In the same week that the Monkees head to the Arlington, we get a screening of this insightful view of the thriving recording session scene of the 1960s, when a handful of highly skilled and natural musicians — dubbed “The Wrecking Crew” — were recording most of the pop records on the hit parade. Among them, quite naturally, were the backing tracks for the TV-spawned band, the Monkees. For a quick primer on the powers of this elite team’s professionalism and way with the groove and part department, listen up to any number of ‘60s pop sensations, from the Monkees to the Beach Boys to the Byrds’ “Tambourine Man” to the Mamas and the Papas, Herb Alpert’s Tijauna Brass, and the beat and the list go on and on.
A fascinating film, especially for anyone interested in the life, times, and inner workings of the ‘60s pop scene, The Wrecking Crew was put together over a ten-year period by Denny Tedesco, son of the late “king of studio guitarists,” Tommy Tedesco. It began with the director calling together members of the old “crew” for a group interview in 1996, some 20 odd years after their heyday in L.A. studio scene. The plot thickened and the film’s overview broadened as Denny drew in other important figures to speak about the time and the players, including Jimmy Webb, Dick Clark, and especially Glen Campbell, who was a busy studio musician, until his solo career sent him into another orbit. Not incidentally, Campbell hired his old studio player allies to play on his career-making early Capitol albums. Tedesco quipped “you mean you’re still talking to us peons?”
As an incidental positive, the film gives some proper props to some of the masterful players whose work lives inside the collective brain of music lovers the world over, despite the lack of credit they received at the time. Bassist Carole Kaye, who played critical riffs on “Good Vibrations,” “The Beat Goes On,” and “Wichita Lineman,” has a clear-headed vision of the time and the luck involved in these session players landing in the midst of a bustling scene which would eventually subside.
The late, great drummer Earl Palmer, credited with helping invent rock and roll, has some ripe comments here, including the fact that he loved jazz and never cared for rock and roll, but he couldn’t make a living at jazz. “It’s not beneath you if it’s supporting you,” he remarks.
It’s also inspiring to hear Brian Wilson speak, with passion and great lucidity about his admiration for the session players who played most of the tracks for the Beach Boys’ records, including the masterpiece Pet Sounds. Gary Lewis, of the Playboys fame, whose records were cut by the “crew,” explains that his own band would have to dumb down the parts to be able to play them live. As the often articulate Jimmy Webb says, this group of players amounted to “a secret star-maker machinery… the studio hit men.” Soon enough, rock bands learned how to play their instruments, and the era drifted away.
Director Tedesco’s gift is to make vivid that slice of musical history, with the help of testimony from those who were involved in the machinery, and also the considerable help of the product itself: It’s almost dizzying to realize just how strong and wide the sonic stamp of this “day gig” was.