The World Is Rife with Wrecking Crews

Spotlights can obscure even as they illuminate.

Recently on Twitter a buddy posed a question: What’s the greatest guitar solo of the 20th century?

The answer, obviously, is Johnny Ramone’s one-note masterpiece in “I Wanna Be Sedated.”

OK so maybe there’s no definitive answer. (By the way, a major reason Johnny Ramone started what we now know as punk rock is that he loathed guitar solos.)

It’s still an intriguing question though. “Comfortably Numb” immediately came to mind, followed by Clapton’s solo on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”

But never mind what I think — why not let a master do the talking?

Years ago I picked up this interesting tidbit on the radio (since confirmed by Wikipedia, so this is an air-tight fact): Jimmy Page’s favorite guitar solo ever is the one from Steely Dan’s “Reelin’ In The Years.” This knowledge just might affect your opinion of the song; I know it changed the way I hear it. There isnt even a single definitive solo section; the brilliant solo work is woven throughout the entire composition.

You don’t have to be a Steely Dan fan to recognize that Elliott Randall’s work on that song — their biggest hit — was inspired. Here’s the thing: Elliott Randall was never in Steely Dan. He was in the studio that day because he’s a session guitarist. A highly accomplished one at that.

Along the same lines, another interesting bit of information coincidentally crossed my path this week: Eric Clapton has said that his favorite guitar solo ever is the one at the end of Wilson Pickett’s cover of “Hey Jude”:

“‘That break at the end just blew me away and I immediately made a call to Atlantic Records to find out who it was,’ Clapton tells Alan Paul in One Way Out: The Inside History of the Allman Brothers Band. ‘It was one of the few times in my life where I had to know who that was — now!’” 

Who was that guitarist? Well, it was a session musician. Unlike most session musicians though, you might’ve heard of this one. It was Duane Allman, and he was a regular part of the renowned Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section (a group of regular studio players also known as the Swampers) until his younger brother Gregg offered him a spot in this new band he was forming.

Duane Allman died at age 24, but his tragically foreshortened career was enough to land him at the very top of some “Best Guitarists of All Time Lists.” NME had him at number 1 on one of theirs, and Rolling Stone more recently placed him at number 2, adding that he’d be high on their list even if judged solely by his session work prior to the Allman Brothers Band.

Many people are aware that session musicians exist, but it’s safe to say that most underestimate just how much popular music they’re responsible for. The songs heard on the radio often weren’t recorded by the bands they’re attributed to. Studio time and resources are too precious to allow front acts to play imperfectly over and over till at last they get it right, or close to right. This was especially true in the analog days of tape. But even in these days of digital recording, studio musicians are called in to lay down tracks precisely, exquisitely. They are hired because they rarely make mistakes and they often make songs better than their original conceptions in surprising ways. They are hired because they are the best.

Its not an understatement to say that to be a session musician requires nothing less than virtuosity. They are as close to perfect as their profession can produce. But unless they pull a Duane Allman and leave the studio handlers behind to create their own music, not many people outside the music industry know who they are.

Occasionally, though, they get the spotlight they had long deserved but had enjoyed only vicariously.


Behold the Wrecking Crew

In the 1960s and ’70s in L.A., a select group of session musicians were responsible for an extraordinary quantity and quality of output. Though rarely if ever credited at the time, they were the players behind the recordings of artists as varied as Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, the Beach Boys, Simon and Garfunkel, the Mamas and the Papas, Nat King Cole, the Partridge Family, the Monkees, the Byrds, the Righteous Brothers, and Leonard Cohen.

How good was the Wrecking Crew?

So good that in between proper sessions they often would jam, and end up liking something so much that they’d develop it into a song, record it, and release it under a fake band name. Quite a few “one-hit wonders” are actually one-off songs written and recorded on the fly by different combinations of Wrecking Crew players.

So good that sometimes they would embellish their material to such a degree that the original artists who wrote the song would struggle to frantically try to learn some of the Wrecking Crew’s intricate parts before going out on tour.

So good that for six years in a row (1966–71) the Grammy for Record of the Year was played by Wrecking Crew musicians.

