. . .
In the liner notes for his epochal 1977 triple-disc compilation Decade, Neil Young infamously wrote “’Heart of Gold’ put me in the middle of the road. Traveling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch. A rougher ride, but I saw more interesting people there.”
This was in reference to what Neil fans have always called the “Ditch Trilogy,” the raggedy, cranky albums that basically killed the commercial momentum he’d built up with Harvest, and as Chrissie Hynde is a long-time Neil Young fan — she was friends with one of the students killed at Kent State, about which he wrote “Ohio” — I can’t help but think that quote was the inspiration for the opening track of 1984’s fine comeback album, Learning to Crawl.
After all, “Back on the Chain Gang” had been an unexpectedly massive success in the U.S., which no doubt added to the pressure surrounding Learning to Crawl, so kicking it off with a passionate rocker featuring a spidery-guitar riff and big Martin Chambers drums was a bit of a statement that she was still a feisty, ornery rock ‘n’ roller who was dealing with both success and tragedy.
The middle of the road is trying to find me
I’m standing in the middle of life with my plans behind me
Well I got a smile for everyone I meet
As long as you don’t try dragging my bay
Or dropping the bomb on my street
Come on baby
Get in the road
Come on now
In the middle of the road, yeah
With Billy Bremner and Tony Butler’s involvement in her music basically a one-off for “Back on the Chain Gang,” on Learning to Crawl, the bass was handled by Malcolm Foster and the lead guitar by Robbie McIntosh, who had been recommended by James Honeyman-Scott just before he ODed; the last bit of direct influence Honeyman-Scott would have on her music, and McIntosh kicks an amazing guitar solo skittering and chattering and clanging off the wall for much longer than you’d expect, especially in a single.
All of this sets up one last verse & chorus, which Hynde helpfully counts in.
The middle of the road
Is no private cul-de-sac
I can’t get from the cab to the curb
Without some little jerk on my back
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’ve got a kid, I’m thirty-three, baby
Get in the road
Come on now
In the middle of the road, yeahhhhhh
I absolutely love the way she speeds up on the back half of the verse, just spitting out “I’m not the cat I used to be / I’ve got a kid, I’m thirty-three,” in utter frustration and resignation.
And then, in perhaps the greatest offhand vocal interjection in a career filled with them, Chrissie Hynde sets up her own harmonica solo — a surprise in and of itself — with a “BRRRRRR, YEAOOWWWW” just before it kicks in. And while I’d chalk up the harmonica solo as yet another Neil reference, most likely it goes to the song that Chrissie Hynde has said influenced “Middle of the Road,” the early Rolling Stones blues workout (and future Certain Song) “Empty Heart,” a jam on which Brian Jones (probably) utterly drenches in harmonica.
For all of this going on, it was a bit of a surprise that “Middle of the Road” was a hit single, but it made it to #19 here in the U.S., even if it stiffed in the U.K., no doubt on the back of an energetic performance video as well as a shitton of radio play, from College to Top 40. And while the rest of Learning to Crawl wasn’t as good as its first two singles — and “My City Was Gone” is forever ruined by asshole association — it still had some good tunes, like the Christmas near-standard, “2000 Miles,” or the riff-driven “Time The Avenger.”
Sadly, it would be the last Pretenders album I enjoyed start-to-finish for 15 years.
“Middle of the Road”
“Middle of the Road” video
“Middle of the Road” at Live Aid, 1985
“Middle of the Road” at Austin City Limits, 2017
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