Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The Wrecking Crew (Lunch Box Entertainment/Magnolia Pictures, 2008, released 2015)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Two nights ago Charles and I went to the new San Diego Public Library on Park and Imperial (actually it’s not so “new” since it’s been open for two years!) to see a quite remarkable movie called The Wrecking Crew, produced and directed by Denny Tedesco. He made it largely as an homage to his father, the great studio guitarist Tommy Tedesco — who, along with his confreres (and one consoeur, bassist Carol Kaye — more on her later) like drummer Hal Blaine, guitarists Glen Campbell and Al Casey, and keyboard players Leon Russell, Mark Melvoin and Larry Knechtel, played on virtually all the hit rock records made in Los Angeles during the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. And not just the rock records, either; they also played for middle-of-the-road performers like Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Nat “King” Cole, usually when those greats were attempting to absorb enough of the new music to make it back onto the singles charts in an era dominated by various forms of rock ’n’ roll. Aside from Campbell and Russell, who “graduated” from the ranks of the Wrecking Crew into stardom themselves (and despite Campbell’s much-publicized battle with Alzheimer’s the clips of him in The Wrecking Crew show him clear, lucid and well acquainted with the details of his past — either the younger Tedesco shot these interviews well before Campbell was diagnosed or this is the bizarre pattern of Alzheimer’s that you can often remember things that happened 20, 30 or 40 years earlier and totally forget what happened in the last week, day or even minute), virtually none of the Wrecking Crew’s names were known in the world of music fans. Studio musicians occupy an odd place in the music business; they are always the best players there are — they have to be to cope with the multiplicity of styles they have to play, and also they have to be excellent sight-readers because the whole point of using a studio player, especially for common rock and pop instruments like guitar, piano, bass and drums, is to get a recording done quicker than if the band members themselves played on it.

The Wrecking Crew got the name when older studio musicians in L.A., appalled at the way they turned up for sessions in casual clothes instead of suits and ties, complained, “You’re going to wreck the music business!” The various members interviewed in Tedesco’s film (including his dad, who died in 1997, before he started making the project, but of whom he had plenty of video footage he’d shot at lectures and seminars his dad gave for aspiring young guitarists) variously estimated the size of the Wrecking Crew at 20, 25 or 30 musicians, though of course not all of them played on every session. They really coalesced as a unit during the time Phil Spector was running Philles Records from 1961 to 1966, when he did use almost all of them at every session — though he was content with one regular trap drummer (almost always Hal Blaine), he had four or five guitarists, four or five keyboard players, multiple bassists and lots of percussion. Spector recorded at Gold Star Studios because they had a large echo chamber, the size of a full room, in which the walls were ceramic, and the combination of multiple instruments and that famous echo was what created Spector’s fabled “Wall of Sound.” The sheer multiplicity of the Wrecking Crew’s recordings is the most astounding thing about this project — the page for the film lists 103 different songs in the “Soundtracks” section, probably a record for the site — and many of the records included, including “Bridge Over Troubled Water” by Simon and Garfunkel, made me go, “Gee, I didn’t know the Wrecking Crew played on that.” (Charles made fun of me for not realizing that there would have had to be additional musicians besides Simon and Garfunkel on that track, but what surprised me was that they recorded it in L.A. — being from New York was so much of Simon and Garfunkel’s identity I’d always assumed they made their records in New York with New York’s session musicians.) Indeed, the sheer number of song cues threatened to turn The Wrecking Crew into the most expensive home movie of all time; Tedesco finished it in 2008 and ran it at a few film festivals, but in order to clear it for a normal theatrical and DVD release he had to raise $200,000 to license all the copyrighted music heard in the film, and he had to do a Kickstarter campaign to pull it off.

