The Wrecking Crew
April 2, 2012 8:57 PM   Subscribe

Bands often don't seem to be able to play on stage the way they did on their album; and we accept that for a lot of reasons having to do with the conditions, the production facilities and the sheer number of takes that were probably involved. But for a whole generation of hit music, there was often a more basic reason: it wasn't them playing on the album in the first place.
For nearly a decade, if you were an L.A. producer and you wanted to record a hit single, you'd call in The Wrecking Crew. Members of The Byrds, The Beach Boys, and The Mamas and the Papas would step aside as The Wrecking Crew laid down the instrumental tracks. Then, the members of the main band would come back to add the vocals on top.
The above link goes to the OPB radio story I listened to this morning, with an embedded player. Official site for the book.
posted by George_Spiggott (64 comments total) 40 users marked this as a favorite

 
Wrecking crew? More like fixing crew.
posted by oneswellfoop at 9:00 PM on April 2, 2012 [2 favorites]


On went the CD. Up went the volume. Down went the expectations. Out of the speakers came songs so brilliantly reconstructed that they seemed like somebody else's compositions. Again and again I played them, until I could no longer distinguish between what the session cats did and what I did. They were just songs. "Good songs," I said to no one in particular, and headed for home.
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 9:03 PM on April 2, 2012 [2 favorites]


"Best kept secret" what?
Am I alone in having known this for years? There's approx. ONE MILLION stories and books about how Beach Boys records were made. It wasn't a secret! It was public knowledge.
posted by Threeway Handshake at 9:04 PM on April 2, 2012 [4 favorites]


I've told the story here before, of my experience with Nashville guys who took our band's songs, number charted them and re-realized them brilliantly. It got to a point where playing them live was a chore because we couldn't play them as well.
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 9:06 PM on April 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


I've been wanting to do a post on these folks for awhile. There's a documentary that can't seem to get released in a place or format I can see it. Trailer here.

And just two more words: Hal Fucking Blaine. Here's a list of the #1's he played on.
posted by marxchivist at 9:07 PM on April 2, 2012 [7 favorites]


What really got me about this story was the realization that not just the performance, but the arrangement and interpretation, the whole expression of the song often belonged not to its putative creator but to some staggeringly talented guy who came in, found and understood the possibilities of the tune in a heartbeat, and almost out of thin air created the sound that the band would be credited for. i like this story because I like people who really, really know their shit.
posted by George_Spiggott at 9:14 PM on April 2, 2012 [11 favorites]


I wish there was more respect for the middle ground between the overly polished world of Top 40 pop and the overly fetishized world of authentic bedroom indie. Some of the best rock records ever made came out of the mature use of division of labor. There's nothing wrong with having professional songwriters write songs for professional vocalists and professional session musicians. Not everything has to emerge fully-formed like Athena from the head of Zeus.
posted by Sticherbeast at 9:15 PM on April 2, 2012 [22 favorites]


For the record, Carol Kaye is not happy about the name The Wrecking Crew (bottom of that page after the orange section "Carol participated in interviews for a documentary called The Wrecking Crew")
posted by komara at 9:25 PM on April 2, 2012 [4 favorites]


"ONE MILLION stories and books about how Beach Boys records were made."

I love how when you look at an 80's/early 90's live video of the Beach Boys you can tell that John Stamos' keyboard is never plugged in.

He must have learned to play from Linda McCartney.
posted by bardic at 9:26 PM on April 2, 2012 [3 favorites]


And just two more words: Hal Fucking Blaine.
Karen!
They say she had the most beautiful voice
But I'd take Wanda or Sandy if I had my choice
And she could play the drums
Even while wearing a dress
But Hal Blaine would take over when they needed the best

Hank, Karen, and Elvis -- The Young Fresh Fellows
posted by UrineSoakedRube at 9:39 PM on April 2, 2012 [2 favorites]


I've told the story here before, of my experience with Nashville guys who took our band's songs, number charted them and re-realized them brilliantly. It got to a point where playing them live was a chore because we couldn't play them as well.

C'mon, let's hear it (or at least a link to the telling)!
posted by unSane at 10:15 PM on April 2, 2012


Oh thank goodness. For a second I thought that said Cutting Crew.
posted by symbioid at 10:25 PM on April 2, 2012


I think for me what's most sad about this is that they never had the opportunity to shine. I wish they could have done what Alan Parsons did, and break out as themselves.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:43 PM on April 2, 2012


And just two more words: Hal Fucking Blaine.

