Permanent Records is an ongoing closer look at the records that matter most.
Chrissie Hynde was approaching 30 when The Pretenders released their first single, a cover of The Kinks’ “Stop Your Sobbing,” in 1979. After spending a few years kicking around the nascent U.K. punk scene with younger amateurs, the Ohio-born Hynde found some simpatico musicians and pursued a sound that was alternately abrasive and soft, and always utilitarian—like the rock ’n’ roll equivalent of a kitchen sponge. But though Hynde had a spiky, bratty personality as a performer, she carried herself as someone more attuned to the generation that came before her than the one that was following behind. She was more of a Patti Smith than a Siouxsie Sioux. After all, she was only seven years younger than the man who wrote “Stop Your Sobbing”—with whom she’d have her first child, just a few years later.
Not long after giving birth to Ray Davies’ daughter, Hynde wrote and recorded “Middle Of The Road,” which would become the opening track to The Pretenders’ third album, 1984’s Learning To Crawl. Toward the end of the song, she sings, “I’m not the cat I used to be / I got a kid, I’m 33.” A woman who’d built her reputation on two LPs full of sexually aggressive rock ’n’ roll filled her the next record with songs about motherhood, fear, regret, insecurity… and even one about doing the laundry.
Mostly though, she sang about loss. In June 1982, after The Pretenders finished a tour supporting the commercially and critically disappointing Pretenders II (an album that sounds much better in retrospect), Hynde sat down with her heroin-addicted bassist and ex-boyfriend Pete Farndon, and told him he’d been kicked out of the group. Two days later, guitarist James Honeyman-Scott died of heart failure, brought on by a bad reaction to cocaine. A month after that, Hynde was back in the studio with drummer Martin Chambers and two hired guns, Big Country bassist Tony Butler and Rockpile guitarist Billy Bremner, to record a new single: “Back On The Chain Gang,” backed with “My City Was Gone.” Both would later appear on Learning To Crawl, with the lilting, regretful “Back On The Chain Gang” becoming The Pretenders’ biggest Billboard Hot 100 hit, reaching No. 5.
Talking to Rolling Stone in 1984 about the decision to press on, Hynde said, “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?” Through the rest of ’82 and ’83, in between taking a break to have a baby—and to mourn Farndon, who died of an overdose less than a year after Honeyman-Scott—Hynde would return to the studio periodically with Chambers and new Pretenders Robbie McIntosh and Malcolm Foster, to piece together an album that she’d name after her daughter’s first attempts to get around. Learning To Crawl would go on to generate seven singles and/or album-rock focus-cuts, with four of those songs—“Back On The Chain Gang,” “My City Was Gone,” “Middle Of The Road,” and “2000 Miles”—becoming staples of classic rock and adult contemporary radio for decades to come.
Yet the magnificence of Learning To Crawl is best-defined by two songs that aren’t played quite as often, even though one of them was a Top 30 Billboard hit back in 1984. The shimmering mid-tempo rocker “Show Me” exemplifies the side of The Pretenders that’s hard to nail down or deconstruct. Like “Up The Neck” and “Talk Of The Town”—and even “Back On The Chain Gang”—“Show Me” is rhythmically limber, pleasantly melodic, and stealthily emotional. The guitars have some of the brittle echo of the post-punk sound that was dominating the U.K. underground at the time, but Hynde’s vocal sounds like it’s drifted in from ’70s AM radio, in the time when singer-songwriters like Joni Mitchell shared airspace with sophisticated R&B artists like Donny Hathaway. The lyrics—which grapple with the overwhelming hugeness of love, humanity, and international conflict—contrast with music that’s easygoing and unpredictable, with a bridge and a coda that feel like spontaneous expressions of need.
Similarly, “Time The Avenger” is an unassuming rocker that starts with a simple groove—fast and clean—and then gets richer with each declamatory line and intertwined guitar solo. When Hynde sings, “Nobody’s permanent / Everything’s on loan here / Even your wife and kids / Could be gone next year,” her matter-of-factness is alarming. It’s made all the moreso when she starts trading fiery licks with McIntosh over the song’s long coda, as though illustrating the gathering storm. “Time The Avenger” and “Show Me” represent an artist in complete control of her craft, able to communicate something deeper even in songs that initially sound almost off-the-cuff.
Though Learning To Crawl is clunker-free, not all of its 10 tracks are standouts. “Watching The Clothes Go Round” is a leftover from Hynde’s punkier early days, with lyrics sung from the perspective of someone bored with toiling away in the service economy. “I Hurt You” is a fairly routine poison-pen letter, which would’ve fit neatly into The Pretenders’ more corrosive first album. And while The Persuaders cover “Thin Line Between Love And Hate” is absolutely gorgeous, it sounds almost like Hynde’s doing a guest vocal for someone else’s band.
There are also a couple of Learning To Crawl songs that are harder to hear in the context of the album as a whole, given their unusual afterlife. Conservative firebrand Rush Limbaugh appropriated “My City Was Gone”—with its muted funk bassline—as the theme song to his radio show, which the vegetarian/feminist/environmentalist Hynde allowed, because she donated the licensing fee to PETA. And though “2000 Miles” isn’t really a “Christmas song” per se, it does mention Christmastime, so it became more of a holiday number than the lament for Honeyman-Scott that Hynde had intended it to be. (Slide “2000 Miles” alongside Joni Mitchell’s “River” on the list of melancholy, unintentional yuletide favorites.)
For the most part though, Learning To Crawl works so well because of its five other songs, each of which reflects in its own way on how fast life moves, and how quickly everything can change. The nifty “Thumbelina” is one of those five, using an old-fashioned chugging train-song rhythm as a foundation for a set of lines about “what’s important.” In one lyric, Hynde’s answer for that is, “a little boy, a little girl.” In another, more ruefully, she suggests, “Ask the man who’s lost his wife.”
In the aforementioned 1984 Rolling Stone article, Hynde pooh-poohed Learning To Crawl’s thematic resonances, saying, “It’s just a collection of 10 measly songs. It’s not a real important deal. I hate this sort of romantic or sentimental take people have on it—you know, the tragic demise, the reawakening. It wasn’t like that at all. I even regret naming the album Learning To Crawl, because it just sounds pathetic. I mean, I’m not sentimental.”
But sentimentality—or, more accurately, grieving—comes in different forms. In the decidedly un-MOR “Middle Of The Road,” Hynde is every bit the handful that she was when she sang songs like “Precious” and “Bad Boys Get Spanked”—back when every Pretenders song sounded like it came bundled up in bangs and baggy clothes. It’s just that her grumpiness sprang from a different place, once she was “standing in the middle of life with my plans behind me.” With a baby at her breast and two close friends barely cold in the ground, Hynde’s disgust with fatcats, warmongers, and everyday creeps turned into an expression of frustration with anyone who couldn’t see what really mattered.
Late in the song, Hynde delivers 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.” It’s a reminder that rage can be productive, if a person has the knack for converting hard experiences into art.