Learning to Crawl

The Pretenders

album cover

Out of Tragedy Comes . . .

Rock bands sometimes evolve by blundering their way forward. Then there are those, like the Pretenders, forced to evolve by a ghastly type of attrition. When the band of three Brits and Ohio-born singer Chrissie Hynde first arrived, in 1980, its sound was a spring-loaded siren, with unconventional guitars going haywire and a driving rhythm that was somewhere between punk and an amphetamine-abusing '60s soul revue. The band's self-titled debut, one of the great opening chapters in rock, gave the world such enduring gems as "Precious" and "Brass in Pocket."

It couldn't last. In 1982, just after the band finished touring for their second album (II), bassist Pete Farndon was fired. Two days later, guitarist James Honeyman-Scott died of a drug overdose. (Farndon would die the same way the following year.) Though key elements of her band were gone, Hynde returned to the studio a month later to record "Back on the Chain Gang." After the song charted, in January 1983, Hynde rebuilt the band around original drummer Martin Chambers and guitarist Robbie McIntosh. The reconstituted Pretenders substituted a sleek, highly efficient streamlined rhythm for the spiking attack of the debut. Hynde modified her vocal approach accordingly, singing in a more detached, conversational style. If she'd once courted frenzy, she was now cool, diffident, haughty. And she used her experience as fuel for her songs: About "Watching the Clothes" Hynde once explained: "My flatmate Kevin Sparrow died on Christmas Day of 1979. I took some of his clothes to the launderette and sat there and watched them spinning 'round in the dryer, sadly knowing he'd never wear them again. Sometimes you can dump your grief in a song."

For all the tragedy that surrounded its creation, Learning to Crawl is hardly a foreboding rumination on death. Its pleasures include a withering critique of American timidity ("Middle of the Road"), a commentary on the gutting of the American city in the wake of Reaganomics ("My City Was Gone"), and one of rock's most beautiful songs about Christmas ("2,000 Miles"). Some fans of the debut still hold it up as the most significant Pretenders statement, but Hynde's handling of what happened to her—the way she transformed sad circumstances into music of great wisdom and poignancy—puts Learning to Crawl on another level entirely.

Genre: Rock
Released: 1984, Sire
Key Tracks: "Middle of the Road," "Back on the Chain Gang," "2,000 Miles"
Catalog Choice: Pretenders
Next Stop: Blondie: Parallel Lines
After That: The Runaways: The Runaways
Book Pages: 610–611

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#1 from Giovanni, Boston - 11/27/2008 8:44

Are you crazy ? Despite this being a good album I think you overlooked their debut.

#2 from Mike, Kansas City, MO - 12/03/2008 11:08

I love this album because the band started over after the deaths of the original bass and lead guitar players.  There’s something to be said for starting again after tragedy strikes.
This and the first album are my favorites.

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