Monday, April 29, 2013

The Most Powerful '80s Power Ballads Of Incredible Power

The '80s didn't do everything well, but if there's one thing they knew how to do right, it was the power ballad.

Like Norse mythology, or American folk tales, the origins of the power ballad remain shrouded in mystery. Some would point to Aerosmith's "Dream On," others to Nazareth's "Love Hurts," and others still to the Carpenters' "Goodbye to Love." Is "Stairway to Heaven" a power ballad? Is "Free Bird"? I might even go out on a limb and suggest that the album version of "Let It Be," with George's "stinging" guitar solo, may have arguably been the first power ballad. But like that fabled fish who managed to grow legs and crawl onto land, the truth is that there may not have been just one. We'll never be able to pinpoint that one defining moment where the universe decreed, "May the power ballad be with thee now."

But, fortunately, there is a God. And that God loves power ballads. However, the inner workings of the form are often misdiagnosed. What most music aficionados may not understand is that a power ballad doesn't necessarily get its power from the loud guitars or the screeching vocals. Oh no. The power ballad gets its power from its power. Or rather, it's not necessarily the instrumentation that blows you away; it's the epic strength of the melody. You can have all the ear-shredding solos and vocal overdubs you want, but if it's five seconds before the chorus, and you're not feeling that special anticipatory tingle in every fiber of your body, then you may have a nice song, but you, my friend, do not have a power ballad.

Note: I envision this series as being one of my looser ones, disappearing for long stretches of time, only to reappear in a haze of keyboards and swaying candles.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Go-Go's And The Sleazy Swedish Interviewer

In their attempt to conquer the world (while mostly just managing to conquer America, Canada, and Australia, but close enough), the Go-Go's stopped through Sweden in early 1982. Did you know that Beauty and the Beat peaked at #20 in that wintry Scandinavian commonwealth? Truth be told, the band's trip to Sweden was most likely uneventful and I probably wouldn't have even bothered to mention it aside from my discovery of this riveting clip on YouTube.

A male Swedish TV personality is interviewing the five Go-Go's, in charmingly broken English ("you've got very good critics, as far as I've read now"), while appearing as if he would like to sleep with them all. The Go-Go's respond in a manner suggesting they have done many drugs the night before. Amazingly, the most cogent band member seems to be Belinda, who, wearing some sort of off-the-shoulder sweater, with her partially blond, partially brown hair tied up chaotically on top of her head, may look about as fetching here as she ever did (I know I seem to say that in every post, but trust me, in some of the clips ahead, the woman will hit some rough patches). The whole interview is a keeper, from Gina's declaration that the band will record "our fourth album and then a tour, and then after the fourth album we'll do another tour, and record a fifth album, and then there'll be a sixth, and another tour," to the interviewer's description of a Swedish concert reviewer's suggestion that ABBA's Agnetha Faltskog ought to dance and move like Belinda. But the highlight would have to be the following exchange, which I have typed below in its entirety:
Belinda: I never get nervous.
(Other Go-Go's laugh.)
Belinda: I used to get real nervous and like ... I'm not gonna say what I used to do (giggles), but I used to get very nervous.
Interviewer: Please tell me.
Belinda: I used to kinda like wet my pants (starts giggling uncontrollably) ...
(No one else is laughing.)
Interviewer: The first time?
Belinda: No the first time, the first time I didn't, I was ... well God, you used to throw up, in your mouth (giggles uncontrollably once more) ...
Interviewer: And then you wet your pants. Is that true? Not at the same time?
Belinda: Yeah it is true (still giggling).
Interviewer: Well that's good for a start.
Belinda: No, but not anymore. I've gotten over that. I'm trained now.
Interviewer: Are you telling me that you're not nervous?
Belinda: No (still giggling).
Interviewer: How about the rest of you?
Kathy: No, I've, I've never wet my pants in a long time.
Jane: I've never thrown up either.
Kathy: And I haven't thrown up in a long time either.
Clearly, no one does a rock interview quite like the Swedes.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

The B-52's: One Very Long Party, Definitely Out Of Bounds

Not many bands could name Chic, the Mamas & the Papas, Esquivel, Captain Beefheart, Petula Clark, and Yoko Ono among their influences, but then again, the B-52's were not like many bands. You think your band was weird? The B-52's were weirder. Mostly, the B-52's were campy.

