Friday, April 5, 2013

Half The Pretenders Die, Their Music Improves?

Remember when I said that I didn't get the sense Chrissie Hynde was really struggling with anything? Well, in June 1982, the Pretenders' guitarist James Honeyman-Scott died from a cocaine overdose, and in April 1983, bassist Pete Farndon died from a heroin overdose. Now Chrissie Hynde was really struggling with something. Stephen Thomas Erlewine writes:
Hynde was forced by circumstance to reinvent the Pretenders for their third album, 1984's Learning to Crawl, but if the new edition of the group lacked some of the spark of the band that made the first two LPs, through sheer force of will Hynde created a masterpiece. While Hynde hardly held back in her emotionally potent songwriting in the Pretenders' early work, on Learning to Crawl there's a gravity to her lyrics that blended with her tough but wiry melodic sense and streetwise intelligence to create a set of truly remarkable tunes ... Three albums into her recording career, Chrissie Hynde found herself having to put the past to bed and carve out a new beginning for herself with Learning to Crawl, but she pulled it off with a striking mixture of courage, strength, and great rock & roll.
"Masterpiece" gets thrown around a little too often over there at AMG, but yes, considering the circumstances, it's amazing Hynde came up with any kind of album at all, let alone a good one. Maybe all the tragedy and turmoil put her in a reflective mood, or maybe her songwriting was heading in that direction anyway, but I find the sentiments on Learning To Crawl a little more substantial than those on the debut. Also, her singing is less annoying. I guess you don't feel too much like pouting and posturing when half of your band just croaked. Try some of these lyrical samples on for size:
Welcome to the human race
With its wars, disease and brutality
You with your innocence and grace
Restore some pride and dignity
To a world in decline

Welcome to a special place
In a heart of stone that's cold and grey
You with your angel face
Keep the despair at bay
Send it away

Forget our philosophies
That we admired when we were young
And our popular points of view
They can't mean much or nothing
Or something or anything
'Cause we can't say I love you

He's gone 2000 miles
It's very far
The snow is falling down
Gets colder day by day
Whoa, whoa! Somebody get Chrissie some Xanax. Well, her band mates OD'ing may have been tough for her life, but I think it was pretty good for her art.

Learning To Crawl isn't so much a New Wave record, though, as it is a roots rock record. "Back on the Chain Gang," the album's big hit, flutters along wistfully, may or may not be about her deceased band mates, includes a sly reference to Sam Cooke's "Chain Gang," and also includes a chord that George Harrison claims to have invented (!): "That's an E7 with an F on top and I'm really proud of that because I invented that chord...There's only been one other song, to my knowledge, where somebody copped that chord - Chrissie Hynde and the Pretenders on 'Back On The Chain Gang'." Umm ... could somebody back this up please?

I found a picture of you
What hijacked my world that night
To a place in the past
We've been cast out of
Now we're back in the fight
We're back on the train
Oh, back on the chain gang

A circumstance beyond our control
The phone, the TV and the News of the World
Got in the house like a pigeon from hell
Threw sand in our eyes and descended like flies
Put us back on the train
Oh, back on the chain gang

I found a picture of you
Those were the happiest days of my life
Like a break in the battle was your part
In the wretched life of a lonely heart
"Hijacked my world that night"? "Pigeon from hell threw sand in our eyes and descended like flies"? "The wretched life of a lonely heart"? Now Chrissie's speaking my language. Similarly, at first glance "Thumbelina" sounds like a cheerful rockabilly number, but the lyrics describe Chrissie's terror of touring through the Southwest with her newborn baby (?).

Hush little baby, don't you cry
When we get to Tucson you'll see why
We left the snowstorms and the thunder and rain
For the desert sun, we're gonna be born again
What's important in this world
A little boy, a little girl

All the love in the world for you, girl
Thumbelina in a great big scary world
All the love in the world for you, girl
Take my hand and we'll make it through this world

Hush little baby, my poor little thing
You've been shuffled about like a pawned wedding ring
It must seem strange, love was here then gone
And the Oklahoma sunrise becomes the Amarillo dawn
What's important in this life
Ask the man who's lost his wife
Yes, it's a big scary world, Thumbelina, even though your mom's a rock star - but we'll let that slide for the moment. And hey, remember when I complained that Pretenders songs weren't about anything? Well, one Pretenders song that is certainly about something is "My City Was Gone." For some reason, Hynde was inspired to re-make the Talking Heads' "Take Me To The River" as a tune about Midwestern decline.

I went back to Ohio
But my pretty countryside
Had been paved down the middle
By a government that had no pride
The farms of Ohio
Had been replaced by shopping malls
And music filled the air
From Seneca to Cuyahoga Falls
Thank you, Reaganomics, for inspiring Heartland rockers everywhere.

Although Learning To Crawl saved the Pretenders, the truth is that there would really be no more Pretenders; the band shortly morphed into "Chrissie Hynde and Whatever Session Musicians Happened to Be Around That Week." But, as she discovered the hard way, there are more important things in this world than retaining a steady lineup in your rock band. Here's how Hynde put it in the Pretenders' induction ceremony to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (which, incidentally, is still in Ohio, and has not been paved down the middle by a government that has no pride): "I know that the Pretenders have looked like a tribute band for the last 20 years. ... And we're paying tribute to James Honeyman-Scott and Pete Farndon, without whom we wouldn't be here. And on the other hand, without us, they might have been here, but that's the way it works in rock 'n' roll."

Amen, Chrissie. Amen.

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