Tag Archives: 1960s

ROCK ‘N READ: THE WRECKING CREW

Kent Hartman’s book The Wrecking Crew is one of those books I’d heard a lot about and had been meaning to read for a long time.  Well, I finally got off my duff and read it, and I’m glad I did.  The book is about the dirty little secret of 1960’s music industry wherein a group of ultra-talent studio musicians secretly played on a great majority of rock ‘n roll records.  This group, known as The Wrecking Crew, was not credited on the liner notes of the records they played. Thus, the public was none the wiser that it wasn’t their favorite band playing on their records.

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The Monkees are a well-known example of a band that used The Wrecking Crew.  People perhaps unfairly give The Monkees a hard time because they weren’t playing their own instruments.  Well it turns out, there was a lot of that going around in the 1960’s.   Bands you might not expect, like The Byrds, used The Wrecking Crew.  Record labels had two motivations for using The Wrecking Crew over the actual bands, although really both reasons just come down to money.

The first reason a separate band was used due to simple logistics.  Bands out on tour would have to stop touring in order to venture back into the studio and record.  The Wrecking Crew acted as the recording band, while the band the band’s public face remained on the road.  Secondly, The Wrecking Crew, and musicians like them, were used because a majority of rockers couldn’t play their instruments very well.  At the time, record companies looked down on rock music, and didn’t understand it.  They treated rock recordings like they did jazz or classical music and thought the recordings should be perfect.  Hence, The Wrecking Crew was brought in.

Hartman’s book focuses on a handful of Wrecking Crew musicians, chiefly the more famous members like drummer Hal Blaine, Carol Kaye, Leon Russell, and Glen Campbell.  I was really surprised to find out that Glen “Rhinestone Cowboy” Campbell was a highly respected guitarist prior to hitting it big with his solo career.  I knew he’d essentially joined The Beach Boys touring band, but I had no idea he played on most of the top hits for the 1960’s.  The Wrecking Crew were all over the radio, playing on hits by diverse acts such as The Mamas & The Papas, Frank Sinatra, The Beach Boys, Dean Martin, Sonny & Cher, Simon & Garfunkel, and The Byrds.

It’s unnerving how the Wrecking Crew, while highly paid, weren’t credited for playing on the records they worked on.  Had I been writing about music at the time (as a fan), I would have foolishly thought The Monkees were playing their own instruments.  As I read the book, I kept waiting for the public to find out and become outraged, but that never happened.  Instead, what ended up happening was that as rock evolved a more authentic, rough sound was prized making the technically superior Wrecking Crew unneeded.   The Beatles also had something to do with the demise of the practice of studio musicians subbing for the actual band.  After the Fab Four hit it big, most bands wanted to write and play your own instruments.

The Wrecking Crew is an interesting read but I found the structure of the book somewhat clumsy. Rather use a straight chronological framework Hartman jumps back and forth through time.  The chapters themselves follow a chronology, but within each one Hartman tends of pick a player and give us his back story, which often gives us information we either already know or will be told again in another chapter.  It’s a little nit-pick, but I guess I would have preferred one chapter where we just got everyone’s backstory out-of-the-way, then moved on with the various recordings.  Also, the Wrecking Crew was a pretty large group of people, but the book really only focuses on a few, which was a little disappointing.  I realize not everyone is going to be as interested in the Wrecking Crew’s trumpet players than say, their drummers, but I would have liked a little more diversity in the band members as the book is mainly about guitarists and drummers.

I found it interesting how collaborative the recording process was as time and again members of the Wrecking Crew wound up actually contributing to the writing of songs as well as playing.  I was really surprised when this happened in the chapter devoted to the recording of Simon & Garfunkel’s BRIDGE OVER TROUBLED WATER album.  I still can’t believe that such talented, famous artists would allow regular working-musicians to tinker with their albums.  But time and again Hartman shows us that The Wrecking Crew were more than just musicians, they were the best hired guns in the business.

The book recounts some really interesting nuggets of rock trivia, and is chock-full of juicy insider tidbits.  Most of the really interesting chapters revolve around producer Phil Spector and Brian Wilson, two titans of the studio who really used The Wrecking Crew to their full potential.  The Wrecking Crew is brimming with really interesting anecdotes.  Some of my favorite from the book are:

  • Leon Russell getting pulled over in his new Cadillac by the LAPD and being told to get a “real” job (he was making way more than the cop).
  • Phil Spector’s bodyguards using hand signals to let an angry musician know that Phil had a gun in the studio.                                                                    
  • Unsure how to end “Layla” Eric Clapton overheard drummer Jim Gordon noodling on the piano and decided to use the drummer’s mini-composition to close out the song.  Gordon later when nuts and murdered his mom—that’s write, the guy playing piano at the end of “Layla” stabbed his mother to death.

I highly recommend The Wrecking Crew to anyone with even a passing interest in early rock music and the music business of the 1960’s. The book’s a nice, quick read and would make a great gift for any music fan.