The Wrecking Crew is a fascinating portrait of an odd time in the history of pop music; the self-contained big bands had long since become history (indeed, many of the best players in the big swing bands had settled in L.A. or New York and gone into studio work; they were the older generation who showed up for sessions in suits and ties and said the jeans-clad youngsters were “wrecking” the music business), and the advent of rock ’n’ roll had shaken up the music industry and threaten to dethrone the solo singers like Sinatra, Martin, Cole and Peggy Lee that had taken over after the big bands faded. The singers had been used to being backed by session orchestras, but originally the much simpler rock style was played by the singers’ own bands — Bill Haley and the Comets, Elvis Presley and his original Sun trio (Scotty Moore on guitar, Bill Black on bass and D. J. Fontana on drums), Carl Perkins and his band (built around his two brothers until one of them died in a car crash), Buddy Holly and The Crickets. The problem was that the rock players were untrained musicians; they could play the music but it took them a long time to learn it. So younger session players who could do the rock style were suddenly in demand, and occasionally they got to back performers not only in the studio but live as well; when Nancy Sinatra was at the peak of her 1960’s fame (launched there by “These Boots Are Made for Walking,” a great record which became a hit largely because of its killer bass line, a downward scale I’d always thought was played by the record’s producer, Lee Hazlewood, but which was actually Carol Kaye!), she brought drummer Hal Blaine to her Vegas engagement, gave him marquee billing and paid him $2,500 per week at a time when Frank Sinatra’s drummer, Irv Cottler, was only getting $750. Things began to change for the Wrecking Crew with the advent of the Beatles and the whole cult of “authenticity” that grew up around them; though the Beatles were clearly using session musicians of their own (especially as they grew as artists and their music became more complex and started to involve strings, horns and elaborate productions), Brian Epstein’s promotion of them as self-contained artists who wrote virtually all their own songs (artists had written songs for themselves before, but the assumption was that songwriting and performing were different skills and you couldn’t promote yourself as a singer-songwriter because that would alienate the music publishers and the professional composers they had under contract, on whom you would have to rely if you wanted to have a long career; what was different about the Beatles was not only that they wrote their own material but their manager actively promoted that fact and said essentially that because they wrote their own songs, they were more complete artists and you should like them better) created the idea that bands should create their own music and somehow they were “cheating” if they used session musicians, especially session musicians who played the same instruments they did.

The Beach Boys made virtually all their classic records with the Wrecking Crew (they did their early recordings for Candix and their first major-label album for Capitol entirely themselves, but after that Brian Wilson insisted on taking over the production and using the Wrecking Crew; he also refused to record in Capitol’s basement studio because it had been designed for artists like Sinatra, who were backed by large orchestras and recorded in real time instead of what became the standard rock practice of cutting the instrumental backing first and adding the vocals later, and he thought the space was too big for a rock band), especially after Brian stopped touring with them and they worked out a system whereby Brian would write the songs and record the backings while the other Beach Boys toured, and then when they returned to L.A. they would go in and add the vocals. But, like most of the groups that used the Wrecking Crew, they kept it a secret that they were using session musicians. Indeed, the surviving Wrecking Crew members interviewed in the film (including the great saxophonist Plas Johnson, most famous for his sinuous solo on the theme for the film The Pink Panther — years later he gave an interview to Down Beat in which he commented rather ruefully that he was making a living from music producers who would call him in and say, “Play like you did on the Pink Panther theme”) were particularly upset about the entire albums that were cut by the Wrecking Crew under made-up names like “The Routers,” “The Marketts,” and “The T-Bones,” and instead of identifying the musicians and selling the records as the studio concoctions they were, the producers and record labels would then hire other musicians to tour under the band names and rehearse them until they could play a reasonable simulacrum of what was on the records. (There’s a preposterous film clip showing “The T-Bones” performing on a TV show with replicas of T-bone steaks dangling from the studio ceiling in front of them.) The whole clash between the cult of the studio musician — and the producers who used them because they could learn an arrangement and get it down on tape in no more than three hours (the union-mandated length of a standard recording session) — and the cult of the “authentic” rock band came to a head with the Monkees.

Columbia Pictures had developed an idea for a TV series detailing the adventures of a fictitious rock band, and to play the band members they recruited real musicians — Mike Nesmith, Peter Tork, Micky Dolenz and Davy Jones. Jones was just a singer but the other three were guitarists and songwriters, and proud of their skills in those areas, and they showed up expecting to play instruments on the Monkees’ records. No dice, said Don Kirschner, who’d been hired by Columbia to produce the Monkees’ music; they had already hired professional songwriters to write the Monkees’ material and the Wrecking Crew to play it, and all they needed the Monkees for was to sing. Micky Dolenz is interviewed in The Wrecking Crew, and in the film he ruefully admits that Kirschner was right — they did get the records done far more quickly and efficiently than they could have with the Monkees playing on them — and at the time Mike Nesmith told an interviewer rather angrily that he wasn’t on the show as a musician, but as an actor playing a musician: “Just because Robert Young stars on Marcus Welby, M.D., do you really expect him to perform brain surgery?” Actually, beginning with their third album, The Monkees’ Headquarters, the Monkees started insisting on playing at least some of the tracks themselves, though ironically Dolenz, a guitarist who had been cast as the band’s drummer because the producer, Bob Rafelson, thought he looked better behind the drums, never played drums on a Monkees’ record. He left that to Hal Blaine, who according to Dolenz’ interview in The Wrecking Crew taught him enough of the rudiments of drumming that he could play drums on stage at the Monkees’ live gigs. Though at least the Monkees’ real voices were on the records, the scandal that ensued when it came out that the Monkees hadn’t played their own instruments rivaled the one over the revelation three decades later that Milli Vanilli hadn’t either sung or played on their hit album. One of the interviewees was Roger McGuinn of The Byrds, who recalled that their producer, Terry Melcher (who as Doris Day’s son was no doubt quite familiar and comfortable with the concept of session musicians!), insisted that the Wrecking Crew play the backing track for their first Columbia single, a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Since McGuinn had been a studio musician himself in New York before coming out to L.A. and becoming part of The Byrds, Melcher let him play on the track, but the other musicians in the band, including David Crosby and Chris Hillman, were not happy that they weren’t allowed to do anything on the record but sing. McGuinn said in his Wrecking Crew interview that he could see Melcher’s point when on a later Byrds record, “Turn! Turn! Turn!,” the band played the backing tracks themselves — and it took them 77 takes to record a track similar to the one for “Mr. Tambourine Man” the Wrecking Crew had nailed in one.

