Artist: Glen Campbell
Title: Wichita Lineman
Description: single; album track, Wichita Lineman
Release date: 1968
First heard: 1990s
I am a lineman for the county …
My musical education continues. I hope it always will. But if you drew up a graph, with Musical Knowledge Gleaned on one axis, and Time on the other, it would start twitching upwards in a meaningful way at around 1969-70, when, aged four going on five, I really started to take notice of songs on the radio: Mungo Jerry’s In The Summertime, Gimme Dat Ding by the Pipkins, Love Grows Where My Rosemary Goes by Edison Lighthouse, My Sweet Lord, Wandrin’ Star, Sugar Sugar by the Archies, Hugo Montenegro’s The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. I have even earlier memories of Mary Hopkin’s Those Were The Days from 1968. What you think I’m going to say next is that Wichita Lineman got into my system around this time.
It didn’t. At least, I wasn’t aware of it doing so, even though it was a hit on both sides of the Atlantic, the one that had Wichita in it, and the other one. Wichita Lineman didn’t enter my internal playlist until the mid-90s, when I was working at Q magazine. Indeed, if you really did map that graph of my musical education, the years 1993-97 would see a sharp rise, as the experience behind the desk as features editor and then editor broadened my mind and my sense of history like no other office I’ve worked in, and I remain grateful. Staff who were ahead of me included the likes of Bill Prince, John Bauldie, Adrian Deevoy, Paul Du Noyer and John Aizlewood – if not older in age, wiser in miles on the clock – and I used these clever, seasoned gentlemen as my yardsticks, and gladly took steers from any of them.
Although my arrival at Q coincided with a changing of the cultural guard and the Britpop explosion – which I think explained part of my indie-shorted usefulness to the august rock monthly – it was still a safe house for classic rock and pop, and wore its anti-ageism as a badge of honour. As such, I threw myself backwards into history and topped up my degree. I remember Bill Prince interviewing Jimmy Webb – I’m guessing it was around the time of his Ten Easy Pieces LP – and even the act of sub-editing the copy, and providing a sidebar, blurb and headline matured my understanding of a man whom I only really knew for writing Up, Up And Away (another hit that must have seeped into my consciousness in my first few years of sentience).
Result: hello, Wichita Lineman! It wasn’t exactly like hearing a song that was almost as old as me for the first time. It is, after all, a certified classic, and will have been playing somewhere in the background for most of my life. But in that instant of seeking it out and making sense of its creation, everything fell into place. (I’d been in a postgraduate comedy production in the late 80s where I played a simple farmboy from Wichita, but the connection eluded me even then.) Webb was driving down a long, straight road in his native Oklahoma and saw a lineman up a telegraph pole and was struck by the loneliness of the job. The lyric flowed from there. It seems such an original observation and setting, perhaps it’s little wonder the song reverberates still.
It’s a song that feels like a story and yet, broken down, the lyric is quite spare. (Unlike this ramblin’ essay.) But what imagery it fixes in your mind’s eye. There he is, the lineman “for the county” (not even terminology we use in this country, or county, thus already romantic), and he “drives the main road, searchin’ in the sun for another overload.” This is overall-wearing detail about a work detail. But how soon its high-viz practicality is punctured by sentiment: “I hear you singin’ in the wire.” Is it as creepy as it first seems? Surely he’s the flower-power prototype for Mark E Smith’s Stasi-like “telephone thing, listenin’ in.” And yet, the Wichita Lineman who’s “still on the line” and “can hear you through the whine” is clearly lovestruck. And it’s lonely up that pole.
The weather’s looking rotten, too. It may not look like rain, but if it snows “that stretch down South won’t ever stand the strain.” But the strain isn’t in a length of telegraph wire, no more than the “overload” is about his job description. It’s the lineman himself who’s close to collapse.