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Aping The Beach Boys

 

Last month, Ben Folds Five released their first new studio album since 1999.   After reading a few favorable-to-glowing reviews, I decided to check out the new album despite being a casual fan of the group.  To my great joy, THE SOUND OF THE LIFE OF THE MIND is a really fantastic album that’s chock full of really good pop songs, I encourage you to seek it out.

The opposite of “Rire and Rain” but not PET SOUNDS.

One song, though, really stood out to me: the second track “Michael Praytor, Five Years Later.”  The song, which begins with drums and very familiar-sounding vocal harmonies instantly made me think of Jellyfish.  Particularly their second album SPILT MILK which my mom got me into durin the 1990’s.  Hypnotized, I found myself listening to the song over and over.

Then, around the 30th listen or so, I had a realization: The Beach Boys.  In this modern age, where artists are paying homage to other artists who were paying tribute to other artists, it can be tricky to trace the musical genealogy of a group or song .  Now that I’ve thought abou it, it’s obvious to me that on “Michael Praytor, Five Years Later”  the band is clearly doing something that goes back to the 1960’s: they’re aping The Beach Boys.

The Beach Boys, as I’m fond of reminding you all, were pioneers in rock music and highly influential.  The band has a stuffy/boring reputation among many young people today, but nothing could be further from the truth.  I’ve written before about my deep love of PET SOUNDS, but beyond that monumental album, the band’s influence can be felt today.  Being such a cultural-touchstone, other bands have been making sly (and sometimes not so sly) references to The Beach Boys in their work.  That this has been going on literally since they achieved their initial popularity in the 1960’s only serves to underscore just how damn important they were/are as a band.

We don’t know how lucky we are, boys.

The first time I can remember thinking “this band is making fun/referencing The Beach Boys” was when I heard The Beatles self-titled double album THE BEATLES (also known as the “White Album”).  The first song of the first album is “Back in the USS,” which is a direct parody of “California Girls.”  The Beach Boy-esque backing vocals are a perfect copy of The Beach Boys, but more than that The Beatles also poke fun at the band’s Apple-Pie/Baseball American-ness with their song’s Soviet Union-theme.  The Beatles were not the first, and they were not the last to ape The Beach Boys however.

Growing up, another band that I was exposed via my parents was REM.  I remember to practically wearing out their cassette of OUT OF TIME when it came out in 1991.  I had no idea what any of the songs were about, but I really liked them all, in particular the fourth track “Near Wild Heaven.”  The song, co-written and sung by bassist Mike Mills, is pretty much a spot-on WILD HONEY-era Beach Boys song.  And like “Back in the USSR,” it’s not the just vocal arrangement that’s referential to the Beach Boys, the lyrics and chords are also reminiscent of the band.  Looking back on it now, I think it’s weird that one of my all-time favorite REM songs is really just them riffing ironically on The Beach Boys. 

Not near enough…

English rockers XTC recorded a series of albums as their alter-egos The Dukes of Stratosphear and recorded “Pale and Precious,” a song that channels Wilson’s PET SOUNDS and SMILE-era lush production so well it borderlines on plagiarism. I feel weird mentioning the song because The Dukes were sort of a jokey-novelty, but “Pale and Precious” is too good to ignore.  Many people think these over-the-top homages are cheap, easy ripoffs but the amount of detail and knowledge required to create what essentially amounts to a “lost” Beach Boys song is incredible.  Anyone who willing to disregard the artistic merits of “Pale and Precious” can should try their hand at writing such a loving tribute–I have a feeling it’s harder than Andy Partridge makes it look.

Alt-rockers Everclear started their third album, SO MUCH FOR THE AFTERGLOW, with a massive Beach Boys nod on the album’s title track “So Much For The Afterglow.”  The song has an opening so Beach Boy-esque that when it comes on when I shuffle my iTunes I always mistake it for an actual Beach Boys song.  Jellyfish likewise opened their second album, the before-mentioned SPILT MILK, with “Hush” a lovely lullaby that exists thanks to The Beach Boys.

Sounds like The Beach Boys drunk on everclear.

Much like there are for The Beatles, there are a large contingent of modern bands who’s primary influence is The Beach Boys.  I vividly recall when California rockers Rooney broke onto the scene and were hailed by (the then-still somewhat musical) MTV as the “modern Beach Boys.”  The comparison wasn’t completely off-base, though I don’t think Rooney is as strongly connected to The Beach Boys as say,  South Carolina rockers The Explorers Club.   The Explorer’s Club have managed to cultivate a small, but growing fanbase with their supremely Beach Boys-like pop sound.  I  particularly enjoy their song “Run Run Run” of their most recent album GRAND HOTEL, which sounds like an eerily like an early 1970’s Beach Boy number.

This is a fantastic album, you should check it out.

If imitation truly is the sincerest form of flattery, then Brian Wilson & Company must feel very flattered indeed.  It’s one thing to write a good song, it’s another thing to invent a unique style that others copy and build upon.  Below is a Spotify-playlist I’ve started for this interesting sub-sub-sub-genre of music, if you are a Spotify user please feel free to add songs you think fit into the category of Aping The Beach Boys. I’d be interested to see how massive the list can get.

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