Perhaps the most fascinating story in The Wrecking Crew is Carol Kaye, the remarkable bass player who was to the Wrecking Crew what James Jamerson, the bassist who invented the hesitation beat that was the basis of the Motown Sound, was to the Funk Brothers, the Detroit-based studio band that played on virtually all the Motown records. Some of the most interesting parts of The Wrecking Crew are Kaye’s demonstrations of how she worked out the bass parts of some of the biggest hits of the 1960’s, including Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe,” in which she took the simple “oompah” bass line Sonny Bono had written and literally jazzed it up, turning it into a jazz-like walking bass that added to the record’s appeal. Kaye managed to make it in the band as “one of the boys” even though she was a woman — and she jokes in the film that if the current-day laws against sexual harassment had been in effect in the 1960’s, she could have sued the guys in the Wrecking Crew and made millions off them. There’s a certain degree of sadness in the way The Wrecking Crew ends; though there’s nothing as poignant as the tale in the documentary about the Funk Brothers, Standing in the Shadows of Motown, in which the musicians recall how Berry Gordy, the owner of Motown, simply closed up the Hitsville, U.S.A. studio in Detroit and moved the entire company to L.A. without giving any of the musicians any notice whatsoever, there were some spectacular falls, notably that of Hal Blaine, who because of a messy divorce had to sell his mansion, his yacht and his Rolls-Royce, and who ended up working as a security guard in Arizona until Herb Alpert (who seems, according to Denny Tedesco, to have been the first producer to break the omertà surrounding the Wrecking Crew’s names and actually credit them on an album cover) discovered him, brought him back to L.A. and started giving him work again.

The Wrecking Crew is a marvelous film, and though it may not be quite as heart-rending as Standing in the Shadows of Motown it also doesn’t have the horrible attempt in the Motown film to have modern artists re-create the original records with the original musicians backing them. (My recollection of Standing in the Shadows of Motown was that the grooves laid down by the surviving Funk Brothers were as febrile as ever, but of the modern singers, only one — Chaka Khan — was truly worthy of the music.) One irony was that a theme of The Wrecking Crew was the way a career in music — even a relatively settled one like being a studio musician, who at least doesn’t have to do long road tours — gets in the way of marriage and family; there’s a parallel between Denny Tedesco’s complaint in the film that he almost never saw his dad when he was growing up (he says his mom just explained to him, “That’s how Daddy makes his living”) and Denny’s complaint that he spent so long working on the film that it got in the way of him parenting his own kids. (He was supposed to appear at the Public Library screening to introduce the film, take questions and sell DVD’s and other merchandise in the lobby, but he didn’t show because his son took sick the morning of the screening and he needed to stay at home to take care of his son.) The Wrecking Crew is a fascinating souvenir of a time in the music business when professionalism was much more valued than it is today — nowadays you can make a hit record simply by cutting up (“sampling”) other people’s records and barking (not even singing!) a few words on top of them, and you can do it all sitting at a computer and doing the actual recording onto a digital hard drive — an era that won’t come again but was glorious while it lasted. After we got home from the film I played Charles the Beach Boys’ album Stack O’Tracks, a peculiar release from Capitol in 1969 that presented the instrumental tracks from Beach Boys’ songs without the Beach Boys’ vocals — a testament not only to the skills of the Wrecking Crew but the creativity with which Brian Wilson composed and arranged for them.