The Wrecking Crew
The Wrecking Crew , music documentary, rated PG, Jean Cocteau Cinema, 3 chiles
Anyone who has turned on a radio in the last 50 years is familiar with the work of the Wrecking Crew. This group of session musicians played on many of the biggest and most enduring hits of the 1960s and ’70s, but few people are aware of that. Drummer Hal Blaine (who claims to be the most recorded musician of all time, though this is contested) is a good example of the Wrecking Crew’s subtle yet sweeping impact on music history. Some of the dozens of megahits featuring his drumming include Elvis Presley’s “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” the Beach Boys’ “Help Me, Rhonda,” Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Were Made for Walkin’,” the Byrds’ “Mr. Tambourine Man,” Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe,” Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” and John Denver’s “Annie’s Song.” Other key members of the loosely defined crew with similarly impressive credits include bassist Carol Kaye and guitarist Tommy Tedesco. Not long before Tedesco died in 1997, his son Denny began filming these master session musicians and others in conversation, eventually creating a full-length music documentary that pays homage to their work. A labor of love, The
Wrecking Crew (which was completed in 2008 but was only recently picked up for distribution) finally gives credit where credit is due.
The total number of players in the Wrecking Crew is estimated at between 20 and 30; the source of the name is more ambiguous. Blaine is the only member who offers a theory on its origin. As he tells it, the earlier generation of studio musicians was defined by a certain professionalism that entailed not talking on the job, not smoking, wearing suits to work, and playing the music with precision. When Blaine and company arrived on the scene in jeans, with cigarettes hanging from the corners of their mouths and boisterous attitudes to match, the older generation thought they were going to “wreck” the system. In a way they did, but not necessarily for the worse. This new generation developed its own sort of professionalism based almost entirely on versatility and creativity — in direct contrast to older players’ unwillingness to stray from strict readings of the written score.
This versatility was recognized and seized upon by a young producer named Phil Spector. The soonto-be studio legend used members of the Wrecking Crew to craft the Wall of Sound recording ambience that remains his hallmark. (Spector is also remembered for the 2003 murder of actress Lana Clarkson, for which he is currently serving a prison term.) A common misconception is that the huge sound heard on Spector recordings like “Be My Baby,” by the Ronettes, was the result of some sort of arcane combination of knob-twisting and other engineering feats. But, as Blaine explains it, “It was wall-to-wall musicians, first of all. Most people used a four-piece rhythm section — he had four guitarists, or six or seven. There were four pianos always. One upright bass, one fender bass. Only one drummer usually, but 15 people playing percussion instruments, all in the huge echo chamber that Gold Star [Spector’s recording studio of choice] was famous for. That was the Wall of Sound.”
Like all good movies, The Wrecking Crew contains a bit of tension. In this case, it comes from exploring the divergent spheres occupied by the session musicians and the actual members of the bands making an album. The film makes it pretty clear that the reason the Wrecking Crew subbed (often anonymously) for the more idolized members of groups like the Beach Boys is because those musicians were simply not good enough to lay down consistently solid takes in the high-pressure studio environment. This opinion is expressed by the session legends and echoed by members of the Byrds and the Monkees, who remember with a sort of resigned humor the frustrations of having someone like Tedesco record a signature guitar lick that the band could never re-create onstage.
One of the strongest and most creative aspects of the film features the session players revisiting some of the parts they made famous by playing along to the classic recordings and explaining their techniques. Samples include Kaye (in her late sixties), looking mighty cool as she demonstrates the palm-muted bass line that defines Mission Impossible ’s theme song, and Plas Johnson (even older and just as cool) playing the sultry saxophone part from Henry Mancini’s The Pink Panther
Theme . The film does have a few minor weaknesses, primarily its tendency to meander and drag a bit: two things its subjects could never have gotten away with while on work duty. Like the players, the film may never become a true pop sensation in its own right, but it does include enough humor and history alongside the hits to satisfy music nerds and laypeople alike.
We’ve got your backs: crew members bring it to the studio