The B-52's were so campy that they went all the way past campy, into serious territory, and then back to campy again. At times, the B-52's were so ridiculous, they were almost a novelty band. Although Fred Schneider was arguably the B-52's' lead singer (if "singing" is indeed what you would call it), it was Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson who dominated the band's sound and image; beneath all the garish wigs and make-up, they both possessed surprisingly strong and versatile voices.

Like most people my age, I knew the B-52's through "Love Shack" and "Roam." When I checked out a copy of their 1979 debut album from the library in college, I expected it to sound like "Love Shack." Right. The early B-52's were significantly more primitive and atonal - almost as much post-punk as New Wave. Early B-52's songs were more like jam sessions than proper compositions, with Schneider going on and on about God knows what, attempting to out-non-sequitur himself, sounding like a very gay parody of a funk singer. "Rock Lobster" was about as polished and melodic as that album got - and "Rock Lobster" was plenty weird in its own right.

If the group's early material isn't exactly near and dear to my heart, it's provided a nice chuckle now and then. Take this random sprinkling of early B-52's lyrics, and call me in the morning. From "Lava":
I'm gonna let it go
Let it flow like Pompeii or Herculaneum
Let it sizzle, let it rise
Don't let your lava love flow turn to stone
Keep it burnin'
Keep it burnin' here at home

I'm gonna jump in a crater
See ya later
From "Devil In My Car":
He's pointing his pitchfork at me
He's in the front seat of my car!
He's taking over!
Ooh, he ripped my upholstry
He's at the wheel,
HELP! The devil's in my car
HELP! He's drivin' too far

I can't lock the door
I can't put on my safety belt
There's nothing for me to do but yell HELP!
Devil's in my car!
I'm goin' to Hell in my old Chevrolet
I don't know which way
He's got his cloven hoof on the clutch
Oh! Ow! I'm sitting on his tail
From "Private Idaho":
You're out of control, the rivers that roll
You fell into the water and down to Idaho
Get out of that state
Get out of that state you're in
You better beware
You're living in your own Private Idaho
Keep off the patio
Keep off the path
The lawn may be green
But you better not be seen
Walkin' through the gate that leads you down
Down to a pool fraught with danger
Is a pool full of strangers
From "Party Out of Bounds":
Surprise! Party!
Yeah, we just thought we'd drop in!
Where's your icebox?
Where's the punch?
Ew, house-a-tosis!
Who's to blame when parties really get out of hand?
Who's to blame when they get poorly planned?

Crashers get bombed, slobs make a mess
Ya know sometimes they'll even ruin your wife's dress
Crashers getttin' bombed (Who's to blame?)
Can you pull it back in line?
Can you salvage it in time?
What can you do to save a party?
Parcheesi? Charades? A spur-of-the-moment
Scavenger hunt, or Queen of the Nile?
Who turned out the lights?
In 1982, secretly prolific producer David Byrne attempted to take the band in a slightly different direction with the Mesopotamia EP, but according to sources, the The B-52's mostly resisted. I have to wonder what direction that could have possibly been. Ambient music? Nonetheless, the title track has to be the most swinging number about the Cradle of Civilization ever recorded:

Turn your watch, turn your watch back
About a hundred thousand years
A hundred thousand years
I'll meet you by the third pyramid
I'll meet you by the third pyramid
Ah come on, that's what I want, we'll meet
In Mesopotamia, oh oh oh
(We're goin' down to meet) I ain't no student
(Feel those vibrations) of ancient culture
(I know a neat excavation) Before I talk
I should read a book
But there's one thing I do know
There's a lot of ruins in Mesopotamia
Six or eight thousand years ago
They laid down the law
They sure did. Once in a while, though, the band managed to almost write something resembling an actual pop song. "Give Me Back My Man," as Tom Maginnis puts it in his AMG song review, "reveals a slice of sentimentality that hadn’t been heard before (or even thought possible) from these campy kings of New Wave party rock." Unsurprisingly, Fred Schneider sits this one out and Cindy Wilson takes over, nearly generating what her peers might have called "emotion." Then again, the chorus is "I'll give you fish/I'll give you candy." It also sounds as though someone is banging an aluminum sheet against a bathtub for percussion. Well, the B-52's certainly gave us fish, candy, and a whole lot of other goodies in between.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Small Games of 2012 (Part 2)

