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.

Patsy Cline, Crazy (1961)

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Artist: Patsy Cline
Title: Crazy
Description: single; EP track, Patsy Cline; album track, Patsy Cline Showcase
Label: Decca
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.

Johnny Cash, Hurt (2002)

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Artist: Johnny Cash
Title: Hurt
Description: album track, American IV: The Man Comes Around
Label: American Recordings
Release date: 2002
First heard: 2002

Everyone I know
Goes away in the end

Johnny Cash died, aged 71, on 12 September 2003, in Baptist Hospital in Nashville. I was on the air the next day on 6 Music and had a copy of his most recent album, American IV: The Man Comes Around, to hand. I played his movingly spare claim on Vera Lynn’s wartime spiritual We’ll Meet Again, and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

I’d come to Cash late, but so many of us did. I remember in my first months in the art room of the NME producing a page layout marking a new Johnny Cash covers album for the Terence Higgins Trust by various “approved” artists – Michelle Shocked, Sally Timms, David McComb, Voice Of The Beehive, the Mekons, Marc Riley – and recognising the visual power of the Man In Black, whose image formed a striking half-tone backdrop to the text. I will have been aware of his greatest hits, but perhaps not fully up to speed with his fast life and times. Dropped from Columbia in the 80s, he went from country superstar and world-famous outlaw to sepulchral cult figure, and it took U2 (who invited him in from the cold for a cameo on Zooropa) and Rick Rubin to fully rehabilitate him for a new generation. Mine.

It was Cash’s hospitalisation in the mid-90s that coloured his second two Rubin albums, American III: Solitary Man and American IV: The Man Comes Around (with that fatalistic title track), and among the stunt covers found on those two splendid albums, it is surely Hurt by Nine Inch Nails that most convincingly and acutely sums up the condition his condition was in. The original suicide note was posted on Trent Reznor’s multimillion-selling second album The Downward Spiral in 1994, which served to cook down his industrial disco into a fine, reduced sauce – a concept album, no less. Hurt closes that album, and effects to end the life of its protagonist. Not an untwitching eye in the house. But what Johnny Cash and Rick Rubin did with it, and to it, casts the original into the middle distance.

Cash’s ripe old age, the ravages of neurodegenerative atrophy, and the likelihood of the Man Coming Around (he would come first for Cash’s wife, June Carter) combine to engrave Reznor’s depressive theatre permanently into granite. Not since Love Will Tear Us Apart had a song sounded so much like an epitaph in waiting.

Consider the difference in your gut reaction to these same words sung by a 29-year-old multi-instrumental prodigy from Pennsylvania and a dying septuagenarian icon who’d grown up in the cotton fields of Arkansas during the Depression:

I hurt myself today
To see if I still feel …
I focus on the pain
The only thing that’s real
The needle tears a hole
The old familiar sting …

Reznor’s needle is hypodermic, and so is Cash’s, but whereas one threatens opiate oblivion, the other promises pain relief, perhaps even administered by a health professional. The damage done is the same. How profound to hear a lament of urban Gen-X loneliness transformed into a housebound elegy to old age. This cover – if “cover” isn’t too flimsy a word – is surely the polar opposite of Lou Reed’s Perfect Day being turned into a celebration of the BBC licence fee in 1997, its original meaning laid waste in the process (and by consent of the author). Or the Clash’s London Calling being eviscerated and de-clawed by Scouting For Girls in the concert at Buckingham Palace for the Cultural Olympiad in August 2008 (I can hardly bear to re-live the hurt; Strummer’s ghost is still spinning).

To say that Cash’s Hurt is the musical equivalent of the sequel that’s better than the original is to reduce the transubstantiative power of interpretation down to a competition. Both versions abide. The song is the thing. (I have never heard Leona Lewis’s version, but I don’t think I need to.) If Reznor is all about synthetic, cinematic FX, Cash is all about found sound. His rendition begins with just voice and what sounds to my layman’s ear to be a single guitar on a lap. Chords are picked out. The voice croaks its confessions (“I will let you down, I will make you hurt”), and the two coalesce. Rubin’s pin-sharp production allows us to hear the moisture being summoned up in Cash’s mouth as he contemplates his own “going away in the end”.

When he sings, “I remember everything“, he mines greater depth than Reznor, having walked this earth since 1932 and threatened to leave it prematurely more than once (out of it, he walked into a cave in Tennessee in 1968 with no intention of coming out again, but – as he tells it – God entered his heart and gave him the extra gas in the tank to follow the light to the exit). When he inquires, of his “sweetest friend”, “What have I become?”, he might be asking God himself – or the other fella. As they square off, a bystander might be forgiven for asking, “Who’s the guy with Johnny Cash?”

