Hal Blaine

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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Covered: “These Boots Are Made For Walkin'”

Covered is a feature where we examine the merits of various cover songs, debating whether or not they capture the spirit and intent of the original, if the cover adds anything new, and whether or not it perhaps surpasses the original. If we fail on those counts, at the very least we may expose you to different versions of great songs you hadn’t heard before.

I’m not sure if you can call Nancy Sinatra’s classic hit “These Boots Are Made For Walkin'” a good song per se, but it is definitely a memorable and fun one.   To its credit, “Boots” does an excellent job of evoking in present-day listeners the sound of the Swinging 60’s; filmmakers have relied on it as a retro touchstone for years, including in memorable scenes that range from Full Metal Jacket to Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery.  It’s a fun piece of trashy pop, with a versatile pseudo-female empowerment message that can be interpreted either sincerely or ironically.  Musically, the most memorable thing about “Boots” is its hypnotic descending bass line, though I’ve always had a particular fondness for the particular tone of the cheap-sounding guitars as well.  However, the song fails to do anything with the fact that the legendary Hal Blaine behind the kit, and those ridiculous horns that end the song are best used as fodder for potential edits due to time restrictions.

The cover that inspired this edition of our regular feature was the version done by Parquet Courts for their second album of 2014, Content Nausea, recorded under the moniker of “Parkay Quarts”.  Their take on the song (titled on the album as “These Boots”) straddles the line between serious and mocking, sticking close to the original for the most part musically speaking while vocally alternating between not-giving-a-shit and caring-just-enough.  The group made sure to include that amazing bass riff as well as for doing a reasonable facsimile of the original’s guitar tone, and even did a better job with the horns by adding a nifty supporting part to the verse.  Courts/Quarts also improve upon the ending by ending everything in a giant haze of guitar squall and irritating feedback.

The Content Nausea version also reminded me of the ridiculous take done by Operation Ivy, where they transformed the pop number into a bouncy ska romp as “One of These Days” for their album Energy.  They didn’t really care to remember any of the lyrics besides the chorus, and it’s just as well, since beyond the initial inspiration to add guitar strokes on the upbeats they didn’t bother to do too much to it musically either.  It does however fit in perfectly with the rest of Energy in that regard, and it’s only when you pay attention to the fact that Jesse Michaels is shouting those famous words in particular that you realize that this is a “cover”.  As a song in and of itself, it’s not particularly good, but as an example of the kind of we-working of pop classics by early punk bands, it’s not half-bad.

Neither of these cover versions are essential, but at least they’re fun.  They’re also perfect set-fillers that keep the audience engaged without demanding too much of their attention.  And no one has to really worry about impinging on the reputation of the original: while it is fondly remembered, no one is going to fight for the sake of Nancy Sinatra’s classic bit of kitsch.