The idea of creating a fictional band purely for the purpose of making records has been around for decades, although it was only in the late 1960s that it began to appear in Australian pop scene. While critical opinion tends to label many such records as worthless, manufactured 'junk', it never deterred the public from buying them, many have been major hits, and many records created by contrived studio groups are now rightly considered pop classics.

In the movies it has been a common practice from the very earliest days to use doubles, trick photography and other special effects to create the illusion that an actor is performing a daring action or is in a dangerous or exotic place, but this convention has generally passed without question. There have been occasional instances when this has become an issue, but it's usually because of disputes over due credit. An example was the lawsuit by actress Mercedes McCambridge, who sought recognition from the makers of The Exorcist for her uncredited voice-over work as the voice of the devil. A similar dispute arose a few years later over the uncredited use of a body double for actresss Jennifer Beals in dance sequences in the 80s hit film Flashdance.

But in music this kind of "faking" is much more of a grey area, probably because it's far less obvious. And perhaps because music has such deep emotional influence, people can deeply resent the discovery that their ears have been decieved. Even before WWII, there had been numerous examples in jazz of famous "all-star" groups being put together to cut special recordings, and of course it was standard practice for "solo" singers like Frank Sinatra or Doris Day to employ small armies of nameless session players to back them on their recordings. 

But rapid advances in recording and broadcasting technology in the late '50s and early '60s -- the development of magnetic tape and multi-track recording, the microgroove LP, the 7" single, and the evolution of the pop hit parade -- led to an entirely novel phenomenon. Usually created under the sole direction of a professional producer, singles and albums could be made using totally anonymous session musicians and singers. These could then be then released and promoted through radio and the Top 40 charts even though there was no actual "group" behind them to provide a face or a live performance. As the trend progressed, it led to the situation where completely fictitious outfits like The Partridge Family could score huge international hits.

Such records were and still are extremely attractive for producers and record labels (as the recent fad for "Popstars" reality TV shows demonstrated) because they eliminated the need to have a real group, with all the attendant problems -- like paying them royalties. Session musicians were typically paid a one-off fee, and if the producer was also the composer, it could be extremely lucrative proposition if the record became a hit.

In the USA, one of the earliest examples in the pop scene was the novelty records by Alvin & The Chipmunks, who scored hits in many countries in the mid-1950s. These records, created by entertainer David Seville, relied on the simple gimmick of recording an instrumental track, then overdubbing the vocals with the tape running at lower-than-normal speed. When played back at regular speed, the music would sound normal, and the voices would remain synchronised with the music, but the pitch and timbre of the voices would be dramatically shifted up, creating the instantly recognisable, chirpy "helium" effect. (The enduring popular appeal of such gimmicks is demonstrated by the fact that an 'Alvin & The Chipmunks' movie was released in 2008).

There were numerous examples of such studio creations in the late '50s and early '60s, but the beat boom and further improvements in recording tecnhology in the mid-60s gave producers a whole new range of styles and techniques to play with. Suddenly it became possible to create a "pretend" pop band and put out a record under their name, and with the right song and the right promotion, it could become a hit. It also has to be admitted that in many cases, these recordings were artefacts that could only have been created in the studio, like the classic Phil Spector "Wall Of Sound" records. It was possible to create such elaborate productions in the studio, using multiple singers and instruments, echo, reverb, multitrack tape and other techniques. But amplifiers, PA systems and effects like portable echo units were still in their infancy in the 60s and it would have been simply impossible to re-create anything like the same sounds on the stage at that time.

In the UK in the early 60s, Joe Meek was probably the first British producer to make records with studio-created groups, and he had major hits with Singles like Telstar and Heinz's Just Like Eddy. The idea has also been frequently applied to create those inexplicably popular Xmas novelty hits by "groups" like 'The Flowerpot Men', and more recently 'The Wombles' (Mike Batt) and 'Mr Blobby', usually aimed squarely at the pre- and early teen market. It even led to the curious British phenomenon (recently examined by MOJO magazine) where a successful series of "Top Of The Pops" Albums, featuring sound-alike versions of current 70's hits, was churned out by faceless group of studio musicians. In the 70s, former EMI engineer Alan Parsons also used the idea very successfully, albeit in a more serious vein, for his series of 'Alan Parsons Project' Albums.

