By Janet Maslin

The Wrecking Crew: The Inside Story of Rock and Roll’s Best-Kept Secret

By Kent Hartman?(Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press, 292 pages, $25.99)

The recent Grammy Awards featured separate segments honoring the long careers of the Beach Boys and Glen Campbell. The show didn’t mention that Campbell toured and played as a Beach Boy in the mid-1960s, before his solo career.

In those days Campbell was one of the all-purpose studio musicians who were loosely known as the Wrecking Crew. They are the subject of Kent Hartman’s nostalgic, book-length hagiography, which has the glib but potent excitement of a collection of greatest hits.

The Wrecking Crew was not supposed to attract attention. Groups like the Beach Boys, the Byrds, the Monkees and many others didn’t care to point out why they sounded so much better on records than on the road. But Wrecking Crew members could work miracles, like the time when, with only three minutes’ worth of studio time allotted them, they played a first-take, no-glitch version of The Little Old Lady From Pasadena. As Roy Halee, Simon and Garfunkel’s engineer and co-producer, once said of a top Wrecking Crew bassist: “You never have to stop the tape because of a mistake by Joe Osborn. There just aren’t any.”

Hal Blaine, who justifiably calls himself “10 of Your Favorite Drummers” on his website and played his drums at the bottom of an elevator shaft for Simon and Garfunkel’s The Boxer, claims to have to come up with the Wrecking Crew’s name. Musicians like Blaine showed up in Los Angeles in the early 1960s, were put on the map by Phil Spector (Blaine plays the ace drumbeats that kick off Be My Baby), were appropriated by Brian Wilson for the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds and became hotly in demand. Old-school session players complained that these guys (and one woman, Carol Kaye, who played guitar as a stealth Beach Girl) were wrecking the business for everyone else.

Blaine’s timing was perfect and not only when it came to percussion. He and other Wrecking Crew regulars made their mark in an era when Top 40 singles really mattered, and rock acts sometimes became famous before they could actually play. The Wrecking Crew cites a Byrds recording session for Mr. Tambourine Man when every Byrd except one — Roger McGuinn, then still known as Jim — was kicked out of the studio so that better musicians could fill in.

There is no success story too corny for Hartman. And most of his book’s chapters follow the same pattern. Along comes a young, little-known aspiring musician like the teenage piano player and songwriter who had such a run of luck beginning in 1966. This kid was brought into a Wrecking Crew-populated studio by Johnny Rivers, who had his own record label. (The Wrecker Larry Knechtel played killer piano on Rivers’ version of Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu.) Then Rivers introduced him.

“Everybody, this is Jimmy Webb, the songwriter I’ve been telling you about,” Rivers supposedly said. The musicians were skeptical, but they played the kid’s By the Time I Get to Phoenix anyway. Later Campbell, still a studio player, found a copy of the recording and decided to give it a spin. “What could it hurt?” Hartman writes, imagining the thoughts of Campbell. “Didn’t they used to say back home that a stone unturned is opportunity lost?”

Campbell played the song and became a solo star. Webb kept writing, and in the Grammy lineup for 1967 two of his songs were big winners. Hartman uses awards and chart standings as his main measures of success.

The Wrecking Crew is so Los Angeles-centric that the British Invasion barely registers. And although Hartman makes respectful note that parallel outfits like Motown’s Funk Brothers (the subject of the rousing documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown) were performing similar unsung heroics in other music meccas, his focus is simple and narrow. “The next time you listen to some of your favorite groups from the ’60s, please don’t be upset,” he cautions readers. “I never knew it was really the Wrecking Crew either.”

Among the jukebox triumphs that are celebrated here are Limbo Rock, a song so simple that Billy Strange, who wrote the music and called it “just about the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard,” was surprised to receive royalties for it; The Beat Goes On, the Sonny and Cher one-chord wonder that was such a bore for musicians to play; River Deep, Mountain High, with a Phil Spector Wall of Sound so messy that Wrecking Crew members hated being drowned out by it; and Eve of Destruction, which wound up on the radio before its singer, Barry McGuire, could do an adequate vocal.

Eve of Destruction was a big hit in its own right, but it becomes even bigger when Hartman explains how it brought Lou Adler, the producer, together with four of his impecunious unknown friends: the Mamas and the Papas. Their records show off Wrecking Crew professionalism at its best.

For all Hartman’s efforts to clarify the mysteries of which musicians played on which records, the subject remains confusing. The Wrecking Crew was informal and had many members; its stars played on so many songs that they themselves haven’t all kept close track. It would take a whole other book to trace their individual trajectories. (There are other books. Hartman draws heavily on volumes about both Blaine and Spector.) But The Wrecking Crew does its job of commemorating studio heroics. It makes good music sound better.