(As noted in my first Essentials entry, this is an occasional series in which I spotlight albums that, in my estimation, everyone should experience at least once.)
As 1983 slipped into the Orwellian future of 1984, I was 18 and living the suburban commuter-college life. That meant living at home, obviously, and taking a bus to the Willow Grove Park Mall, where I transferred to another bus that then deposited me about a 10-minute walk from the campus. My Walkman clone helped me stay sane during those commutes, which could easily push 75 minutes.
I also worked part time as a movie-theater usher, though the hours frequently pushed into full-time territory – a good thing, as it was minimum-wage pay ($3.35/hour) and I had debts no honest man could pay…
I’ll skip the laundry list of additions to my musical library during that span, but suffice it to that much of the music dated to previous generations. One exception: the Jam’s Snap! collection, a double-LP-dose of enlightenment that I picked up on November 29th. Another: the Pretenders’ Learning to Crawl, which I bought on the day of its release, Tuesday January 17th – the same day that my winter/spring semester began.
Although still fronted by Chrissie Hynde, the Pretenders weren’t the same band that first turned my ear in 1979 and ’80 with “Brass in Pocket.” Guitarist James Honeyman-Scott, who was instrumental in shaping their sound, died at age 25 from a drug overdose in June 1982, a mere two days after bassist Pete Farndon was fired from the band due to his own drug problems. (He died 10 months later from them.)
A month after Honeyman-Scott’s passing, Hynde and drummer Martin Chambers recruited guitarist Billy Bremner (of Rockpile) and bassist Tony Butler (of Big Country) to back them on “Back on the Chain Gang” and “My City Was Gone,” which were released as a 45 in September of ’82. The A-side is a memorable statement of purpose in the face of tragedy.
The flip side, to borrow from what Suzanne Whately wrote in the December 1982 issue of Record, “proves to be one of Hynde’s more interesting compositions. [T]he autobiographical account of the singer’s return to her native Ohio finds Hynde surveying the overbuilt and now-unfamiliar terrain while weighing her memories with quiet, revealing despair.” It’s a sentiment, I think, everyone can relate to.
Additional sessions saw Andrew Bodnar (of the Rumour) and Paul Carrack help out on a remarkable cover of the Persuasions’ “Thin Love Between Love and Hate”…
… before the Pretenders firmed up their new lineup with guitarist Robbie McIntosh and bassist Malcom Foster. The older I get, the more I identify with the lyrics of the opener, “Middle of the Road”: “The middle of the road is trying to find me/I’m standing in the middle of life with my plans behind me/Well I got a smile for everyone I meet/As long as you don’t try dragging my bay/Or dropping the bomb on my street.”
In short, Learning to Crawl was not as revolutionary an album as the band’s self-titled debut, and yet it was – in its way – revolutionary all the same. Hynde was within spitting distance of middle age, after all, and dealing with the demands of motherhood, to say nothing of the other hardships that adult life brings. Other rockers stumbled when integrating their changing realities into their art (see Pete Townshend’s All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes for one example), but she navigates the new terrain with aplomb – and even finds a way to turn washing one’s clothes into a working-class lament.
The album is also home to another song inspired by Honeyman-Scott’s death, “2000 Miles,” that has, in the decades since, become a staple of Christmastime playlists:
The track list:
My college roommate and I had a Facebook conversation about Learning to Crawl a couple years ago. He thought “Watching the Clothes” was the weakest link on the album, while I countered with “I Hurt You.” Regardless, we agreed it’s a mighty fine record.
I just wish the stations I listened to this past Christmas season had played “2000 Miles” instead of Chrissie’s moribund take on “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”
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