Posts Tagged ‘Back on the Chain Gang’

(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 my 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:

 

fullsizeoutput_13a4I’m tripping the memory fantastic to the magical month of March 1983 this morning. On this exact day that year, a Saturday, I hopped on my 10-speed bicycle and pedaled my way to one of the record stores that I often haunted – Memory Lane Records in Horsham, as it was a great day for a bike ride: 52 degrees (Farenheit) and relatively sunny.

The biggest story in the news was M*A*S*H, which aired its final, 2 1/2-hour final episode the previous Sunday. On the sports front, the Flyers were in the midst of a winning streak – 21 wins, 3 losses and 3 ties since the New Year – while on their way to an early playoffs exit. The night before, the 76ers had suffered their first loss (to the hated Boston Celtics) since February 4th; they were 26-3 since the New Year, and headed for the NBA Finals, where they’d sweep the Lakers.

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All things considered, life was good; and it was only made better by that day’s purchase: Linda Ronstadt’s 1976 album Hasten Down the Wind, which features “That’ll Be the Day” and three Karla Bonoff-penned songs, including the wondrous “Someone to Lay Down Beside Me.” It instantly became one of my favorite Ronstadt songs.

As I mentioned in my Top 5 for April 1983, I was in the midst of something of a Ronstadt deep-dive this month: I purchased Simple Dreams on the 1st, and followed it with a succession of her other albums, including Get Closer on vinyl. I’d bought it on cassette the previous fall, but felt the need to observe the platter spinning ’round and ’round. Linda, I should mention, had just appeared on The Tonight Show on March 3rd. Among the songs she sang was the wondrous, Jimmy Webb-penned “Easy for You to Say.” (And, yes, I’ve featured this clip before.)

I also picked up Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours on vinyl, and four Lou Reed albums, including the classic (and oft-overlooked) Coney Island Baby.

Anyway, enough about me. Onward to today’s Top 5, as drawn from Weekly Top 40’s charts for the week ending the 5th.

1) Michael Jackson – “Billie Jean.” The No. 1 song this week was this propulsive piece of pop music. Say what you will about his latter life and music, but at this stage MJ was sheer brilliance on vinyl – and, as importantly, video.

2) The Pretenders – “Back on the Chain Gang.” Cracking the Top 10 is this classic single from Chrissie Hyde and Company, which would eventually land – along with its brilliant b-side, “My City Is Gone” – on the 1984 album Learning to Crawl.

3) Golden Earring – “Twilight Zone.” The Dutch band that gave the world one of the greatest driving songs of all time, “Radar Love,” also hit the charts with this 1983 single, which inched up from 18 to 16 this week.

4) Don Henley – “I Can’t Stand Still.” Former (and future) Eagle Don Henley’s first solo flight was with the solid I Can’t Stand Still album, which was released the previous August. It’s probably best known as the original home of “Dirty Laundry,” but this power-play track (at No. 48), the title song, is quite good, too.

5) Robert Hazard – “Escalator of Life.” Nowadays, Hazard is probably best remembered for writing the Cyndi Lauper classic “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.” But he was also a big deal in the Philly rock scene, where he and his band, the Heroes, headlined area clubs and had songs played (and played and played) on Philly’s radio stations. In fact, though he had a few videos featured on MTV, I’d wager 90 percent of the sales for “Escalator of Life,” a new entry at No. 83, came from his Philly-area fans.