By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 21, 2015)
Full disclosure: I originally saw The Wrecking Crew (the 2015 music documentary, not to be confused with the 1969 “Matt Helm” caper starring Dean Martin and Sharon Tate) four chords and seven years ago, when it played at the 2008 Seattle International Film Festival. Wrangling over music licensing has since kept this marvelous film in mothballs, but it is finally getting a proper “official” wide release.
“The Wrecking Crew” was a moniker given to an aggregation of crack L.A. session players who in essence created the distinctive pop “sound” that defined classic Top 40 from the late 50s through the mid-70s. With several notable exceptions (Glen Campbell, Leon Russell and Mac “Dr. John” Rebennack) their names remain obscure to the general public, even if the music they helped forge is forever burned into our collective neurons.
The film was a labor of love in every sense of the word for first-time director Denny Tedesco, whose late father was the guitarist extraordinaire Tommy Tedesco, a premier member of the team.
Tedesco traces origins of the Wrecking Crew, from participation in co-creating the legendary “Wall of Sound” of the early 60s (lorded over by mercurial pop savant Phil Spector) to collaborations with Brian Wilson (most notably, on the Beach Boys’ seminal Pet Sounds album) and backing sessions with just about any other popular artist of the era you could throw out there (Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, The Righteous Brothers, Henry Mancini, Ike & Tina Turner, The Monkees, The Association, Nancy Sinatra, The Fifth Dimension, The Byrds, Sonny & Cher, Petula Clark, The Mamas and the Papas, Frank Zappa, etc.). Not to mention myriad TV themes and movie soundtracks.
Tedesco has curated fascinating vintage studio footage, as well as archival and present day interviews with key players. You also hear from some of the producers (Herb Alpert, Lou Adler and Jack Nitzsche) who utilized their talents. Tedesco assembled a group of surviving members to swap anecdotes (and as you can imagine, they have got some great stories to tell).
One of my favorite reminiscences concerned the earliest recording sessions for The Monkees. An apparently uninformed Peter Tork showed up in the studio, guitar in hand-and was greeted by a roomful of bemused session players, giving him a “WTF are YOU doing here?!” look before he slunk away in embarrassment.
One of the revelations in the film is bass player/guitarist Carol Kaye, a quietly unassuming pioneer who commanded a lot of respect in a traditionally male-dominated niche of the music industry. In a great scene, she modestly demonstrates a few signature bass lines that you may have heard once or twice; the opening riffs for “The Beat Goes On”, “California Girls”, the “Mission Impossible Theme”, even that subtle 5 note run that opens Glen Campbell’s “Wichita Lineman”.
The documentary’s scene stealer is Hal Blaine, who may be the most recorded drummer in the history of pop music. Blaine was in attendance at the SIFF screening I caught in 2008, and did a Q & A along with the director after the film. I remember him telling the audience that he was then in the midst of compiling his discography ; he said so far they had been able to annotate “only” about 5,000 sessions (some estimates top the 10,000 mark). Blaine tells colorful and hilarious stories; he reminds me of another droll musician-raconteur…Pete Barbuti (who never failed to put me on the floor in his many appearances on The Tonight Show throughout the 1970s).
Tedesco’s film makes a nice companion to the 2003 doc Standing in the Shadows of Motown, which profiled another group of hitherto unheralded session players (aka the “Funk Brothers”) who backed nearly every Motown hit. I know that some people look down their nose at this “lunch pail” approach to creating music, but there is no denying the chops that these players bring to the table, and I say more power to ‘em, myself. Tedesco’s film is a joyous celebration of a unique era of popular art that (love it or loathe it), literally provided the “soundtrack of our lives” for some of us of a (ahem) certain age.
OK, since I brought him up…here’s my favorite Pete Barbuti bit: