Graded on a Curve:
The Pretenders,
Learning to Crawl

Celebrating Chrissie Hynde on her 70th.Ed.

A couple of days ago, I found myself doing something I haven’t done (no exaggeration) in years: dancing. I dervished about the apartment all by myself, like a lunatic, with the cat looking on from the safety of the bed, wide-eyed with eminent peril. I could tell the poor puss was thinking, “What the devil is he doing?” So I cried, “Listening to The Pretenders, you hairy little fool! And dancing!”

I would not call The Pretenders a great band, per se. A very, very good band, sure. Chrissie Hynde is an excellent songwriter, and has one of the most distinctive voices in rock. Unfortunately, like Badfinger, The Pretenders are just as famous for their tragically high mortality rate as they are for their music. During the 2-year hiatus between 1981’s Pretenders II and 1983’s Learning to Crawl, Hynde saw two band mates, guitarist James Honeyman-Scott and bassist Pete Farndon, die drug-related deaths. Technically Farndon was no longer a Pretender—Hynde fired him shortly before he died—but still. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde on the subject of orphans, to lose one band member is bad luck—to lose two, sheer carelessness.

Hynde, an Akron, Ohio native, formed The Pretenders in 1978 in London, England, where she was working as a journo for NME and at SEX, the legendary fashion boutique of Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood. She received a record contract on the strength of a demo recorded with a three-piece band including Phil Taylor of Motörhead, then hired a permanent group including Honeyman-Scott, Farndon, and drummer Martin Chambers.

The Pretenders’ first two albums included several hits; unfortunately, while the band was making its bones musically, it members were dropping like flies. By 1983’s Learning to Crawl 50 percent of the original group was dead, leaving just Hynde (lead vocals, rhythm guitar, and harmonica) and Chambers. But rather than throwing in the towel, Hynde hired Robbie McIntosh on lead guitar and backing vocals and Malcolm Foster on bass and backing vocals.

Hynde occupies an interesting position in rock’s pantheon of women stars. She has irked feminists with songs like “Brass in Pocket,” in which she makes no bones about using her feminine wiles to get a man, and “Tattooed Love Boys,” with its immortal lines, “I shot my mouth off/And you showed me what that hole was… for.” But the way Hynde sees it, doing and saying exactly what she wants makes her a feminist, even if that includes wondering where all the manly men have gone. (I’m right here, Chrissie!) That said, she’s undoubtedly a strong woman—you have to be to lead a male band in the macho world of rock. In short, while she may not possess the radical feminist bona fides of such figures as Kathleen Hanna, Carrie Brownstein, or Allison Wolfe, she’s nobody’s bimbo either. She’s a study in contrasts; she has said, “I’m not a figurehead for anything,” but if I had to come up with a short list of rock’s toughest chicks, Hynde, who has suffered more tragedy than most and kept on plugging, would be high on it.

Plenty of right-thinking people are partial to the band’s original line-up, but I’ve always preferred the Pretenders Mark II’s more filled-out sound. The first two albums sound thinner to my ears, like one of those skinny New Wave ties with piano keys on them. Even Hynde’s voice sounds gaunt to me on tunes such as “Pack It Up.” Which is not to say the first two albums don’t have their fair share of great songs on them, although I think the debut is stronger than Pretenders II. “Middle of the Road” off Learning to Crawl IS more middle of the road, musically speaking, than the band’s earlier work, and nobody is more surprised than I am to discover I prefer it (by a narrow margin) and the album it’s on to the band’s debut, which includes scads of rave-ups (and I LOVE rave-ups) such as “Precious” and “Tattooed Love Boys,” to say nothing of the great “Stop Your Sobbing.”

I particularly love Learning to Crawl because it comes out of the blocks so strong, with three straight songs I love. “Middle of the Road” opens with those great “Wooaoohs” and then McIntosh’s powerhouse guitar and Chambers’ big drum smash come crashing in, followed by Hynde, and before you know it McIntosh is serving up one long and sizzling hot guitar solo. Hynde’s count-off (“1… 2… 3… 4”) is great, as is her “brrrrrr” followed by one King Hell harmonica solo that brings the song to an end. As for “Back on The Chain Gang,” it may just be my fa-vo-rite Pretenders’ song ever, what with McIntosh’s wonderful guitar intro, Hynde’s poignant and lovely vocals, and those big bucking backing vocals (“Ooh! Ahh! Ooh! Ahh!). Then there’s McIntosh’s very beautiful guitar solo, and the way Hynde sings, “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/And I’ll die as I stand here today/Knowing that deep in my heart/They’ll fall to ruin one day/For making us paaaaarrrt.”

“Time the Avenger” isn’t as strong as the first two songs, but Chambers keeps a propulsive beat and Hynde is in lovely voice, and the chorus is a great shining melodious thing, what with Hynde singing, “Time time/Hear the bells chime/Over the harbor and the city/Time time/Kill another bottle of wine” and even throwing in some tick-ticking at the end. And the instrumental passage that takes the song to its conclusion is fantastic, growing more agitated as McIntosh tosses off harsh licks and Chambers pummels away until the sudden stop.