And I need you more than want you
And I want you for all time
And the Wichita Lineman is still on the line
But it’s not a poem, and Webb’s not just a wordsmith. He’s not the singer either. Glen Campbell, whom I associated in childhood with True Grit, which I’d seen on the television, brings the song to heartbroken life and a country authenticity to the sound pictures. The ex-session man – a member of LA’s amorphous Wrecking Crew – and touring Beach Boy was more than just a hick from Arkansas with a guitar on his back. He wrote, and he joined bands, and he appeared on the TV, and he had his first big hit with a pacifist anthem by Buffy Saint-Marie even though he thought draft-dodgers should be hung, possibly from a telegraph wire. His vocal is coffee-smooth – perhaps sipped from a flask – and conveys the plaintive in our lineman’s lament for lost love in such a sincere and moving way you could never see him as a telegraphic stalker. He means it, man. And the held note at the end of “still on the liiiiiiiiine” seems to echo around the wide open plains, as if the shot is panning back, wider and wider, until he’s a speck on a stick.
The string arrangement, by Campbell talisman and fellow Wrecking Crewer Al De Lory, does some daring wire work, too. After a descending guitar twang and patted intro beat, there they swirl, filling the Kansas sky with sun, while violins and a keyboard (played by Webb?) get to work on the pre-digital approximation of a telegraph’s bleeps and whines. Invention permeates.
It’s a downhome, nice-and-simple, over-easy slice of life which finds symbolism in the horny hands of the working man and creates something almost space-age out of its allotted instruments. And it’s sung by Campbell like it matters. I read on Wikipedia that my friend Stuart Maconie called it the “greatest pop song ever composed” in one of his books, which I don’t have to hand, and I think his tribute is contained in the word “composed”. Wichita Lineman doesn’t feel written, or knocked out to order, it’s a novella that’s been inspired by real life and if it’s a little bit country, it feels more local than that.
It’s county music.
Artist: The Shirelles
Title: Baby It’s You
Description: single; album track, Baby It’s You
Release date: 1961; 1962
First heard: circa 1970s
In 1985, Billy Bragg supported The Smiths on their first US tour. He told me when I was writing his biography that he’d had a “long conversation” with Morrissey on the tour bus about a subject that proved fertile common ground, the wonder of New Jersey girl group the Shirelles. Although Billy confessed he’d always mistakenly referred to them as The Shirlettes, having misread a sleeve. I sort of prefer it.
He wasn’t being so daft. The group was, after all, named after one of its founder members Shirley Owens, just customised to sound a bit more like the Chantels (the pioneering black female singing group from the Bronx). Shirley, Doris Coley, Addie “Micki” Harris and Beverly Lee had nascent local label boss Florence Greenberg to thank for their fortunes, and vice versa, as they gave Tiara Records its first hit in 1958 while still in their teens, I Met Him On A Sunday (licensed to Decca). After a period of uncertainty and musical chairs, the Shirelles found themselves back under Greenberg’s wing and signed to her next imprint, Scepter, with whom they’d have hits until 1963. But the Goffin-and-King-penned Will You Love Me Tomorrow in 1960 was the flame that lit the touchpaper and sent up the fireworks: it was the first Billboard number one for an African-American girl group. (They were women by then, of course, and historically not yet African-American either – I rather fear it would have been “coloured” at the time.)
Burt Bacharach was already a hitmaker in 1961 when he, regular partner Hal David’s brother Mack and the equally prolific Luther Dixon (who also produced) came up with Baby It’s You. The Beatles covered it on Please Please Me, and used the same arrangement, but let’s not pretend it holds a flame to the Shirelles’ original, which oozes heartache and all-the-girls-love-a-cad inevitability.
The backing is sublime, a potent cocktail of overstatement and understatement: the tambourine sounds like it’s the size of a dinner tray, while the backing “sha-la-la-la-la”s might be made of marshmallow, and the beat played with swizzle sticks. This is no wall of sound, more like a trellis, but what blossomy delights hang thereon. The addition of male backing singers hardens the sound once the intro has lured us in with its swooning incense, but Shirley Owens’ deftly modulated and surgically emotive lead vocal brings sweetness and light to this tale of manifest female destiny written by guys.
“It’s not the way you smile that touched my heart,” she confirms. “It’s not the way you kiss that tears me apart.” Either way, she is torn apart. “Uh-ho oh-ho,” she quivers, before letting us know that “many, many, many nights” roll by while she sits, typically, alone at home and cries over this bounder. “What can I do?” NB: not what can I do, but what can I do.