Pardon me, it took a bit longer to get through some of these games than I anticipated. Well, really, that's not entirely true. My gaming life has been taken over by another game recently, but I'll address that one soon enough in a separate post. Here's a link to part one if you wish to go back and take a look. For now let's get back to the other small games of 2012 that I played:

Mark of the Ninja (Klei Entertainment)

Mark of the Ninja is a game of stealth. It borrows heavily from other stealth games while implementing clear visual mechanics to create a remarkably good game. You play the role of a ninja, with the story told through beautifully animated cutscenes. As you traverse through the world on your way to various objectives (sometimes it's to secure an object, other times an assassination) you rely on stealth to get accomplish your goals. What makes the game work so well is that the mechanics are implemented so well. Each patrolling guardsman has a vision cone (just like in the original Metal Gear Solid) so you know exactly how far he can see, each footstep you take emits a ring of sound so you know exactly how loud you are, and each light shows you exactly whether you are able to be seen or if you are tucked safely in the shadows. The game gives you a whole arsenal of weapons and tricks that encourages multiple playthroughs. Want to get through without ever being detected? Utilize your distraction items. Want to be a ruthless murderer? Sneak up on a guard and slit their throat. Mark of the Ninja is a great little game that gets stealth just right. It's available for PC and Xbox 360.

Skrillex Quest (Jason Oda and Skrillex)

Now here's a game out of left field. Skrillex Quest is a free-to-play browser game that's surprisingly good. Your character, "P1", is on a quest to save the world by removing the glitches. You see, the glitches are there because there's dust on the cartridge. The entire game is a great deconstruction/amalgamation of old videogames. With a great 8-bit aesthetic, the game crams so many references it's difficult to keep track of them all. At one point it's straight up the original Legend of Zelda, at times the original Dragon Warrior, then there's a bit of Goonies II (the semi-sequel to the movie that was only ever a videogame), and even some random 80s movie references (I know I caught some Neverending Story dialogue in there).

Designed by Jason Oda, who also did the amazing parody Perfect Strangers game (also free-to-play in your browser) not too long ago, the game is basically a marketing vehicle for dubstep artist Skrillex's latest album (who makes a cameo in boss form near the end). The game is set to the song "Summit", which is actually pretty good. The game only takes about 15 or so minutes to play through. I highly recommend giving the game a whirl, you can find it here.

Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP (Capybara Games)

Now for something similar yet very different. Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP uses a similar retro 8-bit look to Skrillex Quest, but instead of an action game, gives us an old fashioned point-and-click adventure. I'm divided on this game. I absolutely loved the visuals - and the music, by Jim Guthrie (who the game seems to want to continually remind you did the music), is really well done.

The way the story and dialogue are delivered are fun as well. The game starts out by having an 8-bit cigar smoking man introduce us to the "experience" we are about to undertake, very much in an homage to Half Life's G-Man or the X-Files' cigarrette smoking man. Then we're off on the adventure, with the dialogue delivered in a sort of ironic self-awareness, employing the royal "we" (sample dialog goes like this: "We continued on our epic quest, though we were feeling hella tired"), and with characters named "dogfella" (a dog) and the lumberjack "logfella". My problem with the game is in the puzzles themselves. Maybe I'm just not skilled in point-and-click adventures but I often had to consort a walkthrough in order to get through the game. It's not that the puzzles themselves were necessarily difficult, it's that their presentation was difficult. Occasionally there appeared to be a puzzle when there really wasn't, thus wasting my time needlessly clicking around when there wasn't anything to be found. What it comes down to is that I really just didn't like the "game" aspect of the game. It's a shame too, because the rest of the experience was really good. It's available for PC and most tablets.

