Learning to Crawl (Remastered)
3.5 out of 5 stars
Reviewed for Coffeerooms by 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.
“Watching the Clothes Go Round” is an idiotic trip to the laundromat. “There go the whites getting whiter, there go the colors getting brighter. There go the delicates through the final rinse. There goes my Saturday night, out cold without a fight.” We should be so lucky. This sophomoric idea sports all the gnarly “Let’s party, dude” wisdom of Huey Lewis. Great rockabilly guitar work by McIntosh goes down the rinse cycle. Some folks clean up real good, but Chrissie don’t, at least not here. Set this on burn and walk away.
“Show Me” puts the album back in an ambulatory position. Despite an abrupt hit-the-wall ending to each verse, McIntosh’s jangley guitars massage the tune, and the previously invisible Malcolm Foster shows up to provide a head-bopping foundation. Yes, the Pretenders can now show the music world they’re more than just pseudo punks with black eyeliner and a thousand dollar an hour habit.
“Thumbelina” is a palatable rockabilly tune with great rapid-patter from stiff stick man Chambers, who often plays as if he’s got a board strapped to his bum. McIntosh tastefully works the fret board like a disciple of Carl Perkins. Hynde’s shaky vocal and irreverent lyrics nearly cause Thumbelina to stop dancing, but McIntosh is the CD’s MVP, continuing to rescue substandard stuff like this with his creativity.
Tony Butler’s Motown meets punk bass sets the tone for “My City Was Gone,” the story of Hynde going back to Ohio only to discover her favorite hangouts are now parking lots. “A-o, way to go, Ohio.” Way to go, Chrissie, this one’s a winner. Although Bremner’s style differs noticeably from McIntosh, (he’s not nearly as loud, and is more of a picker than an outright soloist), he’s even more accomplished. Too bad Hynde couldn’t steal Butler and his lead bass from Big Country; he fills the holes left by Chambers leadened drumming with enough swing to make Ohio (birthplace of William Henry Harrison and hi grandson, Benjamin) sound cool.
Hynde has horrendous taste in covers (“Stop Your Sobbing,” her mangling of “Louie Louie”) and keeps her score at a perfect zero with a wobbly reading of “A Thin Line Between Love and Hate.” The closest Hynde comes to the soulful effect of the original is in name only – the original was recorded by The Persuaders. Hynde barely keeps her nodes from slipping into a yodel, and displays as much understanding for soul as “American Idol” reject William Hung.
“I Hurt You” is a myriad of echoes and haunted atmospheres. You get the sneaking suspicion Hynde purposely hid her lyrics in an impenetrable haze of bootstrapping beats because she had nothing to say. McIntosh pulls this one out of the gutter with a thick as sludge solo that hammers home Hynde’s nasty intent, although his second appearance in the spotlight is Mark Knopfler-like and too clean fir the song’s exotic haze. This is music for bohemians who like to masquerade as part of the black leather crowd, naughty and nice despite some stylistic slip ups.
Hynde’s wet-noodle vocal and the snowblind soundscape of “2000 Miles” make this quasi-holiday song hard to like. You’ll want to par-rum-pum-pum-pummel your CD player as Hynde attempts to play the role of Tiny Tim the holiday sprite, but there’s too much coal dust in her delivery. Stick with what you know, raccoon eyes.
Bonus Baby Steps
“Fast or Slow (The Law’s the Law) is a delightful change of pace written and sung by Chambers (!), who sounds as if he took singing lessons from Nick Lowe and Ian Gomm. It’s good timey, irreverent English pub band music that might have been a hit if Chambers had put it out under his own name. It’s nice to know Chambers may not be able to keep an interesting beat, but he can at least write a decent pop tune.
“Tequila” is another sip of Hynde sampling her American county western roots a half-hearted stopover in El Paso. The choppy middle section and faux pedal steel will make you want to eat the worm in the hope of developing a distracting hallucination. “You make me suffer and you just don’t know. I’m a burrocho down in New Mexico.” Get on your burro and get out of town, Chrissie.
A second take on “I Hurt You” loses the echo and makes Hynde voice carry the song’s bad intent. There was a time Hynde enough of an edge to make you believe she really could hurt you. She’s more of a breeze than a hurricane now – although the death of the bands two rebels was bound to take the Mabel out of her Maybelline (that’s another mascara joke for those of you who are scratching your heads). McIntosh sounds as if he’s plugged directly into Indian Point II, tearing up a highly charged solo, and with Chamber’s impotent on percussion, Foster gets a chance to fill up the background with bass gurgling bass that suggests he was a fan of Thin Lizzy’s Phil Lynott.
The opening chords of “When I Change My Life” are so close to “A Thin Line Between Love and Hate” that it must have inspired Hynde to record the later as compensation, less she get sued. The rest of the song may have birthed the equally comatose “2000 Miles.” A ballad with Hynde in full caterwall, “When I Change My Life” has plenty of sentimental intent (“When I change my life and the idiot in me and leave this town forever”) but verse after moldy verse drains it of any pertinence. Even McIntosh gives up trying to rescue this after a few slovenly bars.
“Ramblin’ Bob” is an easy-going jam written by McIntosh with sunny chording and the type of melodic soloing Danny Kirwan used to provide Fleetwood Mac. There’s something missing, though…lyrics! The usually adroit McIntosh is economical with his solos, giving the impression this was either a throwaway riff the band got caught up in between recordings or McIntosh intended to add some words at a latter date.
“My City Was Gone” gets a live treatment and Chambers gets the hammer-against-spike beat right. Foster doesn’t have Butler’s flexibility on bass and bumps when he should be running wild, but he foots the bill. McIntosh’s hot guitar re-energizes Hynde who sings with conviction.
The CD ends with a cover of Barrett Strong’s “Money,” which was so ably covered by the Beatles it makes you wonder why other bands even bother to try and top it -- although the Flying Lizard’s Eva Gabor version was so bad it was good. Hynde holds her own, but the rest of the band sounds unrehearsed bouncing off of one another demolition derby style. Devout fans will enjoy the risk taking that harkens back to the Honeyman-Scott/Farndon chaos, but I want more cohesiveness for my coin. “Money” keeps Hynde’s streak of counterfeit covers alive.
“Time the Avenger,” “My City Was Gone,” “Middle of the Road” “Back On The Chain Gang,” “I Hurt You” and the bonus song “Fast or Slow” show that “Learn How to Crawl” has legs. If you believe (as I did) that the sum total of The Pretenders music emanated from their first two records then you need to give this a spin. A-o, way to go, Pretenders.