Perfect Album Sides looks back through pop/rock history, and spotlights the album sides that have stood the test of time.
The early 1980s were a wild and challenging time for The Pretenders. After releasing two popular and widely acclaimed albums, bassist Pete Farndon‘s heroin problem had brought the band to an unexpected crossroads. According to frontwoman and chief songwriter Chrissie Hynde, “he was in a sort of diminished mental condition ’cause he was stoned a lot. He couldn’t handle drugs that well. No one can handle that drug very well.” The problem had become so pronounced that guitarist James Honeyman-Scott issued an ultimatum: he would quit the band if Farndon wasn’t fired.
So, on June 14, 1982, Farndon was dismissed from the band. And, that’s when the trouble really began.
Two days later, on June 16, 1982, Honeyman-Scott died of heart failure triggered by cocaine intolerance. He was 25 years old.
Nine months later, on April 14, 1983, Farndon was found dead in his bathtub: he had drowned after overdosing on cocaine and heroin. He was 30 years old.
In between those two deaths, though, came a huge spark of life: Hynde had a baby in January of 1983, daughter Natalie Hynde, with her partner-at-the-time, Kinks frontman Ray Davies.
Those were the circumstances that the remaining members of The Pretenders – Hynde and drummer Martin Chambers – found themselves in as they started working on their striking third album, Learning to Crawl: quite literally, life and death. As Hynde told Rolling Stone back in 1984, there was ultimately no other option but to get back to work. “What else were we going to do? Stay at home and be miserable, or go into the studio and do what we dig and be miserable?” Indeed.
As they began recording, Hynde and Chambers were unsure about who to recruit in place of Farndon and Honeyman-Scott, so they cycled through a revolving door of session players and notable guest stars before deciding on a new Pretenders lineup featuring guitarist Robbie McIntosh and bassist Malcolm Foster. It was this revamped version of the band that played on the majority of the album
Released the first week of January, 1984, Learning to Crawl went Top 5 on the Billboard 200, eventually receiving a Platinum certification from the RIAA, and produced three Top 40 singles – “Middle of the Road,” “Back on the Chain Gang,” and “Show Me” – all of which became instant classic rock staples. Hynde stated that the album’s title was inspired by her infant daughter, who was learning to crawl at the time, but it could just as easily refer to her and Chambers figuring out how to be mobile again after being knocked flat by the deaths of their bandmates and the turmoil of re-forming their band. Hynde’s ambivalence about everything that the world had recently thrown at her is all over Learning to Crawl‘s sublime first side.
“Middle of the Road”
Side one kicks off with the full Chrissie Hynde experience: equal parts piss and vinegar, a little bit of venom, and a whole lot of badassery. There’s also Chambers’ opening drum bash, that ornery, twisting guitar lick, and those urgent backing vocals (which don’t qualify as either war cries or howls of anguish, and yet invoke both). All of those elements combine to paint a compelling picture of early onset mid-life crisis reflection. There’s the part where Hynde says that she’s “standing in the middle of life with my plans behind me,” as if all of her plans have passed her by for good. There’s the part where she rails against the emotionally detached greed of the 1%, and jabs at their incognizant blindness towards the poverty that supports their lifestyle:
When you own a big chunk of the bloody third world
The babies just come with the scenery
Then, there’s Hynde’s grudging, reluctant acknowledgement that she’s getting older, an outgrowth of her fatigue with fame:
I can’t get from the cab to the curb
Without some little jerk on my back
Don’t harass me, can’t you tell
I’m going home, I’m tired as hell
I’m not the cat I used to be
I got a kid, I’m thirty-three
These are full-on curmudgeon vibes, but lest anyone (including herself) think that she’s losing her edge, Hynde, in the words of The A.V. Club, closes out the song with “an angry growl that shifts seamlessly into a harmonica solo – a rock ’n’ roll moment as thrilling as Roger Daltrey’s scream on The Who’s ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again.'” And, even if that moment isn’t quite as iconic as advertised, it is nearly as effective: it’s the crescendo that underscores what this song (and the rest of the album) is really about: rocking one’s ass off to beat the devil. Listeners responded in kind by sending “Middle of the Road” to No. 19 on the U.S. Top 40.
