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The Wrecking Crew – Truth or Fiction?

Mark Smotroff Waxes Ecstatic Over Wrecking Crew Film Release Despite its Issues…

History is a funny thing, especially in the pre-Internet days where not everything in the known universe has been seemingly documented endlessly on easily searchable blogs, websites, forums and chat rooms. That said, when it comes to making a documentary about a piece of history, there are often conflicting stories and remembrances.  There are egos.  There are vendettas.  Information gets turned around for potentially unfair advantage. 

Ar-GuitarPick225.jpg.jpegIn the case of a newly released — but long in the works — documentary about a group of session musicians who were the unsung heroes behind many of the big hit recordings of the 1960s and early 1970s, there is no shortage of these issues. So much so that I have been encouraged by my editor to add in some balance to the review that follows.   

In approaching this task, I return to a comment which one of my High School history teachers signed in my yearbook upon graduation: “Always remember the multiple causes of everything.”  Truer words were never written and it has served as a useful reminder for me over the years both as a freelance writer and even as a marketing communications and public relations consultant that it is important to consider every perspective on the story.  

So before I get into the review I’ll bring up a number of points you should consider as you decide, Dear Readers, whether to watch the documentary movie The Wrecking Crew or buy any of the music again for your collections:

a) There have been some concerns voiced by some musician(s) from the period that the term applied to them as found in the documentary’s title, The Wrecking Crew, was invented by session drummer Hal Blaine for his 1990 book Hal Blaine and The Wrecking Crew.  Personally, I seem to remember hearing the term bantered about well before that time, but it is beyond the scope of my research to dig down that deep to prove or disprove such detail.  Someday if I find a copy of Blaine’s book, I will no doubt pick it up for a read.

b) There have been some concerns voiced by some musician(s) that The Wrecking Crew documentary movie was edited to deliver a specific perspective. I don’t doubt that but personally have trouble seeing any major flaws in the final product. That is purely my consumer/fanboy perspective. That said, for any of you who have seen the brilliant fake trailers made by fans on YouTube which recut scenes from the likes of delightful children’s films like Mary Poppins into a faux horror movie that never existed (Scary Mary Poppins) you know about the power of clever editing.  So keep that in mind.  There are always two (or more) sides to a story…

c) Numerous people interviewed in The Wrecking Crew documentary have passed away including the man who was the original inspiration for the home-movie-turned-motion-picture in the first place, Tommy Tedesco.  With the death of those musicians, who are acknowledged and memorialized at the end of the film, it is impossible for them to have seen and approved the final cut of the film.

d) There are other documentaries about the LA recording scene and the musicians involved including one featuring guitarist Howard Roberts, who reportedly played on many records by The Monkees among others.  I will be looking for the Roberts documentary soon. 

AR-WreckingCrewA225.jpg.jpegAll that said, I will come back with this counter perspective:

a) At least this film was made which DOES finally call attention to the undeniable fact that these musicians were in fact the crucial link in the star-making machinery of the period, from Carol Kaye’s inventive hook-centric bass lines on songs like Sonny & Cher’s “The Beat Goes On” to Hal Blaine’s signature drum beat on The Ronettes “Be My Baby.”  For the first time, the public at large knows about this and it opens a chapter of history that was heretofore undocumented in any visual manner. 

b) As an entertainment, The Wrecking Crew documentary goes a long way beyond its original incarnation as a tribute to Tommy Tedesco.  As I understand it, Denny Tedesco put up a lot of his own money (and certainly an enormous amount of time) to get this thing off the ground and combined with the funds received from the Kickstarter campaign, it was very much a collaborative effort among fans who wanted to make sure the film saw the light of day.

c) Going back to my history teacher’s sage advice, I’ll add in notion that NOTHING is perfect.  So, yeah, there will inevitably be flaws and mistakes.  In the aforementioned category of splitting hairs, for example, on one scene they pan and scan a 1968 Elvis Presley album — except they used an early ’80s pressing which was emblazoned with the “Best Buy” sticker (which RCA employed to distinguish budget priced line at the time).  Am I distraught about this mistake?  Not really. I’m “that guy” who notices stuff like this. I mean, if I hadn’t told you about this you probably wouldn’t have noticed it. 

d) If there were any incongruities or imbalances, well, that is one of the great things about these United States of America…. so, other film makers can pursue their own documentaries and put in the hard sweat and tears it takes to make a film like this in order to present their side of the story.  The fans want to know, so bring it on….

Anyhow, now that I have said all this I’m going try and flow back into a somewhat revised version of my original review.  In some ways you are lucky for this revision as you will now not have to endure my over enthusiastic late night writing which had some fun leveraging lyrics from Mylie Cyrus’ smash hit “Wrecking Ball.”  

Was that a sigh of relief I just heard from you in the back row?

]]>Anyhow, for many of us, it was the love at first sight when we fell under the spell of Denny Tedesco’s fascinating documentary-in-progress about the often uncredited and woefully under appreciated musicians behind the scenes in the heyday of ’60s pop music.  This new movie, just released on Blu-ray Disc and DVD, was first shown around the world at various and sundry screening rooms, theaters, cinemas and film festivals with an intention of raising the funds to pay for the many many song references — the number was well over 100 — used in the film. Yup, royalties needed to be paid to the studios/artists. And ultimately, I certainly hope, that the musicians in this film got something out of it in addition to the much deserved credit in the limelight for their contributions to popular music. 

