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Classic Tracks: The Pretenders “Don’t Get Me Wrong”

Recording The Pretenders "Don't Get Me Wrong" Classic Track

The cover of The Pretenders, the band’s first album, reveals the mix of qualities that makes lead singer and songwriter Chrissie Hynde so compelling. With her heavy black eyeliner, tightly zipped red pleather jacket and thousand-yard stare, there’s no question that Hynde is every bit as tough as her all-male band; probably more so. Yet there’s no doubting her femininity, as evidenced by her long hair and lace gloves. The image captured Hynde’s persona: She has a swagger that stands up to that of rock’s cockiest frontmen and a vulnerability that gives her songs depth and emotional range. That combination paralleled The Pretenders’ sound, which mixed the back-to-basics, aggressive energy of punk with Hynde’s strong melodic sense and a wide stylistic palette that covered ground from rock ‘n’ roll to pop.

Both the sound and Hynde’s persona are still in evidence on the group’s 1986 hit “Don’t Get Me Wrong.” The song is a confession of infatuation, but as Hynde sings about being swept away by passion, she sounds supremely confident: The confession doubles as a come-on. Under her supremely catchy melody, Robbie McIntosh’s shuffling guitar line contrasts with Steve Jordan’s straight-ahead beat to create a groove as propulsive as a train engine. And Paul “Wix” Wicken’s synth flourishes add appropriate touches of pop grandeur.

Though The Pretenders formed in London, Hynde herself was an ex-pat from Akron, Ohio. She attended Kent State University in the early ’70s, where she played in a college band with Devo frontman (and fellow Akronite) Mark Mothersbaugh, and witnessed the infamous Kent State killings. In 1973 she left the country to immerse herself in the London music scene as both a singer and a critic. She socialized with the Sex Pistols and played in several bands, including one with future members of The Clash, before forming The Pretenders in 1978.

Their 1980 debut, The Pretenders, charted at Number One in the UK and went Platinum in the United States, and its follow-up, Pretenders II, was certified Gold in the U.S. Soon after, however, guitarist James Honeyman-Scott and bassist Pete Farndon both died of drug overdoses. Despite these devastating losses, Hynde continued forward with the band, keeping original drummer Martin Chambers and adding guitarist Robbie McIntosh and bassist Malcolm Foster. The result was another hit record, aptly titled Learning to Crawl.

But more personnel changes were to come. As they were rehearsing for their next record, Get Close, Bob Clearmountain recalls the band sounding “raggedy.” At first, Clearmountain (who co-produced the record with Jimmy Iovine) chalked it up to poor acoustics in the rehearsal hall, making it difficult for the musicians to hear each other. But once they began tracking in London’s AIR Studios, it became clear that acoustics weren’t the issue. As they were setting up the drums, Chambers mentioned that he’d gotten into programming on a drum machine and hadn’t touched a real kit in well over a year.

Co-producer Bob Clearmountain

“I was like, ‘Oh, really? How’s this gonna work?’” Clearmountain remembers thinking. “Sure enough, he just didn’t have the chops — he hadn’t practiced enough. Even though this guy is an amazing drummer, you take away the drums from any drummer for a year, and it’s gonna be tough to get that back, you know?”

As a result, both Chambers and Foster (whom Hynde and the producers felt was also not playing well) were asked to leave the group before recording began. Clearmountain describes the process as heartbreaking, but says that they couldn’t have made the recording if they hadn’t done it. On the upside, the situation left Hynde with a lot of options. “I think she was sort of at that Springsteen stage anyway, where she had played with the same band for a while and she just wanted to try some other players, just to break it up and make it interesting, besides the fact that Martin wasn’t really cutting it,” Clearmountain says.

The band began sessions at AIR Studios with drummer Mel Gaynor of Simple Minds. Hynde was married at the time to Simple Minds singer Jim Kerr, and Clearmountain and Iovine had produced their last record, which was how they met Hynde and ended up working on Get Close. Many other crack studio musicians ended up on the album, as well, including drummer Simon Phillips, who was performing and recording with Pete Townshend at the time; Bernie Worrell, keyboardist for Parliament Funkadelic; and Steve Jordan, a drummer/producer and friend of Hynde’s. (Jordan currently plays with and produces John Mayer’s band.) Ultimately, Blair Cunningham played most of the drum tracks, T.M. Stevens recorded most of the bass tracks and Paul “Wix” Wickens did the lion’s share of keyboards.

With Hynde and McIntosh supported by studio pros, the recording went smoothly over the next six weeks. Hynde herself was extremely easy to record, according to Clearmountain. “You could have four vocal takes — we wouldn’t really do any more than that — and you had a choice between one would be amazing, one would be fantastic, the third would be unbelievable and the last would be perfect,” he says.

