Tag Archives: Simon & Garfunkel

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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SUNKEN CONDOS by Donald Fagen

Duos are a funny thing.  A band is like the engine of a car; there are multiple parts working in tandem and all are needed for everything to work.  Solo artist are like trapeze artists, they walk the high-line naked and alone.  If they fall, they fall with all eyes squarely on them. Duos, however, are a bit tricky.  Good duos, the really successful duos, are not made by the merger of two good solo artists but rather the joining of complementary talents. The relationship falls somewhere between husband & wife and mosquito & a pulsing vein.

*Flush*

So what happens when a duo parts ways? Well sometimes it’s good.  And sometimes it’s very messy.  The best example I can think of as far as a messy breakup is Simon and Garfunkel.  When their duo ended it meant great things for Paul Simon…and pretty much the end of Art Garfunkel.  Maybe that’s cruel, but I can name 10 Paul Simon songs, but I can’t name one Art Garfunkel song.

Steely Dan started out as a band and then devolved into the duo of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen.  Of the two, I’ve always liked Fagen better.  Fagen always seemed cooler to me.  When I found out that Donald Fagen had put out a new solo album this month, I was intrigued but not in any rush to hear any of the music.  I’m a pretty big Steely Dan fan, but I’ve yet to really venture into any of Becker & Fagen’s post-GOUCHO output.   I’ve heard nice things about TWO AGINST NATURE but I’ve been hesitant.  Steely Dan has always existed for me as a bit of a relic, a late 1970’s throwback.

But, someone forwarded me mix of Fagen’s solo stuff on Spotify and one track stuck out: “I’m Not The Same Without You.”  The horns.  The velvety groove.  The nasally sneer.  The chic, icy poetry.  Equally biting and mournful, “I’m Not The Same Without You” is everything that the best Steely Dan songs were.  In fact, had I not known it was a Fagen-solo track, I’d have just assumed that the song was from one of the two newer Steely Dan albums.

So I reluctantly dived into SUNKEN CONDOS (pun intended). And I’m here to tell you, that it’s good.  It’s really, really good. If you enjoy the acerbic wit and jazzy sensibilities of Steely Dan, you’re gonna love SUNKEN CONDOS.  Fagen’s album is everything there is to love about Steely Dan, but slowed down just a tad and with a bit more of a jazz-edge.

The album opens with “Slinky Thing,” which is a pretty good description of the album as a whole, actually.  It’s a classic bit of Fagen neuroticism, detailing the unease of dating a much younger woman (the titular “Slinky Thing”).  It reminded me a great deal of “Hey Nineteen.”  And that’s a good thing.

“I’m Not The Same Without You” is definitely the album’s lead-single and as I mentioned before, it’s really good.  As is the last track “Planet D’Rhonda,” about an insane (or insanely fun?) woman that you just can’t leave.  It has all the element of a Steely Dan song, but seems slower and feels a bit stripped-down.  I’m sure Becker could have gone nuts on this, and pretty much all the songs on SUNKEN CONDOS…but he didn’t.  He didn’t because this is the Donald Fagen show, and as such, the songs are a bit mellower.  Some might see that as a bad thing, or a weakness of the SUNKEN CONDOS, but I actually dig the laid-back mood of the album.

My favorite song on the record “The Weather In My Head” which compares the turbulent climate change-infused storms to the self-doubt and depression plaguing the song’s narrator: They may fix the weather in the world, just like Mr. Gore said, but tell me what’s to be done about the weather in my head? I think that’s a great line.  “The Weather In My Head” is a great blues song and it totally knocked my socks off the first time I heard it.  Usually Fagen’s writing is so damn obtuse and distant, that it takes a few listens before things sink in, so I was shocked when I not only understood the song’s meaning on the first listen.  I also found myself wholeheartedly agreeing with the song’s sentiment.

Solid songwriting, impeccable production and musicianship abound on SUNKEN CONDONS.  In fact, the only misstep is on “Out of the Ghetto” which sits in the middle of the album.  It’s (up) tempo feels off  compared to the rest of the album’s slower, unhurried pace. But the biggest problem I have with the song is in the lyrics: the talk of “discos” in 2012, even if Fagen’s being ironic, turned me off.  In fact, the song’s tongue-in-cheek take on race struck me as all wrong.  I think Fagen’s heart is (mostly) in the right place but I could see the song being…shall we say…misinterpreted by lesser minds.  “Out of the Ghetto” is definitely not the track I’d put on for someone new to Steely Dan or Fagen.

Overall I’d recommend SUNKEN CONDOS.  It’s a good album that’s inspired me to seek out more of Fagen’s more recent output, as well as made me interested to hear what Becker does when he’s not kicking it with Fagen.

 

EDIT: It was pointed out to me by a commenter on Facebook (seriously, why aren’t you friends with Defending Axl Rose on Facebook? Go “Like” it right now) that “Out of the Ghetto” was in fact a cover.  And in fact, they were correct the song is an Isaac Hayes covers, which not only explains the strange disco reference, but also adds all sorts of interesting shades of irony to the song.  Fagen is an interesting, complicated, cat.  My knowledge of 1970’s R&B/Soul music is laughably limited, so I would like to thank my friends over at Facebook for pointing this error out to me. 

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