Saturday, April 4, 2015

"The Wrecking Crew"

"The Wrecking Crew" is an insider account of a dozen-odd Los Angeles studio musicians who put their stamp on some of the biggest pop hits of the 1960s. 

Like the session players profiled in "Muscle Shoals," "Standing in the Shadows of Motown," and "Twenty Feet from Stardom," most members of the Wrecking Crew are unknown to the general public: you've heard their handiwork countless times but would not recognize their names.   

In the mid-to-late '50s and '60s a clean division of labor was common in pop music production. Professional songwriters wrote arrangements, a name act (Elvis Presley, Connie Francis) laid down the lead vocal, and studio musicians did the rest. While the media coverage and public focus was exclusively on the pop star, a good deal of the creative work was done by musicians who received no songwriting credit and no financial compensation other than union scale wages. 

The Brill Building in mid-town Manhattan exemplified this compartmentalized production model. Staffed with professional songwriters who worked with New York studio
Brian Wilson and Hal Blaine
musicians, the Brill Building generated a string of hits in the first decade of rock 'n' roll, including "Yakety-Yak," "Do Wah Diddy," "Da Doo Ron Ron," "Hound Dog,"

and "Leader of the Pack."

By the mid-'60s the pop world's center of gravity had shifted to Los Angeles. The California session players were looser than their New York counterparts. They preferred casual dress to the suit-and-tie attire customary in Manhattan. Where the New York session players tended to be faithful to the charts, the L.A. musicians were known to develop arrangements in the studio. The old guard said that the Los Angeles upstarts would "wreck" the music industry. 

The movie begins with footage from the "Pet Sounds" sessions in 1965, which were typical of the time. Brian Wilson, the Beach Boys' genius composer, was in the studio with the Wrecking Crew—while the other Beach Boys were on vacation. Other than Wilson's lead voice and the background vocals, all the tracks were filled by studio musicians. The same held true for many other Beach Boys releases of the era, including "Good Vibrations," a song crafted piece-by-piece in 25-30 sessions over three months. 

Wilson tended to work detailed arrangements out in advance, but some of the bands who used the Wrecking Crew allowed more experimentation. The Mamas & the Papas, a group of four vocalists, encouraged input from their backing musicians on the breakthrough hits "Monday, Monday" and "California Dreamin.'" 

Phil Spector, the '60s wunderkind producer of a slew of girl group hits, had another method of collaboration. Working with a small orchestra (four guitars, four pianos, two bass players) famously known as The Wall of Sound, Spector made the bands do so many takes that individual voices eventually merged into a cohesive whole. 

Other acts left most of the work to the Wrecking Crew. Roger McGuinn recounts that he was the sole member of the Byrds who was allowed to play an instrument on "Mr. Tambourine Man," to the resentment of his bandmates. Peter Tork showed up at the first Monkees recording session with his guitar, only to discover that his services weren't needed. Like the Monkees, the Association ("Windy," "Never My Love") contributed just vocals to their recordings.  

Woven through the movie are interviews with Wrecking Crew alumni, band members who recorded with them, and Dick Clark, who provides insight into the place of the Crew within the larger pop music industry. Some of the interviews give a human face to the creative process. Carole Kaye, the lone female in the Wrecking Crew, plays the bass line from the "Mission Impossible" theme song. Plas Johnson, a jazz musician who found his way to L.A. by way of New Orleans, blows the saxophone theme to "The Pink Panther" and the playful flute introduction to "Rockin' Robin." Chuck Berghofer demonstrates his signature opening bass line to "These Boots Are Made for Walking."  

It was a rewarding professional life that demanded versatility and a strong work ethic. As one interviewee put it, to continue to get called by the studios one had to "never say no until you're too busy to say yes." Often this required "dovetailing": bouncing from one session to another and backing acts as diverse as Frank Sinatra, Simon & Garfunkel, Harry Nilsson, Herb Alpert, or the 5th Dimension. 

One trade-off was family time. Tommy Tedesco, whose son Denny made "The Wrecking Crew," frequently didn't get home until 10 or 11 at night. Plas Johnson said, "I'm a better 
grandfather than I was a father." 

Though there were exceptions, such as Steely Dan, reliance on studio musicians fell off in the late '60s and early '70s when most of the bands coming up featured skilled musicians who wrote their own songs. Work slowed down for the Wrecking Crew, other than Leon Russell and Glen Campbell,
Tommy Tedesco, once called
"the most recorded guitarist in history"
who pursued successful solo careers. Hal Blaine, the Wrecking Crew drummer who had played on six straight Grammy Award songs of the year (1966-1971), was working as a security guard by the early '80s. 

The contributions of these talented artists to the American pop canon would be lost to time were it not for the dogged efforts of DennyTedesco, who wrote, directed, and produced "The Wrecking Crew." 

Tedesco's labor of love began with interviews in 1996, just before his father passed away, and continued up through the dozens of individual screenings/fundraisers he held in recent years to purchase licensing rights to the songs, photos, and footage used. 

With all the bills paid, "The Wrecking Crew" is finally seeing the light of day. The little movie that could is garnering rave reviews as it brings the story of these undersold musicians to 120 screens nationwide. And not a moment too soon.

                                                         Follow Dan Benbow on Twitter  

Other "Truth and Beauty" film reviews:

"Honest Abe Makes Sausage" (about "Lincoln")

"Errol Morris Strikes Again" (about "Tabloid")

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