catalog that could have just as easily been a single.
Ultimately, the raw power of "My City was Gone" threatens to overshadow the entire album. (Think about that statement -- for a collection of songs of this caliber, even the hyperbole is absolutely warranted.) This is a rocker unlike anything before or since. Ramblin' guitar work sloshes around the song like a drunk down Akron's South Main while Hynde takes the caretakers of Small Town Mid-America to task for what they let slip away in the struggling shift from a blue collar to white collar society. Again blending the personal with the universal, Hynde wraps her disenchantment with the Reagan era in the site-specific decimation of her hometown, then turns around and digs even deeper by sharing:
I was stunned and amazed
My childhood memories
Slowly swirled past
Like the wind through the trees
Unapologetic. Exposed. Angry. This is rock 'n' roll.
There was always a pop aesthetic lurking under the punk aggression and raw sexuality that Hynde, still the face of the band, brought to both her delivery and her songwriting. That toughness amplified the vulnerability she was capable of conveying on the trio of songs that close out the original album. Her interpretation of the Persuaders' "Thin Line Between Love and Hate" perfectly conveys the emotional detachment of a woman beaten, and run perfectly alongside guesting Paul Carrack's purposefully hollow piano work. Layered, swirling vocals speak to the damage left in the junkie's wake on "I Hurt You" that only the truth of experience could provide. Wrapping up the original release is the now-classic Christmas standard, "2000 Miles". Hynde's vocals haunt the track's tale of lovers separated and the hope of reuniting.
That collection of songs in and of itself warrants all the praise Learning to Crawl has received, but Rhino has not only remastered the album, but extended it with this new release by including two bonus tracks, three demos, and two live tracks. First up is Chambers's non-LP b-side to the "2000 Miles" single: "Fast or Slow (The Law's the Law)", a rolling, rare Pretenders' tune not delivered by Hynde. Up next is an alternate version to "Tequila" that showed up on 1994's Last of the Independents at half the running time. This three-and-a-half minute ode to the alcohol's ability to heal the longing of separated lovers is actually one of the first songs Hynde and Farndon played together in the late '70s.
The trio of "Denmark Street" demos includes an equally raw version of "I Hurt You", an early run-through of Get Close's "When I Change My Life", and McIntosh's self-referential instrumental composition, "Ramblin' Rob". All three add value to the disc in their own way. The disc closes with a pair of live cuts taken from the unveiling of the band's then-new lineup on the third day of the 1983 Us Festival. If more proof of the power of "My City Was Gone" was necessary, it's here. Hynde dedicates the cover of "Money" to "all the bands that played at the Us Festival... and especially all the ones who didn't 'cause they weren't getting paid enough."
Learning to Crawl was really the last album under the Pretenders banner that could be considered something more than just a vehicle for Hynde, but it's certainly the herald for what was to come. Before the next album was completed and released in 1986, Chambers would depart the band and a revolving door of session musicians would back Hynde throughout the rest of the decade and beyond. Although Chambers would rejoin the band at Hynde's request ten years after Learning to Crawl's release, and some past glories were recaptured in fleeting glimpses, the band was never the same -- and would never again produce such a consistently enjoyable album outside of their singles collection.