Syracuse University Magazine

Secrets of a Rock 'n' Roll Factory

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The ’60s and ’70s were a more innocent age for music. Rock ’n’ roll was in its infancy and hadn’t yet been co-opted by the influence of the burgeoning music industry. Or so we thought. According to a new book by Kent Hartman, hundreds of artists, from the Beach Boys to the Byrds to the Monkees to the Partridge Family Band, didn’t always perform on their own albums. Instead, they employed a covert group of studio musicians—nicknamed the “Wrecking Crew”—to record the instrumentation on some of their biggest hits. From folk to rock, the members of this crew were some of the best studio musicians in the world. And until recently, no one had ever heard most of their names.

In his book, The Wrecking Crew (Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press), Hartman uncovers the story behind these musicians—one of the recording industry’s best-kept secrets. Hartman’s book quickly became a bestseller. It received positive reviews from musicians and critics alike, and there are plans in motion for a movie and a Broadway play about the Wrecking Crew. Hartman has spent most of the last 25 years working in various roles in the music industry doing marketing, promoting, and management for bands from Counting Crows to Hall & Oates. He says his love of music dates back to his two years at SU. He spoke with Syracuse University Magazine contributing writer Chris Baker G'12 from his home in Portland, Oregon.

You wrote a book about rock ’n’ roll, but your degree is in international relations. What was your original plan?

Good question. I’ve always loved international politics. Syracuse had a very highly thought of international relations master’s program at the Maxwell School, so I applied, was admitted, and I attended. Since I was 7 years old, though, rock ’n’ roll music has been in my blood. When I was at Syracuse, if I wasn’t doing schoolwork, I was in my apartment playing my guitar and listening to albums or going to concerts. I have other interests, but the music was always there.

Have you always been a writer, too?

No, I’m not one of those people that grew up dreaming of writing the great American novel. I never even imagined myself being a writer. But I ended up in the music business and learned this story about the Wrecking Crew and I just thought, “Somebody has got to write this.” And because I knew the story so well I figured, “Maybe I should just write it.” And so I did.

How did you come across this story?

One of my clients in the late ’90s—Larry Knechtel—was in a band called Bread that was big in the ’70s. Their manager hired me to do all the marketing and merchandising for a farewell tour they were doing. One night I gave Larry a ride to a gig outside Sacramento. Being the curious sort, I started asking questions about his career. As we drove, he told me stories about this secret, stealthy group of studio musicians called the Wrecking Crew. They had played on hundreds of hit records and nobody knew it because the record labels didn’t want anyone to know. It would be bad for business if you were a fan of the Beach Boys and found out they didn’t play any of their own instruments.

What was your initial reaction?

I was shocked at the depth and breadth of it—how far and wide it went. I could name 20 different famous bands that used the Wrecking Crew most or all of the time—the Mamas & the Papas, Paul Revere & the Raiders, Simon & Garfunkel. Back then, producers ran everything. The bands did what they were told, even though they didn’t want to. Today you’d have a tough time telling Aerosmith or someone similar that they weren’t going to play their instruments. That wouldn’t work.

It’s been 40 years or so, but did you get any resistance from the studios?

Not a peep. However, had I written this book 40 years ago, there would have been a lot of trouble. They didn’t want the average 14-year-old girl to get the idea that the Monkees weren’t playing their own instruments. It sounds silly to us now, but back then it was serious stuff.

Well, Milli Vanilli ruined it for everyone. Now you’ve got Beyonce lip-syncing the National Anthem and no one cares.

We’re probably, sadly, more cynical and jaded than we were. That was a much more innocent era in the ’60s.

Studio musicians are some of the under-appreciated guys in the business. Did they have a chip on their shoulder?

The Wrecking Crew—the ones who are still alive—are all in their 70s and 80s now. You would think they would have chips on their shoulders, but most of them don’t. They were paid well and they have the kind of egos that didn’t demand the spotlight. They were happy to be behind the scenes having steady, good-paying jobs playing music.

The reception to the book has been positive. How do you feel about it?

Well, it’s my first work. I’m a new author, so it feels pretty good. Before this I wrote an article about the Wrecking Crew for American Heritage, and it snowballed from there. The next thing you know I ended up with a bestseller, a movie deal, and now I’ve got a deal in the works for a Broadway musical. The whole Wrecking Crew thing has just exploded.

Who’s making the movie?

I signed an option deal with Will Ferrell’s production company and a bunch of famous directors have been in talks.

I hope that doesn’t mean it’s going to be a Ferrell comedy.

No, you would think that, wouldn’t you? I’m glad you asked, because that would be awful! Ferrell and his partner Adam McKay have been putting out a number of movies for the last 10 years or so. Will does the goofy comedies, but their production company does other movies, too. So Will wouldn’t appear in it; he’d be on the production team. It would be a drama—with a lot of music in it.

Who would you want to star in the movie?

To me, the real star of the book and the movie is the music. Let the songs star.