New rockumentary shines light on unknown supergroup
Session musicians throughout the pop era have either been ignored or exalted. The new film directed by Denny Tedesco about the 1960s music scene in Los Angeles showcases the performers who created the greatest hits of the time while being nimble enough to bridge the gap between the sounds of the big band generation and modern rock.
By Alan Williams
Pop music resides at the intersection of art and commerce. Each moment of heartfelt expression that reaches a listener’s ear is the product of an industry geared not only to marketing these sounds to an audience but to creating the art itself.
For much of the 20th century, fans were quite comfortable knowing meaningful music was created by a vast network of artists and entrepreneurs that wrote the songs, crafted the arrangements, attended to the recordings and performed behind the current pop star of the day. No one expected Bing Crosby to have written “White Christmas,” just as no one expected Irving Berlin to sing it. The players on the bandstand were understood to be performing a vital, if secondary role to that of the star in the spotlight. Popular music was created under an extremely well-organized and efficient system – the musician’s union assigned players to sessions that operated according to strict regulations regarding time, payment, and working conditions.
But the advent of rock ‘n’ roll disrupted the system, introducing characters less likely to show up for a 9 a.m. recording session or to sift through a pile of notated musical charts to select their next record release. Bob Dylan and The Beatles blew open the door already opened by figures like Hank Williams, Chuck Berry, and Buddy Holly, who wrote and performed their own compositions. The rock era was not simply about rebellion, but about the insertion of an “authentic” humanism into the popular-music machine. This presumption of “authenticity” proved to be more of a façade than most early rock historians and their readers were prone to acknowledge. And because of this, the continued role of professional session musicians in the creation of pop music was temporarily written out of history.
But while rock musicians, pop stars, or God forbid, “Artists” with a capital “A” received all of the attention of their fans, a closer examination of the music reveals the great degree to which session musicians made vital contributions to the success of some of pop music’s biggest hit records. Think of Steve Cropper’s guitar intro to Sam and Dave’s “Soul Man,” Steve Gadd’s drum pattern on Paul Simon’s “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover,” Clyde Stubblefield’s groove on James Brown’s “Funky Drummer,” or David Mason’s trumpet solo on The Beatles’ “Penny Lane” – all of these contributions must be considered vital ingredients of the artistic whole. The new film about the Los Angeles session musicians of the 1960s, known as “The Wrecking Crew” documents the moment when the old music industry of Crosby and Frank Sinatra reconfigured itself around a new model of pop-music production. This period is fascinating for the ways in which it was similar to the big band era and yet different, as shifts in content and approach were taken up by record producers such as Phil Spector and Brian Wilson.
The challenge for the session musicians of the 1960s was to be able to bridge these worlds. They had to convincingly generate rock music, all the while reading from fully arranged musical charts, and under the standard three-hour union session structure. Musicians that grew up with Glenn Miller had a difficult time grasping how to play this new music, while at the same time, very few kids bashing through Chuck Berry tunes in their garage had the ability to not only read charts, but to shift on a dime from the latest Beach Boys session to one with The Chairman of the Board, with perhaps an afternoon in between spent recording 30-second jingles to accompany ads for dog food, dish soap, or diapers. Thus a new generation of session musician arrived in LA (and in studios around the world) – the rock professional. Tellingly, this new group was comprised of personalities that often mirrored the unvarnished looks and sounds of the stars they supported. Members of “The Wrecking Crew” are fascinating figures like drummer extraordinaire and outsized character Hal Blaine and bassist Carol Kaye, a working mom who broke barriers decades before women were allowed into the boys club of the pop music industry. Her unique status underlines just how little things have changed in the intervening 50 years. The loosening of the industry in the wake of the massive commercial success of rock music would even open doors for session musicians to become stars in their own right, Glen Campbell being the pioneer example of this, with bands like The Atlanta Rhythm Section and Toto following in his footsteps.
Rock music history has often overlooked the role of professional musicians in crafting the sound of the rock era. The presence of session musicians was often viewed as the antithesis of rock “authenticity.” Records as diverse as The Monkees’ debut album or Steely Dan’s Aja are often derided as examples of crass commercialism, of empty, jaded professionalism at odds with rock’s core values of raw expression. But the Sex Pistols jammed to the Monkees’ “Stepping Stone,” and Toto’s drummer Jeff Porcaro ghosted on Pink Floyd’s The Wall. Indeed, the touchstone rock band of the 70s, Led Zeppelin, was formed when session musicians Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones decided to venture out of the studio and into the arena. In those days, critics often depicted Los Angeles, the setting of The Wrecking Crew, as the center of an entertainment industry wildly out of touch with the Woodstock nation. But how does this account for not only The Beach Boys, but figures like The Doors and Frank Zappa whose circle of friends included such show biz frauds and hacks as The Monkees and the Mamas and the Papas? In a book on the Laurel Canyon scene that would help define the pop music of the early 1970s, Joni Mitchell can be seen playing a new song for Eric Clapton while seated in Mama Cass Elliot’s backyard, with the Monkees’ Mickey Dolenz looking on. The presumed separation between the real and the plastic was far more complex and intertwined than Rolling Stone magazine wished to acknowledge.
By the 1970s, the landscape had changed again, and many of these session musicians became identified in album liner notes, and recognized from concert tours supporting the singer-songwriters of the era. For many years it was impossible to know just who played the magnificent drum intro to “Dancing in the Streets,” but by 1975, any Paul Simon fan could tell you who played that drum groove on “50 Ways…” The Wrecking Crew not only brings a measure of validation to previously unheralded musicians, it also marks the dividing line between the era of the anonymous session musician and the emergence of an A-list session scene where music fans could rattle off the names on the back of a Steely Dan album just as jazz aficionados could identify the members of Miles Davis’ various bands.
In recent years, a number of films and books have been issued that shine a light on previously overlooked figures. A few examples include the movies Standing in the Shadows of Motown, Muscle Shoals, and 20 Feet from Stardom. Archival record releases such as the Pet Sounds boxed set, with hours of session tapes revealing the extent to which Brian Wilson depended upon the creative input of “The Wrecking Crew” in recording a pop classic, help to clarify the collaborative nature of pop music craft, proving that industry professionals could be called upon to make pop music rock. Clearly there is an audience interested in hearing these stories, in re-inserting the role of studio musicians into the history of rock music. The timing is perhaps telling, as the contemporary pop music industry now resembles that of the 1940s more closely than ever, with songwriter and production collectives such as The Matrix and Stargate, as well as disc-jockeys and producers like Mark Ronson, who are widely acknowledged as the creative forces behind Katy Perry, Bruno Mars, and Beyoncé. American Idol and The Voice are simply Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Hour updated for the cable TV era.
But the real power of a film like The Wrecking Crew is not that it reduces all pop music – whether made by John Lennon, John Legend, or ’Lil Jon – to just more plastic product, but rather that it elevates the creative expression of those supposedly slick session musicians who were allegedly only in it for the money. So much important music would be unthinkable without them, and Hal Blaine’s snare hit in the opening moments of The Beach Boys’ “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” carries as much impact as John Bonham’s entrance on “Stairway to Heaven.” Let us now praise not-so-famous men. And women.
Alan Williams is an associate professor of music and coordinator of the music business program at UMass Lowell. He has written about the music industry and record production in various academic journals and books. When not teaching, he performs his own music under the name Birdsong At Morning.