The good news is that these remarkable musicians now receive more widespread recognition. Kent Hartman recently published The Wrecking Crew: The Inside Story of Rock and Roll’s Best-Kept Secret, and they’re also the subject of a documentary directed by Danny Tedesco (that's the trailer above). Other famous clusters of session players, like Motown’s Funk Brothers, James Brown’s J.B.’s, and the aforementioned Swampers of Muscle Shoals are also more well known now than they were when they were recording, though they’ll never achieve the fame of the artists they recorded for.

The music industry of course shouldn’t be singled out here.


Wrecking Crews Are Everywhere

For any large-scale endeavor, it would be unreasonable and impossible to equally distribute credit among everyone involved. Furthermore, individual leaders often do play outsize roles in these accomplishments. It’s often appropriate that they receive the lion’s share of accolades.

But you can’t help but feel that too often there are important people behind the scenes who get short shrift. Think of Andy Warhol’s Factory. An assembly line of his Superstars would work to produce his famous silkscreens. Chances are that any physical piece of art you see attributed to Andy Warhol was actually produced by one these many apprentices. He was the idea guy (no small feat). But this sort of thing is common in the art world.

Put on Saturday Night Live or The Tonight Show. The players and the host get the laughs and the press, but the material is crafted by a dozen or more writers locked in some room somewhere. Like the session players whose music we often hear without knowing who’s playing it, these writers are often known to fellow comedians and other industry people, but not so much to the public.

Casual fans will know the quarterback but not each member of the offensive line that enables his every success. Likewise, we’ll know who directed a film but not who held the boom. Only rarely are we able to name a single other person on the crew — though at least they’re always credited.

You also see this in the tech world. It’s hard to think of a more understated group of people than the coders who work behind the scenes to make products work. But of course founders get all the love, even if they aren’t developers themselves. Even on the grandest scale, brilliant businesspeople and marketers (Steve Jobs) get the spotlight while ingenious builders (Steve Wozniak) hang back behind the curtain (which is often right where they want to be).

Wozniak isn’t exactly a secret. In fact he’s idolized by scores of people he inspired. But he always was and always will be in Steve Jobs’s shadow.

Rock stars, quarterbacks, film directors, founders, generals. All are essential, all are rightfully celebrated. Face it — its only human to generalize in this way. And yet.

This isn’t to suggest that Wrecking Crews are prevalent only in glamorous industries. Unsung heroes are all around. To take one random example, think about how society would be affected if our garbage wasn’t ferried away every week. Things would rapidly get out of control. We all take out our garbage, but how often do we think about what happens next, or how minor our role in the matter really is?

Were all the stars of our own plays, the centers of our own universes. But surely every person has a Wrecking Crew to be grateful for, hanging back in the shadows. This isnt to suggest that the results of your labor are not your own, or that youre taking credit for someone elses work. The Wrecking Crew did not technically compose the songs they recorded for others — but they were quintessential collaborators, elevating other artists material, honing their creations, adding depth, and ultimately helping those artists reach a wider audience. We all can name people who made us look better along the way, who maybe provided a little bit of polish to our efforts, who gave us valuable inspiration. Parents, family, friends, partners, coworkers, teachers, mentors, coaches, doctors, authors, artists, pets. And countless people well never know, whose actions affected us down the line in unknowable ways.

And youve likely been on a Wrecking Crew for somebody else, at a job or in your personal life. There are worse things in the world than making someone else look good, helping them to succeed.

Sometimes, Wrecking Crews are impossible to identify. Which brings us back to legendary guitarist Jimmy Page. In the documentary It Might Get Loud, he tells a fascinating story of serendipity. When he was about nine years old, his family moved to a new house. He recalls the moment they first walked through the front door. As you can imagine, there was no furniture anywhere. The entire place was empty — except for one item. For some inexplicable reason, the prior owners had left behind an old guitar, which stood all alone in a corner. Who were these people? Who left that instrument behind, and why? Needless to say, nine-year-old Jimmy Page was drawn to it.

Everyone knows what happened after. Led Zeppelin happened after. But before all that, even before he joined the Yardbirds, Jimmy Page had a different gig.

He was a session guitarist. 


Posted on October 29, 2014.