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 Velvet Underground
Title: Venus In Furs
Description: album track, The Velvet Underground & Nico
Release date: 1967
First heard: circa 1988
I came at the Velvet Underground from the wrong direction. Which was, for me, the right direction. Alerted to their significance by all those bands who formed because of them, I identified many of their key songs via covers in the early 80s – Sunday Morning by Strawberry Switchblade, All Tomorrow’s Parties by Japan, Femme Fatale by Propaganda, Sister Ray by Joy Division, Bauhaus’s live version of I’m Waiting For The Man – and came to fully understand their disproportionate influence when Bobby Gillespie stood up and drummed a few years later. I can say with confidence that I didn’t intimately acquaint myself with a Velvets LP until the 90s, when my rock history radar wouldn’t stop twitching and I discovered the archeological beauty of HMV’s 3-for-2 warehouse-clearers.
Can coming at the Velvet Underground via Lou Reed be considered the wrong direction? In 1989, by then a cub reporter, I treated the brand new New York as a pivotal LP, and loved every pore of it. I went to see Lou live at the Hammersmith Odeon and found my heart in my mouth when he actually told someone in the circle off for talking while he was doing a link. War stories from fellow NME scribes who’d had an audience with the man (and had to wait for him) mounted up. I put on some wraparound shades, applied a wraparound tourniquet and waded in.
What I really liked about the Velvet Underground, aside from the self-evidently attractive art school context for their willful, Warholian wailings and the fact that they existed in black and white, was how slow they were. These unknowable people, one of them apparently Welsh, barely visible behind an imagined lava-lamp slide show, seemed in no hurry to change the course of narco-art-rock. Even the jittery Waiting For The Man seemed a prelude to subsequent slowdown. While I cherish Pale Blue Eyes and I’m Beginning To See The Light on the third, Cale-free album and bits of Loaded, there really is only one Velvet Underground LP, The Velvet Underground & Nico. And from it, Venus In Furs always rises to the top and blooms like an exploding plastic inevitable in a heroin muffin.
I realise now that it’s John Cale I miss on the subsequent albums, as it’s his shrieking, bird-like viola that gives Venus both its macabre momentum and its reason for being. (Perhaps it’s also Andy Warhol’s absence I lament as his curatorial influence also fades post-banana.) I know little of the source novel of the same name by Leopold Sacher-Masoch, who sounds like a rum sort, and have myself lived a stimulating enough life without recourse to sado-masochism, “shiny, shiny, shiny boots of leather” and “downy sins of streetlight fancies”, but isn’t that the point of the Velvet Underground? To sound like they’re having way more deviant and complicated sex than you are?
This song sounds like forbidden fruit, a sacrificial drone recorded in a secret place behind a secret door with a secret knock, in a thick fug of analgesic vapour among cross-dressing whiplash folk. It’s in the Library of Congress these days, of course, but even subversive art can be co-opted into a verified canon with the luxury of time passing. I am surely now too old and sensible to be fooled by the Velvet Underground (Venus was recorded not in Noo Yoik but in Hollywood, for God’s sake), and yet, if anything, their parallel recitation of the end of the 60s becomes more vivid and exotic. I guess part of it is academic – Venus Is Furs is important because of who made it, when they made it, where they made it, what books they were reading at the time, and for whom they played it; it’s also important because of the album from whence it was never ripp’d (one of those albums for which every track has its own Wikipedia entry) – but the bulk of its appeal remains visceral. It gets me right there.
When Lou calls out “Severin, Severin!” to the book’s submissive protagonist as he blurs the lines between master and servant, it would be rude not to get sucked into the costumes and the adornments and the bended knees of whatever wickedly unsubsidised kind of theatre this is. Cale’s caterwauling catgut, Tucker’s death-knell beat, Morrison’s almost inaudible bass, Reed’s intoxicating guitar with its strings tuned to the same note … on and on and on it marches. Who actually wants it to end after five minutes?
There’s simply no way this music was recorded ten years before punk. It’s obviously a Capricorn One-style conspiracy. There are bands making so-called rock music today that sounds like it is an early evolutionary step on the way to a generation of bands who might one day dream of sounding like the Velvet Underground, if only they could be arsed to read a book.
Title: Everyday Is Like Sunday
Description: single; album track, Viva Hate
Release date: 1988
First heard: 1988
I will always look upon my relationship with The Smiths as special. It was a case of good timing. Conveniently releasing their four studio albums to coincide with my four years in higher education, they really did help me get through my exams. I graduated in 1987 and so did Morrissey.
In 1988, he released – rush-released, or so it felt, just six months after Strangeways and yet so fully formed – Viva Hate, his solo debut, which heralded a new dawn with a tinted photo not of an obscure icon from Morrissey’s hall of fame but of the lad himself, his eyes obscured under the shadow of those granite brows. Although recently divorced from Johnny Marr, he’d enlisted Smiths engineer and Strangeways producer Stephen Street for continuity and Durutti Column architect Vini Reilly to fill in the spectral guitar magic. The result: sparkling lead-off single Suedehead, which may as well have been The Smiths.
More surprising delights awaited us on the album, the biggest of which was Everyday Is Like Sunday, an instantaneous new favourite on first listen and an abiding highlight from his rich solo catalogue in the years since. A great swoon of a song, it tugs my heartstrings and forces my gaze skywards, or seawards, whenever I hear it. It frames one of his most succinctly evocative lyrics, right up there with the vivid brushstrokes of Rusholme Ruffians, This Charming Man and The Headmaster Ritual, and no less economical.
That its bittersweet requiem for the spiritual vacuum of a “coastal town they forgot to close down” has its literary roots in John Betjeman and Nevil Shute is typical magpie Moz. Wet sand, pebbles, a bench, stolen clothes, the promenade, the etched postcard, “greased tea” and that glittering prize of a “cheap tray” – this is poetry by any other name, just set to a tune capable of giving even the stout-hearted the vapours. (It’s closest cousin in the Smiths’ repertoire has to be There Is A Light.) The “strange dust” that lands on Morrissey’s companion’s hand and face may well reference the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, whose radiation clouds were figurative if not actual over Europe and in recent memory in ’87 when it was recorded; the fallout certainly stops this being a snooty attack on the English seaside and takes it into a whole new dimension of existential dread.
I remember visiting Teignmouth in Devon some time in the late 90s (drawn there because a friend at Q grew up there and whose parents still, I think, ran the local cinema). It was definitively off-season, silent and grey, and I was filled to the brim with this song as I walked its promenade and leaned on its railings. I have always liked to be beside the seaside – Welsh rather than English throughout the cherished holidays of my boyhood, although some say Moz was inspired to write by a visit to Borth in Mid-Wales. Either way, I can’t call up any other song that so deftly crystallises the windswept allure of the British coast and its lost horizons.
What I find most fascinating about this particular song, which nestles among many notable achievements in this rush and a push for new territory (Late Night Maudlin Street, Margaret On The Guillotine, Dial-A-Cliché) is that it as good as eschews the dominance of the guitar. The six-part string section provides the riffs, rich and luxuriant, whipping like wind on a shelter when Morrissey sings of the “coastal town” and swelling around him as we reach the chorus. Reilly and Street sympathetically underpin with bass and guitar – and, credit where credit’s due, Andrew Paresi provides some surgically tumbling drums – but the overriding orchestral infrastructure of Sunday seems as if it could be a rebuke from Morrissey to the Rickenbacker of his once vital ex-partner. He seems to be saying:
“Look, Marr, top of the world!”
I shall, of course, be inducting a Smiths tune into The 143 presently.