What was the name of the group that performed hundreds of Top 40 hits in the 1960s and ’70s? But is a bunch of guys, and a gal, you’ve probably never heard of?
OK, trick questions. They didn’t have a name, particularly, weren’t a band in the traditional sense, and their membership changed routinely. But boy, did they make The Music!
What got me to thinking about these musicians was a documentary I watched on streaming video the week before last, “The Wrecking Crew.” That 2008 movie about the“group” of the same name was directed by Denny Tedesco, son of the best guitar player you probably never heard of, Tommy Tedesco, one of the regulars in that aggregation of studio musicians.
I was familiar with the Crew from my blogging and This Week in Rock History research, but probably even knew a little bit about them before I started doing that stuff. I knew, for instance, that the made-for-TV band the Monkees, who needed almost a year after their sitcom debuted to learn their instruments well enough to play live, were replaced on recordings by studio musicians.
But at that, I didn’t really know how pervasive their presence was. Or that rock acts I thought were competent musicians also took a back seat to Wrecking Crew session players — the Byrds, for instance, and the Beach Boys. Or that artists who I knew later for their solo success — country and western/pop superstar Glenn Campbell, Mad Dogs and Englishmen band leader Leon Russell — were members of the Wrecking Crew.
A significant portion of this floating opera of artists were educated and trained musicians, coming out of classical and jazz backgrounds. They were following a tradition of studio musicians who — in suits and ties — had backed the crooners and pop bands and singers of the 1940s and ’50s. But they were also a part of a new wave of popular artists and the music-industry machine behind them, which — according to one of their number — was the origin of the Wrecking Crew monicker. But more about that in a minute.
The Crew, while it included pickers and players who were getting a lot of studio time in the early 1960s, began to come together as a recognizable entity under the aegis of Phil Spector. They helped the legendary pop/rock impresario and producer build his Wall of Sound, and backed many of the hits he churned out: the Crystals, the Ronettes, etc. But they went on from there to become the “first call” (part of another name that they earned) session musicians for the hit-making machine of the mid-60s.
The artists and genres that they backed — and in many cases, substituted for — are dizzying: the aforementioned Beach Boys and Byrds, the Mamas and Papas, the Sinatras (father and daughter), Sonny and Cher (together and her solo). For many popular groups of the ’60s, they were the meat on the bones — the Association (one of my favorites, at the time, from the latter half of that decade), were just window-dressing for studio musicians.
The Wrecking Crew movie delves into that phenomenon, including interviews with the “rock stars” who had to park their axes and sit in the front row of the control room and listen to someone else make their music. Many were grateful for the experience: Mickey Dolenz — the TV child actor who won the audition for Monkees’ drummer, listened to Hal Blaine massage his drums to the songs written by Carole King, Neil Diamond and others, then needed months of training to play a simpler version of the hits’ percussion tracks — spoke eloquently and humbly about the experience.
But not all those sidelined “stars” were on-board with the scam. Peter Tork (real name Peter Thorkelson — fun fact, a cousin to Green Bay Packers’ running back Eric Torkelson) expressed amazement, and disappointment, over not being able to play on the Monkees’ hits. (One of those who was not sidelined, and it’s a testament to his ability and talent, was Roger McGuinn of the Byrds.)
(Took, like bandmate Michael Nesmith, was serious about his music, had pretensions of being a something other than a sitcom star, and had some solo success post Monkees, although less than Nesmith. It is said that he won the Monkees’ job over Buffalo Springfield/CSN-and-sometimes-Y guy Stephen Stills, based on hair and teeth. Which tells you something – Stills was good, and still is, even if his teeth weren’t.)
Those interviews are fun, but a lot of the documentary’s live, then-current material consists of the Wrecking Crew principals sitting around a table and talking about their experiences, or singly reminiscing about their work. To hear Carol Kaye — the only female in the bunch, unsurprisingly, considering the era — play the bass riffs that lived in my brain 50-plus years ago is priceless. The elder Tedesco is amazing — a picker who could go from blues to flamenco to pop to rock seamlessly, while being screamingly funny.
Blaine, whose kit included more drums than any two of your average rock time-keepers, talks too long about how his divorce bankrupted him, while acknowledging that the studio gigs made him richer than Croesus. (He is also the one of the bunch who pushes the Wrecking Crew label, which Kaye and some others refute, claiming that Blaine made it up to promote a memoir he did back in the ’90s, and that the group had other names back in the day.) Others talk about the grueling schedule they maintained — going from studio to studio, pop to rock, movie soundtrack to commercial jingle, 18 hours a day.
Despite the tremendous success they participated in, the Wrecking Crew fell out of favor with the music industry in the latter ’70s. They came to prominence because of the development of a new musical genre, popular rock and roll, which replaced the Brill Building/Tin Pan Alley-era pop.
Part of that prevalence and success was simple economics — studio time was expensive, and the Crew and such session musicians could get the job done quicker, and often better. But in the later ’70s, rock music fans preferred acts that played their own instruments, the singer-songwriter gained ascendancy, and the musicians wanted to be — well, musicians, not cardboard cutouts.
That, in my opinion, was a good thing, and much of the music I listen to to this day is influenced by that sea change. But I also love the stuff that the Wrecking Crew, or whatever their name was, crafted, over and over again, back then.