Book Review: The Wrecking Crew

Posted by at 12:13 pm on April 9, 2012

There are lots of popular musicians and groups from the 1960’s and early 1970’s like the Byrds, the Beach Boys, and the Monkees to the Grass Roots, the 5th Dimension, Sonny & Cher, and Simon & Garfunkel. If you have ever listened to any of these acts and liked them, then you are also a fan of The Wrecking Crew. They were a diverse group of studio musicians who established themselves as the driving sound of pop music—sometimes over the objection of actual band members forced to make way for Wrecking Crew members.

In his recent book “The Wrecking Crew”, author Kent Hartman tells the story of the musicians who forged a reputation throughout the business as the secret weapons behind the top recording stars. He uses interviews from session masters like Hal Blaine and Larry Knechtel, as well as trailblazing bassist Carol Kaye—the only female in the bunch—who went on to play in thousands of recording sessions. They tell the tale of their own careers as well as those of Wrecking Crew members who would forge careers in their own right, including Glen Campbell and Leon Russell, and learn of the relationship between the Crew and such legends as Phil Spector and Jimmy Webb.

We get inside the studio for the legendary sessions that gave us Pet Sounds, Bridge Over Troubled Water, and the rock classic “Layla,” which Wrecking Crew drummer Jim Gordon cowrote with Eric Clapton for Derek and the Dominos. And the author recounts scenes such as Mike Nesmith of the Monkees facing off with studio head Don Kirshner, Grass Roots lead guitarist (and future star of The Office) Creed Bratton getting fired from the group, and Michel Rubini unseating Frank Sinatra’s pianist for the session in which the iconic singer improvised the hit-making ending to “Strangers in the Night.”

“The Wrecking Crew” shares some style elements with traditional music magazines like Rolling Stone. The chapters each come pretty close to telling a self contained story of an artist or important moment. It’s a fairly quick read that’s a good book for those who like to be able to pick up and put down, something you can do in short bursts. Even the pop culture mavens among us will find interesting nuggets in the tales of these talented musicians. I consider myself a lot more immersed in this kind of musical minutuae than even most trivia-holics, and while I was aware of some of the work these musicians had done, it wasn’t until I read this book that I really understood the full extent of their work.

I had not heard the story about how they played the instruments on Pet Sounds for producer Brian Wilson while the rest of the Beach Boys were out touring. They had played on several of the Beach Boys prior hits and were all impressed by Wilson’s producing for Pet Sounds despite the fact that the record was better known for it’s innovation that it’s actual sales. In relating stories like this and the history of Phil Spector, Hartman also give us the parallel narrative of the producer.

If The Wrecking Crew were the backbone of music during these years, the producers were the brains. They typically controlled a record from end to end often writing the song, choosing the performer, then supervised the recording and did the final mix-down. What fans heard on a record was very typically as much or more the artistic vision of the producer that the artist credited on the label. It was only after many years of battling producers for control that musicians finally started to really be in charge of the creative process in the style that today’s artists are familiar with.

The Wrecking Crew is a book that will appeal to the musical historian in most of us, giving us a interesting look into a mostly unsung group of talented artists who had a profound effect of the shape of popular music for over two decades, so be sure and give it a look in either the hardcover or electronic version.

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