Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The Wrecking Crew: Inside the Great Rockist Paradox

Papa Rockist sent me an article a few weeks ago that I just got around to reading. It's from American Heritage, it's by Kent Hartman, and it's about the Wrecking Crew, who are to 60s pop in California what the Funk Brothers are to Motown. Basically, a bunch of session musicians formed this loose-knit group they played on more famous albums and singles than I have time to name here. For example, you probably didn't know that the entire backing track of "Mr. Tambourine Man" (with the exception of Roger McGuinn on the 12-string) was laid down by session musicians. Ditto "Good Vibrations" (and most of Pet Sounds), "Bridge Over Troubled Water", "California Dreamin'", "These Boots Were Made For Walkin'". The list goes on, and, frankly, it's absurd. Drummer Hal Blaine (Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Class of 2000) has played on -- wait for it... -- 40 number one records and 350 top tens. Think about that for a second.

So why are these guys the "Great Rockist Paradox"? On one hand, most music folks don't know this. Before this article, I knew who the Wrecking Crew was, knew they played on some hits, but couldn't tell you their real story. So, essentially, it's information for music geeks, for pasty males in basements combing through bargain bins to know and love get the picture. It's knowledge that, essentially, rationalizes loving the Monkees. Now you can listen to "Last Train to Clarksville" and not necessarily hear it as some studio crap, but be able to picture that impossibly tight band of LA's finest finally clicking perfectly after hours tinkering with the arrangement.

But it also subtracts from the authenticity of Rockist sacred cows like the Beach Boys and the Byrds. It also brings those bands down to the level of pop icons, somewhere closer to the pre-fab boy-bands and teen stars we tend to hate. If Rockism is all about valuing the authentic relationship between the song and the performance, then clearly there's a major disconnect.

Luckily, the one thing any good Rockist values more than anything else is having knowledge to lord over their friends, family, and co-workers, and the Wrecking Crew are a goldmine.

*Note: The irony is not lost on this author that the very same morning he finally found and began to read the article on the Wrecking Crew that he's had in his possession for two weeks now, he actually did get in a wreck on the way to work. No word yet on how Rockists are supposed to feel about irony.


Ben said...

I think this is only really a paradox if you let it be. Seems to me rockism so far has mostly been defined by those who would discredit it, and they can point to examples like this as an example of how the rockist emphasis on authenticity and originality is naive. It's not so cut-and-dry as that. I can't imagine any rockist saying that Elvis isn't rock, even though he didn't write anything and only played passable guitar. Even Dylan, who plays guitar well and wrote some pretty good songs, would be nowhere without session men: imagine "Sooner or Later" without Paul Griffin's incredible piano. Maybe they're excused because they're not bands, and bands are held up as the rockist norm.

But, anyway, most of the stuff in this article isn't really that much of a problem: what rockist points to Herb Alpert or the 5th Dimension as seminal artists? I guess a bigger problem would be the Byrds, although they all played on the rest of their albums. It's significant that a number of studio musicians eventually went on to solo careers, or careers in bands: Leon Russel, Duane Allman, Jim Gordon in Derek and the Dominos. Clearly they wanted to pursue something more than session playing. So maybe there's no paradox here. Maybe you can just be happy saying that these musicians and their recordings, though great simply are not as great as, say, Exile on Main Street.

But either way, "Rockism," if it's even going to exist as a critical stance, is going to need more clarification.

G.H. said...

Hey Ben, thanks for the comment. I agree that Rockism is being defined by those that disparage it. To be honest, we're half-joking with the whole Rockist thing. I mean, yes, we believe in some way that the Beatles, Stones, Dylan (with allowances for certain others in your own personal holy trinity) created the greatest music in the history of the world. I also think there's a difference between "rock" and "rockist", but, yes, Elvis would present quite a conundrum. And while I do think the band vs. individual thing is usually held up as an all too-easy Rockist signifier, I'd argue that Dylan's time with the Band was his period most beloved by Rockists. For what it's worth...

As far as the 5th Dimension, I do think sometimes the "Rock Snob" is confused with the "Rockist", and thus a band like 5D or the Association gains some degree of notoreity in Rockist circles. Which assumes that there are such things as "Rockist circles". We're still trying to work out this whole thing too...we mostly just thought "The Rockist Society" was a funny way to poke fun at self-serious critics and even at our own musical tastes.