Recorded in the wake of tragedy, The Pretenders' Learning To Crawl was an indestructible triumph of sheer will

The Pretenders
(Image credit: Aaron Rappaport/Corbis via Getty Images)

The Pretenders might easily have folded after lead guitarist James Honeyman-Scott’s sudden death in June 1982 – two days after the sacking of bassist Pete Farndon (who would also expire within months). But Honeyman-Scott’s influence continued to shape the band’s immediate future. 

“For a long time afterwards, I had such a strong sense of him,” Chrissie Hynde explained to Classic Rock in 2014. “All my musical decisions were still based on what he would do. ‘Who would Jimmy get to play this? He’d get Billy Bremner.’ I always knew the kind of thing Jimmy would like.” 

So ex-Rockpile guitarist Bremner was duly commandeered to play on both sides of comeback single Back On The Chain Gang/My City Was Gone, alongside Big Country bassist Tony Butler. And while a further makeshift line-up cut a soulful cover of The Persuaders’ Thin Line Between Love And Hate, it was another Honeyman-Scott tip-off – Robbie McIntosh – who served as guitarist on its parent album, Learning To Crawl. An inspired choice; McIntosh brought renewed verve and adaptability to the band’s sound with bass player Malcolm Foster also signing on permanently to join Hynde and regular drummer Martin Chambers. 

Named in honour of Hynde’s baby daughter Natalie, Learning To Crawl was also an applicable metaphor for Pretenders 2.0. Yet any teething problems were minimal. The album found the quartet taking a more linear approach, with McIntosh and Chambers punching high in the mix, while Hynde’s vocals had never been better. 

Musically and lyrically, opening song Middle Of The Road was the perfect primer. A lean, vivacious rocker with a crisp McIntosh solo and a great harmonica coda, it’s the new-look Pretenders in full effect. Hynde is caught between a sneer and a confession, decrying global economic inequalities while surveying life from a new perspective: ‘I’m not the cat I used to be/I’ve got a kid, I’m thirty-three, baby.’ 

Aside from rebirth and taking stock, loss is a theme too. Time The Avenger is an R&B vamp, ostensibly about a philandering captain of industry who gets his comeuppance. It also doubles as an existential meditation. ‘Nobody’s permanent/Everything’s on loan here’ sings Hynde, leaning into the verses with a new sense of purpose. ‘Even your wife and kids/Could be gone next year’. 

Nothing stands still. On the loping funk of My City Was Gone, Hynde returns to her hometown in Ohio only to find it unrecognisable, landmarks and old haunts pulled down to make way for car parks. Her childhood home is empty too, her memories swirling past ‘like the wind through the trees’. 

This idea of transience is dotted throughout. A mother and child seek a fresh start on the highway-hugging Thumbelina, a persecuted wife dramatically shifts her reality on Thin Line Between Love And Hate, the ache of separation (rooted in Honeyman-Scott’s absence) is examined on the majestic 2,000 Miles, led by McIntosh’s chiming guitar figure. From new beginnings to sad farewells, Learning To Crawl is an indestructible triumph of sheer will.

The 40th anniversary vinyl reissue of Leaning To Crawl is released on June 7.

Rob Hughes

Freelance writer for Classic Rock since 2008, and sister title Prog since its inception in 2009. Regular contributor to Uncut magazine for over 20 years. Other clients include Word magazine, Record Collector, The Guardian, Sunday Times, The Telegraph and When Saturday Comes. Alongside Marc Riley, co-presenter of long-running A-Z Of David Bowie podcast. Also appears twice a week on Riley’s BBC6 radio show, rifling through old copies of the NME and Melody Maker in the Parallel Universe slot. Designed Aston Villa’s kit during a previous life as a sportswear designer. Geezer Butler told him he loved the all-black away strip.