The Brilliance of The Wrecking Crew

The session musicians were the unsung heroes of the early days of rock and roll, often breathing life into the hit records that made up the soundtrack of the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s.  The singers were the stars who got all the glory and attention, while the people who provided the backing music that drove the songs remained relatively faceless.  What audiences did not realize was that it was mainly only a small group of highly talented musicians that were behind most of the big hits of the era, a loose collective that would become known as “the Wrecking Crew.”  They were never a formal group, but together they played on hundreds of songs and provided the instrumentals for stars like The Righteous Brothers, Sonny & Cher, The Ronettes, and more.  To be sure, most people realized at least in the backs of their minds that someone was playing on those records, but they almost certainly did not know that these same musicians were also laying down the tracks for the albums of other touring bands, like The Beach Boys.

These fantastic musicians are finally getting some long-overdue recognition with the release of the documentary “The Wrecking Crew”, a project that has been years in the making and is finally seeing a release in theaters and online.  The film was directed by the son of one of the Wrecking Crew’s guitarists, Tommy Tedesco, and features interviews not only with several of the members of the “group” but with many of the artists and producers as well.  And of course the movie is filled with tons of great music, a veritable jukebox of legendary songs that you had no idea had this common connection.

The film does an excellent job of providing excellent insights into the dynamics of the music industry at the time as well as the recording process, especially the mechanics that went into creating Phil Spector’s famed “Wall of Sound.”  We get a chance to see the insides of his legendary recording studio, and see how all the musicians would crowd together in the same tight space with dozens of microphones perched all over the place. One of the nuggets that we learn is that an essential component to the sessions was running the musicians through hours and hours of takes, so that in the end the feel had just the right amount of looseness and raggedness to feel effortless.  It was also fascinating to learn that although most of these musicians are expertly trained in jazz, they earned their places in the Wrecking Crew because unlike the previous generation they were willing to work on this “dumbed-down” form of music; many of the musicians successfully make the argument that it really was not much of an artistic sacrifice at all, that “work was work” and that they still performed at the highest level.

Along with various great moments from Tommy Tedesco, the documentary provides multiple in-depth looks at other performers, including the legendary drummer Hal Blaine and the brilliant bassist Carol Kaye.  I always love learning about the work of Blaine, especially his memorable performance on the classic “Be My Baby”, and he is an especially engaging presence in the film.  I would have preferred an even more extensive look at the song which features the most memorable drum intro of all-time, but then again the story of its recording could probably fill up an entire documentary on its own (for some additional information, here’s a great article that provides even more details about the recording of the song).  The interviews with Kaye are also a highlight, as not only does she pick up her bass and shows an example of how the Wrecking Crew would come up with their own arrangements from what was written, she also illuminates some of the intra-group dynamics, including the fact that she was treated as “one of the guys” as a fellow musician.

“The Wrecking Crew” does have some flaws, namely that for the most part it lacks a definite structure and a sense of flow, and is more of a hodgepodge of engaging anecdotes.  To be fair, other recent music documentaries suffer from this problem, most notably recent Best Documentary winner “20 Feet From Stardom.”  But the passion is apparent on the screen, and the numerous wonderful stories that the performers provide make it a film worth watching for any music fan.

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