Hear hear!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 10:52 PM on April 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


Although Alan Parson's work as a producer is far beyond anything he achieved as a musician... he never equalled Steve Harley's MAKE ME SMILE, for example. (How could he, since it's the best record ever made?). History is full of sidemen who never made it on their own.
posted by unSane at 10:53 PM on April 2, 2012


Oh, they were doing what they wanted to do. The Best Session musicians. Imagine playing on 8 of the top 10 songs and many more in the top 40. Imagine having something in the top 10 continuously for seven years. Imagine that when any singer or band (or record company) needed something done right and fast, they called you, and paid you enough for that (even with usually no continuing royalties). Imagine having pretty continuous work for that time. One or two broke out on their own as they always desired, like Glen Campbell. The rest loved exactly their place in the music world.
posted by caclwmr4 at 10:56 PM on April 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think for me what's most sad about this is that they never had the opportunity to shine.

Welll... one could argue that they had their opportunity to shine almost every day, and made sweet money doing so.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 10:58 PM on April 2, 2012 [4 favorites]


I've pretty much been having a big musicians crush on Carol Kaye since I heard about this documentary and then started nosing around online to see who she is, and who she was then. Quite a story, quite a life, such a great artist.

And: Weren't members of Steely Dan studio musicians prior to doing the Dan thing?
posted by dancestoblue at 10:59 PM on April 2, 2012


Hey, if you live in LA you can go to a free screening
April 9, 2012 8PM
Free Screening! presented by Amoeba
Space15 Twenty
Courtyard
1520 N. Cahuenga Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA
posted by dancestoblue at 11:03 PM on April 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


This is why I wanted to study Music in university, so that I'd be able to transpose my ideas into charts and make music commercially for movies, publicity, etc...
posted by Meatafoecure at 11:09 PM on April 2, 2012


I think for me what's most sad about this is that they never had the opportunity to shine.

If you listen to the radio interview, they go into that a bit. According to the author, at least, that wasn't really an issue. I'm interpreting here, but presumably they liked having a well-paid job doing what they loved and going home in the evenings. And having the respect of people in your field whose respect is worth having is all the shining some people need.
posted by George_Spiggott at 11:13 PM on April 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


Wow, one really interesting point from the interview: On Kenny Rogers' "What Condition My Condition Was In", drummer Hal Blaine was joined by another session great, Earl Palmer, also on drums. Twin drummers on that tune, playing everything in exact unison! Crazy! Never knew that!

Here's a post I made on Earl Palmer back in 2008, at the time of his death.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 11:20 PM on April 2, 2012


I think for me what's most sad about this is that they never had the opportunity to shine.

Yeah, because that works out just peachy for everyone, every single time.
posted by dhartung at 11:32 PM on April 2, 2012 [3 favorites]


dancestoblue, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker never really were studio musicians in the sense that Carole Kaye, Earl Palmer, Hal Blaine, Tommy Tedesco, et al, were.

According to the official Steely Dan FAQ, at the very beginning of their career, they had an "odd jobs" phase that included writing the soundtrack for the low-budget film "You've Got To Walk It Like You Talk It," and, for a relatively short time, playing in the road band for Jay Black of Jay and the Americans.

After they moved to LA, Gary Katz got them jobs as staff songwriters for ABC Records, which also lasted only a brief while. When their songs proved unsuitable for any of the labels artists, they decided to record the material themselves, and that's when they started Steely Dan.

Fagen and Becker have, however, worked with many top-rank studio musicians in the course of their subsequent recording career, but a list of all the players they've employed, and some of the surrounding arcana, could be a post of its own.
posted by Nat "King" Cole Porter Wagoner at 11:48 PM on April 2, 2012 [3 favorites]


Fascinating story. I'm particularly curious to learn more about Carol Kaye, since I first heard about her in the great Laura Veirs song named for and about her.
posted by mostlymartha at 12:04 AM on April 3, 2012


For you bass players out there, Carol Kaye offers private lessons via skype! My husband got me one for Christmas and it was such a great experience! Carol couldn't have been nicer and she gave me all sorts of tips and advice to improve my playing. In fact, I should go watch the recording of our session again - I could use the practice!
posted by platinum at 12:34 AM on April 3, 2012 [9 favorites]


In the same line, you know who played on more number one hits than The Beatles, The Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones, and Elvis combined?