I can’t help myself
When baby it’s you
Baby, it’s you
Then the mood darkens. “You should hear what they say about you,” she trills, while her sisters intone, not that subliminally, “Cheat, cheat.” He’s not worth it, this guy. They say he’s “never, never, never been true,” and yet Shirlette is gonna love him any old way, despite what “they say.” (Cheat, cheat.) Begging ought not be her business, but beg she does: “Don’t leave me alone, please come home.” Baby, it’s him.
Their manager and label boss was a woman, a woman wrote the tune of their first number one, and they made giant steps for feminism just by their success, but like most girl groups, their words were often written by men trying to think like women. Like Crazy by Willie Nelson, Baby It’s You evidently works for either gender, but in a pre-liberation era, putting up with useless blokes was, lyrically, part of the patriarchal furniture. (See also: “He hit me and it felt like a kiss,” “Tonight the light of love is in your eyes, but will you still love me tomorrow?”, “But all you do is treat me bad, break my heart and leave me sad,” and on and on.)
The singing is so affecting and true, the music appears not to have much to add, but Dixon’s arrangement pulls back at just the right moments, dropping out completely before “’Cause baby, it’s you” for maximum melodrama, and placing the “cheat, cheat” aside just far back enough in the mix to make it sound like the other Shirelles are talking behind Shirley’s back. I take issue with the organ break at one minute 40, so shrill and intrusive it threatens to blow a hole in the atmosphere, but if anything it makes Shirley’s return to the mic all the more of a relief.
It fades, as all 60s songs fade, but not until she’s implored, “Come on home.” I realise I have a soft spot the size of a dinner tray for music of this stripe and timbre from this golden age, but what can I do?
Artist: Patsy Cline
Description: single; EP track, Patsy Cline; album track, Patsy Cline Showcase
Release date: 1961; 1962
First heard: 1990s
Though I’m a lot rock’n’roll, I can’t really even claim to be a little bit country. I’ve watched Nashville, both the classic 70s movie about the hub they call Music City, and the current, campy TV series, and I’ve long appreciated the Country & Western influence on much of the American rock of the 1960s that I hold dear. I have albums by Gram Parsons, the Flying Burrito Brothers and the Byrds that make perfect, bootlace-tie sense to my ears, I actually enshrined a song from Dylan’s Nashville Skyline into The 143, and if there is a lovelier, more plangent sound than a pedal steel, I’d like to hear it.
But Patsy Cline is a different order of “meat and three”. The first female artist to be inducted into the Country Music Hall Of Fame (in 1973; it only took them ten years after her untimely death at 30), Cline’s reputation and appeal travelled way beyond the parameters of her chosen genre and subculture. The longer-lived Dolly and Tammy self-evidently had longer careers, but it seems me – as a non-expert – that she towers over them all from beyond the grave. Beset by bad fortune like any self-respecting country singer, Cline’s life was not the self-destructive tragedy of near-contemporary Hank Williams, and she was enjoying all the fruits of success when her plane crashed in a Tennessee forest in 1963.
Crazy is hardly an obscurantist choice from Cline’s crossover repertoire, but for me, it shines brightest and interferes with my heart in a way that I might not expect from a genre whose mawkishness can be a barrier to my full immersion. Written by a then-unknown, clean-cut Willie Nelson, who recorded it himself a year later on his debut LP, it’s a unisex lament to the inevitability of a split-up. Fatalistic, as many classic love songs tend to be, for maximum yearnitude.
The protagonist – female in Cline’s impeccable reading – declares herself crazy for feeling so lonely and for feeling so blue, as she knew her partner would love her as long as he wanted, and then “someday”, leave her “for somebody new.” If she did know this, why did she go with him in the first place? Well, if you need that question answering, you have never been in love. Cline has. She’s “crazy for tryin’, and crazy for cryin’,” and “crazy, for lovin’ you.” The way she lets us in on this apres-relationship confession in that husky voice that is apparently a contralto (ie. low for a lady), almost makes her sound as if the loss and the inevitability are part of the experience. Better to have loved and lost, than to have loved and lost and not seen it coming.