FTL: Faster than Light (Subset Games)

FTL: Faster than Light came out last year, but I didn't pick it up until about a month ago. Sometime last year all my favorite game blogs and reviewers started to gush about this game and its addictive properties. I didn't pay it much mind at the time because of the type of game that it is: a roguelike. If you're unfamiliar with roguelikes, Wikipedia describes them as "a sub-genre of role-playing video games, characterized by level randomization, permanent death, and turn-based movement". I'm typically not a fan of roguelikes, I find them too hard and not very satisfying as they're typically based around how long you can survive before dying, and not about any sort of plot or character development. I generally prefer my games to have some sort of story. But I decided to pick up FTL when it went on sale on Steam and I've been hooked since.

The premise is that you're piloting a little spacecraft, trying to navigate through space to reach the end and warn your people about some sort of incoming invasion. Rather than dealing with Star Wars-like dogfight combat you instead are in command of all the various subsystems of your little spacecraft. One of the designers said he was inspired by Star Trek where the captain yells out orders like "man the torpedoes, divert power to the main engine, seal the hull breach!" In FTL you're constantly juggling your resources while trying to survive. Every time you "jump" into a new system you are met with a randomized event. Sometimes it's space pirates, sometimes a friendly merchant, sometimes a ship that needs help, sometimes nothing. The randomness of it all is what makes it fun, though occasionally frustrating. I've had a game end in as little as three minutes, I've also had a game go as long as an hour. FTL: Faster than Light is really a great little game and very worth picking up. It's available on Steam/PC for ten bucks.

The Year of the Indie Game
It feels like there's a shift happening in games right now. There's a surge in small indie games and it seems that people are taking notice. After the recent Game Developer's Conference in San Francisco I read several online journalists remark that they could notice a change at the conference, that the small indie games were being taken more seriously than ever before, and that the gulf between small game developers and big AAA title corporate behemoths was becoming much more noticeable. The quality in small games is quite high, with these games often delivering interesting and creative experiences, while the AAA game industry is pushing out the same old stuff (mainly shooters) and suffering for it (the recent "Tomb Raider" sold over 3 million copies but the company behind it is saying the game was a failure - maybe they need to rethink their priorities). Maybe that's why Sony is specifically courting a lot of indie developers for the new Playstation 4 which should be out later this year. While I still dig playing those big budget AAA titles, there's a lot of good competition being offered up by the small guys. Hopefully I've helped you find some good ones.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Fun Boy Three's Lips: Even More Sealed Than The Go-Go's'

One day Terry Hall must have realized that he had co-written a song with Jane Wiedlin. Not only that, but the song that they'd co-written together had turned out to be pretty damn good. And not only that, but the song had also become a big hit for Jane's band. Could he really leave a great song that he'd co-written just ... lying there?

"But," Terry must have figured, "if I'm going to do my own version, I need to do it my way."

Wait ... whoa ... hold the phone. What the hell happened to "Our Lips are Sealed"?

Listening to the Fun Boy Three's version of the song, I am convinced that Terry's absolute main objective was to record a version that would be as completely different from Jane's version as possible. In fact, the song is so different that it's almost unrecognizable. It's like he replaced the cocaine with some morphine. But the mark of a great composition is that it can be performed in a number of different ways and still retain its core appeal. I think Terry showed Jane just how good of a song "Our Lips are Sealed" really was. (Or maybe the whole thing was David Byrne's idea. Seriously, think about all the musical connections that this one simple track contains. We've got the Specials, the Go-Go's, the Talking Heads ... it's like a New Wave orgy.)

Gone is Gina's "disco" beat, replaced with shuffling maracas and conga drums. Charlotte's Byrdsy guitar licks are now being played, almost note for note, by a sinister harpsichord, and Kathy's little bass solo is played by a cello. There is a guitar in this recording, but it bubbles along in a wobbly, repetitive manner underneath the rest of the mix. Neville and Lynvald chant "Bum, Bum-Bum" in the background as if they're the witch's guards from The Wizard of Oz. There are some distant, heavily echoed squeaks in the background here and there - possibly a rusty faucet being turned on, or a feral cat being strangled to death, I can't tell.

