The Wrecking Crew

(Danny Tedesco, USA, 2014): Raging against the machinery of pop may be a perfectly reasonable response in certain contexts, and in others absolutely, rejuvenatingly essential. Where would any significant pop cultural movements — from punk to hip hop, underground comix to Banksy, the nouvelle vague to Dogma ’95 — be without the vitalizing naiveté that comes from the realization that the system is like, holy shit, unfair. The trick with such outrage is expressing it in a manner that somehow manages to circumvent the obvious — that unfairness, exploitation, selective credit and obliviousness to individual artistry are endemic to the mass production of just about anything — and restore to the factory floor that stain that can never really be washed away: that all pop is ultimately a matter of people making pleasure for other people, and when the machinery takes credit away from those who provided so many with so much pleasure — and generates more machinery cranking out more copies — something does indeed fundamentally suck. The Wrecking Crew, Danny Tedesco’s eight years-in-the-making documentary about one of the most legendary cases of uncredited essential musical contributions, punches against that still tender and sore spot now and again. Take, for instance, the moment where bassist extraordinaire Carol Kaye demonstrates how she came up with the low-riding bottom line for Sonny and Cher’s ‘The Beat Goes On’, a song that in that moment can suddenly be heard for what it is: nothing without that bass line.

Of the roughly estimated ten to thirty L.A. session musicians who comprised the astounding collection of studio pros without whom the California based pop music industry of the sixties — from Phil Spector to the Byrds, Nancy Sinatra to the Monkees, Herb Alpert to Brian Wilson — Kaye is the most charismatic and sympathetic of the entire Crew: in part because she’s the only woman around, in part because she provided some of the most immediately distinctive sounds of an era, and in part because every time the movie gets back to her it locks back into the very groove you wish it would stick with. Not necessarily a movie about Kaye herself — although that would be a pretty hot-shit project — but one that overcomes the sheer sentimental, nostalgia-jolt, boomer-wank obviousness of the rest of the movie and zeroes in on human heart beating loudly enough to be heard above the factory din.

Because the movie itself displays such time and effort in its own making — the central roundtable conversation between Kaye, drummer Hal Blaine, Danny’s father Tommy Tedesco and drummer Earl Palmer, was recorded back in the mid-’90s — you’re constantly being made aware of what it isn’t and might have been, and frustrated by the opportunities for fresh outrage it lets slide by like so much incidental noodling in a studio session. Veering between a righteously indignant attempt at restoring his underusing father Tommy’s reputation and a history of how music was made in L.A. when the Brill Street Building song factory system migrated, along with so many of its workers, to the new industrial frontier of the coast, Tedesco Jr.’s movie never quite finds its own distinctive sound and groove. The interviews with duly-credited luminaries like Brian Wilson, Micky Dolenz, Nancy Sinatra, Herb Alpert and Jimmy Webb tend to merely reiterate that the Crew deserved more credit than they got — yup: we’re watching the movie, so we got that — and the interviews with the musicians themselves tend to endlessly circle around either the sheer intensive process of assembly-line recording or the experience of living in a world where the music you helped make is heard everywhere and all the time, and your name isn’t on it.

Yes, this is unfair, but it’s also one of the most banal and universal stories in the whole history of mass-produced pop. Something sells, and a factory springs up to make and sell more of it. That fundamental commercial imperative means profit always takes priority over individual creative contributions, and it is the very logic of exploitation that it doesn’t care who made what sells, as long as it sells. And so, bear in mind that when the Crew migrated to L.A. from New York, they were moving from one industrial context to another, and significantly, from where the music industry had taken its cue from the auto industry to where the music industry was taking its cue from the studio-based movie industry. Like so many generations of westward ho migrants before them, they were following the work.

The overriding imperative here is thus industrial: those musicians wouldn’t have been in L.A. were it not for the fact the industry had moved there, and it is always in the best interest of the industry that the individual members doing the assembly be hidden behind that concrete Wizard’s curtain for the purposes of marketing the final result. It’s about selling songs, stars and good vibrations. Why complicate that with due credit? There’s an answer for that of course: because due credit reminds us that people are behind just about everything that means something to other people, and the pleasure we can take from something like a great pop song is never diminished by learning who played what on it.

The song itself is impervious to such interventions. One one side, the industry knows this and considers individual contributions irrelevant and expendable. On the other, the artist-workers know it was their sweat and inspiration that kept that machinery up and running. (When Kaye replicates the instant of out-of-nowhere inspiration that resulted in that indelible Sonny and Cher bassline, you shudder: so that’s where that came from.) Both impulses are, in their respective ways, logical and compelling. But they are also obvious and superficial. The fact is, it’s the very business of pop to bullshit: to sell the fake as authentic, to market the product and not the process of its making, to offer the candy and not the list of ingredients that make it taste so sweet. In pop, everybody gets fucked over at one point or another. That’s the logic of the system, the bottom line-feeding inhumane imperative of profit. Behind every named star there’s another galaxy of the nameless.

The cynic in me simply accepts that, but the lifelong geek-romantic doesn’t. He wants to be reminded that people got fucked over, that there is indeed something fundamentally wrong with that, something eternally worth raging against. If I’m going to bang my head against that machine yet again, I need more than a peek behind the curtain. (Magnolia)