The Wrecking Crew — web site for the yet-unreleased documentary film
American Heritage article on the Wrecking Crew
I’m often impatient with lovers of classical music and voice who seem to hold contemporary music, including the best pop and rock, in contempt as a lower form. Critics are often terrible this way, audiences slightly less so — and performers not at all. The best classical and operatic performers know the best music when they hear it no matter the genre as many of them were inspired themselves by pop songs or musical theater, and nearly all of the best contemporary vocalists and instrumentalists are classically or at least formally taught. Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor, a master of downright disturbing alternative music, was formally trained as a pianist, and is an excellent one. Not the easy stuff, either — the finger-fracturing Liszt was his composer of choice. Virtuoso rock guitarist Neal Schon grew up in a household with a formally jazz-trained father and a music teacher mother. Bubblegum pop singer-songwriter Neil Sedaka is a Juillard graduate and an award-winning classical pianist who was once barred from a classical competition in the old USSR since, as a pop singer, he was considered illegitimate and tainted. Rock vocalist and 80s hitmaker Pat Benatar was the daughter of a woman who sang in the chorus of the New York City Opera and originally trained for opera, and it shows in both the power and the longevity of her voice. And these four people are only the tip of a very large, very ignored, iceberg.
And whether some classical music lovers want to admit it or not, some of the finest performers in the history of recorded music have appeared on some of the most well-known pop and rock pieces that every single one of us knows by heart.
Many of these performers were members of what has since become known as the Wrecking Crew, a group of (well-compensated) studio musicians, nearly all of whom were formally trained in classical or jazz music, and who were known as the “go-to” group for just about anyone during the 1960s and 70s who wanted to record a song but who didn’t have the band to go with it — or who needed a band so tight and talented that they could get it right the first time from beginning to end in the days before ProTools, cut-and-paste, and infinite multitracking. They backed everyone and played everything. They were the Tijuana Brass and the Wall of Sound.
Legitimate vocal soloists often fall into the category of people in search of a nameless band, but there are also a lot of openly “fake” bands (the Monkees and the Partridge Family, for example) who nevertheless released real music. Sure, the bands in the photos were fake, but someone was playing that music. Even if the Monkees weren’t actually singing or playing, I’m a Believer is one of the catchiest, most charming pop songs in the last few decades, as are most of songwriter Neil Diamond’s hits, and we have the astonishing gifts of the Wrecking Crew to thank for it and so many others. Taken together, the loosely-defined group of between 10 and 30 men (and one woman, brilliant bass guitarist Carol Kaye) brought to life more #1 hits than Elvis and the Beatles combined.
One of the anchors for the group was the ubiquitous and almost entirely unknown guitarist Tommy Tedesco. Three decades after his father and some 30 other people created what amounts to “the soundtrack to our lives,” his son Denny has created a documentary film describing the breathtaking achievement of these musicians.
It’s important to understand the true nature of this film’s revelation. The shock isn’t that major stars weren’t playing their own instruments. (Although it may stun you to learn that, during the recording of the legendary Beach Boys album “Pet Sounds,” producer Brian Wilson was the only Beach Boy in the studio. The rest? The Wrecking Crew of course.) Neither Simon nor Garfunkel was a drummer, and yet there were drums on their music. It stands to reason that they hired a session drummer for their albums.
The shock is that, for over twenty years worth of music hits, nearly all of which we know by heart, it was the same couple drummers.
The crashing-surf drums in the reprise of “Bridge Over Troubled Water?” That kicky intro to the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby?” That gorgeous thump-thump-thump that anchors Herb Alpert’s “A Taste of Honey?” Yep. Hal Blaine. He can claim up to thirty-five thousand recording sessions, a string of 40 #1 hits, 350 top tens, and six consecutive Records of the Year. Like Lou Gehrig’s record, his may never be surpassed. His skin-bashing colleagues were named Earl Palmer and Jim Gordon. (Ever heard “Classical Gas?” Earl. And by the way, he was also behind jazz composer Lalo Schifrin’s 5/4 masterpiece, known to anyone with a pulse, the “Mission: Impossible” theme. Palmer did not keep track of his hits as closely as Blaine did, which is a pity as he is probably the only other human being who could approach, meet, or surpass Blaine’s record.)