Some studio musicians, The Funk Brothers. Truly some amazing studio musicians out there. I'd highly recommend Standing in the Shadows of Motown to anyone who enjoys music documentaries.
posted by yeahwhatever at 1:18 AM on April 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


Sticherbeast: There's nothing wrong with having professional songwriters write songs for professional vocalists and professional session musicians. Not everything has to emerge fully-formed like Athena from the head of Zeus.
George_Spiggott: What really got me about this story was the realization that not just the performance, but the arrangement and interpretation, the whole expression of the song often belonged not to its putative creator but to some staggeringly talented guy who came in, found and understood the possibilities of the tune in a heartbeat, and almost out of thin air created the sound that the band would be credited for.
This is what gets me; not everyone has to be Mozart, sure, but so much of what makes music music is not the simple 4-chord progression strummed on the guitar, it's the realization of that in actual skilled playing, and in the textures and complexities of a fully baked composition and arrangement.

That composition is for most people an organic process is fine. But what's not fine for me is that both anecdotally and legally (in terms of publishing rights/royalties) the person we call the "songwriter" merely "wrote" the generic 4-chord progression. Meanwhile, some gifted Juilliard grad is churning out brilliant arrangements in the background, basically uncredited, when it's the specific arrangement that grabs us the first time we hear that song on the radio. That's the actual accomplishment, the actual work! So many songs for example use that I-V-VI-IV pattern that it's a musical joke at this point, but the reason the songs are still good in many cases is all the detail around that rough scaffolding.


You know what this is, at heart? It's the musical equivalent of "MBA Seeks Code Monkey".
posted by hincandenza at 1:40 AM on April 3, 2012 [11 favorites]


Probably should have linked Axis of Awesome's official video. And yeah, some of the songs used don't actually have anything quite like that chord progression (although it just works well enough as complementary chords), but that just underscores how the nuances of chord structures and harmonies, blending and transitions, are what make a song unique. And this work is swept under the rug as mere implementation details of session musicians or producers.
posted by hincandenza at 1:54 AM on April 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


Fagen and Becker have, however, worked with many top-rank studio musicians in the course of their subsequent recording career, but a list of all the players they've employed, and some of the surrounding arcana, could be a post of its own.

Probably true, but the Dan themselves have already put up a list.
posted by eriko at 2:37 AM on April 3, 2012 [3 favorites]


I think for me what's most sad about this is that they never had the opportunity to shine.

back then, they made a lot more money than most of the people they were backing up and had a lot better chance of doing it a couple of years down the road - nothing sad about that at all - they knew what they were choosing
posted by pyramid termite at 2:45 AM on April 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


There's a documentary that can't seem to get released in a place or format I can see it. Trailer here.

Funny that, I found it in the first place I always look. 9 seeders, dowloading now.
posted by Meatbomb at 4:12 AM on April 3, 2012


Wow, one really interesting point from the interview: On Kenny Rogers' "What Condition My Condition Was In" . . . .

Uh the drumming is great, but today I learned that Kenny Rogers had an early career as a psychedelic rockster? Say whuh?
posted by jeremias at 5:37 AM on April 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


... today I learned that Kenny Rogers had an early career as a psychedelic rockster? Say whuh?

Heh heh! Yup. Guess he knew when to hold 'em, and knew when to fold 'em, eh?
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:59 AM on April 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


Some of the best rock records ever made came out of the mature use of division of labor. There's nothing wrong with having professional songwriters write songs for professional vocalists and professional session musicians.

I am sure that Beyonce actually does get enough respect, we don't need to advocate on her behalf.
Heralding indie bedroom artists arose after decades of the world's most popular records being made by an industry of pros. And those professionals do still get respect and buckets of money.
posted by Theta States at 6:23 AM on April 3, 2012


Apropos of nothing, I suppose, but I remember seeing the Pernice Brothers play live in St Louis several years ago at Off Broadway. Then later, maybe two years, I saw the Silver Jews play at the Duck Room, and noticed that many of the backing band were the same guys. I thought I had uncovered a conspiracy at the time, but it makes sense from a cost perspective to find a backing band for various legs of tours, rather than bringing everyone along for an entire tour.
posted by slogger at 6:32 AM on April 3, 2012


You know what this is, at heart? It's the musical equivalent of "MBA Seeks Code Monkey".

