Just Wrecking the Surface, by West Anthony
The Monkees caught a lot of grief from music cognoscenti for not writing a great deal of their own material, as well as not playing on most of it. This always seemed disingenuous, and maybe a bit of a case of sour grapes (then up-and-coming musicians like Stephen Stills, Harry Nilsson and Paul Williams auditioned for The Monkees; they all made out OK eventually). Artists like The Beach Boys, The Byrds, The Association, Love and many others were similarly helped out — some more than others — by studio musicians, and nobody raised a ruckus about them because they largely wrote and played the bulk of their output. One would think that it all boils down to the song: if “Last Train To Clarksville” is a great tune (and it is), then who cares who played it?
The Wrecking Crew, the documentary by Denny Tedesco, is a noble attempt to answer that question. In the 60’s and early 70’s, a group of crack studio musicians in Los Angeles made their living going from session to session, day in and day out, playing whatever was put in front of them — pop songs, commercial jingles, TV themes — and it may be no exaggeration to say that they’ve probably played on more records than you’ve had hot dinners. The Wrecking Crew is what that group of musicians was eventually called. “Be My Baby,” “I Got You Babe,” “California Dreamin’,” “Eve Of Destruction,” “God Only Knows,” “Viva Las Vegas,” “Close To You,” on and on – if it came out of L.A., one or more of them probably played on it. The Association’s big hit “Windy” was largely performed by Wrecking Crew members. On the Byrds’ first single, “Mr. Tambourine Man,” no Byrds play instruments apart from Roger McGuinn providing his signature Rickenbacker 12-string guitar. The surf instrumental band The Marketts (“Surfer’s Stomp,” “Out Of Limits”) were, on record, entirely comprised of studio musicians. And it is now accepted music lore that Brian Wilson eventually sent The Beach Boys out on tour (with Bruce Johnston filling in for him) while he stayed behind recording the music for albums like The Beach Boys Today!, Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!), and the legendary Pet Sounds (so good it needed no exclamation points), with Wrecking Crew members.
If you haven’t heard about any of this, Tedesco’s film is a good place to start, but it is not much more than that. The Wrecking Crew is pretty much a straight hagiography listing the admittedly numerous achievements of these musicians, but it barely scratches the surface of their lives; apart from a few rueful comments about not spending enough time with their children and a divorce or two, there’s not much else to learn about these people. Even guitarist Tommy Tedesco, the filmmaker’s late father and the impetus for creating this documentary in the first place, comes across as a likable guy who plays very well and has some snappy anecdotes, and that’s about it. There’s clearly more to the man — fleeting reference is made to the leaner years of Tommy’s professional life (by the 70’s, studio musicians were less in demand as bands began playing all of their own material, which may just be another reason for some folks to hate The Eagles), including what must have been a humiliating appearance performing on The Gong Show in a tutu… but how did he feel about that? We don’t get to find out, and that’s the real shame of this picture.
Another part of the problem is that Tommy Tedesco (understandably — it’s his kid directing, after all) and drummer Hal Blaine get more face time than the other musicians. Blaine, who coined the term “Wrecking Crew,” is a gregarious fellow (stay through the end credits for a musician joke that for once doesn’t make fun of drummers or bass players) and his accomplishments are many (he played on six consecutive Record Of The Year Grammy winners). But there are only glimpses of lesser-known but no less important musicians like drummer Earl Palmer (“The Girl Can’t Help It,” “The Little Old Lady From Pasadena,” Cool Hand Luke, the theme from The Flintstones — you heard me), Plas Johnson (who played saxophone on the theme from The Pink Panther), Teenage Steve Douglas (a sax player whose career spans The Beach Boys, Bob Dylan, The Ramones and The Replacements) or Chuck Berghofer, whose sliding bass line is easily the most memorable thing in Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made For Walkin’.” Even Wrecking Crew players who later went on to greater success on their own, like Leon Russell and Glen Campbell, don’t rate much screen time here. Of course, Campbell now has his own documentary, I’ll Be Me, to tell more of his story.
How I wish the same could be said of bass player Carol Kaye. The sole female member of The Wrecking Crew, a divorced single mother who played for the likes of Simon & Garfunkel, Neil Young, Frank Zappa and dozens more… THERE’S a story that needs to be told. What must it have been like to be a lone female at the center of one of the most prolific bursts of creative activity in 20th-century popular music? How did she deal with being a working mother when studio musicians don’t exactly keep nine-to-five hours? I suppose we’ll have to ask her ourselves, because Denny Tedesco doesn’t address these issues in a satisfactory manner.
Kent Hartman’s 2012 book, The Wrecking Crew: The Inside Story Of Rock And Roll’s Best-Kept Secret, gets into more detail than Tedesco’s documentary, but for the uninitiated or the mildly curious, The Wrecking Crew documentary is a decent resource (at least the movie has samples of the hundreds of songs these musicians played; if you read the book you’ll just have to sing them out loud, and that’s if you know them). Aficionados already familiar with this chapter of American music history may find considerably less here to hold their interest. Of course, for every member of the music cognoscenti, there are probably thousands of people who just dig “Last Train To Clarksville,” and have no idea who played it. Here’s as good a chance as any to find out.