DVD REVIEW: Denny Tedesco – The Wrecking Crew

Denny Tedesco – The Wrecking Crew
(Wienerworld. WNRD2591. DVD review by Andrew Cartmel)

This splendid film — easily the most pleasurable documentary of the year — was released in cinemas in June (and was reviewed by Mike Collins). Now it is available on DVD, which widens its potential audience beyond those with access to an arthouse cinema.

‘The Wrecking Crew’ was the nickname given to a new wave of young musicians who came to dominate the Los Angeles studio and session scenes, starting in the early 1960s. Unlike the preceding generation — the tie-wearing ‘blue blazer’ mob — these irreverent kids dressed and behaved casually. The older musicians declared they would wreck everything; hence the name. But, my how those youngsters could play. They were the behind the scenes architects of virtually every American hit song of the 1960s. Jimmy Webb calls them “The secret star-maker machinery.”

While the Wrecking Crew is just an informal designation referring to a large and fluid group of musicians operating over the period of about a quarter of a century in California (“The Sixties called all the music to the west,” says Plas Johnson), the nucleus of that group is easier to define. In fact they sit around a table and are interviewed here, forming a centrepiece for all the other interviews and footage which make up this stupendous documentary. That nucleus consists of guitarist Tommy Tedesco, electric bass player Carol Kaye, tenor saxophonist Plas Johnson and drummer Hal Blaine.

Hal Blaine is a name which will be new to many, but he worked with Ray Charles, Gerry Mulligan and Steely Dan and was the drummer (often uncredited) on forty number-one singles and six consecutive Records of the Year (starting 1966 with Herb Alpert’s A Taste of Honey and concluding in 1971 with Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water). All this before his career crashed and burned — and he made his subsequent comeback. Plas Johnson has substantial jazz credentials and was a hard bop guy by preference, but will be forever know as the man who played the solo on the theme for The Pink Panther. Carol Kaye is a legendary figure and was the subject of an excellent Radio 4 documentary (still available to listen here.). She was originally a bop guitarist, and one of the few women on the West Coast jazz scene before she started playing electric bass on sessions. It’s her bass you hear on the Beach Boys’ California Girls and the Righteous Brothers’ You Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’, not to mention the themes of Mission: Impossible, Batman and Born Free. Tommy Tedesco was probably the number one guitarist on the studio scene — an impressive claim when you consider the competition (including Barney Kessel and Howard Roberts). If you’ve ever heard the themes for the TV shows MASH or Bonanza then you’ve been exposed to Tommy Tedesco’s exquisite guitar playing. He also recorded with Chet Baker, Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Zappa.

This film is literally a labour of love by Tedesco’s son Denny, who has set out to save the work of his father, and his father’s astonishingly talented colleagues, from oblivion. Perhaps he was spurred on by the television news obituary of Tommy Tedesco which managed to get both of his names wrong. Whatever Denny Tedesco’s motivation, thank heavens he made this documentary. For anyone interested in 20th Century music it’s an indispensable account of a previously unseen world. Plus, it offers a wealth of exhilarating, joyful anecdote. There’s the cherishable story of how an impoverished Herb Alpert prevailed on the Wrecking Crew to play on his debut record for a fraction of their union rate (“scale”) thus making it a “scab date”. When that record, The Lonely Bull, became a monster hit and made Alpert rich, his first action was to fess up to the Musicians’ Union, pay his fine, and send cheques to all the players for their full fees. Or the way Emil Richards and Tommy Tedesco stood up for a young Frank Zappa on the Lumpy Gravy Sessions. The hardened pro musicians were scornful of this weird looking, hairy kid and were taking the piss out of him and refusing to perform his music (“It’s unplayable!"). But as soon as Tedesco and Richards realised that Zappa could really play — and write — they were on his side, and forced the others into line.

The stories and reminiscences on offer here are wonderful and endlessly quotable. The way Chuck Berghofer’s bass line on These Boots Are Made for Walking made his career. (“If I hadn’t been available that day I’d be selling insurance now.”) Or Tommy Tedesco’s response to a nervous producer who wasn’t sure he’d be able to handle a difficult arrangement — Tedesco played the passage perfectly while holding his guitar behind his head. Or Carol Kaye nostalgically reflecting, “I made more money than the president of the United States.”

Everybody knows that the Monkees didn’t play on their own records. But while the Wrecking Crew were in their ascendancy, nobody played on their own records. That wasn’t the Byrds playing Mr Tambourine Man. And Brian Wilson didn’t use a single Beach Boy when he was recording. He wanted the real thing.

This is a two-disc set, with one disc consisting of the film and a host of extras, and the second containing nothing but extras, which makes the set attractive, even for those who have already seen the film on the big screen. This DVD of The Wrecking Crew is indispensable for either serious research or endlessly pleasurable casual viewing — it’s like a bottomless bucket of irresistible snacks to dip into.

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