I think you have a fatally flawed notion of the recording industry.
posted by Threeway Handshake at 6:42 AM on April 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


Kenny Rogers' brother Lelan produced the13th Floor Elevators.
posted by newmoistness at 7:16 AM on April 3, 2012


Interesting interview with the director at http://wreckingcrewfilm.com/storycomplete.html

What is it like for these musicians?

You have to realize, these guys [e.g. Hal Blaine] and Carol, the only woman, were at the top of their game at the right place and at the right time. They really don't have much to complain about. My dad was thrilled to be able to make a living at guitar. To make a living at an instrument puts you in a small minority. But to record as many hits as they did, they were even part of a smaller minority.

So when years pass by and you still have your chops as a musician and you're wondering why no one is calling, I think it takes its toll. Everyone has it in every career. Sometimes you last longer than others and some take it better than others. My father always said he was like a baseball player. You have your time in the minors, you make it to the majors and then you slowly move on out while the new guys come in. That's how he broke in. It's part of the cycle.

posted by yoHighness at 7:31 AM on April 3, 2012


I've told the story here before, of my experience with Nashville guys who took our band's songs, number charted them and re-realized them brilliantly. It got to a point where playing them live was a chore because we couldn't play them as well.

C'mon, let's hear it (or at least a link to the telling)!


In a nutshell:

Our band had three songs which were ok. Our lead singer took them to a Nashville studio and paid $1000 per song (plus another grand for another song that the band had never heard or played before) and let the studio guys/musicians do their thing. Within the course of 45 minutes they had re-charted the songs using Nashville numbering, changed the bridges, changed the key on a couple and then within three hours, did all the recording and mixing. She walked out of there with nearly radio ready songs. Of course they had none of the unskilled "character" of our band but the Taylor Swifts of the world would feel at home performing them.

My amazement was at what pros these guys are. The guitar player in the last band I was in had a very nice studio in the suburbs of Chicago. Nashville has so much work that they were farming some of it out to him. He'd get the basic song idea from the songwriter, chart it, record it all himself in the studio, fly the singer to Chicago on Nashville's dime, have him/her warble into the mic, autotune the shit out of it, burn them a CD and fly them back to where they came from. He'd walk away with $2000-$4000 per gig.

This has nothing to do with music. It's all business.
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 7:51 AM on April 3, 2012 [3 favorites]


Kenny Rogers had an early career as a psychedelic rockster?

Oh, Lord, I wish I had never been stoned.
posted by box at 8:07 AM on April 3, 2012


Thanks for the link, eriko. I wasn't actually planning on putting up such a post, but the fact that Steely Dan themselves already have compiled the info proves that the subject is worthy of more explication...
posted by Nat "King" Cole Porter Wagoner at 8:15 AM on April 3, 2012


This has nothing to do with music. It's all business.

False dichotomy.
posted by aught at 8:32 AM on April 3, 2012 [5 favorites]


I've done the whole DIY thing off and on for years...sometimes by myself, sometimes as part of a group. And in my experience, working with professional musicians and session players is just a completely different experience - it stands head and shoulders above working with even the most talented amateurs.
posted by malocchio at 8:32 AM on April 3, 2012


opb.org is timing out for me so maybe they mention this, but not all the Byrds had to step aside. Roger McGuinn (of the jangly Ric electric 12) was plenty professional on his instrument when he started the Byrds though the other Byrds reputedly weren't. McGuinn was just coming off playing solo backup--live concerts, recording studio, and TV--for the very popular folk-lite Chad Mitchell Trio. The jangle on all the Byrds hits is McG and no one else.
posted by jfuller at 8:34 AM on April 3, 2012


You guys, the documentary is really great. If you have an opportunity, go see a screening. Or if you must torrent, give a little money to the cause to get the thing released to DVD.

I saw it at the Hollywood Theater in Portland last year. I brought my mom, who was born in 1950, and I cannot tell you how much she enjoyed it. Danny Tedesco talked for a bit after the movie and took tons of questions. There were a lot of musicians & music teachers in the audience, and it was just a riot.

I highly recommend it.
posted by peep at 9:17 AM on April 3, 2012


Another session drummer of note: Bobby Graham, who is said to have played on an incredible 15,000 singles. Notably credited with drumming for the Dave Clark Five, claimed to have turned down the Beatles when they replaced Pete Best and was one of the inspirations (along with Jimmy Page) for the Kinks' "Session Man."

