While most are familiar with musical acts like the Beach Boys, the Mamas & the Papas, and Simon & Garfunkel, fewer know that the musicians who created their tunes were often not actual members of those bands. As Kent Hartman’s 2012 book The Wrecking Crew has revealed in concert with Danny Tedesco’s new documentary of the same name, a tight-knit group of Los Angeles-based studio musicians known as the “Wrecking Crew” was often the talent behind popular music from the ‘60s and ‘70s that endures to this day.
While the story of these musicians is on its own endlessly interesting, there are underlying economic lessons that their recollections provide. Though it wasn’t Hartman’s stated intention, The Wrecking Crew book alone gives almost as much life to basic economics as it does to genius with instruments. A read of the book in particular says a great deal about modern American poverty, education policy, the wonders of free trade, and the folly of antitrust laws.
Back in the mid ‘60s, the disk jockeys at KHJ were according to Hartman southern California’s “undisputed Top 40 radio gatekeepers.” If you needed a hit song, you had to convince KHJ to give it airtime.
The problem was that Lou Adler couldn’t persuade KHJ’s Ron Jacobs to play California Dreamin’ . As Jacobs put it to Adler, “This song just ain’t happening.” As luck would have it smaller stations started to play the now classic tune to the delight of listeners, KHJ’s deejays got word of it, the song was added to its playlist, and soon enough it rose to #1.
The story of California Dreamin’ is a reminder of the folly of antitrust laws, along with their superfluous nature. The laws purportedly exist to protect consumers from market dominance by one company, but as KHJ’s ignorance about the quality of a one of the great all-time rock & roll songs revealed in living color, giants will invariably stumble. KHJ eventually did. Though it recovered quickly enough to help put the Mamas & the Papas on the map, eventually competition got the best of it. The former king of the Southland is now out of popular music altogether; KHJ a broadcaster of religious programming.
According to Hartman, in December of 1965 the music industry “suddenly experienced a seismic shift in terms of creativity and vision.” Specifically, the Beatles released Rubber Soul . Notably, the Beatles “maintained a friendly rivalry with the Beach Boys, and the two bands kept close tabs on each other’s chart successes.” Brian Wilson noticed Rubber Soul in particular, and as Hartman further put it, Wilson wondered how his band “would even be able to compete.”
Of course that’s one of the reasons free trade is so wondrous. It means the talented around the world focus all their energies on seeking our favor. Desperate to match an album deemed transformative by musicologists, Wilson went to work with members of the Wrecking Crew to produce a response.
Though Pet Sounds wasn’t initially a commercial hit (this apparently devastated Wilson), the critics raved. To this day it’s in every conversation about the best albums ever made, and then as Hartman further wrote, “Paul McCartney – Wilson’s main competitor – practically worshipped it, considering Pet Sounds to be the greatest pop album of all time.” Not only does the competition engendered by trade force everyone to work even harder for customers, it leads to lower prices which on their own create new opportunities.
To see why, it’s worth remembering Wrecking Crew member Carol Kaye. During her childhood Kaye and her mother were abandoned by her father and eventually ended up on welfare. One day a door-to-door guitar salesman knocked, and Kaye’s mother “pulled out an old piggy bank in which she had painstakingly been saving coins” in order to buy a $10 guitar for her daughter. So natural was Kaye that eventually she was giving guitar lessons. Economists like to speak ill of “cheap” foreign goods reaching the U.S., but we can’t forget what an inexpensive guitar or piano might mean for someone without means. For those without, cheap goods can be an opportunity .
Yet to most elites, access to education is what creates opportunity. Wrecking Crew members explode this myth.
Indeed, Wrecking Crew drummer Hal Blaine is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame today, but not because he enjoyed the best instruction growing up in the poor part of Hartford, CT. Hartman writes that watching the best drummers was the “only affordable method[s] of instruction he could manage.” Glen Campbell grew up even more deprived in a part of Arkansas that placed “very little emphasis on schooling,” but as Hartman wrote, “From the time almost anyone could remember, Glen showed a preternatural aptitude for anything to do with a musical instrument.”
Conversely, Phil Spector’s mother did have the means to educate her son, and she secured him guitar lessons from Bill Pittman, a prominent studio musician. Perhaps revealing perceptive qualities that would eventually make him a great music producer, Spector asked Pittman if he had a future as a jazz guitarist. Pittman responded “You’re lacking one thing that a musician absolutely has to have. And that’s meter. You don’t feel when one musical phrase ends and another begins.” What Spector needed to succeed in music couldn’t be taught. Spector grew rich producing the work of musicians who didn’t need education.
Campbell eventually made a fortune too; first as member of the Wrecking Crew, but most notably as a solo musical act. Campbell’s wealth was in stark contrast to an intensely poor childhood in which he spent “long nights lying on his stomach while pressing his fist into his gut, trying to quell the gnawing pangs of hunger.” The desperate poverty that Campbell experienced is a reminder that while we have a long way to go in the U.S., we’ve also come a long way. Though hunger was a daily agony for the American poor in the 1950s, today obesity is the problem. The U.S. is a capitalist country, and more than some may want to admit, the economic growth wrought by capitalism has removed a lot of discomfort from the lives of the downtrodden.
In book or documentary form, The Wrecking Crew wins for telling an amazing story about a great SoCal export. Looked at through a wider lens, the world around us is a teacher, and what took place in Los Angeles over 40 years ago is an economic story that renders the “dismal science” rather cheerful.