A polite piano intro, augmented by the lazily ascending twang of a guitar, give the song a trilling, balmy porch setting, the better to stage Cline’s wistful but self-lacerating dissection, swept along by the brushes of whichever of the two drummers played on the parent Showcase album. It’s an idyllic backdrop to a gloomy conclusion about the fallibility of the heart. The velvety baritone backing of none other than Elvis’s partly-ordained Jordanaires gives such depth to the arrangement (they were still indentured to the King in 1961 but would later be too busy to join him in Vegas and handed over to the Imperials), but it’s Cline’s rich account that cuts through, the ends of each line quivering into the trees on the wind. In “crazy for feeling so blue,” it’s the word “feeling” that she hammers home: crazy for feeling so blue, the “blue” note held for longer than you might think feasible.
Each word Cline chooses to emphasise seems perfectly selected. It’s as if she had the ability to italicise with her tonsils, as she went along. I also love her more upbeat, clip-clop 1963 rendition of the Bob Montgomery-quilled Back In Baby’s Arms (introduced into the gumbo of Trent Reznor’s Natural Born Killers soundtrack with creditable plurality), but the career-defining ballad wins by a nose. I suspect if she’d lived, the KLF would have had her on a record in the 90s; as it is, airborne catastrophe immortalises her as a kind of guardian angel in perpetuity.
Not even a hit in the UK, Crazy found me somehow, somewhere along the long, lonesome line. There. I hope I sound like the country expert I’m not.
Artist: The Elgins
Title: Put Yourself In My Place
Description: B-side of Darling Baby; reissued as A-side
Release date: 1965; 1971
First heard: circa 1988
I would dearly love to tell you that the label above is from my own original 1966 UK copy of Put Yourself In My Place by the Elgins. It isn’t. It’s borrowed from the rather excellent 45cat website, which sells old vinyl. I do not own it as a single. I own it via the also rather excellent 3CD set Capital Gold Motown Classics (it’s on CD2). But I do know this: I fell in love with it instantly, and I’m almost positive I first heard it on the radio in the 80s, without even knowing who sang it. The possibility hangs over this entry that the version I first heard was by the Supremes. But for me, the first recording, by the Elgins, is by far the best – and how often do you get to say that about a tune also sung by Diana Ross?
There will be other Motown singles in The 143, so let’s get this said. Put Yourself In My Place is a perfect example of a Motown song that came off the conveyor belt, machine-tooled if you like for the newly-minted young pop audience. (Swiss architect Le Corbusier called a house “a machine for living”; these records are “machines for dancing.”)
There lingers a cloud of rock snobbery about “manufactured” bands, about artists who get their songs written for them, but classic songwriting – and classic song-making – cannot be faked. And in any case, to use the qualification of writing your own songs as a stamp of authenticity would discount Elvis, Bing and Frank, not to mention a large proportion of the artists on Motown, the greatest pop label in history. (Also, to discount the “production line” methodology of Motown or dismiss Hitsville as a “factory” would be to deny the skilled and intuitive musicianship of the house band – collectively, the Funk Brothers – and the angelic singers themselves.)
With that on the contextual statute books, what’s on the record? I won’t lift the Elgins’ biography from Wikipedia; suffice to say, they came and they went, with only one LP to their name (and even their name changed about three times), but what this single tells us is that they could sing, and that lead vocalist Saundra Edwards was a match for any other in Detroit, and in fact sounds a little like Smokey Robinson. Written and produced by Holland-Dozier-Holland, whose conjoined genius needs no further eulogy from me, it runs on an ascending, somersaulting piano riff that lends an edgy urgency to Edwards’ plea for empathy after sour times (“Put yourself in my place/You’d learn to treat me right/And you wouldn’t stay out late at night”).
It was first issued on the flip of Darling Baby at the end of 1965, before my first birthday, but issued in the UK in 1966, through a licensing agreement with EMI. A reissue in 1971 made it a hit here, too, having gone Top 10 in the R&B charts over there.
A saccharine, heady, insistent tune that grips your heart, even in that moment of instant summer you can feel the author’s pain. Bittersweet, I think they call it.