I’ve been reading behind-the-scenes recollections and reminiscences of life as a top-flight, session, studio musician, in the 1960s and 1970s, lately. There is something that intensely disquiets me about that whole era and the way that popular music was produced and marketed, in those days. It bothers me because I think that much of the same practice still holds sway today.
For those of you that don’t know, there was a team of session musicians active in Hollywood, during that period, loosely nick named “The Wrecking Crew”. What did they wreck? Well, although uncredited in the liner notes on most of the albums, these were the actual musicians that played on the tracks attributed to other popular artists. In most cases, these players, while fine musicians, were boring, business-like squares, old enough to be the parents of the young artists who everybody thought they were listening to. It’s a bit like having the dream and ambition of being a big time recording star, but when the opportunity of a lifetime final arises, you ask your mum and dad to record your songs for you, instead.
There were similar session musicians in the UK and in Australia. Everywhere that record companies made popular music, they were in the habit of secretly substituting the artists on the album cover with musicians they could depend on. I know, from personal experience, that this sort of thing was happening routinely, far into the 1980s. Sometimes, the band had no idea that their parts had been replaced, but often they were “in” on the whole cynical act. I have no doubt it continues today. What would stop it?
The record companies of the day were the authors of this variety of fraud – selling an image of a hip, young musical group, to make consumers part with their money, while switching the young musicians out, in favour of older, more mature, more reliable, more accomplished musicians, by stealth. The wheeze was played on the consumer, who thought they were buying the authentic art of some clever young things. No they weren’t. There was a whole bureaucracy of record production heavies that was deployed, behind the scenes, to ensure nothing went wrong with either the recording process or the subsequent marketing of the music. Music was sold to consumers on a false pretence and prospectus. We weren’t getting what we thought we were buying.
The record companies did it to cut costs and minimise risk. In those days, the cost of a recording session was astronomical. What you couldn’t afford to do is take forever to make a record. This meant that, as fresh and exciting as the younger musicians were, you couldn’t take a financial gamble on them being able to capture their particular brand of “lightning in a bottle” in less than seventy four laborious takes. Far less risky to get the old wrecking crew in, throw them some charts and get the thing recorded, to note perfection, in a couple of takes, during a single afternoon.
It has to be recognised that the record companies worked these session musicians hard, like any other mill owner would. They ground out profit from some truly excellent and extraordinary musicians, who sacrificed their artistic control and identity just to be the ones they always called in for recording dates. Their reason for wanting to be the slaves at this music production factory was because, as arduous as this life was, it was the best paying way to be a professional musician, without having to be on the road, away from home, for the best part of your working life.
So, the people that actually played on all the hit records of that period sacrificed their musical identities and all credit for their work, which in their old age they are all now fighting to get back. They finally want to have the recognition and respect for making that music. I’m ambivalent about their claims. They were happy enough to relinquish their artistic integrity to be the chosen ones to earn a few crumbs from playing music professionally. They were quite willing to turn their art into a purely commercial business, somewhat cynically, it could be suggested. It seems a little like crying over spilt milk, to me.
Perhaps they convinced themselves that churning out indifferent music, anonymously, without missing a note or ever being late for a recording date, was somehow integral to their artistry. I think that is revisionist thinking. At the time, none of these players sincerely believed in the quality of the music they were making. Jazz was their “real music”. Pop music was being released as a cheaply-produced, commodity, commercial product, designed to make profit. The boys and girls on the record sleeves were just the sales representatives. Nobody saw this music as having longevity or that it would be ever revered as high art. It has been a surprise to everybody involved that this intentionally disposable pop music has become so highly valued by most people, as significant, representative cultural artefacts of the mid twentieth century.
Record companies didn’t always deal with these musicians fairly, either, despite the strength of the local musicians’ union. Looking at the late payments or never made payments, or screwy contracts, or finagled release dates, false recording personnel attributions and supposed “final” recording dates provides the student of crooked dealing with a master class case study in supreme swindling techniques. These same companies had no qualms in misrepresenting these records as being the work of beat generation kids, who were marketed as boy geniuses and musical Gods.
It had to have been utterly soul destroying for those younger musicians to have had all their art actually made by somebody else, anonymously, yet having to misrepresent these forgeries as their own signature work. They must have burned with the ambition to show the world what they could really do. If they were fine musicians, but distrusted with massively expensive studio time, by their record company, they must have looked on the works released in their names as crappy, sub-standard offerings, which they were obliged, by contract, to sell as their own. It is little wonder that some decided to make their own music and recordings and release their high integrity offerings, but this time without the blessing of the all-powerful record companies, who must have bristled at the sheer cheek of their youthful rebellion. Most of these records sunk without trace. The promotion machine didn’t spring into action for them.
It would have been equally soul destroying to record a multi-million seller, as a session musician, but realise that although you were paid for the recording, your music was worth much more and yet nobody knew your name. Knowing that you would receive no lasting benefit or credit for a highly successful record, being paid at scale instead, must have hurt, somewhere deep down inside. No artist, however cynical, would want to remain unrecognised for a piece of work that had clearly captured the zeitgeist and made a lot of other people very rich.
The problem with this tight concentration of always-called session musicians is that it tended to homogenise the sound of all those records. The same bass and guitar sounds appear on nearly every record. Why? Because it was usually the same musicians playing the parts. There were, comparatively speaking, few fresh musical ideas and timbres. Most of the parts were highly clichéd. What saved that music from being truly forgettable was the spark of genius of some of the producers, arrangers and song writers. The musical performances were well-executed, but vanilla.
