Learning To Crawl. The Pretenders.
1984, Sire Records. Producer: Chris Thomas.
Gift (cassette), 1984. Purchased CD, 1995.
IN A NUTSHELL: A record with driving, punk-spirited songs with strangely grown-up lyrics about aging, parenthood and loss. But Chrissie Hynde’s terrific voice and songwriting, and cool guitar from Robbie McIntosh and Billy Bremner, keep the record from being a downer. It’s a rarity – an album I still love, but now for different reasons.
Big sisters get a bad rap in modern media. They’re generally portrayed as mean, conniving, dissatisfied, misunderstood, dangerous, violent … Well, I’m here today to say that in real life, big sisters are pretty frickin’ awesome. I have two terrific ones, and none of the words above describe them (typically). They’ve been important in many ways, including how they’ve helped inform my 100 Favorite Albums! They’ve both been responsible for several of the albums directly, and indirectly they’re responsible for all of them: for they’re the first two people whose musical tastes I tried to emulate and, later, influence.
I’m the youngest of three kids, and I have two older sisters. I’m five years younger than Anne and three years younger than Liz.
The kids in every family1 have their own special dynamic, a mode of interaction passed on through the brood that sets boundaries on things like appropriate deference, teasing, displays of emotion, connectedness and play. The results of these dynamics are evident to all. Some families have raucous, screaming kids; some families have quiet, reserved kids; some hang out in a big bunch; some appear to be single children unaware of the siblings around them.
I’d venture to say that in all cases the rules of engagement among the kids are set by the eldest child. This is only fair, since the eldest child is the one who was so rudely stripped of her role as the lone sponge in an ever-widening, depthless pool of parental love; forced to not only share that ocean of affection with others but also to pretend that half an ocean – then a third, and a fourth, etc, depending on how many more damn smelly babies that formerly fawning, duplicitous duo called parents decides to keep bringing home – is just as good as a whole ocean, as if she can’t do simple arithmetic.
There was a trio of brothers in my neighborhood, The Poetzel boys, and they were on one extreme of this spectrum of sibling conduct, with an eldest son, Deaner, who clearly had never accepted the division of his ocean. Their parents both worked, which was still rather unusual in my mid-70s, rural Pennsylvania town, and sometimes after school they’d be locked out of their house for an hour or so. They’d spend the afternoon on their back patio screaming, shoving, fist-fighting, throwing rocks and slinging weaponized buckles at each other in bloody belt-fights. These melees frequently ended with Deaner crying frantic tears of regret as he attempted CPR learned from the TV show Emergency! on a younger brother who likely learned how to feign unconsciousness from watching the same show.
In my family the eldest child didn’t view us new ocean dwellers as combatants to be dominated and subdued, but as vulnerable neighbors in need of guidance and instruction. If this sounds like a euphemistic description for “bossiness,” I don’t mean it to be. I never thought she was bossy – I thought she was the coolest eldest sibling a kid could have – creative, fun, exciting and full of love. She still is!
My other sister and I often talk about how lucky we were to have such a big sister. Her creativity made playtime exciting! For example: the three of us often played Barbies, in which my job was to handle many of the leading male roles with my G.I. Joes. (As a hearty, red-blooded, five year-old boy, I insisted on calling the game “G.I. Joes,” not “Barbies.”) At some point my sisters got a Barbie-sized Supermarket, which included Barbie-sized packages of frozen foods and other products. My big sister, using cardboard and markers, designed and produced dozens of products for sale at the store, with individualized product names and brand names and packaging designs and advertising campaigns and jingles.
The fun of playtime was always what was going on inside our heads, and Anne would plunk real stuff into our imaginations every time we were together. Whether it was playing school in our basement “classroom” surrounded by individually hand-drawn class photos hung on the wall of each of the thirty students; or decorating an HO gauge train set at Christmas time, watching her deftly build Olmsted-quality backyards, farm pastures and a baseball field with colored, sprinkled dust; or walking our Barbies (I mean G.I. Joes!!!) into the 6′ x 6′ house she built on a slab of ply-wood my dad cut, onto which she had glued linoleum and carpet remnants, drew and shellacked hardwood floors, erected walls of cardboard that were painted and wallpapered and hung with lights and shelving, with doorways cut appropriately between rooms; a house that in the end seemed almost too beautifully museum-quality to actually tramp combat boots throughout.
When I got a little older, both of my sisters joined the Disco Revolution and went dancing on weekend nights instead of playing G.I. Joes with me. By then she was in high school, and even though we didn’t play anymore, she did have a crate of albums that had a huge impact on me. She continued to be cool and creative, and still did remarkable things as she got older, like move across the country to Yosemite National Park as a barely-in-her-20s young woman – the sort of move I’d never known anyone to ever do, except for people who’d joined the Army.
