Classic Music Review: Learning to Crawl by the Pretenders

Learning-to-Crawl

Chrissie conquers all and takes a giant step forward.  Click to buy.

Except for “Talk of the Town” and their amazing cover of The Kinks’ “I Go to Sleep,” Pretenders II didn’t really work for me. Some readers may be surprised, given my BDSM proclivities, that “Bad Boys Get Spanked” didn’t make the list. The truth is I despise the song: it perpetuates the stereotype that people get into BDSM because their mommies or daddies were mean to them.

Listen. My parents and I have always loved each other. For me, pain is part of the erotic experience. I don’t have any issues. When I am practicing BDSM, I’m not playing in the sense of “playing games.” I’m expressing my love and seeking gratification through a deeply personal, erotic style. End of discussion.

I also thought Chrissie was guilty of bad acting on that song, and equally so on “The Adultress.” For those reasons and more, I’m going to take a pass on Pretenders II and move on to the much more interesting and substantial Learning to Crawl.

Much had happened between these two albums. Drug abuse took the lives of the bass player and lead guitarist. Having already overcome many obstacles on her journey, Chrissie Hynde was already an expert in perseverance. She hired some temps, led the patchwork band to make one of their best singles, found the guys she really wanted and went on to record Learning to Crawl. What makes this such a superior record to either of the first two is Chrissie Hynde coming into her own as a songwriter with a social consciousness who can still rock with the best of them. Her voice sounds more confident and she infuses the entire production with forward-looking energy. I feel like I’m experiencing the whole person instead of just a part of her.

“Middle of the Road” is a terrific confirmation that the reconfiguration of The Pretenders represents a pulsating rebirth. Martin Chambers opens with a more energetic and confident display of drumming than he’d shown on the earlier works, and new guitarist Robbie McIntosh delivers a solid lead solo. The tight rhythms and energy open the door for Chrissie to ride the wave with her lead vocal, which is strongly enhanced by the enriched content of the lyrics. The title communicates both a shift in perspective due to maturity (she was my age when this was recorded) and a genuine concern about the world where she is raising a child. She still sings with street-wise confidence, but now she’s much more articulate:

In the middle of the road
You see the darndest things
Like fat cats driving around in jeeps through the city
Wearing big diamond rings and silk suits
Past corrugated tin shacks holed up with kids
And man I don’t mean a Hampstead nursery
But when you own a big chunk of the bloody Third World
The babies just come with the scenery

I always laugh when I hear the parting couplet, “I’m not the cat I used to be/I’ve got a kid, I’m thirty-three, baby.” While I understand there’s still a stigma attached to a woman with a kid, I was blown away when I learned that people back then considered thirty “old age” and ordered black balloons for birthday parties. I’ve never seen any evidence of a correlation between age and sprightliness. I’ve known people of all ages who were psychologically and spiritually dead, from eighteen to eighty, and I’ve known men and women classified as “senior citizens” who were far more alive than many of my millenial contemporaries (my partner and I fucked a couple in their fifties this past weekend, and it was one of the most intense and energetic sexual experiences of our lives). We’ll see this theme pop up now and again in Learning to Crawl, providing a culturally interesting subtext to what she was experiencing at this stage of her life.

“Back on the Chain Gang” had been released a little over a year before Learning to Crawl, and I’m thankful they included it on the album so people of the future like me wouldn’t have to dig through compilation albums to plot the band’s development path. Far more melodic than her earlier work, the lyrics are richer and more complex than “Middle of the Road,” peppered with bursts of emotion that alternate from happiness to deep bitterness and a desire for revenge against “the powers that be.” Some say this is song is at least in part about their late lead guitarist, James Honeyman-Scott, and I suppose the “I found a picture of you” line could be a reference. If that’s the case, though, the memory triggered is not of death but of the high-pressure rat race of the music business they experienced together. Now, if this were simply another song about poor, harried rock stars, “Back to the Chain Gang” would have been forgotten by now. What gives the song its power is Chrissie Hynde’s ability to move beyond personal experience to universal experience, and feel with all of us who are “victims of the system” spending our lives in the grind, in the “circumstance beyond our control” that saps our energies and leaves us little time for the truly important things like love and friendship. She saves the song from becoming an anti-capitalist rant by the stunning range of emotions she displays: the sweet cries of the “oh, oh, oh, oh, oh” line combining joy and pain; the mingling of acceptance and dread at the prospect of more time on the chain gang; and the love and bitterness expressed so powerfully in the bridge:

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 a I stand here today
Knowing that deep in my heart
They’ll fall to ruin one day
For making us part.

“Back on the Chain Gang” is a wonderfully rich song, including the respectful nod to Sam Cooke’s original, a song that Chrissie likely heard quite often during her Ohio youth.

“Time the Avenger” is another strong piece, with the band tightly driving the relentless rhythm that reflects the relentless march of advancing age. Here Chrissie isn’t talking about her own battle with age but the classic case of the middle-aged gent seeking to rediscover his youth between the legs of a younger paramour. Singing ahead of and behind the beats, Chrissie gives us a confident and varied lead vocal, flittering beautifully over the high-pressure feel of the music. She slips into the character of a housewife conquered by drudgery in “Watching the Clothes,” where the good little woman spends her Saturday nights in the laundromat after obediently serving the asshole of the house his dinner. Beneath the compliance we find deep resentment towards the system (“I’ve been kissing ass, trying to keep it clean/Serving the middle class, yeah, it’s a clean routine”) and the self (“There goes my Saturday night, I go without a fight”). The driving energy of the piece highlights the tension between reality and desire as she tediously describes the entire wash-and-rinse cycle. These two songs indicate that her time with Ray Davies influenced Chrissie’s choice of subject matter and opened her mind to the possibility of writing about social and interpersonal dynamics.