“Back on the Chain Gang”
Honeyman-Scott haunts this song from top to bottom. Not only did Hynde write it as a tribute to her fallen bandmate, but she and Chambers started recording it with a preliminary new version of the band – McIntosh, Rockpile guitarist Billy Bremner, and Big Country bassist Tony Butler – a month after Honeyman-Scott’s death. Bremner was recruited specifically because Hynde knew that Honeyman-Scott was a fan of his. The freshness of Hynde’s grief is evident from the song’s opening lines:
I found a picture of you, oh oh oh oh
What hijacked my world that night
To a place in the past
We’ve been cast out of? oh oh oh oh
And then, right at the point where she could esily tip into full-blown sadness, she does an about face and makes this surprising declaration: “Now we’re back in the fight.” From there, the song launches into its familiar chorus, defiantly facing down sorrow to announce that nothing can stop The Pretenders. AllMusic hit the nail on the head when they wrote that “Back on the Chain Gang” serves “both as a resigned farewell to loved ones and a restatement of purpose.” That dichotomy resonated deeply with listeners: they helped propel this one to No. 5 on the U.S. Top 40, making it the band’s biggest all-time hit in America.
“Time the Avenger”
This is where Hynde starts to get the joke. First, though, she establishes her grim thesis:
Thought that time was on your side
But now it’s time the avenger
Throughout the song, Hynde establishes everything in life – a train whistle in the distance, the paramour of a married man, etc. – as a symbol of her premise. For emphasis, the rhythm section adds a revved up pulse that evokes the breakneck speed of time slipping away at an alarming pace:
But, when Hynde reaches the chorus, “Time the Avenger” suddenly sounds as if its achieving liftoff after having just spent the previous two verses hurtling down a long runway. There’s even a hint of revelry in the lyrics to go along with the celebratory nature of the music:
Time, time, hear the bells chime
Over the harbor and the city
Time, one more vodka and lime
To help paralyze that tiny little tick, tick, tick, tick
The joke, of course, is that Hynde’s coping mechanism is booze, which she knows is a double-edged sword: it might make the passage of time more fun (or, at least, bearable), but, if she’s not careful, it might also speed up the shuffling off of her mortal coil. What’s an existential crisis to do? Should she be anxious about all of this or euphoric? The dueling guitar coda illustrates Hynde’s inner conflict perfectly.
“Watching the Clothes”
This one is often written off as mere filler, but there’s a little more substantial than that because it’s our first glimpse of Hynde as a new parent. Yeah, she’s still going out on Saturday nights, only now she’s going to the laundromat:
There go the whites
Mmm, getting whiter
There go the colors
There go the delicates
Through the final rinse
There goes my saturday night
I go without a fight
The lyrics are rendolent of a mantra: maybe she’s trying to convince herself that her new adult reality isn’t so bad, or maybe her brain is simply turning to mush. But, the music is the real tell here: it sounds a bit like a runaway train. Welcome to new parenthood. But, there’s also the aspect of becoming a parent that is wondrous in its wild unpredictability, and the music simultaneously reflects that, too. Every day could be a party, or everything could go right off the rails. But, at least, the song acknowledges the possibility of a silver lining. Could there be more of those in Hynde’s future?
In which Hynde opens with this mysterious declaration: “Show me the meaning of the word.” Which word? And, who is she talking to? The answers start revealing themselves right with the first verse:
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
It’s easy to assume Hynde means her then-newborn daughter, Natalie, whose birth seems to have stirred something in her famously peevish mother. The lyrics show us a warmer, more vulnerable Hynde than we’re used to seeing, and the music – complete with clear, sharp, glistening guitars, and Chambers’ galloping drums – supports that. Hope, a somewhat elusive quality thus far on Learning to Crawl, suddenly springs eternal in a vivid fashion.
Still, it comes as a surprise when Hynde finally confesses which word she wants to learn more about: “Oh, I want love, I want love, I want love!” Is this the same person who once sang so ruefully about being “The Adultress”? That’s hard to imagine from this vantage point, especially when she closes out the song joyfully proclaiming that she doesn’t want to live without love. But, “Show Me” remains a mainstay of classic rock radio to this day, and has outlived any listener misgivings that its modest peak position of No. 28 on the U.S. Top 40 may have initially indicated. This is a lovely song that has only gotten better with age.
Which is all just a long way of saying that within the span of one album side, Hynde moves convincingly from existential crisis and despair to a renewed sense of hope and resilience. If that’s not a perfect album side, I don’t know what is.