Perhaps the most immediately apparent difference between the two versions is the sound and style of the lead singers. Anyone used to Belinda's California quiver will do a double-take upon hearing Terry's extremely British phrasing. Whereas Belinda sang, "Can you hear them?/They talk about us/Telling lies/Well that's no surprise," Terry sings, "Can you hear them?/Talking 'bout us/Telling lies/Is that a surprise?" Cheerio, dahling! "It doesn't madder what they say" even becomes "It doesn't mat-tuh wot they say."

To be clear, I love the Go-Go's' version of "Our Lips Are Sealed" more than I love my own pinky finger, but (God/Belinda don't strike me down) I have to say that I may like the Fun Boy Three's version just as much, and possibly even ... more? Rather, let me say this: after having played the Go-Go's' version to death, I am a little bit sick of it, and if you were ask me to listen to a version of the song right this very minute, I think I would choose to listen to the Fun Boy Three version. What I didn't realize is that, apparently, you have to choose.

See, if you're from the UK, the Fun Boy Three version is the version you would know. The Go-Go's' version had only peaked at #47 there, whereas the Fun Boy Three version peaked at #7, becoming the group's last hit. It was even featured on the Trainspotting soundtrack. On YouTube, you will find several comments from fans of the Fun Boy Three version who sound rather frustrated that the Go-Go's' version is more well-known, usually using phrases such as "far superior," "way better," "1000 times better," etc.:
In my humble opinion, this is about a thousand times better than the Go Go's version. This is nice and eerie. The Go Go's version is too sunny...

Love the Go Go's, but this is SOOOOO much better. His deadpan delivery of these lyrics is PERFECT.

I loved this by Go Go's in the 80's but I STILL love FBT's version more ;-)

Terry sung it how it should have been sung. The Go-Gos version isn't dark enough.

This is a far superior version than the Go-Go's effort. Much more moodier, darker and atmospheric.

FBT's version of this song is by far the best.

I always preferred this version to the Go-Go's one. I like the vocal harmonies.

same here. this versions way better

Brilliant tune, this is for better than the Go GO's version, no contest

I like the Fun Boy Three version better than the Go-Go's. Not that the Go-Go's version is bad, but I like this arrangement much better. For me, this is the definitive version of the song.

this knocks the gogos version into a cocked hat - anyone who don't think so must have shit in their ears
Then there are those who take the Go-Go's' side:
The better of the two? Are you deaf? Woof! That was Aweful. And I'm a Specials fan....

Lacks the passion of the original. The vocals are too monotone.

A brilliant song by Terry but the Go-gos do it better

Go-Go's Version 10000% Better.
And then there are those like me - the peacemakers:
A beautiful song, whether it's done by the darker Fun Boy Three or The Go Go's...

Certainly a lot darker than the Go-Go's version...each is really appropriate for each group though. I'm a fan of both versions.

The 2 versions represent the two different views of the couple and thier fling esentially, Janes version was done by the Go Gos as a defiant nevermind everyone else we'll have our fun and be happy style while Terrys version based on his original letter comes froma more sombre we'll be judged on this but we cant do much about it. Probably a good representation of an English & then American take on the exact same incident. Americans optimistic English pessamistic
And then there are the miscellaneous:
always loved this song...but can this man get any MORE MISERABLE? dark and moody i get but this? you can see it in the drummers face, shes like "C'mon dude its back to Stacking Pastrami for me down at the deli...will you please move, do something...anything. Fuck."

The bad hair...the eye make-up...the apathetic, slightly sickly, angry, condecending facial expressions...
You've got to love the '80s!
The drummer chick looks like she'd just eaten a plate of bad fish.

For a bloke, he's got a beautiful shaped mouth.

Terry has a Cure look going on. Just needs to smear on some lipstick.

Ta wersja jest ciekawsza (niż Go-Go's ). Zresztą to chyba najlepszy numer w wykonaniu tej kapeli.
In conclusion: there are two hit versions of "Our Lips are Sealed" - whether you like it or not.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Bow Wow Wow: Statutory Afrobeat?

Oh, that Malcolm McLaren, always up to something.  After milking the wasted remains of the Sex Pistols for all they were worth, he briefly considered managing Adam & the Ants, but instead he siphoned off the Ants away from Adam, told them to play African music, and installed a 13-year-old girl as the lead singer. Bow Wow Wow was born.