Fine, John Phillips did not play that exquisite guitar opening to “California Dreamin’.” In a cynical age, that will surprise no one. What will surprise is learning that the same man (Tommy Tedesco) played not only that, but the well-known riffs from the “Green Acres” and “Bonanza” themes, as well as literally countless others that we would all recognize instantly.
That is this film’s revelation. This isn’t a cynical, tell-all expose of the Ugly Truth Behind the Contemporary Music Industry. This movie seeks only to reveal that over a decade of music, massive in scope and known by heart to anyone who speaks English worldwide, was brought to life by the same people.
The documentary about this extraordinary group of musicians has yet to be picked up for a theatrical release. Please visit the documentary website and learn a bit about them, and what can be done to shed some light on some of the world’s most gifted and hardworking contemporary musicians, who have brought all of us so very much joy.
Be sure to sign up for the e-mail DVD updates as the figures from such signups will be used to prove the existence of an audience to the powers that be, who can decide whether this extraordinary little film will see a general theatrical release. As a bonus, you will gain access to a selection of outtakes from the film itself.
Speaking highly personally, I was stunned to learn that the following pieces of music — many of which reside in my iTunes and which I and countless other have loved all my life — were all performed by the same people. Listen to them again. You will be hearing them as they truly are for the first time in your life, and you’ve probably heard them all your life. Note the unimaginable breadth of styles. And remind yourself that they were all played by the same people:
- “Monday, Monday” and “California Dreamin’” — the Mamas & the Papas
- “A Little Less Conversation” — Elvis Presley
- “Mission: Impossible” theme song
- “Up, Up, and Away” — The 5th Dimension
- “Good Vibrations” — The Beach Boys
- “Close to You” — The Carpenters
- “You Send Me” — Sam Cooke
- “Come On Get Happy” — The Partridge Family
- “Everybody Loves Somebody” — Dean Martin
- “River Deep, Mountain High” — Ike and Tina Turner
- “Hawaii 5-0″ theme song
- “These Boots Were Made for Walkin’” — Nancy Sinatra
- “Mrs. Robinson” — Simon & Garfunkel
- “Half-Breed” and “Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves” — Cher
- “The Pink Panther Theme” — Henry Mancini
- “Classical Gas” — Mason Williams
- “A Taste of Honey” — Herb Alpert
- “Windy” — The Association
In terms not only of popularity but the vast gulf between the various styles, even this tiny sampling of their catalogue is staggering. Ike & Tina Turner, and Henry Mancini? Suggest that to most professional musicians, and they would gape. Take roughly thirty of some of the most gifted musicians in the world, work them together day in and day out, unpredictably tossing every genre of music at them known to humanity for decades, and much more is possible.
In fact, I have a suggestion for any readers. I’ve gone to YouTube and (my apologies to those who are sensitive to copyright issues) created a playlist of all but one of the above pieces of music brought to life by members of the Wrecking Crew. Waylay an unsuspecting friend, and tell them the premise of this documentary: the astonishing fact that much of the music that has played in the background of all of our lives was actually performed by the same group of studio musicians, but don’t tell them what the songs are.
Sit them down, and — sight unseen — play the playlist. Then, send them to the website.
I’ve heard these songs — these people — all my life, and at the age of 43, I feel like I’m listening to them for the first time. If this documentary gets the theatrical release it deserves, these songs will be heard and loved anew, even by people who grew up surrounded by them. Put bluntly, the possibility for record labels to recognize new revenue from these songs as new audiences gape at the revelation that they were all performed by the same people — and old audiences gape at the same news! — is mindblowing.
I truly do hope that this film sees an official release.