During her time in California (and before that, while she was away at college), in my teenaged brain, she seemed like an unknowable Goddess – a figure I’d worshiped since childhood and who sent me gifts and spoke to me sometimes, but who I figured I would never – could never – really know. Her gifts and communications were like blessings. For example, when the Preppy Look was in style in the 80s, and I was raging against it in my head – mainly because I knew I was too chubby and too self-conscious to try a new style, and those fashionable clothes were well out of my family’s price range, anyway – she sent me a modest yet stylish striped sweater that fit me and looked good, allowing me to experience a bit of modern fashion and, more importantly, a bit of self-esteem. When she visited during my season of JV basketball, she watched me play, then weeks later sent photos she’d taken of the game – proof that my dreamlike experience as a bonafide high school athlete who earned some playing time wasn’t just a dream.
We didn’t speak much, as long-distance phone calls were pricey back then2, but she sent us cards and letters. And she sent gifts. She sent the gift of music.
And just as she didn’t ask me if I wanted that sweater, she didn’t ask me what kind of music I liked. She’d just send me cassettes that she thought I should hear. The first one I remember getting was Speaking in Tongues, by Talking Heads. Their hit “Burning Down the House” was huge on MTV at the time, and I’d seen them perform on David Letterman, but I wasn’t really a fan. And even though I was probably bummed that she hadn’t sent me an old Rush cassette, I listened and found I really liked it. She later sent me a cassette of The Pretenders’ self-titled debut, which we’d listened to in her sweet ’64 Mustang before she moved away.
Another one I got from her around that time featured a song she’d told me about during a phone call or a visit, a song I’d never heard, but that she thought summed up her life as an aging 21-year-old quite nicely: “Watching the Clothes.” The album was Learning to Crawl, by The Pretenders, and even though I’d already heard a lot of the songs on the radio3 I couldn’t get enough of it. My Goddess sister had delivered once again.
I’d been a huge Pretenders fan since I started watching MTV. (Ok, more precisely, I was a huge Chrissie Hynde fan.) But by the time 1984 rolled around, those early MTV days of 1981 seemed like ages ago to me. And so much had happened to the band in the interim: in 1982 original bassist Pete Farndon was fired by the band over his drug use; two days later 25 year-old guitarist James Honeyman-Scott4 died of a heart attack from too much cocaine; then a few months later, Farndon himself died of a heroin overdose. Band leader Hynde and drummer Martin Chambers were forced to start over amid all that emotional trauma, and Learning to Crawl was the introduction of the new band.
“Watching the Clothes” seemed strange to me as a teenager: a song about watching laundry? But even though the lyrics seemed odd, I liked the song.
I still do, particularly the solos guitarist Robbie McIntosh rips through. Beginning at 0:58 he plays a simple ascending chromatic scale that amps up the energy and builds the tension until the band re-enters. At about 1:46 he tears off a sort of rockabilly solo that carries the song to its riff-coda ending. Throughout the whole song, Chambers plays a beat that sounds very washing machine-esque. It’s a punk-y song, for sure, aggressive and intense, but it’s about … watching laundry? But maybe there’s a reason for that …
As a huge MTV watcher, the first song I ever heard from this album was the classic “Back On The Chain Gang.” The video was played constantly in the fall of 1982. (The song was released as a single before the entire album was finished recording.) It’s a touching song about the death of Honeyman-Scott, and it’s one of those rare songs that’s gotten better with age.
The song has a bit of a honky-tonk feel, and Tony Butler5 plays a bass line that conjures hard work the way the song “Working In A Coal Mine” did. Billy Bremner6 plays a countrified guitar riff that makes the song, and throws in nice harmonics (about 2:00) that I always listen for. Great song that it is musically, it’s the lyrics and subject-matter (a lost friend, and moving forward) that have made the song improve with age: the more people you meet in life, the more you cherish those for whom you can say “…a break in the battle was your part … in the wretched life of a lonely heart.”
It’s a great song, but what happened to the rockin’ band who sang “Stop snivelin’! You’re gonna make some plastic surgeon a rich man!?” Perhaps I can find that punk spirit on the driving, souped-up hit “Middle Of The Road.”