Engineer Bruce Lampcov, a huge fan of both Hynde and The Pretenders, was thrilled to work on the album, and notes Hynde’s personality with admiration. “I’ve worked with a lot of women in the industry,” he says. “Women have to be very tough to get their voice heard, literally, but also just their ideas because it’s such a male-oriented industry. Chrissie’s a tough person, and she just wouldn’t let shit go down that wasn’t the way she saw it. She’s the boss — that’s it.”

The recording eventually moved from London to New York because there were musicians there that the producers and Hynde wanted to use, according to Clearmountain. Lampcov recalls flying to the States on a Concorde overnight, touching down and heading straight into Power Station studio, still jet-lagged, to record “Don’t Get Me Wrong.” Clearmountain came late to the session, and Lampcov remembers feeling a little intimidated setting up by himself. “I was a young guy. I was like, ‘Wow, I’m doing this on my own. This is scary.’ I mean, I’d done lots of records, but still — Chrissie was my idol.”

The song was recorded in Power Station’s Studio A, using the studio’s Neve 8068 desk. Clearmountain designed Power Station himself, with Tony Bongiovi; they sold the console in 1992, but Clearmountain Googled the model number a few years ago and ended up buying it off the owner. “That series of Neves all through the ’70s were some of the best-sounding recording consoles on the planet,” he says. “They have the famous mic preamps, and they’re very straightforward and easy to operate. I did a lot of big records on that particular console: Bryan Adams, Chic and Sister Sledge. It’s very fast and sounds fantastic.”

Hynde’s vocals were recorded in Studio B, probably with a Neumann U87 microphone and an LA-3A compressor. Clearmountain recalls that, despite her in-your-face personality, Hynde liked privacy and darkness when she did her vocals, and always asked to be partitioned off from the control room. In fact, Clearmountain wasn’t actually in the room when she did her vocals that day. “She had done three or four vocal takes on ‘Don’t Get Me Wrong,’” he says. “I think I had to take a phone call in the other room. I said I’d be right back. When I came back, she had done the perfect vocal take on the song. So sometimes it’s just a matter of leaving to get an artist to perform.”

Lampcov miked Steve Jordan’s drums with Sennheiser 421s on the toms, top and bottom, an AKG D12 on the bass drum, SM57s on the snare top and bottom, and some type of AKG mic on the cymbals. He used 1176 compressor/limiters on the snare drum for compression, and Pultec EQs on a lot of the drums. “It was 24 tracks, so there were a lot of mics, but I mixed it down to bass drum, snare, hat, overheads and room, with EQ and everything,” he says. “That was how you worked back then — you’d EQ everything to how you wanted to hear it.

“I remember Bob commenting on the drum sound because he probably wouldn’t have gotten that sound himself; he would have done something different. I took it as, ‘Oh, no, did I screw it up?’ But I think he thought it was okay. Anyway, it’s Steve Jordan’s sound. And Bob’s mixing, so whatever you do he makes it sound great.”

McIntosh’s main rhythm guitar was a Strat going through a Roland Digital Delay. He borrowed a Gretsch guitar for the song’s solo, and also played a Telecaster on it. The Eurythmics’ bassist, Chucho Merchan, played on the session, but his part was later replaced by T.M. Stevens. In a testament to the skill of everyone involved, the entire song was recorded that day, including vocals.

The rest of the album was recorded primarily at Bearsville Studios near Woodstock, along with one song at Right Track in New York City. Lampcov remembers that it was challenging to make the album sound consistent, as he and Clearmountain didn’t have their own equipment; they used whatever they found in each studio. “Having said that, back then all the studios had Neve consoles and then you’d use the EQs on the consoles,” he says. He also cites Clearmountain’s mixing skills in keeping the album’s sound unified. Clearmountain mixed Get Close at Bearsville on an SSL 4000 E Series desk, an earlier version of the console he usually mixes on now. (He uses the Neve 8068 to a lesser degree.)

When it hit the airwaves, the album was another success for The Pretenders, and “Don’t Get Me Wrong” became the group’s second Top 10 single in the U.S. It has proved to be a perennial favorite, as evidenced by a recent cover by British pop star Lily Allen. As a happy coda to the album, Chambers got his drumming chops back and rejoined The Pretenders, playing with them to this day. Other personnel changes have occurred, but Hynde has continued to tour and record with the band. Their recent album, Break Up the Concrete, proves that both her songwriting and vocals are still in great shape.

Lampcov and Clearmountain each remember their experience working with Hynde and The Pretenders on Get Close fondly. “It was fantastic,” Lampcov raves.

“The musicians were so good, and Chrissie was so good, it was just stunning,” Clearmountain says. “You just knew, this is everything we could ever want from a recording for a pop record.”