Along with Meek, the man who perfected the "studio group" concept was American superstar producer Phil Spector. After his own brief recording career and a spell working with legendary writer-producers Lieber & Stoller in New York, Spector moved to L.A., set up his own label Philles, and became an independent record producer, making records with established artists like Gene Pitney and others. Spector's breakthrough came in 1962 when he scored his first #1 as a producer with He's A Rebel. Credited to "The Crystals", the backing track was in fact recorded completely by freelance studio musicians and sung by session vocalists Darlene Love and The Blossoms. Its success convinced Spector that he could make a hit with anyone he wanted, and that individual artists or groups were secondary to his "Wall Of Sound" production.

Headquartered in L.A.'s Goldstar Studios, Spector assembled a small army of collaborators led by engineer Larry Levine and arranger Jack Nitzsche. His productions were backed by the crack team of regular session musicians who became known as "The Wrecking Crew". This elite roster of'first-call' session players -- who also cut many famous film and TV scores as well as playing on many of the biggest hits of the decade -- included many stellar names from the jazz world.

Spector's regular roster of session players -- who were also usd extensively by Beach Boy Brian Wilson -- included jazz guitarist Barney Kessell, singer-guitarist Glen Campbell, Billy Strange, bassist Carol Kaye, Irve Rubin, Bill Pitman, Tommy Tedesco, legendary drummer Hal Blaine, Earl Palmer, Ritchie Frost, pianist Leon Russell, Larry Knechtel, Harold Battiste, Don Randi, Nino Tempo, Mike Spencer, Al Delory, Steve Douglas, Jay Migliori, Lou Blackburn, Roy Caton, Jimmy Bond, Ray Pohlman, Wallick Dean, Mac Rebennack ("Dr John"), Sonny Bono (percussion), Frank Kapp, Julius Wechter, Gene Estes, Jeff Melvoin and Gary Coleman (the fathers of former Prince & The Revolution members Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman), Al Casey (guitar), Joe Osborn (bass), Lyle Ritz (bass, also one of the world's only jazz ukelele players!), and Plas Johnson (sax). Backup vocals were provided by a myriad of Philles label artists including Jack Nitzsche`s wife Gracia, Jean King, Edna Wright, Carolyn Willis, and Sonny Bono's girlfriend Cherylin Sarkassian (soon to be famous as Cher).

The songs were supplied by professional writers Spector whom knew from New York's Brill Building -- primarily Jeff Barry, Ellie Greenwich, Carole King and Gerry Goffin, and to maximise his share, Spector took co-writing credits for many of the songs. Many of the hits he made between '62 and '67 were fronted by his various interchangeable acts -- Darlene Love, psuedo-groups The Crystals and Bob B Soxx & The Bluejeans (Darlene Love and male counterpart Bobby Sheen), The Righteous Brothers and The Ronettes (who had been Murray the K`s 'go-go' girls prior to signing with Philles) led by Veronica 'Ronnie' Bennett who later became Spector's wife.

A classic example of Spector's approach was "River Deep Mountain High". Credited to Ike & Tina Turner, it was written by Greenwich, Barry and Spector, and backed by all Spector's regulars, including The Wrecking Crew, Darlene Love, Ronnie Spector and Cher. Although the Turners had their own backing band and singers (The Ike & Tina Turner Revue) only Tina Turner appeared on the record. Spector had actually bought the Turners out of their previous contract with the stipulation that only Tina was to be recored, and that husband Ike was to stay away from the studio! Ironically, although it was his biggest and best production (costing a massive $20,000 in 1966), and one of the greatest pop Singles ever made, it flopped in America, suposedly because it was too "black" for white radio and too "white" for black radio. Interestingly though it was a huge hit in the UK.

Another notable American example of the studio group concept was The Hondells, a fictional group created by producer and songwriter Gary Usher. He used a group of Wrecking Crew musicians including Glen Campbell, Hal Blaine, Curt Boettcher, and Chuck Girard and Joe Kelly of the Castells, to record a version of the Brian Wilson song "LIttle Honda", which extolled the virtues of Honda motorcycles. Released on Mercury Records it reached #9 in September 1964. With the record a success, the company asked Usher to assemble a touring version of The Hondells, so Usher hired Ritchie Burns, one of the background singers on the record, to lead the group. The Hondells continued to make records, and they appeared on popular television programmes and in a number of "beach party" films, including Beach Blanket Bingo. Two subsequent singles charted, "My Buddy Seat' (Dec. 1964) and a cover of the Lovin' Spoonful's "Younger Girl" (May 1966). Following this release, the performing version of The Hondells began record, releasing a version of Bob Lind's "Cheryl's Going Home'. Subsequent singles on Columbia Records and Amos did not chart and only the first of The Hondells" albums made the charts. The group and name were retired in 1970.

