The Pretenders
Learning to Crawl
3.5 out of 5 stars
Reviewed for Coffeerooms by <strong>Mike Jefferson The title of The Pretender’s 1984 release refers to state of mind of the remnants of the band, vocalist/guitarist Chrissie Hynde and drummer Martin Chambers, who tried to “regroup” after the sacking and subsequent heroin overdose of former bassist Pete Farndon and the OD of flame-spewing guitarist James Honeyman Scott. (Ironically, Honeyman-Scott OD’ed two days after Fardon was dismissed from the band.) Taking a page from groups who’d lost key members and sojourned on (Traffic, The Grateful Dead, The Who, Fleetwood Mac), Hynde used her friend’s deaths to inspire her. Drafting two top-flight musicians, bassist Tony Butler from Big Country, and Rockpile guitarist Billy Bremner, Hynde toweled on the black mascara and recorded the single “Back On The Chain Gang” backed with “My City Was Gone.” The Pretenders were back on their feet again…
Rhino Records, keepers of the flame for all things reissued, elevates “Learning How To Crawl” by upgrading its sound, adding bonus tracks that are actual songs rather than demos or single versions of the album tracks (a nasty habit practiced on too many reissues) and lacing the package with generous liner notes and photos.
“Middle of the Road” starts of with a haphazard but head-turning blast from Chambers, who remains an uptight, plodding enigma throughout, but like a good soldier never completely embarrasses himself or the band. Robbie McIntosh is a much more controlled soloist than Honeyman-Scott, but he can also toss off a nasty-enough solo and shows more of a knack for rhythm than his predecessor. The group cops the melody from Steve Miller’s “Living In The U.S.A.” as a holding pattern before the third verse, with Hynde displaying a previously hidden talent for dirty respirator blues harp.
With a background vocal borrowed from a prison work detail and thick bass from Butler (who pushes Chambers into producing a cognizant beat), “Back On The Chain Gang” projects a slicker, more professional version of The Pretenders. Hynde is less bitchy and loosens up her nasal whine, while Bremner sets down a series of tastefully laid back guitar breaks.
“Time The Avenger” starts off as a faster-paced version of “Chain Gang” meets “Workin’ in A Coal Mine.” The repetitiveness of the rhythm track serves to accentuate Hynde’s snarky vocal, and it’s a positive revelation because she doesn’t sound rushed or harassed like she was in the days of Farndon/Honeyman-Scott: “Nobody’s perfect, not even a perfect gent. When your property took the A train, I wonder where your manners went. You were standing at the station, in your briefcase was your aftershave and your underwear. Can you hear the whistle blow? Sound like time the avenger.” McIntosh layers his guitar, taking his leads with subtle know-how that Honeyman-Scott never had. Scott was a flashy tiger on guitar, a six-string dynamo who loved taking chances but occasionally sounded ridiculously out of touch with what was going on around him. McIntosh builds his solos rather than attacks them, and has a better sense of where the song is headed.