Sparks, The Number One Song In Heaven (1979)

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Artist: Sparks
Title: The Number One Song In Heaven
Description: single; album track, No. 1 In Heaven
Label: Virgin
Release date: 1979
First heard: 1979

Gabriel plays it, God, how he plays it …

Some people actually change music. Chuck Berry is one. Bob Dylan is another. Dee Dee Ramone is another still. Many are called “pioneering” and “influential”, but few will be left standing come the revolution. Music is sometimes changed by accident. It is rarely changed in a vacuum. In terms of pop and rock, it has been most evidently changed by Americans, primarily, and by the British, in spurts. In 1976 it was changed by an Italian working in West Germany.

I speak of Giorgio Moroder, who programmed, sequenced, sampled and synthesised the track that would become I Feel Love for Donna Summer in the year of punk. According to the sleeve notes to the 1989 box set Sound + Vision, Brian Eno ran into the studio in Berlin where he was working with David Bowie and declared, of I Feel Love, “I have heard the sound of the future.”

Fast forward, as they say, to 1978. Sibling Los Angelinos Ron and Russell Mael haven’t had a hit for three years. After an incredible, head-turning entrée in 1974 when they first appeared on Top Of The Pops looking and sounding like nothing else on earth with the hysterical This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The Both Of Us, they had enjoyed a through-wind of similarly high-pitched, low-riding constellations of camp throughout ’75 – Amateur Hour, Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth, Something For The Girl With Everything, Get In The Swing and Looks Looks Looks (not all of which made Top Of The Pops) – and then the signal went dead.

Criminally unappreciated in their own country – and thus perfectly used to being ignored – they’d emigrated here to bask in European appreciation of their wild cocktail of Weimar song-and-dance and Glam pomp, but two albums made in LA, Big Beat and the ironically titled Introducing Sparks, yielded not a hit. What had seemed like a pop revolution led by one curly haired man shrieking melodically into a mic and another with a Chaplin moustache and a tie either glaring or grinning from behind a keyboard, needed a kick up the seventies. And Giorgio Moroder was the studio mandarin to provide it.

Apart from clean live drums by the great Keith Forsey, the album they made in Musicland Studios in Munich was entirely created on keyboards and synths (the polar opposite of a Queen LP). In streamlining to the duo most people thought they already were, Sparks set the template for a decade’s worth of electric double acts with no penis substitutes. All three hits from No. 1 In Heaven, with its saucy, nursey sleeve (hey, I was 17 at the time) are top of the shop. The resolute even-bigger-hit Beat The Clock hypnotises me still (“ba-ba-bye!”), and Tryouts For The Human Race is an abandoned groover, but there is nothing to ace Number One Song In Heaven.

It’s like an album condensed into one track, at least it is in the symphonic, seven-and-a-half-minute 12-inch version. (Was it the 12-inch or the album that came as a picture disc? It was mine and Craig’s dedicated disco-kid pal Andy who owned the product; his was the first singles collection I’d encountered that was kept in an albums case. I rather suspect he had the 12-inch of I Feel Love, too. If he was gay, we were too provincial at that stage to appreciate just how cool that might have been. He certainly had a best friend who was a girl. What a guy.)

It’s Sparks, but not as we who enjoyed the brisk pop of Amateur Hour knew it. The defining executive-length version of Number One Song In Heaven is more than a song. It begins, alluringly, with a prelude, motored by a snare rhythm and heralded by angelic hosts proclaiming and syn-drums (as they were regrettably trademarked) calling like space-age seabirds. Although stick is definitely striking some kind of polymer here, the soundscape is essentially binary code. But when Forsey clumps epically around his possibly hexagonal kit and the 7-inch version blooms into effervescent life, the world stands still. We all stood still.

This is pop music to inspire awe. Gabriel plays it, God, how he plays it. Russell sounds boyishly engergised by the new, electronic place he’s found to dwell – no more “West Coast” sound; no more touring band – and Ron, a future collector of Nike trainers (or so he told me when I met the superhuman pair in 2002), was already about the keyboards in 1974, so he’s in his boffinly element. Moroder simply thrills, providing a safe place and a new frontier for our old pals from the City of Angels. There’s a bridge where all futuristic bleep-and-booster hell breaks loose, and it sounds for all the world less like a number 14 pop hit and more like the machines have taken over. The Terminator, but benign, and catchy.

It makes perfect sense that the Maels re-emerged in the 21st century as orchestral chamber-pop stylists; had they been born a couple of centuries earlier they’d have been writing concertos for kings and queens.

After this phenomenal rally, Sparks slipped out of the UK charts that had suckled them for so long, finding sanctuary in the US Club Play chart right into the 90s. Sparks always made sense; it was the rest of us that had to catch up and align with their way of working and wry sense of humour (“Written, of course, by the mightiest hand”). I’m stupidly proud that “we” appreciated them when their countrymen didn’t (and it’s not like me to discover national pride). Although their last actual mainstream Top 10 hit was in Germany, where all this began.

Glen Campbell, Wichita Lineman (1968)

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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.

Bobby Womack, Across 110th Street (1973)

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Artist: Bobby Womack and Peace
Title: Across 110th Street
Description: single; album track, Across 110th Street
Label: United Artists
Release date: 1973
First heard: 1997

Help me sing it …

Bobby Womack and I share a birthday: March 4. I was able to bond with him over this vital piece of information in 2003 when he came into 6 Music to promote his Lookin’ For A Love: The Best of 1968–1976 compilation and shot straight into my ever-fluid Top 10 favourite 6 Music guests chart (jostling with Rita Marley, Siouxsie Sioux, Kings Of Leon, Gerald Scarfe, Peter Flannery, Damo Suzuki, Glenn Gregory, Carol Decker and potty-mouthed Sylvain Sylvain). I loved meeting this soul legend – the man worked with Sly Stone, married Sam Cooke’s widow and had a song covered by the Rolling Stones when he was barely out of his teens – and it was privilege enough to bask in his aura, never mind to play out Across 110th Street, one of my favourite funk-soul numbers.

A prerequisite of live music radio it may be, but I can promise you, it’s very weird to sit in a radio studio listening to a classic song booming out over the loudspeakers – and the airwaves – while the person who wrote and recorded it 30 years before sits directly across the desk from you. It seems rude to chat over the playback and yet rude to sit in silence, so you tend to toggle between the two. (I’m guessing it’s weirder if you wrote and recorded the song.) I recall stupidly asking Bobby, “What was across 110th Street?”, just to say something, and he grinned and replied, “Listen to the lyric.” It’s good to have Bobby Womack effectively tell you to to shut up.

Penned as the theme song to the 1972 “blaxploitation” crime thriller of the same name in collaboration with bebop-schooled composer JJ Johnson  and recorded with the backing group Peace along with four other original tunes, the lyric to 110th Street says it clearly enough, although in its genesis it’s not 100% straightforward. Bobby rasps, “I was the third brother of five,” which he was, raised a Baptist in Cleveland to a minister father and church organist mother and something of a child prodigy. But the film – which I’ve never seen – is set in Harlem, not Cleveland, and 110th Street is the boundary between “white” New York and “black” New York. (This was far more of an unofficial “colour line” in the early 70s; it certainly sprang to mind when a cab driver taking me from Manhattan to JFK in the 90s drove that way to avoid the congested tunnels and, yes, we crossed 110th Street.)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Womack’s autobiographical take on “breaking out of the ghetto” dovetails perfectly into an urban blues for New York, where rich and poor rub along in a melodramatically heightened way, the whooshing hi-hat, intricate guitar, anxious keyboard jitters and lazy whooo-oo-oo-ooohs of that intro setting the scene with cinematic evocation. “Doing whatever I had to do to survive” in a “day to day fight”, he dreams of “a better way of life.” What’s potent about this bulletin from the frontline of the racial struggle is its ghetto’s-eye view. Pimps “trying to catch a woman that’s weak,”  drug dealers who “won’t let the junkie go free” and that emblematic “woman trying to catch a trick on the street.”

Inevitably, this vivid, urgent, soulful lament to social exclusion and ethnic deprivation becomes a freedom song, those bah-bah orchestral stings pointing up the pledge, “Hey brother, there’s a better way out.” As Bobby said to me in 2003, years before his trendy rehabilitation by Damon Albarn and Gorillaz: listen to the lyric. And listen right to the end, when the fly-on-the-wall commentary (“look around you”) gives way to broader political observation.

The family on the other side of town
Would catch hell without a ghetto around
In every city you find the same thing going down
Harlem is the capital of every ghetto town

Every ghetto town like Cleveland, for one, whose African-American population increased sevenfold between the 20s and the 60s, as city jobs drew workers north (the ethnic mix was still over 50% black in the 2010 Census). The great soul music of the 60s may have been political by its very creation, but it was rarely explicit above a certain seam of despair. Marvin Gaye moved the goalposts at the dawn of the 70s and Across 110th Street seems to be to be in the great tradition of What’s Going On – and indeed Ball Of Confusion by Whitfield and Strong for the Temptations around the same time.

As you know from other entries in The 143, soul about boy-meet-girl is fine by me. But soul and funk with content frees your mind.

Oh yeah, that’s what the world is today.