The concept was taken one step further by maverick American TV producers Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider, who in 1965 devised the hugely successful series The Monkees. Inspired by A Hard Day's Night, they developed a musical situation comedy series, based around the adventures of a fictional four-piece pop band. Four young actor-musicians were cast as the group, and leading L.A. independent producer Don Kirschner was contracted to provide the recordings of the songs they performed; in the shows. Many of the best-known Monkees recordings (like "Last Train To Clarksville") were in fact cut by members of The Wrecking Crew, with the songs supplied by leading composers including Goffin & King, Neil Diamond, Harry Nilsson, John Stewart and Boyce & Hart.

The show was an immediate success in the US and many other countries, and the Singles and early Albums became huge worldwide hits. Both the records and the series provided ideal cross-promotion for each other; with each new single prominently featured in the show, and each hit in turn promoting the series. The result was that by 1967 The Monkees were one of the most successful acts in the world. In fact they became so successful that the four young actors hired to play the members of the group were hauled out on the road to perform. By luck, the four men happened to be competent musicians, and this led to the odd situation where a totally contrived, fictional pop group became -- or were at least perceived to be -- a "real" band.

On record, the lead vocals were almost all done either by Davy Jones or Micky Dolenz -- although even that was reportedly achieved over Kirschner's strenuous objections, since he apparently wanted all aspects of the recordings to be done by anonymous session musicians. Although a recent book on The Monkees by author Andrew Sandoval has revealed that the real Monkees were rehearsing as a band (albeit without much success) as early as March 1966, and that Mike Nesmith was producing sessions in JUne and July that year, only late in their short career did The Monkees reach the position of writing, playing on and producing their own records. In fact the project foundered not long after The Monkees dumped Kirschner and took control of the music themselves. Kirschner learned his lesson from this and opted for a situation that gave him complete control -- cartoons. He subsequently produced a string of hit bubblegum records for popular animated series such as Josie & the Pussycats and The Archies

Ironically, The Monkees' transition from fictional to actual sowed the seeds of their own demise, partly because of the influence of the very band on which they had been modelled. The example set by The Beatles -- a pop group who could write, play and sing on all their own records, and who could also act on film or TV -- set an almost impossible standard for other groups, but it was one that critics (especially in Britain) measured everyone else by.

In 1967 the Monkees phenomenon triggered a furious debate in the UK about "real" vs. "fake" musicians, sparked by by Mike Nesmith's headline-grabbing revelation  that The Monkees did not play on their own records. Strictly speaking it was true, but in the context of the established pracitces of the music industry it was wildly disingenuous and blatantly hypocritical (and flavoured with more than a hint of anti-American sentiment). The public perception might have been that the bands played on all their own records, but the reality was quite different.

The basic fact was (and is) that studio time is very expensive, and producers usually wanted to save studio time, and therefore money, because they usually had to hire commercial studios. The Beatles were one of the only bands able to record consistently in a major studio which was also owned by their own record label. Unless recording a band of the calibre of The Beatles (which was unusual) it was common practice to use professional musicians to cut backing tracks was the easist and quickest way of getting a polished, professional result. There was also frequently a need to enhance the performances of the (mostly self-taught) beat groups, whose shortcomings would otherwise have become glaringly obvious on record. For example, it was revealed in Mo Foster's superb book on the early days of Britush rock, 17 Watts?!, that many guitar parts on records by The Small Faces -- including the famous acoustic guitar intro on "Itchycoo Park" -- were actually performed by British session legend Big Jim Sullivan, not the group's guitarist Steve Marriott.

By 1967 virtually all the major British groups -- The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, The Pretty Things, The Hollies, The Yardbirds, The Small Faces, The Move, Herman's Hermits -- had been routinely using session players for recordings for several years. In mid-60s London the session scene included musos like guitarists Big Jim Sullivan and Jimmy Page, pianist Nicky Hopkins, bassist John Paul Jones, drummer Clem Cattini and vocalists Doris Troy, Madeline Bell, John Carter and Bobby Graham. These session players feature on major recordings by many of the aforementioned groups, as well as solo artists like Donovan, Marianne Faithfull and Jackie De Shannon, and many other "MOR" artists like Val Doonican and Max Bygraves. The same was true of all the major recording centres of the time, including Sydney and Melbourne.

