30 Years Ago: the Pretenders learning to crawl in Vancouver

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By Steve Newton

Thirty years ago today–on February 21, 1984–the Pretenders played a sold out show at Vancouver’s Queen Elizabeth Theatre. The band was touring behind one of its best albums ever, Learning to Crawl, which included such snazzy numbers as “Back on the Chain Gang”, “My City Was Gone”, and “Middle of the Road”.

The day of the show I had an in-person interview with a couple of band members–neither of which was Chrissie Hynde, unfortunately. But I still remember getting a kick out of chatting with drummer Martin Chambers and guitarist Robbie McIntosh.

Here’s the story that ran a couple of weeks later in Vancouver’s Georgia Straight newspaper, which featured a great cover utilizing an image from the show by local rock photographer Bev Davies. 

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“I originally wanted to play guitar,” says Pretenders drummer Martin Chambers, “but I had an idiot for a teacher, so it didn’t work out.”

That statement may come as a surprise to those who packed the Queen Elizabeth Theatre last week to see one of the hottest bands in today’s music scene. A band that rocks as hard and clean as the Pretenders relies on sturdy, precise percussion, and Chambers delivers, early guitar aspirations or not.

But then, his band is noted for its ability to surprise and amaze, not only through consistently strong material and fine live shows, but a keen resolution to let nothing–even death–keep it off the chain gang of rock and roll.

Sinking into the plush contours of a sofa in the lobby of the Four Seasons Hotel just hours before the band’s stunning appearance, Chambers–seated with guitarist Robbie McIntosh–outlined how he first became involved with the group.

“In the summer of 1978 Chrissie was in England, and flitting over to France, when she met up with Pete [Farndon, former bassist]. Then they went looking for a guitarist, and fiddled a guy from Hereford called James Honeyman-Scott into the band.

“A few months later I found that Pete and Jimmy were living just down the road from where I was. I was a driving instructor at the time, and they asked me along to a rehearsal. We played around a bit, and it was just good fun. So that was the band then. Later we called it The Pretenders and put ‘Stop Your Sobbing’ out.

Original members Honeyman-Scott and Farndon both died drug-related deaths within four years of the band’s inception, but their presence is still felt when the band plays live. In an intro to the hit single “Back on the Chain Gang”, Hynde told the audience at the Queen E. “This is for some friends of our who are long gone…” The lyrics of the song strike hard at how she feels about their passing:

The powers that be, they force us to live like we do; bring me to my knees, when I see what they’ve done to you

Well I’ll die as I stand here today, knowing that deep in my heart, they’ll fall to ruin one day, for making us part

“Well it was a numbing thing,” says Chambers of the effect the deaths had on the band. “When Jimmy died, people used to say, ‘Well, are you gonna carry on?’ We didn’t think about that. It was the death of a good friend to me. I mean, I’d known him for a long, long time before the Pretenders.

“So it was a question of reorganizing after a certain amount of time, and thinking, ‘Well what do we do now?’ We got Billy Bremner and Tony Butler and recorded “Back on the Chain Gang”, and then decided to start auditions.

Guitarist McIntosh joined the Pretenders in the summer of 1982, a couple of months after the death of Honeyman-Scott. He plays on most of the tunes on the new album Learning to Crawl, which is currently #1 after six weeks on the Georgia Straight Top 50. He also performed with the band at last year’s US Festival.

“That was a super event,” says Robbie. “They videod and recorded everybody, and it was so easy to get in and out of backstage–you just went and did your show and left. And the organization was amazing, because there was something like 200,000 people there each day.”

And what was it like to play in front of such a huge audience?

“Once you’ve done about 5,000 people there’s not really that much difference,” claims McIntosh. “You can only see a sort of semi-circle in front of you anyway.”

“Especially outdoors,” Chambers points out. “It’s a bit different indoors, but once you’re over 5,000 outdoors it doesn’t matter.”

Before he’d even dreamed of playing before a crowd like the one at the US Festival, Martin Chambers drummed in various ’60s blues bands. Then he joined a big band orchestra that played pop standards and James Last/Benny Goodman material. He says there is no one particular drummer that stands out as his main influence.

“I wouldn’t like to pick any specific drummer because there’s so many good ones. And as long as the drummer’s doing the right thing for the song, then it’s great, ’cause the song’s more important than any individual part.”

That’s certainly the case with the Pretenders. Their songs are streamlined and concise, rarely cluttered. And which ones do Chambers and McIntosh most like to perform live?

” ‘Time the Avenger’ ” is a pretty good one,” says Robbie, ’cause it’s really quite tricky.”

“My favourite one’s always been ‘Up the Neck’ from the first album,” reckons Martin, “I’ve always loved that tune.”

“Yeah,” second Robbie, “it’s a real rocker.”

While Chambers and McIntosh enjoy playing the Pretenders’ rockingest tunes the most, they’re certainly open-minded when it comes to what they’ll listen to in their spare time.

“A great variety really,” says Martin, “’cause I’ve got Algar upstairs. You know, Sir Edward Algar? He’s an English sort of romantic composer; he’s recorded stuff for the Royal Family. ‘Pomp and Circumstance’ was his #1; that was his biggie.”

“And he wrote ‘Land of Hope and Glory’,” adds Robbie, while Martin hums a distinguished melody to job the memory.

Before the two Pretenders rush off to get showered up for a local TV appearance, one more question is put forth. Why the title Learning to Crawl?

“It’s a statement of fact,” says Martin, “cause it’s actually what we’re doing. This is our very first tour. And when Chrissie titled the album her kid was just starting to crawl. So it was a inspired by that a bit.”

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