Mortality stalks Hurt like a ghost at a wedding. “You could have it all,” sounds like our man preparing to do a deal, and a jabbed piano and second guitar underline the importance of what’s afoot. The arrangement, Gothic, overwrought, final, clangs like a church bell, before draining back to one man and his guitar again for the second verse. The old quiet-loud dynamic from grunge serves him well. And then, the only change. Reznor’s “crown of shit” is replaced by Cash’s “crown of thorns”, for reasons of decency, perhaps? Or piety? A fluting synth steers this verse into the climactic chorus, where all hell breaks loose. If your heart isn’t in your mouth by now, you might want to check you have one.

We’re going through a tunnel. “I would find … a way.”

Reznor was gracious enough to say this about Cash’s version of his song: “I wrote some words and music in my bedroom as a way of staying sane, about a bleak and desperate place I was in … That winds up reinterpreted by a music legend from a radically different era/genre and still retains sincerity and meaning — different, but every bit as pure.” His conclusion is ours: “That song isn’t mine anymore.”

I haven’t even mentioned the video.

Crosby, Stills & Nash, Marrakesh Express (1969)

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Artist: Crosby, Stills & Nash
Title: Marrakesh Express
Description: single; album track, Crosby, Stills & Nash
Label: Atlantic
Release date: 1969
First heard: 2011

I smell the garden in your hair …

Gotta love BBC4’s music documentaries. I don’t care how many times they re-slice the cake and roll out the same old clips of Woodstock, Carnaby Street, that bloke in the Smiley face t-shirt pumping his arms and the police boarding the Sex Pistols’ boat, I’ll be there, taking it all in, again. Although there is comfort in recognition, and self-congratulation in shouting out, “I’ve been there!” or “I know him!”, I relish being educated and – in hippie parlance that seems altogether relevant in the circumstances – “turned on.”

Two years ago, I found myself totally absorbed by Hotel California: LA From The Byrds To The Eagles, a 90-minute revel in West Coast rock, sun-bleached, country-tinged and dope-softened. Having long ago fallen under the spell of the Eagles and the Byrds (and, by extension, Gram Parsons and the Flying Burrito Brothers), it struck me while watching this doc that Messrs D Crosby, S Stills and G Nash represented a six-legged, par-moustachioed gap in my knowledge. Suitably enthused by this latest lecture at the University of Four, I did something about it the very next day and purchased Crosby, Stills & Nash, hooked in by clips of Suite Judy Blue Eyes, You Don’t Have To Cry, Guinnevere and – surely the keystone track of the time and place – Marrakesh Express, a locomotive little ditty that encapsulates all that was heady and infused about the late 60s and Laurel Canyon, and which I wasn’t aware of ever hearing before. (I know they played it at Woodstock, but I don’t think it’s in the film of the gig.)

Written by Graham Nash when he was still in the Hollies but famously rejected by his parochial bandmates, precipitating his split and overdue relocation to California, Marrakesh Express makes me “want to go to there” (in the words of Liz Lemon). Not to Marrakesh and the train full of “ducks and pigs and chickens”, but to 1966-68, when such mind-freeing experiences in Casablanca and Goa were coming back in the battered suitcases of white musicians to Sunset. The beat is essentially skiffle. The riff is high and squeaky. The vocals breathy, sometimes out-of-breathy. It’s almost like a kids’ song. Although, for a “supergroup” its single writing credit suggests it as a solo effort, that’s how they rolled (only one track on the album has a multiple credit) and in any case, the three-part harmonies in the chorus are sublime. It’s a key component of this marvellous calling-card debut, and works in isolation as well as in situ. It’s a gem that I feel I shall always now carry with me, its uncanny ability to “sweep cobwebs from the edge of the mind” often required on voyage.

There are some records whose simple sleeve image makes you want to own them. I may have been late catching up, but I will always love the way Crosby, Stills and Nash sit in the wrong order on that duffed-up sofa outside a condemned shotgun shack: Nash, Stills and Crosby, as yet unnamed as they pose in thrift-shop repose, a clapboard prelude to the coolest DFS advert in the world.

Incidentally, I don’t wish to preempt or tantalise, but having hereby enshrined Crosby, Stills & Nash in The 143, in accordance with my own self-imposed rules I am still permitted to include contributions by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (I think you can guess which song I’m thinking of), Young (Cortez The Killer still battling it out with Old Man), the Byrds (perhaps one of their classic early covers) and Buffalo Springfield (again … take a wild guess), which could prove the most fertile, cross-pollinated patch in the final allotment.

