The Wrecking Crew

PrintPrintEmailEmailOn a cool, overcast February night in Hollywood, near the slightly scruffy, down-on-its-luck intersection of Vine Street and Santa Monica Boulevard—the final stretch of Route 66—a group of highly talented musicians gathered in a weathered, non-descript former dentist’s office are about to make rock ’n’ roll history. No one present, from the bass player to the drummer to the guitarist, has any inkling that this particular studio session is likely to differ from any other. For the song being cut this night is by the Beach Boys, one of the biggest bands in pop music, and a band quite accustomed to churning out Top 10 AM radio favorites.

As Brian Wilson, the group’s producer and chief songwriter, calls out instructions from the control booth over the talk-back speaker—“let’s play a little tighter on that first break, okay, guys?”—the drummer clears his throat, counts off “one, two, three, four,” and suddenly a staccato burst of Hammond B2 organ notes, punctuated by the rhythmic thump of a Fender bass guitar and a cleverly syncopated snare drum, begins to fill Gold Star Recording Studios. The sound of the future number one hit “Good Vibrations” is clearly evident. Yep, this is the Beach Boys all right. Except it’s not. In fact, there’s not a Beach Boy in the room.

During the sixties and seventies, perhaps the most fertile period of popular music our nation has ever produced, recording stars such as the Monkees, Carpenters, Gary Lewis and the Playboys, Jan & Dean, the Beach Boys, the Association, the Grass Roots, Simon and Garfunkel, Paul Revere & the Raiders, Kenny Rogers & the First Edition, the Mamas and the Papas, and dozens more ruled the airwaves. However, most listeners are likely unaware that a good share of these legendary artists seldom, if ever , played any of the instruments on their own records.

That’s right. Virtually all the instruments were played by an uncredited close-knit group of Los Angeles studio musicians, often referred to today by insiders as the Wrecking Crew (a name coined by the drummer Hal Blaine after the fact to describe how he and other sidemen had revolutionized the recording industry). From “Last Train to Clarksville” to “Monday, Monday” to “Mrs. Robinson,” these same studio pros time and again provided most or all of the guitars, bass, drums, keyboards, horns, and more on hundreds of the best-known singles and albums of all time. Their collective story provides a surprising behind-the-scenes glimpse of the creation of the songs that became the soundtrack for one of the most socially volatile periods in American history.

Radio listeners and record buyers never knew the truth, and that was just the way the major labels like Columbia, Liberty, Dunhill, A&M, and Capitol wanted to keep it. Preserving the illusion that famous bands played their own instruments was big business, very big business. As the Wrecking Crew bass player Carol Kaye dryly observes, “We all knew the scam that the record companies perpetrated.”

Most listeners are unaware that many legendary artists never played on their own records.

Image was (and is) everything in the music industry. And if a band’s image in the 1960s was all about playing some hip jangly 12-string guitar riffs and creating some funky grooves, as in “Mr. Tambourine Man” by the Byrds, then you can be sure companies like Columbia Records (the Byrds’ label) discouraged the public from knowing what really went on behind studio doors. To make certain he got the best possible performance for this all-important first single release, Terry Melcher, the Byrds’ producer (and Doris Day’s son), hired the Wrecking Crew to play all the backing instruments on the song. In other words, there was not a Byrd in sight, with the exception of the guitarist Jim (Roger) McGuinn, who was allowed to play his Rickenbacker electric 12-string on the song. But as far as the record-buying public knew, this future gold record featured nothing but all five Byrds in full flight.

Radio stations were kept in the dark too. The famous sixties Top 40 disc jockey Arnie (“Woo Woo”) Ginsburg, formerly of WMEX Boston, recalls that he certainly had no idea. “Back then,” says Ginsburg, “I never paid much attention to the recording side of the business, and the record labels certainly never said anything to us about who really played on what. So we never knew.”

For example, the first two Monkees albums on Colgems ( The Monkees and More of the Monkees ) made no mention of the fact that Micky, Davy, Peter, and Mike merely showed up to sing their parts and then went home. The public assumed that the “Prefab Four” played all their own instruments. And why shouldn’t they? The Monkees clearly played them on TV every week—or did they? In fact, the Monkees, like many other “live” television performers of the era, simply lip-synched the words to each song while handling instruments that weren’t even plugged in. As it was, both Monkees albums shot straight to number one on the charts.

The ascendancy of the Wrecking Crew began with the gradual demise of the studio system at the big film companies in the late 1950s, resulting in the inevitable breakup of the big studio orchestras as well. With these formal orchestras no longer in place, but with an ever-increasing need by producers to record soundtracks for television and film, a new generation of studio musicians found a growing demand for their services. At the same time, early rock ’n’ roll began sweeping the country. These factors combined to create an unprecedented demand for topnotch studio players able to handle a variety of dates, from soundtracks to jingles to singles. And as the established studio players who had come up with the big orchestras prior to World War II began to retire, in stepped the future members of the Wrecking Crew, one by one, to take their places.