This was a slack week at movie theaters in my neighborhood, and I so stayed home and watched this documentary about Southern California session musicians in the early rock and roll period.
Think about some modern pop and rock songs — “Smells Like Teen Spirit” from Nirvana in 1991, “One Step Closer” by Linkin Park in 2000, or 2016’s No. 1 Billboard single, Justin Bieber’s “Love Yourself.”
Are people going to be familiar with these songs 50 years from now? Does hearing any of these make you want to tap your foot or hum along?
Now think about some popular songs of 1966: “Good Vibrations” by the Beach Boys, “Strangers in the Night” by Frank Sinatra, and “California Dreamin'” by the Mamas & the Papas.
We still hear those 50-year-old songs today. Heck, I ran across a millennial recently who had heard “These Boots Are Made for Walkin'”, a less distinguished hit from that same year.
Why do those old songs resonate? My guess is that the melodic lines were stronger and the supporting musical arrangements were better. For the latter, we can thank the Wrecking Crew.
This documentary, made in 2008 and then punched up a bit for theatrical release in 2015, sets the Wrecking Crew in context. It was made by Denny Tedesco after the death of his father, guitarist Tommy Tedesco, a Wrecking Crew regular.
The film includes interviews with composers, producers and the musicians themselves, and it explains how the ad hoc Wrecking Crew stable influenced, punched up and enhanced popular music for a remarkable moment that lasted 10 or 15 years in the rock, pop, soul and R&B genres.
The beginning coincided with the relocation of much music production from New York to Los Angeles, and it was pushed along by surfing culture and Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound-enhanced LA productions, including “Be My Baby.”
Dennis Wilson, the driving force of the Beach Boys, is interviewed in the movie. When he heard that song for the first time, he says, “I was so impressed I pulled my car over to the side of the road to listen. It just blew me away.”
Subsequent Beach Boys numbers were recorded by Wrecking Crew members because they were better musicians than members of the band. (This also was noted in “Love and Mercy,” the 2014 Wilson biopic.) A member of the Birds rock band notes that Wrecking Crew musicians could knock out a new song in a few hours while the band itself once played a song 77 times in the recording studio before getting a satisfactory result.
Among the people featured in the movie are bass guitarist Carol Kaye, a real character; Earl Palmer, a jazz drummer who acknowledges he made much more money from rock music than jazz; Hal Blaine, a drummer with a fun backstory; and New Orleans-raised horn man Plas Johnson, who provided the sax solo for the Pink Panther theme. There are many others, all thoughtful and interesting.
Anyway, the movie explains the whole story and showcases some really talented insiders in good detail. It’s worth a look.
“Standing in the Shadows of Motown,” a 2002 film gives the background for a similar group musicians, the ones who backed up Detroit recordings starting in 1959 for Berry Gordy Jr.’s influential record productions.
The Motown star roster was long and distinguished — Smokey Robinson, the Temptations, the Isley Brothers, the Four Tops, Martha and the Vandellas, the Supremes and Marvin Gaye, among many many others — and the production values of the records they produced were excellent.
But perhaps because Detroit musicians worked for a single studio (while in LA there were many) they were treated less well, paid less money and left behind when Gordy upped stakes and moved his company to Los Angeles between the late 1960s and early 1970s.