by Kim Niccolini
Last year, I bought my daughter a portable record player for her 16th birthday. She is fascinated with music from the early and mid-60s (the time when I grew up), and I thought listening to records of that music would be a great experience for her. I remembered how much joy I got out of my portable record player as a kid, so I wanted to share that joy with my daughter.
She loves her record player as much as I loved mine. Since I got it for her nearly a year ago, she has grown quite a collection of vinyl from re-issues to original releases that we have found at our local independent and used record stores. So along with an appreciation of vinyl, she has also learned to appreciate the record store (before it becomes another extinct artifact of Late Capitalism). Her collection includes all the Beatles albums (including a few original releases in pristine condition, of which she is mightily proud to own), Simon & Garfunkel, the Beach Boys, Velvet Underground, the Mama & the Papas and Janis Joplin.
After seeing the movieLove & Mercy, my daughter developed a very strong identification with Brian Wilson, and Pet Sounds joined the ranks of her favorite albums of all time. A couple of weeks ago, we pulled her vinyl copy of Pet Sounds off the shelf and listened to it on her record player. The layers of sound are unbelievable. In the film Love & Mercy we see how Brian Wilson worked with studio musicians to create these sounds. He translated his fierce vision into complex layers of sound by working with a whole cadre of musicians who played everything from guitar to cello to bass, drums and saxophone. Hearing the album on vinyl and remembering the scenes in the movie with the studio musicians, the layers of orchestral under-sounds in Pet Sounds became even more mesmerizing.
After Pet Sounds, we pulled a Simon & Garfunkel album off the shelf. I placed the needle on the groove of the record, and we closed our eyes and listened. I hadn’t heard the album since I was a young girl of twelve. The first thing I noticed when I listened a couple of weeks ago was a complexity of sound that I never noticed before. It was especially notable coming directly on the heels of the Beach Boys. I said, “Wait a minute. Do you hear that? This album has the same level of complex sounds as Pet Sounds!”
A few days later I watched the documentary The WreckingCrew on Netflix. I learned of the film after writing about Love & Mercy when a friend mentioned I should watch the documentary about the band that played back-up on Pet Sounds. So I went into the movie thinking it was going to be about the band that played for the Beach Boys. What I didn’t know until watching this documentary is that The Wrecking Crew was the “back-up” band that literally defined a whole generation of music – the very music I grew up with in the 1960s. The reason the sounds on the Simon & Garfunkel album reminded me of Pet Sounds is because it is The Wrecking Crew playing the instruments on both records. It’s the same band, just different vocalists and songs.
The Wrecking Crew consisted of a group of musicians that backed songs from the top of the music charts of the 50s, 60s and 70s. They were responsible for Phil Spector’s groundbreaking “Wall of Sound” featured on such Spector enterprises as The Ronettes and The Crystals. But the Crew didn’t stop with Phil Spector. For nearly three decades, this uncredited band of musicians provided the pop sound that sold records by Elvis Presley, The Mamas & the Papas, the 5th Dimension, Frank Sinatra, Nancy Sinatra, The Byrds, The Carpenters, Sam Cooke, Harry Nillson, Cher, The Monkees, and dozens of other musicians. Check out a sampling of Wrecking Crew songs here.
As I was watching the documentary, and the songs piled up, it was like flipping through the pop radio station dial on my portable radio when I was a kid. My daughter would squeal from the other room as one of her favorite tunes was sampled in the film. “I love that song!” I would chime in with, “I loved that song when I was a kid too!” What I didn’t know is how a specific sound manufactured by the Los Angeles music business was responsible for the soundtrack of my childhood and created by artists whose names I never knew until I watched this film.
Speaking of kids, the movie was made by Denny Tedesco, the son of one of the most hardworking members of the Wrecking Crew – guitarist Tommy Tedesco. The reason I don’t cite the date of the film during its first mention is because assigning a singular date to this movie would be as misleading as giving The Byrds credit for the music behind their hit single “Mr. Tambourine Man,” music which was played by The Wrecking Crew because The Byrds did not actually know how to play instruments when the song was released. The film took nearly two decades to make, and it was only with dedication, sweat, and a lot of scraped-together cash and materials that it ever was released to the public.