A hospital stay for heart surgery can have its bright side.
Initially delighted to learn that wi-fi would be available, I was to be deflated upon learning that the same IT restrictions for hospital employees would also apply to inpatients. That meant that sites like Facebook, YouTube, Netflix, Pandora, Spotify, MOG, etc. would be blocked, leaving me and my MacBook with little more than email and a few sites that might relate to my usual work. So I turned to my stack of long-overdue reading, some books suggested by my three-books-a-week wife (hardly ever seen without a copy of the latest NYT Review of Books at hand), some accumulated on my neglected wish list. Books, actual printed material in hard back, which you could hold in your hand!
The first of my backlog to be addressed was The Wrecking Crew: The Inside Story of Rock and Roll's Best-Kept Secret, an account published by Kent Hartman in February 2012.
The Wrecking Crew chronicles the West Coast (read: LA, mostly Hollywood, some North Hollywood) music production industry serving the cause of early rock and roll (not “rock-n-roll” or “rock & roll”), the appellation selected by author Hartman, in the 60s and very early 70s. If you assumed that the musicians whose names you read on record jackets and saw onstage were the same ones who actually performed the music you heard on AM radio or on the records you bought, you could be in for a surprise.
Seems that producers and studios, ever-mindful of the bottom line, found that they could maximize revenue by sending rock and roll groups on almost perpetual road tours, while continuing to make studio recordings back home by laying vocal tracks done by the original group against instrumentation provided by professional union sidemen (and an occasional sidewoman).
Enter The Wrecking Crew. Do you know the names Hal Blaine, Carol Kaye, Don Peake, Larry Knechtel? Neither did I, as the pop LPs I was buying at the time only listed the original band members, not the ten or twenty or so hardened pros (many had made the transition from being highly accomplished jazz session players to the rock scene as the money shifted in that direction, and their talents and experience were seen as at a far higher level than those who made up emerging rock and roll groups). Seems that a simple rock melody, lyrics and vocals could almost be predictably and rapidly made into a Top 40 hit when the magic and secret ingredient of The Wrecking Crew – an informal designation for the general, shifting pool of pros used on an hourly or session basis -- entered the mix.
When I began my professional career upon moving to Los Angeles in the early 60s, I spent considerable time haunting the bookstores and record stores and prowling the streets and alleys (often with 35mm camera in hand) of my Hollywood neighborhoods. I often would walk past nondescript doors marked with “Recording Studio” in the name, and would wonder what went on inside. (I hardly imagined then that one day I would actually serve as a computer consultant to some of these indie shops.) Although most of my record buying of the time was jazz and classical, and not of Top 40 AM hits, I was very aware of these sounds, and heard them daily from my car radio and via my friends. Some I did buy as LPs, like recordings of The Byrds and Simon & Garfunkel and others.
For example, on music attributed to the aforementioned Byrds (think Mr. Tambourine Man, the Bob Dylan cover, and Turn! Turn! Turn!), it turns out that only Roger McQuinn (still a personal favorite) was deemed sufficiently musically adept to actually play on the recordings, while his fellow Byrds were pushed aside by members of The Wrecking Crew. Even Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline was said to have used the anonymous services of the Wrecking Crew. I vividly remember the first time I heard the Righteous Brothers’ You’ve Lost That Lovin' Feelin', never dreaming that the powerful backing sounds coming from my car radio as I ripped through the mountain curves in my sports car was “just” the nameless house band. And the list goes on, from just about everything produced by Phil Spector to pop chartbusters like Barry McGuire’s Eve of Destruction to The Beach Boys’ Good Vibrations to Richard Harris’ MacArthur Park.
A few Wrecking Crew alumni went on to careers for themselves, including Glen Campbell and -- one of my early favorites -- Leon Russell. Most remained pretty much anonymous to other than industry insiders.
Times did change, and the advent of multi-multi-track recording, synthesizers, drum machines and the like, as well as the decline of AM radio itself, eventually eroded the relevance of services of The Wrecking Crew.
The book appears to be comprehensively-documented (including several pages of photographs) and the only very minor off-note I read was when the author referred to a ride in an "Alpha" Romeo (I cringed, as I have owned Alfas -- an acronym for Anonima Lombarda Fabbrica Automobili). It proved to be a quick just-under-300-page read, partly because it is written well enough to keep the pages almost turning themselves. For anyone of my generation, or who might otherwise be interested in the obscure and fascinating history of this era, The Wrecking Crew gets my recommendation. I finished it today and am now climbing out of bed to pick up the next read on my list. Stay tuned … there are some more that deal with music.