The 2002 film “Standing in the Shadows of Motown” is a documentary about The Funk Brothers, an anonymous band of studio session musicians that defined the sound of classic 1960s soul music. Now we have “The Wrecking Crew,” a documentary about the West Coast equivalent, who played on just about every non-Motown track you hear on “oldies” AM radio stations.
From “California Girls” to “California Dreamin’, ” the so-called Wrecking Crew were the first generation of hip session musicians to start playing rock ‘n’ roll — something their “square” predecessors wouldn’t touch. In the film, guitarists Tommy Tedesco and Al Casey, bassist Carol Kaye, drummers Earl Palmer and Hal Blaine, and saxophonist Plas Johnson recall the days when they were part of a group of 20 or so musicians who played on scores of hit records in the ’60s.
The Wrecking Crew nailed the utterly distinct sounds of Phil Spector’s “Then He Kissed Me,” the “Mad Men”-era bachelor-pad cool of The Baja Marimba Band’s “Spanish Flea” and Henry Mancini’s riff-monster scores to “The Pink Panther” and “Mission Impossible.” Writing a score on paper is one thing, but the new tonal quality of rock instruments and the notion of “groove” could not be notated — The Wrecking Crew were the people who defined these sounds.
In some cases — with teen idol bands The Monkees or The Association — the Wrecking Crew handled everything except the lead vocals. Yet rock purists may be surprised to hear that it was The Wrecking Crew who played every note — other than Roger McGuinn’s 12-string guitar — on The Byrds’ classic “Mr. Tambourine Man,” and also on most of The Beach Boys’ epic “Pet Sounds” album.
For The Byrds, like so many other young bands, it was just a matter of getting the job done quickly and cheaply without racking up too much studio time. The Wrecking Crew cut “Mr. Tambourine Man” in a couple of hours; it took The Byrds 77 takes to record “Turn! Turn! Turn!” by themselves a few months later.
This was a time when records were still made with everyone playing in real time as a unit, which required a military precision to pull off consistently. Herb Alpert, interviewed in the documentary, calls The Wrecking Crew “an established groove machine.”
The musicians recall working a lot and most have regrets about not spending more time with their families. Some made a lot of money, some wound up broke, but none were famous except to an insider elite of producers and engineers. “The public was oblivious to the fact that there was a secret star-maker machinery,” notes one musician, but producer Snuff Garrett puts it even more bluntly. “Nobody cared,” he says. “All they wanted was the product. The name and the sales. Who created it was incidental.”
That’s a problem that has only been magnified today, as pop music — whether it’s American Top 40 or virtually all of J- and K-pop — is entirely about cute faces and dance moves. Musical talent is optional, and actual instruments are rarely glimpsed or, more likely, replaced by software in the hands of modern-day Phil Spectors such as Diplo. Yet while YouTube is full of comments by grumpy boomers about Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift, and how music today sucks, perhaps they need to view this documentary and recall manufactured acts such as Sonny & Cher or the horribly naff Gary Lewis & the Playboys.
Putting a star rating on this kind of movie is a little pointless: If you grew up on fizzy baby-boom pop music, you’re going to want to see it. But if The 5th Dimension’s “Up Up and Away” or The Crystals’ “Da Doo Ron Ron” don’t immediately put worms in your ears, there won’t be much for you here.