One of my Bobby Graham favorites: Brenda Lee's "Is It True?" (That's Page on guitar.)
posted by sixpack at 9:56 AM on April 3, 2012


False dichotomy

Also, very tongue in cheek.
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 11:18 AM on April 3, 2012


You know what this is, at heart? It's the musical equivalent of "MBA Seeks Code Monkey".
Threeway Handshake: I think you have a fatally flawed notion of the recording industry.
Wait... how is it fatal?
posted by hincandenza at 12:38 PM on April 3, 2012


NPR a while back had an interesting bit about Jimmy Page and his days as a hot shot producer and session musician before the Led Zep and Yardbirds days. Apparently he was called in on a lot of big recordings. For instance it is said that the riff from the Kinks "You really got me" is his.
Interesting stuff.
posted by Justin Case at 1:51 PM on April 3, 2012


Eh. I prefer it rough and amateurish. I prefer my music that way too.
posted by Decani at 3:05 PM on April 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


Meanwhile, some gifted Juilliard grad is churning out brilliant arrangements in the background, basically uncredited, when it's the specific arrangement that grabs us the first time we hear that song on the radio.

Jack Nitzsche, who arranged and conducted the Wrecking Crew for lavish Phil Spector productions, was mostly self taught. He had a complex personality, and a chapter in the Niel Young biography 'Shakey' is dedicated to him. Like Phil Spector, he also departed on occasion from glossy polished charts to work on crude primal-sounding things..
posted by ovvl at 3:38 PM on April 3, 2012


For instance it is said that the riff from the Kinks "You really got me" is his

I dunno about that one, but "Hurdy Gurdy Man" by Donovan is a Led Zeppelin recording: Page, Bonham, Jones.

Flautist Harold McNair played on approximately a hundred million folk and rock recordings back in the 50s through the 70s.

I've heard a rumor that the Beatles didn't actually play the string quartets on "Eleanor Rigby" and "Yesterday" as well.
posted by Fnarf at 4:00 PM on April 3, 2012


Davy Jones is shaking his tiny fist from the grave.
posted by briank at 4:09 PM on April 3, 2012


I dunno about that one, but "Hurdy Gurdy Man" by Donovan is a Led Zeppelin recording: Page, Bonham, Jones.

no, only jones was on that record
posted by pyramid termite at 4:44 PM on April 3, 2012


I've heard a rumor that the Beatles didn't actually play the string quartets on "Eleanor Rigby" and "Yesterday" as well.

True fact: However, they were the entire orchestra in Day In The Life.
posted by sparkletone at 5:16 PM on April 3, 2012


no, only jones was on that record

Well, I'll be. It's made it into more than one book that Page was on it, but I'll take his own word for it he wasn't.

True fact: However, they were the entire orchestra in Day In The Life.

No.

It was a proper orchestra, forty pieces, overdubbed four times.
posted by Fnarf at 5:25 PM on April 3, 2012


The various attitudes about these kinds of players, and the old studio culture, are fascinating. I revere these people as masters and elder statesmen. For people whose attitude to music is, let us say, informed by a concept of primitive musical skills as a signifier of passion and authenticity, they must seem more like soulless hacks.
posted by thelonius at 6:13 PM on April 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


It was a proper orchestra, forty pieces, overdubbed four times.

You can't see my face right now, but I am making my best trollface.
posted by sparkletone at 6:58 PM on April 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


The various attitudes about these kinds of players, and the old studio culture, are fascinating.

Agreed. I find myself somewhere in the middle. Their skill is unquestionable, and the mark they've left via the records they've made is hard to calculate.

I don't quite think they're soulless hacks though. The soulless ones are the record label execs who insisted that they be a (poorly kept) secret to sell more records. They were just doing a job (really, really fucking well).
posted by sparkletone at 7:01 PM on April 3, 2012


I am making my best trollface

I will take that bait every time. I've hit that hook so often my gills are like confetti.
posted by Fnarf at 7:07 PM on April 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


it is said that the riff from the Kinks "You really got me" is his

True.
posted by bardic at 8:27 PM on April 3, 2012


True?
posted by flabdablet at 5:43 AM on April 4, 2012


I love it when old sixties guys go on and on about how they "discovered" the fuzzy sound of distortion on guitar, when Junior Barnard was playing that way in the Texas Playboys thirty years earlier.
posted by Fnarf at 10:24 AM on April 4, 2012


« Older James Cameron's responses to Aliens critics....  |  In 2010, the top 500 U.S. corp... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments