The Doors, The End (1967)

the-doors

Artist: The Doors
Title: The End
Description: track, The Doors
Label: Elektra
Release date: 1967
First heard: 1982

This is the beginning …

I know exactly where I was when I first heard the establishing tinkles of John Densmore’s splash cymbal and what sound like chimes but might be something Ray Manzarek teased from his keys: I was sitting on a plastic chair in the arts centre of what used to be Northampton College of Further Education on Booth Lane, where my friends Paul, Dave, Neil and I had joined the Film Society in order to blow our minds. It was 6 April, 1982 and we were there to see the X-rated Apocalypse Now (we were 17). Francis Coppola gave The End by the Doors a starring role. Written in 1967 about a break-up, it divides chin-stroking opinion. But it’s difficult to argue with its placement at the beginning – and the end – of Coppola’s South-East Asian odyssey.  This is not background music. Jim Morrison’s mournful wail and student poetry meld into something that might have been – but wasn’t – written for the film or the war.

So, I heard the song for the first time at the same time as seeing the film for the first time. A film that would become one of my all-time favourite films. A song that would become one of my all-time favourite songs.

Both are long. The song comes in at an epic 11 minutes and 41 seconds on the Doors’ debut album. It’s reduced to just over six-and-a-half minutes on the soundtrack edit, its middle section concertina’d so that the serpentine opening and close are left fully intact. Apocalypse Now runs at 153 minutes, but there are other cuts of the film, notably the 202-minute Redux. The classic recording of The End for producer Paul A. Rothchild at Sunset Sound in Hollywood is formed of two takes, spliced together. And you can’t hear the join.

What I’m saying is, there’s no rush, and yet there is such a rush.

This is the middle bit …

It’s not a single and was never designed to be, but it climaxed Doors live shows as a backstop and would be the last song the band would ever play together, in New Orleans. (Morrison’s end came four years later in a rented room in the 4th arrondissemont, aged 27, an early bath foreshortening his “elaborate plans”.) In 1983, the Fun Boy Three tapped into the darkness on the edge of town and covered The End for novelty purposes on a proprietary music show called Switch and did a worthwhile job, I recall, including a good bash at the famous Oedipal interlude; this re-lit my fire for the Doors, whose eponymous debut album I purchased on cassette. I don’t know why cassette.

The sidewinding lyrics to The End had already entered my bloodstream via the film. The “stranger’s hand in a desperate land”; that “wilderness of pain” and “all the children” who went insane while “waiting for the summer rain” – Yeah!

It’s easy to dismiss Morrison as a horny sixth-form poet with the top button of his leather trousers accidentally left unpopped, and because The End is essentially free-form, refined into copyright over a series of jams, it doesn’t all read that well on the page. He reaches the bottom of his pencil case when he suggests we “ride the snake to the lake” and declares that “the West is the best.” But this song, this track, this Freudian trip, this outpouring of childhood angst brought on by a rich diet of reading, defines the Doors.

They made shorter, better, tighter, more hummable songs – Break On Through, People Are Strange, Light My Fire, Hello, I Love You, Riders on the Storm, Touch Me – and three of these were million-sellers, once Light My Fire had been pruned back to three minutes. They pulled six albums out of the chaos over five years, each a huge record in the multi-platinum orbit. But for all of Morrison’s apparent unsuitability for the straight and narrow – singing the forbidden word “higher” on the Ed Sullivan Show against the show’s express wishes; the public obscenity charge; taunting his fans at an over-sold show in a seaplane hangar; bothering blameless cabin crew – he kind of turned up for work nonetheless, however drunk. The lizard king myth was successfully blown out of proportion, but the late 60s and early 70s were a heady time, and if Jim Morrison hadn’t existed, they’d have had to invent him.

This is the end

What elevates The End from an overlong song at the end of a perfectly sensible psychedelic rock album by a gigging band who’d found their feet to a work of genius is – boring as this seems – its very length. Its mission to explain and explain. The long-windedness beneath its wings. The fundamental wherewithal to go where no band had gone before while staying fashionable. Not many greatest hits get away with a spoken interlude – ABC’s The Look of Love (“They say, Martin, maybe one day you’ll find true love”); Michael Jackson’s Thriller (“Darkness falls across the land”); Britney’s Oops! … I Did It Again (“Oh, you shouldn’t have”) – but those that do need to get some perspective. At about six-and-a-half minutes in, Morrison slips out of his stentorian oratory, leans on the mic stand, and starts to tell us a sto-o-ory. Are you sitting uncomfortably?

“The killer awoke before dawn … He put his boots on … He took a face from the ancient gallery and walked on down the hall … And he came to a door and he looked inside …”

That we associate this edition of Crackanory with Captain Willard’s journey to enlightenment beyond the Do Long Bridge and the Montagnard Army in Apocalypse Now, followed by its murderous fruition, is easy to follow. It’s not about the Vietnam War, but it’s 1967 and everything’s about the Vietnam War, man.

Father? Yes, son? I want to kill you
Mother … I want to … waaaaaarrrgghhhh

And Densmore’s drums explode into abandon, Robby Krieger’s guitar gets out of the boat, and Manzarek mellows the situation out with a go-around the keys, while Morrison breaks on through to the other side, that peyote still pecking at his vitals and Rothchild manning the pumps. They meet at the back of the blue bus, Morrison lashing away, using “fuck” as a beat, Densmore adds more cowbell, Krieger banjo-duels with his himself, until it all falls apart and – in the mind of an Apocalypse Now devotee – a sacred cow is sacrificed.

This was the end, and, for me, the start of beautiful friendship. He did, however, write some bloody awful poetry.

 

 

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Elvis Presley, Suspicious Minds (1969)

ElvisSuspiciousMinds

Artist: Elvis Presley
Title: Suspicious Minds
Description: single
Label: RCA
Release date: 1969
First heard: circa mid-1970s

Jordan: The Comeback is the fifth studio album by musically and lyrically eloquent northeasterners Prefab Sprout. A nominal concept album (Rolling Stone summed it up as a pop symphony about “God, love and Elvis”), its standout passage, for me, has always been its four-minute title track, in which the King laments from some rhinestone-studded version of heaven.

And all those books about me
Well there wasn’t much love in ’em boys
I’m tellin’ ya, if I’d taken all that medication
Man, I’d a rattled like one of my little girl’s toys
Now they call me a recluse
Been in the desert so long
Layin’ on my back, bidin’ my time
I’m just waitin’ for the right song

Then I’m comin’ back!

Only Paddy McAloon would have the chutzpah and chops to imagine Elvis considering a move back to Memphis from the top of a stairway to heaven. But Elvis is so big, so all-powerful, so iconic in the Mount Rushmore sense of the exhausted adjective, how else do you draw him out of the desert of pagan idolatry? Certainly, how do you pick one of the countless prêt-à-chanter tunes delivered to him over his quarter-century of pelvis-swiveling, gallery-playing and myth-salesmanship?

As with the Beatles and the Stones, the Beach Boys and the Pet Shop Boys, Madness, Squeeze and other statutory genii of the 45, you’re looking at a long list of choice cuts. There are 30 number ones to trace a finger down from Elvis’s foreshortened lifetime, never mind all of those contenders that only squeaked to number two (Hound Dog, Can’t Help Falling in Love, Burning Love), or number three (Crying in the Chapel, Devil In Disguise, In the Ghetto in the US; Teddy Bear in the UK). Suspicious Minds, first recorded in 1968 by its writer Mark James (who would go on to pen Moody Blue and Always on my Mind), became a hit on Elvis’s hips a year later, and his final living US chart-topper. (He enjoyed three further number ones in the UK: doo-wop serenade The Wonder of You, the down and dirty Burning Love and the deep and meaningful Way Down.)

The 1969 LP From Elvis in Memphis, recorded there to exploit the free pass bestowed by the fabulously restorative NBC special from Burbank, Singer Presents … Elvis (colloquially known as the ’68 Comeback Special, whose soundtrack went Top 10), marked the true return of the King, having been in the desert for at least seven years, making movies with diminishing artistic returns, and not playing live. The books state that Elvis laid down Suspicious Minds between 4am and 7am in a night-shift pre-breakfast rush on 23 January, ’69, in eight takes. It was overdubbed in the not-insignificant town of Las Vegas that August and released as a single forthwith.

I’m always cheered by how low-key the intro is. It’s almost a little bit country, with Reggie Young’s caressed electric guitar and Gene Chrisman’s sticks tap-dancing on the hi-hat. Then Elvis sends out a distress signal: “We’re caught in a trap!” We quickly learn that he can’t walk out, because he loves somebody too much, baby. The last line is coloured in by the most buoyant, promenade-suite strings, which take up the cause from here. As translated into Elvish from Mark James’ text, the lyric is torrid kitchen-sink stuff. The protagonist and his ill-suited squeeze are caught in a trap of their own making. Why can’t she see what she’s doing to him? She’s probably thinking the same thing, after all, she doesn’t believe a word he says. It’s evident that they can’t go on together with suspicious minds. It’s killing them, and here they go again …

Eleven backing singers whip this problem-page teaser into a full-on melodrama, while trumpets and trombones, arranged by Glenn Spreen, pump up the volume. It’s an epic. Chrisman stick-shifts from rat-tat-tat-tat to more skittish hi-hat, and back again. He’s on  a roll. But this is expected from first-rate sessioneers.

There are two audacious, infrastructural gambits in Suspicious Minds. One comes at 1.45, when, after Elvis croons “suspicious mah-a-ha-aands“, the whole show slows down to ballad-speed crawl. The break allows him to entreaty, “let’s don’t let a good thing die”, adding an “mmmm-mmmm-mmmmm” that luxuriates in the pause for thought. Then, at 2.12, it cranks back up and starts windmilling its way to the finish. Though Chrisman holds this quick-march beat thereafter, all the heartache, harmony (“yeah, yeah“) and tumult makes it feels like it gathers further speed as it builds to the all-in climax – the eleven sound like twelve; the brass goes off the hook and proclaims heavenly timeshare; a snare fill pops in all the excitement – and then, just as it hits its exultant final bars, at 3.35 it begins to fade …

Nothing out of the ordinary there, it’s what old 45s did, for reasons practical and commercial. But don’t go away, that’s not all, folks. After 15 seconds, as the houselights are turned back on … it fades back in! Such a tease. Is it intended to conjure the band leaving the stage and coming back on for an encore? It’s certainly pure showbiz, albeit effected by a lever on the desk It legendarily fades at around 3.35 and then after 15 seconds fades back in, a sabotage decision made by producer Felton Jarvis that oughtn’t even work but, like Lou Reed struggling to scan “all the coloured girls sang” in Walk on the Wild Side and Joni Mitchell squealing with tickled delight in Big Yellow Taxi, it just does.

Now that’s what I call a comeback.

 

The Byrds, Eight Miles High (1966)

byrds-eight-miles-high-cbs

Artist: The Byrds
Title: Eight Miles High
Description: single; album track, Fifth Dimension
Label: Columbia
Release date: 1966
First heard: circa 1980s

At the time of writing, I own six – count ’em – individual compilation CDs whose multi-disc track-listings are recruited from the strict gene pool known as “the 60s”. Unsurprisingly, along with the Beach Boys, The Mamas and the Papas, The Turtles, Ohio Express and Scott Mackenzie, all six of these essential roundups are nuanced by the Byrds. The group’s signature tune Mr Tambourine Man, hijacked from under Bob Dylan’s nose, is on all six fulsome compilations; in addition, one of them (100 Hits: Peace and Love; close-up of some daisies) includes Turn! Turn! Turn!, and another (The 60s Summer Album; side-on camper van) risks breaking up the barbecue with Eight Miles High, which is the tune (Tune! Tune!) that abides with me – and the historic single that heralded their prescriptively psychedelic third album, Fifth Dimension, in the summer of ’66.

What I think I love the most about Eight Miles High is its general demeanour: frantic. A proposed chart-topper, it contains strong experimentation from the start, possibly a result of the effects of plant extract, or something with a chemical symbol. Chris Hillman’s western-TV-theme bass intro, the woodpecker attack on the ride cymbal by Michael Clarke, and “Roger” “Jim” McGuinn’s impatiently garbled twelve-string overture of entanglement – something of a unexpected musical item in the bagging area – combine to create the world’s least-likely-to intro to a pop hit in an epoch.

When you come fly with these men, it’s always a jingle-jangle morning. Not the biggest guitar group of the 60s, but arguably the one with the furthest reach into the future (the longest tail, if you like), the Byrds are in one unique sense contemporaries of Les Dawson: so adept at playing their instruments they can kick all of that knowledge into the long grass and make it sound like they’re only just discovering how to get sounds out of them for the very first time. It feels like there’s Mingus in the jumble-sale thrown by McGuinn, Clark, Hillman, Crosby and Clarke in the middle of what remains, on paper, a sweet-natured pop tune about being high and looking down on creation. (Actually, the statute books tell us that Crosby had turned the others onto Ravi Shankar and John Coltrane on the tour bus.)

Regardless of what went in at the other end, or how much sway producer Allen Stanton had over proceedings, there’s a massive attack in the way these musicians cook the hooks – even in the way they shake a tambourine, man – and it’s what sets Eight Miles High eight miles apart from the more house-trained likes of All I Really Want To Do and So You Want to Be a Rock & Roll Star, which are designed to make you feel a whole lot better.

Hadn’t they read the songwriting manual? Did they not want to be rock & roll stars? (They look every inch like they do, in their shades, and their suedes, and their tassels, and their Paisley, and the occasional cape, all lined up, a straight-legged groove machine.) It was not yet officially the age of Aquarius, and songs began with an intro, followed by a verse, a chorus, then another verse, a bridge, then back for a final chorus and fade. Albums were where the noodling went on – the navel-gazing and the barrier-pushing – not singles. And certainly not lead-off singles (Eight Miles High was released in March 1966; the LP followed after the second single, 5D, in July).

Eight Miles High is three-and-a-half minutes long, which is a minute longer than most radio DJs prescribed. It feels longer, like a drawn-out trip, and when you touch down, you find that it’s “stranger than known”. You may accept that the song’s about a chartered flight, legendarily to London (the “rain gray town, known for its sound,” where “small faces” – or Small Faces? – “abound”). If so, then it’s a short hop, and, be honest, something of a bad trip. The natives, some of them “shapeless forms”, are “huddled in storms”, and I don’t like the sound of those black limousines (The Man!) pushing through “sidewalk scenes”. If TripAdvisor had been around in 1966, this one would’ve averaged at two-and-a-half green circles. The guarantee with drug songs (and it is a drug song, despite thin denials after the initial US radio ban, although Clark and Crosby subsequently admitted to what the cool cats already knew), is that what goes up must come down, although not usually in such short, concertina-ed order.

It’s subversive, it’s on the edge, it’s of its time and yet beyond its years. It captures a five-piece band at a crossroads, just as they downsize to a four-piece, playing a song co-written by the cuckoo who flew over the rest and was missing from Fifth Dimension’s Arabian carpet.

Whether they were on drugs, or rugs, the Byrds staked out an important swatch of territory in the era during which they thrived. They’d invented folk rock and date-stamped “jangly”. The 90s would have been a lot quieter had they not done so, when punk rock electric guitar ran out of filth and fury, and fell obsolete, and the jingle-janglers had their season in the sun.

Thank heavens it had nothing to do with drugs.

 

The Spinners, It’s A Shame (1970)

Spinners45_-_It's_A_Shame

Artist: The Spinners
Title: It’s A Shame
Description: single; track, 2nd Time Around
Label: V.I.P.
Release date: 1970
First heard: circa 1970s

It’s a sha-a-ay-ame

Five young, handsome African-American men, one with a polite moustache, all with a side parting product-assisted into regimentation, good teeth, wearing identical busboy jackets and standing in order of shortest to tallest, left to right. It could be any soul five-piece in America in the Eisenhower era. But it was the Spinners.

Call them the Detroit Spinners, or The Motown Spinners or, as per the title of their debut LP when it appeared in the UK, the Original Spinners, but they were, at the end of the day, the Spinners. It’s a shame that despite forming in the northern suburbs of Detroit in 1954, they didn’t call themselves the Spinners until 1961 when they made their first record (they’d begun life as the unpromising Domingoes). By this time their folkie Liverpool namesakes were already established as the Spinners, with their own folk club and everything. Interestingly, Liverpool’s Spinners started out as an American-influenced skiffle group and were advised to “go folk”, a genius move which separated them from the R&B-inclined Merseybeat herd, plugged them into sea shanties and made them a fortune in their Liverpool homes.

Back in Motor City, five fresh fellows Billy Henderson, Henry Fambrough, Pervis Jackson, C.P. Spencer (subsequently replaced by Edgar “Chico” Edwards) and lead singer James Edwards (replaced by Bobby Smith) were making some sweet vocal soul music in the projects. Signing to Tri-Phi and scoring a modest hit with their debut single That’s What Girls Are Made For in 1961 (listen out for Marvin Gaye on the drums), label boss Harvey Fuqua sold the boys as part of a job-lot (along with everything that wasn’t nailed down) to his new brother-in-law, whose name was Berry Gordy. So, the Spinners’ belated first album finally came out on Motown, a six-years-in-the-making patchwork of singles and other tracks, but didn’t chart, which was a shame. But perseverance paid off for all concerned when, in 1970, their first studio album 2nd Time Around was released on Motown’s V.I.P. imprint. Happily, it would make them very important players.

Mississippi-raised Vietnam vet George Curtis “G.C.” Cameron had swapped the ooh-ra of the Marines for the ooh-ooh-ooh of Motown and joined as lead vocalist (displacing “Chico” Edwards), and it’s his meaningful, salty, full-ranged voice that makes It’s A Shame. That and the songwriting nous of Stevie Wonder (who also played the drums) and collaborators Syreeta Wright, a future hitmaker in her own right, and Lee Garrett. There’s little questioning the in-sync glory of that week’s original Spinners – nor the clean brass, funkily fingered bass and nifty, tambourine-softened beat supplied by the Funk Brothers, produced by the increasingly accurately named Wonder – but it’s Cameron’s lead that takes it from run-of-the-mill to top-of-the-heap.

Oh, that resonantly pretty, pastoral two-guitar line, played thrice before a key change and a kick drum, then those doo-dup-doo-doos from the boys. Then the drama starts. As the brass announces itself, Cameron sings both parts, the low, and the high, and between himself and himself he cooks up quite the bellowing chamber piece. It’s hard to believe this is a man “sitting all alone, on the telephone,” not when, soaring and searing, he buries that deceptively friendly first act as he roars his hurt at the heavens. Everything cuts out except the drums and the guitar, then take cover. Just listen to the way our man builds up a head of steam about the woman whose actions have displeased him; this is not verse-chorus, it’s closer to opera. He testifies to this scarlet lady, “It’s a shame the way you’re messin’ round with your men” – the plural adding further intrigue and opprobrium from pop.

She messes the men around like “a child at play on a sunny day” (nice work, Stevie), and even as It’s A Shame is fading at three minutes, G.C. is rasping and fluting at the good Lord above. The background stays fetchingly upbeat, declamatory and harmonious. It’s like an M.C. Esher lithograph that spins round and round in fractal patterns. Slap it on repeat and the juncture from whirling climax to palate-cleansing intro acts as a breath.

It’s a shame that within two years, the Spinners were off to Atlantic in an Aretha-influenced flounce, but minus the mighty Mr Cameron, who’d fallen in love with Berry’s sister Gwen and decided to stay at Motown to play solo and see what occurred. The one-album Spinner, he went on to be a one-hit Motown artist. (He also recorded an LP with Syreeta in 1977.)

The Spinners carried on having hits throughout the 70s (Games People Play, The Rubberband Man, Cupid, and a medley cover of the Four Seasons’ Working My Way Back To You, which topped the UK charts at the end of 1979), and – hold the front page – still play the civic halls with one original member, the alive baritone Henry Fambrough (aged 80), along with four younger men who plug the gaps. G.C. became a Temptation.

Back in Liverpool, the other Spinners had the novel idea of retiring, which they did, after 30 years, in 1988.

 

 

 

 

 

The Beach Boys, Good Vibrations (1966)

Good_Vibrations_single

Artist: The Beach Boys
Title: Good Vibrations
Description: single; album track, Smiley Smile
Label: Capitol
Release date: 1966; 1967
First heard: circa 1970

Ooh, bop, bop

I cannot tell a lie. I saw the split-level Brian Wilson biopic Love & Mercy and it inspired me to reinvest. In the film, directed by Bill Polhad, Wilson is deftly and affectionately dramatised in studio-tanned situ amid all the oneupmanship, invention, pretention, fastidiousness, excitation, pep and beauty of the making of Pet Sounds, on which this stellar “pocket symphony” isn’t found. Good Vibrations is, in that respect, like the subsequent Strawberry Fields by that other band: a standalone single that exists in permanent danger of eclipsing the standalone LP constructed around it, but upon which it does not appear. It’s so good, you always forget and assume it’s on Pet Sounds. But it isn’t. (Where would it go? ) It came out as a single six months after the album, and wasn’t rehomed until September the following year, on Smiley Smile. It’s essentially a stray.

It’s tempting to attempt to describe the way this piece unfolds. (To call it a “song” seems impertinent.) But there’s too much going on at so many levels – including molecular – it would be a fruitless exercise without a degree in musicology. Indeed, musicologists seem to lay down their textbooks and gawp in non-academic awe at Good Vibrations, vouchsafing that the usual rules don’t apply. But it’s fine, I think, to pick out its greatest bits. The luminescent Hammond line that bounces the song into life. Those spare, almost counterintuitive slaps on the snare, delivered by Hal Blaine of the Wrecking Crew, a platoon of “first call” sessioneers every bit as legendary as the Funk Brothers or the MGs to my ears. The spooky theremin, which jellies in during the chorus, over the boot-deep tones of Mike Love, subsequently pedestalled by Carl and Brian Wilson’s harmonies. These ascending Filo layers turn even the first chorus into a crescendo and we haven’t hit the minute mark yet.

The verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge structure is a decoy. It genuflects to R&B convention with its repetitions and toe-tapping potential, but then, at approximately 01.42, the clanky pub piano signals a twist. Biographer Jon Stebbins wrote that the section which follows the second chorus “might be called a bridge under normal circumstances, but the song’s structure takes such an abstract route that traditional labels don’t really apply.”

I don’t know where but she sends me there ...

Suspicions from the squares at Capital that Good Vibrations might in some way nod to psychedelic drug use are clearly unfounded. These elations and sensations are self-evidently rooted in good, clean, honest fun. “She goes with me to a blossom world”? It’s a walk in the park. (Brian said he’d written it on dope and not acid anyway, so not to worry.)

You can read elsewhere about how “radical disjunctions in key, texture, instrumentation and mood” make the track what it is. But let us not forget the way it makes you want to sing along and nod your head and, in my case, attempt to air-drum along with Blaine. (Good luck with that.) This is feelgood music with enough content to launch a thousand essays. You can think along with it. The sleigh bells ought to have been a kitchen sink too many (less sleigh bell!), especially for a song recorded between February and September 1966 in the Golden State, but if Brian Wilson wants to borrow Christmas, he can. And everybody loves the bit where it almost runs silent, just the harmonica and hi-hat, then:

Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa

And we’re back in the room. With locomotive cello this time, perhaps the song’s greatest contribution to popular music, rewarded with a key role in the fadeout.

I’m not the world’s most qualified Beach Boys professor – I didn’t even own Pet Sounds until the early 90s – but subsequent immersions tells me that when they were good, they were very, very good, and there’s little to touch the period between Brian’s panic attack in December 1964 and when Dennis met Manson in spring 1968. Although on certain wistful occasions I prefer the instrumental Let’s Go Away For A While or the harpsichord-assisted autobiography I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times, in a pointless throwdown between Good Vibrations and God Only Knows, the former edges it for sheer operational bravado.

 

 

Glen Campbell, Wichita Lineman (1968)

GCampbellWichitalineman

Artist: Glen Campbell
Title: Wichita Lineman
Description: single; album track, Wichita Lineman
Label: Capitol
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.

The Shirelles, Baby It’s You (1961)

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Artist: The Shirelles
Title: Baby It’s You
Description: single; album track, Baby It’s You
Label: Scepter
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?