After a classic debut album and a nearly as good second, The Pretenders should have been on top of the world. Instead, their world blasted in half. Forced to fire bassist Pete Farndon over his instability caused by drug use, then reeling with shock when guitarist James Honeyman-Scott died of an overdose days later, Chrissie Hynde and Martin Chambers found themselves as half of a formerly perfect whole. Tragedy compiled on itself when Farndon was found dead from drugs less than a year later.
Most bands would have thrown in the towel, but the surviving band-members went at making a new album with a determination to not let that happen. When the first notes of "Learning to Crawl" explode from the speakers, Chambers' solo drumshots are both symbolic (I'm still here, they seem to shout) and a herald. "Middle Of The Road" states the new rules with gusto as Chrissie declares "I'm standing in the middle of life with my plans behind me." Everything changed, and yet nothing changed.
This is my second favorite album after "The Pretenders" and - in my opinion - an indispensable 80's album. The subject of time and change permeates throughout "Learning to Crawl," from the obvious ("Time The Avenger") to the sublime "My City was Gone." The shock-wave of maturity brought force to several of these songs, but perhaps the best example was the subdued "Show Me," which could easily have been written about Chrissie's' child by The Kinks' Ray Davies. It's one of The Pretenders' most overlooked hits.
The standard for "Learning to Crawl," however, remains "Back On The Chain Gang." Where "Middle Of The Road" has a fury to it, "Chain Gang" has a bittersweet feel to it that lingers in the heart all these years later. Issued four months after Scott's death (but still before Farndon's), Hynde casts a rueful eye towards her fallen guitarist friend and the reactions of the world around her:
"But I'll die as I stand here today
knowing that deep in my heart,
they'll fall to ruin one day
for making us part."
There is hardly a weak instance on "Learning to Crawl," with even the new bonus cuts holding up well. The demo of "When I Change My Life" is better than the final version that eventually appeared on the lesser Get Close album, and the live US Festival cuts make you long for the full set. The Pretenders' version of "Money" holds close to The Beatles' version, complete with a sarcastic aside from Chrissie before the band kickstarts the song. Chrissie Hynde may have carried the band's name into the future and even cut a decent album or two afterwards (Last of the Independents still holds up well), but "Learning to Crawl" was the album where she proved, once and for all, what she was made of.