“Watching The Clothes” doesn’t thrillerize me, especially the chorus, but McIntosh’s guitar is a wonder to behold, as is Martin’s broken-washer drumming. “I’ve been kissin’ ass/Tryin’ to keep it clean” has never struck me as a particularly fortuitous couplet, but I’ve always thought I should like this one, if only for McIntosh’s shredding. Instead I surprise myself again by liking its follow-up, alien love song “Show Me” better. It’s a mushy love song of the sort I typically disdain, and I’m not enamored of its opening, but when the main melody kicks in and Hynde gets to singing, “Welcome to the human race/With its wars, disease, and brutality/You with your innocence and grace” I’m sold. Hynde’s voice is lovely, McIntosh’s guitar chimes, and I love it when the tempo picks up and Hynde welcomes her lover or whatever from outer space. And McIntosh’s guitar solo is high-class, very posh, and the perfect pillow for Hynde to lay her head on as she repeats, “show me the meaning of the word” and “I want looooooove.”

“Thumbelina” is a cool country/rockabilly-tinged number with a fantastic drum tattoo by Chambers and one rumbling, chugging guitar solo by McIntosh that I adore, and Hynde’s vocals go from hushed as she sings about being born again to edgier as she sings about “the broken line on the highway.” Seriously, this is one cross-country chug-a-lug you’ll want to be pack a suitcase for, especially when Hynde sings, “What’s important in this life/Ask the man who’s lost his wife” and a chorus of half-buried backing vocals and McIntosh’s rumble-strip guitar take the song out.

“My City Was Gone” is a stone classic, especially thanks to Hynde’s breathy, stop-and-start vocals (“I went back to Ohio/But my city was gone/There was no train station/There was no downtown”) and her harmonica as she mourns the disappearance of the city she grew up in. Foster’s opening bass is intimidating, McIntosh plays lots of killer guitar including a couple of great herky-jerky solos (including a long one that takes the song to its finish), and Chambers keeps a rock steady beat as Hynde sings about how she “Went back to Ohio/But my family was gone/I stood on the back porch/There was nobody home” and concludes sarcastically, “Ai, oh, way to go, Ohio.” The same thing happened to me recently, and I was so angry I kicked the back door in, but the house was a wreck and I didn’t even encounter any familiar ghosts, and it left me bereft and vaguely creeped out, as somebody had seen fit to glue dozens of Easter egg baskets upside down to the living room ceiling.

“Thin Line Between Love and Hate” is probably my least favorite tune on the LP. A soul number, Hynde acquits herself well on vocals, and the chorus is nice, as are the piano and the lines, “I see her in the hospital/Bandaged from foot to head/In a state of shock/Just that much from being dead” (they make me wonder what the fuck is going on), but overall the song’s a bit too static and doesn’t really fit the tone of the rest of the album. “I Hurt You,” on the other hand, is an exercise in heaviosity, what with McIntosh’s raucous guitar riff and one meaty, beaty bottom provided by the rhythm section. Hynde duets well with herself, and McIntosh goes ape on axe after Hynde sings, “Say I love you.” I love the way Hynde sings, “Never trust a user/With your television overnight” just as much I dig McIntosh’s very classy solo—into which Chambers injects some big drum pummel—which ends the song.

LP closer “2,000 Miles” is a classic, and so majestically beautiful it’s a veritable mystery achievement. Its luscious melody and slow stately progress towards ecstasy are built on a recurring guitar riff, some lovely percussion including some chillingly pretty chimes, lots of wonderful backing vocals, and Hynde’s positively ethereal vocals, which are proof positive that hole of hers is good for lots more than is suggested in “Tattooed Love Boys.” This is surely Hynde’s most transcendently thrilling performance, and the sorrow and the pity of it all is that “2,000 Miles” has been pigeonholed as a Christmas song, when it should get played every day of the year from Akron to Albania.

Looking back at what I’ve written, I think I was wrong in saying at the beginning that The Pretenders aren’t a great band. Learning to Crawl is without a doubt one fantastic LP, and having listened to The Pretenders’ debut from beginning to end I’ve come to the same conclusion about it. And Pretenders II, which includes such killer tunes as “Louie Louie,” “Talk of the Town,” “Pack It Up,” and “Message of Love” is no slouch either.

The Pretenders suffered tragedy of sufficient magnitude to cause most bands to curl up in a little ball and give up. But Chrissie Hynde refused to quit. She got back on the chain gang and persevered, and for that reason alone should be an inspiration to all of us. She remains convinced that though the powers that be may force us to live like we do, they’ll fall to ruin one day. And whether she’s right or wrong you have to admire her faith and applaud her pluck. She’s got brass in pocket, and what the Brits call bottle, and that bottle is full of gasoline and soap and Chrissie Hynde is burning like a Molotov Cocktail, aimed at all the assholes of the world.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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