Even into the ‘80s, female leads in the rock and roll world were not often on the charts or as successful as their work deserved. One of the most influential and accomplished artists of this era was Chrissie Hynde and her band, The Pretenders. She hails from a town familiar to me, Akron, Ohio, and her band underwent many lineup changes over the years, with musicians from the UK and America. The most consistent and present member throughout the years was drummer and backing vocalist Martin Chambers, who is from the United Kingdom. Their 1984 release, “Learning to Crawl”, was a really strong and diverse collection of tracks that includes many, if not most, of the songs you would recognize from the band today.
The album opens with the hard-rocking “Middle of the Road”, featuring an outstanding harmonica solo from Hynde, and it is one of two tracks recorded and released in advance of the rest of the album. Next comes the pop hit “Back on the Chain Gang”, which reminds me a bit of the Byrds with it’s jangly guitar sound. The funky hit “Time the Avenger” comes next, and you start to wonder if you know every song on this record. “Watching the Clothes” is probably the best reflection of their new-wave roots, and side one ends with another notable pop hit and genuine love song, “Show Me”.
Side two burst open with a rockabilly treat that is “Thumbelina”, and if you listen closely, you actually hear the same chord progression that is on “Legs” by ZZ Top. Following this one, we have my all-time favorite Pretenders song, “My City Was Gone”. First off, the bass line, which was recorded by Tony Butler, who also played with Pete Townshend and Big Country among others, is ridiculous. I rate it side-by-side with “Billie Jean” by Michael Jackson as the two most infectious bass lines I have ever heard open a song. The rest of the song is just as good, and it tells the sad tale of Chrissie Hynde coming home to see how much her childhood home had changed, a phenomenon most of us can relate to, no matter where we grew up.
UK vocal legend Paul Carrack contributes on piano to the next track, another beautiful hit for the band, the ballad “Thin Line Between Love and Hate”. I think this may be my favorite vocal performance by Chrissie on the entire album, her vocals are genuine and true. We have the plodding rocker “I Hurt You” next, which might be my least favorite track on the record, but the album ends on a high note with the song we all now recognize as a Christmas song, “2000 Miles”. The melody and soft-build delivers a hopeful and optimistic melody in contrast with the sad emotion that results from being away from one you love during the holidays. Sadly, Hynde wrote this song in honor of her former bandmate, James Honeyman-Scott, the band’s first guitarist, who perished in 1982 due to excessive cocaine use. Whether that moment of longing is permanent or temporary, this song does serve as a reminder that if at no other time, we can still have hope and reason to believe in better days ahead as we gather for the holidays with those we love.