For the same reasons, the use of session players to augment or replace the groups when cutting backing tracks was standard practice for most major American bands of the era, like The Beach Boys. Indeed, "The Wrecking Crew" -- the very same players who featured so controversially on the Monkees records -- had played on all the Spector recordings, including the British hit "River Deep Mountain High", and they also cut the backing tracks for many hits by The Mamas & the Papas, The Byrds, The Beach Boys, the Motown groups and scores of others. Yet these American acts somehow escaped censure by the critics, and the presence of a string quartet, or indeed an entire symphony orchestra, on a Beatles record was allowed to pass without comment. But the hapless Monkees -- who were immediately dubbed The Pre-Fab Four by the British media -- were pilloried because they didn't play their own instruments.

There have been countless other "manufactured" groups since then. They range from puerile money-making exercises like Mr Blobby, to the 80s American all-star studio act "Will Powers", created by rock photographer Lynn Goldmsith, with a bunch of famous friends including Todd Rundgren and Carly Simon, to satirise the contemporary fad for self-improvement tapes.

Although the Monkees controversy rendered the practice decidedly "on the nose" with critics through the late 60s and 70s, the tables turned when punk exploded out of England. In open defiance of rock's critical orthodoxy, many punk groups -- who had grown up watching Monkees re-runs on TV --happily declared their love of The Monkees, and their admiration for the way they had fought to create a real group from a manufactured concept. Punk figureheads The Sex Pistols made their fandom official when they cut a version of The Monkees' (Not Your) Steppin' Stone, and History soon showed how close the parallels between the two groups really were.

Over the last 20 years, advances in technology have blurred the lines between "real" and "fake" more than ever. The development of the music video has made it possible to create convincing illusions of polished performance for the most talentless hack. On stage, it has become commonplace for major artists like Madonna and Janet Jackson to "lip-synch", and/or "enhance" their vocals with pre-recorded tapes or samples -- a device that admittedly comes in very handy when whirling your way through an especially energetic dance number! Similarly, the use of echo, reverb, double-tracking and many other effects to "treat" vocal tracks on record was a standard practice from the early '60s onwards. Today, using digital sound processors in the studio to electronically correct vocal pitch variations is an everyday occurrence.

But the controvsersy still flares up again from time to time. One notable instance was that of singing star and former Dallas Cowboys cheerleader Paula Abdul, who was accused of being 'ghosted' by a session singer on her own records. Abdul survived the storm, but others were not so lucky. The saddest example was the furore that erupted over the 1990 revelation that chart-topping dance-pop duo Milli Vanilli did not sing on any of their records. Not long after winning a Grammy award for Best New Artist, it was revealed that the "group" was a fake. But instead of ignoring it or having a good laugh, the industry reacted with breathtaking hypocrsiy -- the award was withdrawn, and the band's career was killed stone dead.

Like the stink over The Monkess in 1967, the Milli Vanilli controversy was a classic case of the pot calling the kettle black. The group was the creation of German pop svengali Frank Farian, the man who who had already earned the dubious homour of giving the world Boney M in the 70s; Milli Vanilli was of course totally manufactured; the sad irony is that this was (or should have been) blatantly obvious to anybody. Of course the two "stars", Rob Pilatus and Fab Morvan, had not performed at all on "their" album -- they had been hired for their looks, and they were purely there as a "front".

If such accusations were disingenous in 1967, there was even less excuse for them in 1990, when so many other major American artists were routinely "augmenting" their performances on stage and in the studio. Sadly, it utterly destroyed Milli Vanilli; Pilatus in particular suffered terribly -- he attempted suicide by jumping out a window the following year, and he eventually died of a drug overdose in 1998. The final irony is that only a decade later, arguments about authenticity are utterly irrelevant, and the pop charts are dominated by a sucession of manufactured "groups" like The Spice Girls and Backstreet Boys, whose music and image are so comprehensively contrived that they make The Monkees look like The Band!

Australasian studio groups 1964-75

There were several notable examples of the "studio group" phenomenon in Australia in the period 1964-75, including:

References / Links

Special thanks to Jon Leonoudakis for corrections and additional information about The Wrecking Crew.

Ted Friedman
"Milli Vanilli and the Scapegoating of the Inauthentic"
Bad Subjects, Issue # 9, November 1993