There is some debate over how much Bow Wow Wow were a real band as opposed to simply a puppet for McLaren's insane fashion ideas and promotional stunts. Either way, singer Annabella Lwin's mother was not amused:
Famously, coinciding with Annabella Lwin's posing for album coverwork, her mother alleged exploitation of a minor for immoral purposes, and instigated a Scotland Yard investigation. As a result the band was only allowed to leave the UK after McLaren promised not to promote Lwin as a "sex kitten". This included an agreement to not use a nude photograph depicting Lwin as the woman in Manet's The Luncheon on the Grass (Le déjeuner sur l'herbe), though the picture was used as the cover of the band's 1982 RCA EP The Last of the Mohicans, which became their best-selling album in the U.S.
Oh, those Scotland Yard investigators, what a bunch of squares. Apparently, Bow Wow Wow and the suddenly thwarted Adam Ant "raced" to the stores to see who could capitalize on the Burundi sound first, possibly engaging in the silliest contest in the history of popular music. The winner has yet to be determined. One of Bow Wow Wow's first releases was a cassette single (or "cassingle") called "C-30 C-60 C-90 Go," which their label EMI refused to promote, as it allegedly encouraged home taping. It probably didn't help that McLaren deliberately left the B side blank.

It used to break my heart when I went in your shop
And you said my records were out of stock
So I don't buy records in your shop
Now I tape them all, 'cause I'm Top of the Pops!
Now I got a new way to move
It's shiny and black and don't need a groove
Now I don't need no album rack
I carry my collection over my back

C30 C60 C90 Go
Off the radio I get a constant flow
Hit it, pause it, record it and play
Turn it, rewind, and rub it away

Policeman stopped me in my tracks
Said "Hey you, you can't tape that
You're under arrest 'cause it's illegal"
So I shoved him off and blew his whistle
I'm a pirate and I keep my loot
So I blew him out with my bazooka
Apparently, taping songs off the radio can be a radical act of political rebellion.  Who knew that, all those hours I sat in my room as a teenager with my cassette player, I was actually Che Guevara?

Bow Wow Wow's debut album, the enthusiastically named See Jungle! See Jungle! Go Join Your Gang, Yeah. City All Over! Go Ape Crazy, featured winning song titles such as "(I'm A) TV Savage," "Elimination Dancing," "Why Are Babies So Wise," and "Hello, Hello Daddy (I'll Sacrifice You)." The band's lyrics tended to sacrifice coherence for amusement, but this was probably for the best. For example, "Do You Wanna Hold Me" juxtaposes verses referencing American cartoons with a mundanely romantic chorus:

Children, I wanna warn ya
'Cos I've been to California
Where Mickey Mouse is such a demon
Where Mickey Mouse is as big as a house!

Life is wasted on illusions
Tom and Jerry's no solution
Evil gangs will cut the demons
Pinocchio's a real boy, look around!

And I cry all night
Do you wanna hold me, hold me tight
Do you wanna hold me, oh yeah
Do you wanna hold me, hold me there
And by the way, how come Ronald Reagan never mentioned what a killer guitar player he was?

Cartoons and cassettes aside, the single that earned Bow Wow Wow a permanent place on nostalgic "Best of the '80s" compilations was not an original. "I Want Candy" had originally been recorded in 1965 by The Strangeloves, a group of professional New York songwriters (including future Go-Go's producer Richard Gottehrer) who essentially goofed around in the studio one night, made up a band name, and claimed to be from Australia. "I Want Candy" is the textbook example of a song that uses the Bo Diddley beat (dunk, dunk-dunk, a-dunk-dunk), which has been featured in everything from the Smiths' "How Soon Is Now" to George Michael's "Faith."

Bow Wow Wow sort of did to "I Want Candy" what the Rolling Stones essentially did to Buddy Holly's "Not Fade Away," ie. they took a Bo Diddley knock-off and made it sound even more like Bo Diddley than the original did. And what's particularly interesting about Bow Wow Wow's cover of "I Want Candy" is that it uses a beat that had its distant origins in Africa (and was re-shaped by the American South), and gives it a contemporary African spin. Oh, and there's a 15-year-old girl singing it.

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.