Looking at the dozen recent posts listed on my website, I see a pattern. Most of them are about the depressing political realities in Toronto and Ontario: the Ford Government’s apparently successful brand of Scott Walker Republicanism, the City of Toronto’s mayoral campaign that might be following the same script, and the invasion of monster homes in my neighbourhood. Ironically, from afar Toronto is generally considered an attractive global city.
But every four of five posts, I try to disrupt this palate of gloom with something I find enjoyable. I often turn to culture, and I’ve recently written about the Leonard Cohen exhibit that just closed at the Art Gallery of Ontario, and the new film Living, which was nominated for two Academy Awards: Bill Nighy for best actor and Kazuo Ishiguro for best adapted screenplay.
Introducing the Wrecking Crew
Randy Bachman’s late and in this household lamented CBC radio show Vinyl Tap had two episodes about the Wrecking Crew, a loose affiliation of LA-based studio musicians who played the backup music on an incredible list of rock songs from the late Fifties into the early Seventies, when I was an avid listener. Wrecking Crew songs Bachman played included many by the Beach Boys, especially “Good Vibrations,” and others by Simon and Garfunkel, notably “The Boxer” and “Bridge Over Troubled Waters.”
My wife heard of the 2015 documentary film The Wrecking Crew, and we watched it recently (renting it on YouTube). The documentary is a labour of love by Denny Tedesco, the son of guitarist Tommy Tedesco, one of the Wrecking Crew stalwarts. It took almost two decades to produce, in part because owners of rights to the songs it uses demanded costly royalties. The moniker The Wrecking Crew came about because a previous generation of studio musicians who wore blue blazers, neckties, and didn’t talk or smoke on the set, feared that Tedesco and his louche compadres would wreck the business. They lived up to Mark Zuckerberg’s motto and broke things, but the rebuilt music business far surpassed what preceded it.
Three Narrative Strands
The Wrecking Crew combines three narrative strands: the Tedesco family story, the big reveal, and the tradecraft story.
Denny Tedesco comes across as a devoted son who admired his parents and wanted to preserve their memory. He tells the story of his father’s coming of age as a musician, his marriage, his momentous decision to move to Los Angeles, and the peak of his career as a studio musician. But Denny also shows his father’s career on the way down, including excerpts from some master classes he gave in the Eighties and a Gong Show performance entitled “Requiem for a Studio Guitar Player.” As an instructor, I know that a tape of a class is never as lively as the class itself, and I’m sure this one wasn’t. The Gong Show performance was more maudlin than funny. I understand Denny’s impulse to tell his father’s full life story but, in the context of the rest of this film, he told us more than we needed to know.
The big reveal was about the extent of the Wrecking Crew’s contributions to classic rock songs. Phil Spector’s famous “wall of sound” needed an augmented Wrecking Crew in a studio designed as an echo chamber. Seeing a clip of the three Ronettes singing “Be My Baby” and another clip of The (two) Righteous Brothers singing “You’ve Lost that Loving Feeling” while hearing the lushness of the sound surrounding them made you realize the importance of the unseen musicians.
But the big reveal goes beyond the wall of sound to present instances of songs in which The Wrecking Crew, rather than the named musicians, are making the music. So Brian Wilson tells us that it was the Wrecking Crew, rather than the other members of The Beach Boys, who worked with him to co-create and record “Good Vibrations.” Mickey Dolenz of The Monkees is upfront that he wasn’t a musician, but rather an actor playing the part of a musician. Finally, we see the vocal group The Association, dressed in ridiculous costumes as nineteenth century squires, singing while pretending to play guitars, with the actual instrumental music provided by the Wreckers.
Maxims for the Gig Economy
As a retired management professor, I maintain a fascination with how people manage their working lives. And as an instructor, I like pithy maxims that you can give students to carry with them. The Wrecking Crew has quite a few maxims, and they are worth repeating. Not only that, but they may be relevant to careers in the gig economy other than that of studio musician. So here they are, presented in rough chronological order, from the start to the twilight of a career.
- Never say no to a gig until you are too busy to say yes.
- Go to jam sessions where you can be discovered.
- Be available 24/7 to do gigs and squeeze as many gigs into the day as you can (though this will wreak havoc on your family life).
- There are four good reasons to take a gig: for the money, for the experience, for the connections, and for the fun of it.
- Be eclectic, learn how to play any style of music.
- Be willing and able to work with the composer to co-create the music. The movie shows numerous instances when the musicians weren’t given a complete musical score, but rather a set of chords and asked to improvise.
- Add something to the music, especially at the outset, that highlights your chops. The bass guitarist Carol Kaye – the only regular female member of the Wrecking Crew – came up with the bass guitar intros to “These Boots are Made for Walking” and “Wichita Lineman.” Click the links and listen to the first 5 seconds of each, and you’ll see what I mean.
- Make the ramp down last as long as it can. The heyday of the Wrecking Crew came to an end in the early Seventies, when more singer-songwriters developed their own bands and stopped using the services of studio musicians. Wreckers turned to television and teaching among other things to keep their careers going in the ramp down.
I admire a movie that could communicate eight tradecraft, if not life, lessons while telling a family story and incorporating a big reveal. If you missed it the first time, it’s worth watching now. And, if you’re of a certain age, the music in it is timeless.