The Rolling Stones, Wild Horses (1971)

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Artist: The Rolling Stones
Title: Wild Horses
Description: US-only single; album track, Sticky Fingers
Label: Rolling Stones
Release date: 1971
First heard: 1992

I’ve got my freedom, but I don’t have much time …

I know; 1992 seems like a strange and horribly belated time to have first heard the classic ballad Wild Horses. But you will admire my candour. I didn’t own a Rolling Stones album until the mid-90s. My first was Let It Bleed, which I bought in one of those HMV sales where they offloaded a lot of old stock and you could pick up bona fide classics for a couple of quid (built most of my belated Dylan collection that way). It instantly became my favourite Rolling Stones album. Well, it would.

Up to that point, I’d been – to borrow a phrase – aware of their work. I knew and liked the singles which were constantly played. Friends had albums of theirs, but I never even thought to borrow them and tape them. To me, in that heady post-punk reverie, I didn’t need the Beatles or the Stones to put marrow in my bones. They’d done their work. Sure, the Stones were still a going concern, but they felt to me like they belonged to the past. (Actually, in 1982, I found my interest piqued by the opening bars of Under My Thumb on my older friend Vaughan’s copy of the live album Still Life, but mostly due to Duke Ellington’s Take The ‘A’ Train, and the thwack of Charlie’s first drumbeat. It was a pretty limited sortie into their vast and aromatic back catalogue, but the ignition was there.) Anyway, then I grew up.

Even as a cub reporter for the NME, my knowledge of the Rolling Stones was basic; enough to get by. (I knew way more about Led Zeppelin, whose runaway blues-metal had turned my head.) And then I interviewed The Sundays, in 1992, on the cork-popping occasion of their belated return to our empty lives with second album Blind. I discussed Wild Horses in a Camden boozer with Harriett Wheeler and Dave Gavurin, a couple, and they told me what it meant to them and why they’d recorded it as a B-side. (Also, now I think of it, the Dylan tune Corrina, Corrina came up, which drove me to Freewheelin’ – I’m happy when synapses crackle in this way.) I loved their Wild Horses, knew it to be a cover, but had never heard the original. I don’t think I told them this.

But ain’t this often the way? Unless you were born before World War II, you’re bound to have heard occasional cover versions before originals in the pop era. For instance, I assumed the Flying Lizards to have written Money, then later found out it was a Beatles tune, then later still found out it was Barrett Strong’s. This is archaeology, and we should embrace it. The Sundays gave me the Rolling Stones.

Don’t worry. I have all the Rolling Stones albums now, and know them intimately. I prefer many of them to the Beatles’, and particularly favour Sticky Fingers, Exile On Main Street, Beggars Banquet, Some Girls and – still, after all these years – Let It Bleed. In order to sum up their effortless, smoky, unstoppably ragged glory (and let’s face it, their story is what makes them so good; their longevity feeds their legend where it might ordinarily leech it away), I took particular notice of a jukebox playing Forty Licks, I’m guessing, in an unassuming studenty pub in Tunbridge Wells. It played You Can’t Always Get What You Want, Sympathy For The Devil, Tumbling Dice, and it made me consider Have You Seen Your Mother Lately, and Brown Sugar, and Happy, which almost squeaked it. But there is no Rolling Stones song that delivers the emotional rescue of Wild Horses. (Also, Happy is a Richards vocal, and that don’t seem right.)

Jagger’s woundedly plaintive lyric was written, so I discovered after a cursory Wikipedia search, some time after splitting from Marianne Faithful (it was recorded in 1969), so not directly about her; meanwhile Richards reckons it’s borne of that loneliness you get when you’re on tour, of being “a million miles from where you want to be”. (This information comes from the sleeve notes to the Jump Back compilation.) What a monster breakup it evokes: “A faith has been broken, tears must be cried … no sweeping exits or offstage lines.” And waa-ah-ahhhh-ahhhhld horses couldn’t drag him away. Sticky Fingers, lest we forget, was the first album without Brian Jones, so some profound sadness is expected.

It’s a little bit country, a little bit rock’n’roll, and that combination of acoustic and electric guitars is enough to break anybody’s heart. That it was recorded, like Brown Sugar, in the soulful stewpot of Muscle Shoals, Alabama may explain the blues notes. (Were the Stones the first white rockers to rock up there? Fable says it’s so.) Hear it in situ on “Side One” of the LP, between the raw, metallic Sway and the urgently rockin’ Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’, and Wild Horses takes on an even balmier aspect; it cleanses the palate. I twin it with the resonant, Albatross-like Moonlight Mile, the album’s closer.

Hard to imagine that I had no Rolling Stones albums in 1992. Thank God for the Sundays.