This influence becomes even clearer in “Show Me,” where the most memorable verse is Davies-like in both tone and content:

Welcome to the human race
With its wars, disease and brutality
You with your innocence and grace
Restore some pride and dignity
To a world in decline

Chrissie Hynde’s sense of modern society going down the toilet is colored by a  clearly-expressed need for love as the antidote to a poisonous environment. The song ends and fades with a passionate desire to find love in the muck, and her vocal here is both heartfelt and sincere. When I look back to her earlier work and compare it to Learning to Crawl, one of the biggest differences is that on this album she is no longer keeping her emotions at bay, but channeling those feelings into her vocals and lyrics without crossing the line into excess or sentiment. She’s showing us that strong women don’t have to lose their emotional intelligence in the process of gaining strength, a quality I adore in her work.

“Thumbelina” is a road song narrated by a woman who’s escaped a lousy marriage and takes her kid from the snowy rust belt to the sun belt. This isn’t really clear until the end of the song, when the narrator snarkily remarks, “What’s important in this life/Ask the man who lost his wife.” That sounds more bitter than liberating, so I see a failed reconciliation attempt in her future. The rockabilly flavor is there, but it could have been twangier . . . and the song feels comparatively weak because of its placement between two of Chrissie’s better songs.

The obnoxious and pompous right-wing fat ass Rush Limbaugh absconded the memorable opening bass riff to “My City Was Gone” to serve as the opening theme to his mean-spirited radio program, but it’s still a great song. The Ray Davies theme of preservation is applied to what passes for progress in the good old USA: destruction of the nice old downtown shopping area, diaspora of family in the pursuit of wealth, farms turned into freeways and shopping malls themed to muzak. The band is exceptionally tight on this track, balancing bass and lead guitar bite with solid drumming from Martin Chambers. Chrissie delivers another knockout vocal, this one more restrained with a tone of head-shaking wonder. In the old days, The Pretenders would have taken this groove and turned it into a sex song (it is a serious hip-shaker); Chrissie has refocused the band to apply the revolutionary spirit of rock to social and cultural issues straight out of Chrissie’s personal experience.

Chrissie didn’t write “Thin Line Between Love and Hate,” a hit for The Persuaders and covered by Annie Lennox and others. I really despise this song. The story is of a guy who cheats on his wife. She puts up with it for years . . . then she puts him in the hospital. I guess it’s supposed to be pro-feminist when the guy admits, “The sweetest woman in the world/Can be the meanest woman in the world/If you make her that way, you keep on hurting her.” Well, maybe that’s a step in the right direction, but to say there’s a thin line between love and hate is absurd. There may be a thin line between low self-esteem and hate, or between playing a role and hate, but it’s a long, long way between real, unconditional love and the will to harm another. The people in this song were never in love with each other: they were both insincere phonies until the little woman’s passive aggressiveness lost its passivity. She was an asshole before and even more of an asshole after putting her husband in the hospital. This song is abuse prevention for morons, and Chrissie should have left it alone. Worse, she repeats the theme in her own words in the context of dating a drug addict with “I Hurt You,” which describes the same endless cycle of “I hurt you/You hurt me.” The song has no flow whatsoever and the lyrics add up to a whole lot of nothing.

Learning to Crawl ends with flowing, melodic “2000 Miles,” an ode to the late James Honeyman-Scott, the original lead guitarist. His replacement, Robbie McIntosh, does a wonderful job with the picking and the fills, and Chrissie’s gentler, more vulnerable vocal style is very engaging. The picture she paints with the lyrics is crystal clear: I can see her in a house full of Christmas revelers, but she is in another room, maybe her childhood bedroom, watching the snowfall and remembering James. She can hear people singing carols on a subliminal level, but what she is experiencing is the anguish of separation that the holidays often accentuate. It’s a lovely little number, a strong recovery from the two preceding tracks and a very nice way to end the album:

Partially wistful, definitely perceptive and truly a great leap forward for Chrissie Hynde’s songwriting ability, Learning to Crawl may be an album of unwanted rebirth, but it’s a beautiful rebirth all the same.

My review of Pretenders.

3 responses

  1. […] The Pretenders, Learning to Crawl […]

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  2. I do agree, Learnng To Crawl is the Pretenders – and Chrissie Hynde’s – best of the first three albums. It might be her best ever as well, although I like Get Close and Packed too.

    And am I the only person who can’t help hearing the first piano notes of “Thin Line Between Love And Hate” without starting to sing mentally “Hey Jude, don’t make it bad…”?

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    1. I’m happy to see that you didn’t mention Last of the Independents, which is the favorite of the music critic elite. The two you mentioned are contenders for my next Pretenders review but I want to listen to Viva El Amor! again because my favorite Chrissie song is on that album and I’m hoping absence will make the ears develop a fondness for the rest

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