Stuffed wall-to-wall with fantastic songs, Pretenders’ third album, Learning To Crawl, is a career highlight by anyone’s standards, but its quality is all the more remarkable when you consider the personal tragedies that frontwoman Chrissie Hynde and drummer Martin Chambers overcame in order to make it happen.
“We couldn’t let the music die”
The group had already entered the 80s as one of the new decade’s hottest bands. A masterful blend of punky aggression and pop nous, Pretenders’ self-titled debut album took them to the verge of mass success on both sides of the Atlantic, while its equally fine follow-up, Pretenders II, cemented their reputation on the global stage.
At least superficially, it seemed Pretenders could do no wrong, but then tragedy struck – twice. In June 1982, guitarist James Honeyman-Scott died unexpectedly from drug-related heart failure, while, just months later, founding bassist Pete Farndon, who had been ejected from the band due to his own drug-related issues, died of a heroin overdose.
Understandably, Chrissie Hynde and Martin Chambers were devastated by the loss of their two close friends, but when it came to Pretenders’ immediate future, Hynde felt the much-missed Honeyman-Scott had already made the decision for her.
“One of the things that kept the band alive, ironically, was Jimmy’s death,” she said in the sleevenotes for Pretenders’ Pirate Radio box set. “Because I felt we couldn’t let the music die when he did. We’d worked too hard to get it to where it was. I thought we had to keep it going or it would seem like Jimmy’s fault that it had all ended.”
“I had to finish what we’d started”
Hynde and Chambers duly recruited a stop-gap line-up, with Rockpile guitarist Billy Bremner and Big Country bassist Tony Butler joining them to record Pretenders’ next single, the poignant Back On The Chain Gang, which became a sizeable hit in both the UK and US.