AR-WreckingCrewE225.jpg.jpegYou see, in case you didn’t know, The Wrecking Crew — as they have come to be known, for better or for worse — were really just a bunch of hot studio musicians for hire who became the go-to guys (and gal!) for a vast majority of music productions across genres — rock, pop, easy listening, movies, etc. So many the same players that were on hit-making sessions for The Beach Boys and The Byrds were also on records by Simon & Garfunkel, Frank and Nancy Sinatra, The Mama’s & The Papa’s, Sonny & Cher, Jan & Dean, The Righteous Brothers, The Monkees, Elvis Presley, The Fifth Dimension and so so many others. 

After seeing this film twice in the theaters, I now own The Wrecking Crew documentary and I couldn’t be happier. Well, I could but, y’know what? I’m not gonna whine about the little stuff. Instead I’m going to talk about the good things such as how great The Wrecking Crew documentary:

LOOKS!  Even with the intercutting of low resolution video interview footage and old Super8 film clips from the ’60s, the overall effect is mesmerizing. There are some amazing behind-the-scenes clips of actual period recording sessions in action!

SOUNDS!  For a movie about music made largely in the monaural era, the sound is remarkably full, consistent and enjoyable. For dramatic effect, they tend to go back and forth between interview segments (that are pretty much dead center coming at you from the screen) to visual shots of bands and other activities set to period music made by The Wrecking Crew in 5.1 surround sound!   They must have done some special simulated surround processing from these old masters that were made in mono or at best stereo. In the context of the film, the effect is powerful, calling attention to the generally huge sound of most of the productions The Wrecking Crew played on.

AR-WreckingCrewF225.jpg.jpegFEELS! Even after seeing this film three times, it stirs heartfelt emotions for the music and the musicians who made it… from the heartbreak of Hal Blaine’s brutally honest discussion of how he went from being a multi millionaire to near penniless after a nasty divorce … to the candor of Cher talking about how these musicians effectively made the careers of the artists they were backing, delivering recordings that sounded as good as they possibly could sound… to the sobering moments such as when Wrecking Crew guitarist Tommy Tedesco (producer Denny Tedesco’s dad) begins his downward spiral of a steadily slowing recording career and eventually toward death…. there is biting commentary along the way from the likes of none other than Frank Zappa on the lame way the music industry treated many of these folks toward the end of their run. 

Indeed, a goodly part of the documentary aims to right the wrongs of history and spell out in no uncertain terms the critical role these musicians had in creating signature parts — hooks, really — that made the records hits.  From Carol Kaye’s song-defining bass intro to Sonny & Cher’s “The Beat Goes On” to Joe Osborne’s descendant pulse that became the center of Nancy Sinatra’s classic Number One hit, “These Boots Are Made For Walkin’.”

And so goes the film for nearly two hours. 

But wait! There’s more! 

AR-GlenCampbell.jpg.jpegYup, Denny Tedesco and his crew of merry wreckers are included in approximately six — count ’em, 6! — hours of additional bonus material.  Now of course you’re going to ask what is in there. Well, I’m not going to spoil the whole thing for you — heck, I’m still watching them so I can’t! — but I will cite one piece that was a revelation even to me.  You see, as a Frank Zappa fan of the highest order, it is always surprising these days to actually learn something new!  In this bonus clip, Percussionist Emil Richards talks on camera about his first meeting with Frank Zappa on the sessions for the 1967 album: Lumpy Gravy (an experimental album mixing orchestral sounds with avante garde production techniques and even a little bit of surf music!). He tells about how Frank won the session player’s respect when he whipped out his guitar and played the written parts that others were poo-pooing as unplayable. He also explains how Zappa had him (on Vibes or Xylophone, I’m not exactly sure) and Tommy Tedesco (on guitar) play certain parts as fast as possible, which Zappa then sped up even further for the final mix! 

Now I know how all those weird sounds came about and who played on them! I honestly didn’t even fully realize / remember that The Wrecking Crew played on Zappa’s early records but there listed in the liner notes to Lumpy Gravy are the players including Chuck Berghofer and Lyle Ritz on Bass, Al Viola and Tommy Tedesco on Guitars, Shelly Manne and Johnny Guerin on drums, Victor Feldman and Emil Richards on Percussion and even Lincoln Mayorga and Pete Jolly on Keyboards… 

This, friends, is exactly what a documentary is supposed to be about. Revelations. Information. Storytelling. Engagement. Its all there. 

The Wrecking Crew created the sound that gave Frank Sinatra his first ever number one hit in 1966, “Something Stupid” (a duet with his daughter Nancy).

Collaboration, baby. Collaboration…

So, yeah, The Wrecking Crew documentary was a long time coming and Denny Tedesco needs to be applauded for his fortitude in seeing this project through, across major hurdles that would have stopped a lesser individual to make this thing happen. And all the fans who came out to the film and all the supporters via Kickstarter who enabled this film to become a reality. Thank you all for making this happen. And especially thanks to all the players who made up the universe of The Wrecking Crew for making some amazing and timeless music for us all. 

I can’t wait for my pre-ordered, autographed copy of the four CD Wrecking Crew soundtrack to be delivered (FYI, a two LP version is also available!).

Don’t hesitate: go get this one today.

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