There was little by way of avant garde sonic experimentation. Synthesisers, if ever used, were used for novelty value. Guitar players eschewed distorted sounds, so they turned their backs on some of the most exciting sounds to be found, not to mention sustained, controlled feedback, which Jimi Hendrix made his own. When distortion was used, it was done so ham-fistedly, with an indifferent fuzz box turned up to maximum, that it was, again, just a novelty sound, not a valid musical timbre, capable of rendering new and interesting emotional expression. Jimmy Page and Ritchie Blackmore, both originally session guitarists, made better and longer lasting artistic statements in Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple respectively, using distorted guitar tones, than they ever could have as session musicians. Bass guitars had a muted sound, without any of that glorious resonance or crisp, piano-like tonality. There was a period of time where every pop hit had one of those portable Farfisa or Vox organs on it (which just screamed “popular beat combo”, didn’t it?) and/or the obligatory harpsichord.
Being so mercenary, there was little genuine band camaraderie, as one finds in a group of musicians sharing a common musical vision. The sound of Queen could never have been obtained by the wrecking crew, in a month of Sundays. Session musicians were all about turning up, playing the written part correctly and moving on. Adding one’s own interpretation or improvisational skills was the exception, rather than the rule. Interestingly, on the few occasions that improvisation was called for, the results were invariably exciting and good. Those episodes are retold, today, because of their rarity.
I think the biggest issue I have with the whole closed-shop of session musicians that existed, at the time, is that it must have frozen a lot of truly great musicians out. They just never got called to the recording dates, no matter how spectacular their musicianship. Unless they were part of the system and played by the rules, nobody was ever going to hear them on a big record. I can’t help wondering what we might have missed and never gotten to hear. Glenn Campbell might have been a fine player, but he was no Jimi Hendrix.
This way of making records was all about money and profit, not art and integrity. It was safe, risk-free, dumbed down and disposable. If painters had behaved this way, in making their paintings, the art would have been called forgeries and the art world would have been alight with the scandal of it. A true artist does not put his signature to somebody else’s painting, nor does an artist with integrity try to pass his own work off as that of somebody else. In popular music, however, they do it all the time.
It wasn’t just the beat generation youngsters that burned with the ambition to show the world their real art. So many session musicians put out solo records, to present the music they really wanted to play. They were usually much less successful than the hit records they had played on, because they never got full record company backing either. This was just another rebellion against a powerful money making scheme which couldn’t be fully sanctioned or embraced by the owners of that particular mill. It would have spelled the end of the ruse.
There’s no getting around it. The majority of consumers were deceived and their money was taken from them on the false premise that young kids were making exciting, fresh music. They weren’t. Older players were making competent, but ultimately unadventurous music, with a few twists and interesting ingredients thrown in by enlightened arrangers, producers and composers. There is a very apposite word for this practice – humbuggery.
The session musician memoirs recount that the hired-gun musicians were frequently bored with the music they had to record. Despite their undoubtedly fine musicianship, the boredom does come across in the records, or at least the failure to enthusiastically innovate. You get the sense that every musician is playing well within his or her safe limits and that nothing radical is being attempted. Nobody is pushing the envelope. It’s all well within the comfort zone (which is why much of it came to be classified as “Easy Listening”). The musicians on the records always felt that what they were playing was dumbed down and that, whether or not they publicly acknowledged it, they must have felt they were a part of a massive deception played on the public, if they were honest with themselves.
Some of these session musicians, undoubtedly, were just fine with how it all was (they participated in it for long enough, after all), but they tend to deny the sacrifices they made artistically, to their family priorities and to their development as artists. They became mere commercial musical technicians, instead of true artists. Even the most famous session musicians are virtual unknowns, compared to the celebrities who took the credit for their playing. In most cases, we’ll never know how these session players might have developed, as artists, if permitted to spread their wings and play to the very limits of their capabilities. Even their solo efforts were somewhat safe and constrained affairs.
Some say that being a behind-the-scenes session musician was the best career option open to them, at that time, but this neglects the fact that they perpetuated a record production system that simply didn’t value musical artistry for its own sake. That’s why no better career options ever presented themselves. They actively participated in and upheld a system of music production that ensured records could never be made any other way, so better musical career options would never be possible.
Good musicians were never able to get together, form a creative unit and present their art (as a studio recording) to the public, untainted by session doctoring. Not even the Beatles. Bands perhaps have never had the chance to succeed on their own merits. Their artistry was always adulterated by money makers, bent on polishing up whatever it was they were doing, into commercially slick packages, guaranteed to sell in volume. What would have happened if they had left the artists alone to develop, and then promoted the product, as if it had been pre-packaged, homogenised and dumbed down for commercial success first? Why not let the artistry stand on its own merits? Nobody was (and is) willing to take the financial risk of a large scale flop.
Maybe we have that opportunity to let music stand on its own merits now, with the advent of relatively affordable home project studios and direct-to-public music distribution and sales. Maybe it will take some time before the level of musicianship and artistry reaches the necessary heights, under this new way of recording. We can but hope. So far, much of the output of self-produced musicians leaves one longing for the slick, cynical, music production factory professionals of old, regrettably. I hope that’s a temporary state of affairs. It’s only a matter of time before musical artists learn to hone, polish and perfect their offerings, before releasing them to their audience. The old record companies, while employing highly competent specialists to do this on behalf of the artists, were not dealing in occult black magic, after all. It’s a skill that musicians can acquire and learn.
You might like the music they made, during this period of recorded music history, but it was intended to be risk-free consumer product. That’s unarguable. Some people still like fast food, too, where the ingredients are misrepresented. I think that much better art is possible. For me, it doesn’t matter that the musicians were good and that they were professional and clinical in their approach to making records. What matters to me is that it was cynical and that it froze out diversity in playing styles and musical ideas. We were robbed. We might have gained some timeless classics, but we’ll never know what we missed out on.
I hope that the new, self-directed approach to music making will, one day, tell us.