Out of the shadows
and into the limelight
An unsettling feeling weighs down on the viewer who gets caught up in the musical magic that is the documentary The Wrecking Crew about the band of the same name.
Never heard of them? You’re not alone. The Wrecking Crew were a group of studio musicians who made more hit records than any band you have heard of. Based in Los Angeles in the 1960s, they played on much of the music that makes up the soundtracks of our lives. Yet because they recorded without credit, they remain largely unknown — certainly as a group, but even individually, with the exception of a few who became stars in their own right or are known by people in the business because of their musical chops.
It’s a fascinating story, really. But the weird thing about watching this film is how your musical appreciation and wonder for these session musicians grows in proportion to your disappointment and disillusionment with the ‘’stars’’ who you thought recorded a lot of songs that were in fact laid down by The Wrecking Crew.
One glaring example: The Association.
The American pop sensations that kicked off Monterey in 1967 recorded a string of hits including Windy, Cherish and Along Comes Mary. Or so we thought.
The documentary reveals The Wrecking Crew played the instruments on their songs and that the band refused to give them credit because, well, we wouldn’t want fans to know it wasn’t their favourite band playing on the record, would we?
A more surprising example comes from a much more significant group and album: The Beach Boys’s Pet Sounds.
Considered one of the most influential recordings ever, the documentary points out Pet Sounds inspired the Beatles to copy that sound for their masterpiece Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Yet we learn it was The Wrecking Crew that played on those tracks.
The documentary justifies their involvement by pointing out that The Beach Boys were really an extension of Brian Wilson and that Pet Sounds was a solo album “in all but name.” And more knowledgeable listeners have long known that the band never pretended to be responsible for their own music.
But to this listener, it was The Beach Boys and they are a band, a band that played the instruments on their albums as well as sang.
It’s one thing to learn, as we do from Mickey Dolenz, that The Wrecking Crew were the musicians who breathed life into The Monkees. We knew The Monkees didn’t start out as a real band but as actors hired to be in a TV show about a band then became a real group — and stars at that. In fact, Dolenz didn’t even play the drums! He learned to play from the likes of The Wrecking Crew’s legendary Hal Blaine and Earl Palmer, then went out and played the songs live.
It’s also no surprise that solo artists and duos relied on the musical expertise of session musicians to play their tunes. No one really cared who filled out the band when Simon and Garfunkel recorded Bridge Over Troubled Water — just as long as they were good.
But Pet Sounds? The sounds I heard in my head when I came to that part of the documentary were those of a wrecking ball called The Wrecking Crew crushing my naïve, 1960s notions of artistic integrity.
Remember, these were the days before the musical firestorm that was sparked by Milli Vanilli. In fact, director Danny Tedesco points out The Wrecking Crew, which includes his father, guitarist Tommy Tedesco, were involved in groups that he called the “Milli Vanillis of the day.”
“A producer would get the guys in and lay down some instrumental tracks. If it became a hit, they would record an album and put a group together to go on the road. This happened many times with groups like the Marketts, Routers, and T-Bones. The next day they would do the same thing and call it another name. Same musicians, but different group name.”
Listeners today may not appreciate, or care, about musical integrity in a world where pop stars think nothing of lip syncing at Super Bowl halftime shows or where people who can’t sing use technology to give their voices star quality. But it mattered to those of us who were swept away by the idealism, fervour, sheer talent and experimentation of 1960s acts.
The director’s comparison to Milli Vanilli may not be fair. Unlike the photogenic pop duo who never sang a note on their hit record Girl You Know It’s True, the artists who were in the limelight while The Wrecking Crew played in their shadows weren’t all fake. But still, it sucks to learn the truth sometimes when all you wanna be is a kid who believes in the music.
The flipside to this musical loss of innocence is the revelation at how awesome the musicians in The Wrecking Crew really were.
The session players — no one knows exactly how many there were, but it was probably around 20 — were full-time working musicians who would go into the studio — sometimes, multiple studios — every day and crank out the tunes. Understandably, they would have to be good to lay down tracks for the likes of Frank Sinatra, The Byrds and Sam Cooke.
But how good they were is revealed as they tell their story.
Carol Kaye, a bass player, tells how her fingers spun gold from her instrument when she took some nothing notes she was provided and came up with a distinct, bass line that became Sonny and Cher’s monster hit, The Beat Goes On. Same thing with the odd but distinct double bass line on Nancy Sinatra’s The Boots Are Made for Walking, played by Chuck Bergofer.
The late, great Tedesco’s extraordinary chops are finally and lovingly given their due by his son. We learn that he was the genius behind a whole slew of great hits, as well as TV theme songs such as Bonanza, Green Acres and M*A*S*H. He was also a card, as warm and engaging in front of a crowd as he was talented on the guitar — although I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry at the sight of him playing in a tutu on The Gong Show.
The Wrecking Crew documentary also shares some interesting backstories. There’s the sad tale of how Blaine lost millions after his divorce and became a security guard before his career was resurrected and he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. We learn of fellow drummer Palmer’s training as jazz player who had to adjust to the lesser arts of rock and pop but made his instrument sing. Plas Johnson Jr. tells the story of his musical parents after briefly playing the theme song to the Pink Panther on his sax.
But therein is the problem with the documentary. The Wrecking Crew tries to jam too much information — interviews, snippets and the like — into its 101 minutes and the result is a choppy narrative, one that continually interrupts all those great songs. Playboy’s Steve Rebello extolls the film as “absolute catnip” and it’s true — but too many short swigs leaves you feeling frustrated. Occasionally, it would be nice to settle down to a long, satisfying drink of some of these great songs.
Perhaps the best thing about The Wrecking Crew is the obvious joy its members — many of them since departed and others, like Glen Campbell, sadly incapacitated — had in playing all this great music. They were great, they knew they were great but they didn’t need the spotlight. If they had the opportunity to make the music in the shadows, well, that made for a satisfying day’s work.
Said Blaine: “I’ve always said if you loved your work, it wasn’t work.”