This song has one of the great openings in rock, Martin Chambers’s tumbling drums into those unmistakeable three chords. The guitar riff is busy but cool, and the backing hoots are sing-along fun. Hynde’s vocals are some of her gruff’n’sweet best, snapping out long strings of words about growing older, growing up. Chambers’s excellent, driving drums really command the song, which builds to a creative solo by McIntosh, at 1:42. The band sounds like they’re having fun, as Hynde counts them back into the final verse, through her harmonica-solo closing, which starts with a grunt and a sort of meow. It’s a terrific song, even though she sings “I ain’t the cat I used to be/ I got a kid, I’m thirty-three!” which doesn’t sound too punk. But hold on, I’m starting to recognize a pattern … So these lyrics on these songs … why … I believe they’re all about getting OLD!!! No wonder I’ve liked this record more and more as I’ve gotten older!
No song on the record is more obviously about aging than the fantastic “Time The Avenger,” which, even as a teenager, has always been my favorite song on the album.
Right away, the drums and riff give the feeling of time, constantly ticking. Hynde uses her sultry voice7 to tell the story of an aging Lothario who’s beginning to realize it’s all slipping away, who’s wondering whether it all had a point. I love the guitar harmony as the second verse starts, and I love the chorus, how Chambers deftly moves the band through the syncopation (at 1:48) of the “Time, time, hear the bells chime” vocals. And the guitar behind the chorus vocals is really cool, particularly the harmonics at about 2:13. Former Pretenders guitarist Honeyman-Scott had a style all his own, using chords, arpeggios and harmonics where others might play runs, and Robbie McIntosh does an amazing impression of him on this song.
On “Middle Of The Road,” Hynde briefly addressed parenthood, and on a couple other songs she dives deeply into the topic. “Show Me” is a song that sounds a bit soft at first, but that’s grown on me since the first listen way back when – and now that I’m a parent, it can at times weirdly cause me to get a bit verklempt.
Despite its rather casual, light pop sound, the bass line is really cool and Chambers’s distinctive drum fills are notable throughout. McIntosh’s guitar has a shimmery delay, and he plays with a very Pete Buck of R.E.M. style. Hynde’s voice is beautiful, but it’s the words that get me – particularly since I’ve been a parent. If you’re a parent, or an auntie, or have had a special baby/toddler in your life, this song presents all the wishes you have for that child – what you want for the child, and what you want FROM the child – in a world that, as we age through it, can very often feel like it’s gone down the shitter. And those wishes boil down to one word: Love.
The song Thumbelina also treads in this territory, describing a road trip with a child set against a sweet country swing. Even though I loved this record as a teenager, the wisdom of lyrics like “What’s important in this life?/ Ask the man who’s lost his wife” were lost on me. I didn’t care about the song meanings, I just liked the rock. And now, as a 50 year old, I can especially appreciate these reports from adulthood – even when they turn a bit curmudgeonly. Such as on the excellent groove, and growth-at-all-cost shaming, of “My City Was Gone.”
The bass line, again by Tony Butler, is a classic as is the bluesy soloing by Billy Bremner. The lyrics are once again about growing older, the frustration over the loss of childhood and its memories. Bremner uses harmonics beautifully and his solo at about 2:38 is classic.
There are a few songs on the album that I can take or leave. “I Hurt You” has some cool vocal tricks and a menacing tone, but doesn’t meet the standard of the rest of the album. “Thin Line Between Love And Hate” is a cover that is done well, much like a satisfactory bar-band can pull off a cover, but that I generally skip. The closing song, however, is one for the ages – if you don’t mind Christmas songs.
“2000 Miles” has a lovely guitar figure throughout, with a chiming effect that makes the quick run played before the verse (0:33) sound terrific. But the star of this song is Hynde’s amazing voice, pulling such feats as singing two words, “He’s gone,” and easily stretching them across 5 beats and about 10 syllables in a way that makes the song a challenge for other singers. From the very beginning, Chrissie Hynde has been an extremely talented vocalist, and this song, about a lover far away for the holidays, demonstrates she’s still got the chops.
Learning To Crawl is remarkable for tackling grown-up subject matter in its lyrics while retaining the band’s youthful, punk-y aesthetic8. I liked it as a teenager, and I like it today. I still like the way it rocks, but I also appreciate it for different, old-man-type reasons, too. It’s a rare record that can accomplish that trick!
I’ve gotten to know my sister much better over the years than I did as a child. We’ve grown closer – all three of us siblings have. She’s no longer unknowable – she’s now just totally lovable! When she sent me this cassette over 30 years ago, I don’t think she was sending a message about life. I expect she just knew a good record when she heard it. But who can truly know the ways of the Goddess?
“Middle Of The Road”
“Back On The Chain Gang”
“Time The Avenger”
“Watching The Clothes”
“My City Was Gone”
“Thin Line Between Love And Hate”
“I Hurt You”