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Not Fade Away: The Pretenders’ ‘Learning To Crawl’

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Today's 101.9 Features

In Not Fade Away, we take a look at the legacy of some of the greatest albums of the past few decades – some iconic, some lesser known – as they celebrate significant anniversaries. Here, we look at the Pretenders‘ third full-length LP, ‘Learning To Crawl,’  which turns 30 today. 

Although it came early in their career, the Pretenders’ Learning To Crawl was a stunning comeback album. Commercially, the band didn’t have a failure to “come back” from (although 1981’s Pretenders II may not have been the classic that their 1980 self-titled debut was). They had to recover from something far more devastating than a dip in sales.

By 1983, half of the Pretenders’ founding lineup – guitarist James Honeyman-Scott and bassist Pete Fardon – had passed away; both had succumbed to drug abuse. In her acceptance speech at the band’s 2005 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, front woman Chrissie Hynde thanked them, saying “Without them, we wouldn’t be here” (adding darkly, “On the other hand, without us, they might have been here, but that’s the way it works”).

Hynde and drummer Martin Chambers decided to keep the band going, working with different musicians before settling on a new lineup. Guitarist Billy Brenner (from the band Rockpile) and bassist Tony Butler (of Big Country) joined temporarily, recording two classics – “Back On The Chain Gang” and its B-side, “My City Was Gone.” “Back On The Chain Gang” was released as a single in late 1982; in 1983, it was included on the King Of Comedy soundtrack. It became a #5 hit in the U.S., their biggest hit to date. Hynde was still writing great songs, and the audience was still interested. Now, all the Pretenders needed was a permanent lineup.

Having to replace a deceased member of a group is always difficult. Also, head Pretender Chrissie Hynde, was pregnant, so she had other very obvious concerns outside of the band. But guitarist Robbie McIntosh was up for the challenge of being a new Pretender, and he was a logical choice for the group; James Honeyman-Scott had once suggested him to Hynde, as an extra member of the touring band. And as he told Radio.com, he suggested the band’s new bass player as well.

“I went and did an audition, and [Chrissie] phoned me and said she wanted me to do it. I suggested [bassist] Malcolm Foster, who Jimmy also knew,” he says. Foster got the gig, and with the new lineup completed, they continued on the in-progress album.

“I think Chrissie was happy to have me because I was a friend of Jimmy’s. I’m not saying I was as good as Jimmy, but she knew she was getting a similar vibe. Me and Jimmy were into the same sort of things. We weren’t really into punk, we were into Pete Townshend and blues and the Kinks and the Beach Boys. She kind of knew what she was going to get.”

There was another reason that he didn’t have a hard time fitting in: “Chrissie and I were both in the same boat; my wife was pregnant at the time; we were both becoming parents for the first time.”

The song that led off the album, and introduced McIntosh to the fans, was the classic “Middle Of The Road,” a very different kind of rock song. With lines like “I’m standing in the middle of life with my plans behind me” and “Don’t harass me, can’t you tell/I’m going home, I’m tired as hell/I’m not the cat I used to be/I got a kid, I’m thirty-three,” the song, like John Lennon’s “Watching The Wheels,” described middle age in a pop song. McIntosh says that, despite his impending parenthood, he still felt like the cat he used to be: “I didn’t feel very middle aged at the time, I was twenty-four when I joined the Pretenders. Middle age still seemed way in the future.”

On the other side of the musical coin was “Show Me,” a much warmer song than the album’s other singles. “I was very proud of that one,” McIntosh says. He recalls the sessions warmly: “I got on very well with [producer] Chris Thomas, he paid me some nice compliments about my guitar parts and my sound. I didn’t have a lot of gear at the time. I had a Fender Telecaster, a Gibson Les Paul and a Marshall amp. It was a good thing, in a way. You can go up your own a**: the more gear you’ve got, the more gear you try, and sometimes you can go off on tangents. Chris Thomas’s production was… a very classic production. The vocals were very loud and the band were very tight. He got a very traditional sound with the band. In the classic pop records, the vocals are right up front, that’s how he produced it.”

By the next album, 1986’s Get Close, Chambers was out of the band, dismissed by Hynde, leaving her as the lone founding member. After that album, McIntosh left the group. “I was ready to move on,” he says. “I spent too much time away from home. It was getting me down and I didn’t really see where my future lay. I didn’t really want to go out on the road. As it turned out, I joined Paul McCartney’s band about two years later.” He played on McCartney’s 1989 album Flowers In The Dirt and the follow-up, 1993’s Off The Ground, and the tours for each album. Although the former Beatle’s schedule was a bit easier: “In his band, we were never really away for more than a few weeks at a time.” And, in fact, he got that gig with a little help from Hynde, who suggested him to McCartney: “The first time I met Paul, I was in the Pretenders, it might have been when we were recording Get Close. Linda and Chrissie were very close, and I think she suggested me to Linda and Paul. The rest is history, but I was always very grateful to Chrissie for that.”

In the years since, he’s been a member of both Norah Jones’ and John Mayer’s bands. Right now, he’s concentrating on his solo career: his latest album was last year’s Turn Up For The Books (which you can buy at his official website). But has he ever thought about rejoining the band?

“Not really. I’m aware that the band sold more records after I joined. I don’t think that it was about me.  It’s to do with Chrissie and the songs and the fact that [the band] worked hard in the years leading up to it. The guy she’s got now, James [Walbourne] is fantastic, he’s a friend of mine. He’s a great player, there’s no need for me to rejoin the band. Martin’s mentioned it a few times. But I don’t think she needs me. It might be something that people would like to see, I don’t know really.”

He ran into his former boss back in November, but the subject didn’t come up. “I saw her not long ago, actually, backstage at the Royal Albert Hall at a Bob Dylan concert. I didn’t go with her; I started talking to [Dylan's guitarist] Charlie Sexton, and she was talking to him also. It was quite a shock! I hadn’t seen her in years! I was quite pleased to see her, I don’t know if she was pleased to see me. She was very interested in speaking to Charlie.”

At the aforementioned Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, Hynde started her acceptance speech by saying, “I know the Pretenders have looked like a tribute band for the last twenty years, and actually they are a tribute band. And tonight we’re paying tribute to James Honeyman-Scott and Pete Fardon.” The induction only included the original four members, but later in her speech, Hynde thanked McIntosh and Malcolm Foster, and rightfully so. They were instrumental in help keeping a great band alive, and giving them at least one more classic album.

-- Brian Ives, Radio.com 

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