Glen Campbell

TrackAlbum
By The Time I Get To PhoenixBy The Time I Get To Phoenix
SingMeet Glen Campbell
Gentle On My MindGentle On My Mind
You've Still Got A Place In My HeartBurning Bridges
GalvestonGalveston
These DaysMeet Glen Campbell
Rhinestone CowboyRhinestone Cowboy
Where's The Playground SusieGalveston
If You Go AwayWichita Lineman
Wichita LinemanWichita Lineman

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Contributor: Glenn Smith

Ken Burns inspired this appraisal, his series The Vietnam War dropping us into 1960s America in all its glory. It has a great soundtrack (and some wonderful Trent Reznor incidental music) as we’d expect and a brilliant juxtaposition of the Vietnamese and American perspectives on the war and its impact. But what Burns does best of all, is to get small time Americans coming from small town USA to give us their sometimes astonishing insights into what happened to them and their country. And all the while I was watching this the song that kept popping into my mind was Galveston, because Jimmy Webb’s words and Glen Campbell’s voice perfectly captured that small town experience; the guy cleaning his gun and dreaming of Galveston, or Lewiston, or Thornton, or Renton.

Glen Campbell came from a small town, the aptly named Delight in Deep South Arkansas. The son of a sharecropper, he was given a Sears-Roebuck five dollar guitar at the age of four and quickly became a guitar virtuoso. He moved to LA and becomes a key player in the Wrecking Crew (including sessions on Pet Sounds), with a stint as Brian/pre-Bruce on a Beach Boys tour. But Campbell aspires to be a solo artist and begins his career as an interpreter of other people’s songs at exactly the time pop and rock music had moved to demand that bands and singers perform their own tunes.

He is best known for his partnership with Jimmy Webb and their incredible run of late 60s hit singles, but Campbell’s musicianship, coupled with a voice for the ages, gave him the ability to cover a wide range of artists and songwriters. And a note on that voice: he has an emotional edge to his singing that is unique, timeless and moving. He sings lines that in the hands of lesser mortals would be mawkish and cheesy. No one can sing “I still see her standing by the water, standing there looking out to sea and is she waiting there for me” with the longing and pain that he brings to his work.

My favourites are generally everyone’s, in that his hits are his best, therefore so much of this list is predictable. In his hands these songs are extraordinary, and in one instance probably the apotheosis of western pop music.

By The Time I Get To Phoenix (By The Time I Get To Phoenix 1967) is the one that made him a star and started his close relationship with Jimmy Webb. A song of leaving, a classic country and western theme, a song of towns and places far away with phones not being answered. Campbell creates the template here; the longing in his voice, the sadness of the story, the stirring of the mournful glide of the strings. And here’s the thing; there is always a distance, a physical and emotional distance, present in his songs, a distance that is never managed nor resolved, which is why we keep going back for more.

Which is also why the Travis tune Sing (Meet Glen Campbell 2008) is such a perfect Glen Campbell song. Fran Healy knows a thing or two about absence and longing and Campbell sings “colder, crying on your shoulder / hold her, and tell her everything’s gonna be fine / surely, you’ve been going too early / hurry, ’cause no one’s gonna be stopped” with the right degree of pathos and pain.

Gentle On My Mind (Gentle On My Mind 1967) was originally released before Phoenix, but rushed up the charts in 1967 after the success of that song. A John Hartford tune inspired by a viewing of Doctor Zhivago (no doubt he went home thinking of Julie Christie, or was it Omar Sharif?), the song is sustained by some serious guitar and banjo picking, as doors are opened and paths are cleared to walk. Again, there’s distance, absence and longing, Campbell searching for some reassurance that as he moves through backroads and rivers of memory, that he is on her mind, somewhere, somehow.

You’ve Still Got A Place In My Heart (Burning Bridges 1967) is a minor mid-sixties country classic written by Leon Payne. This is a great example of Campbell doing straight Nashville country, yet it is more than a curio as he again brings a sadness and melancholy that the likes of Merle Haggard and George Jones just can’t match.

Galveston (Galveston 1969) is the next Jimmy Webb penned classic. Webb has the protagonist fearful of death, mixing up the imagery of the city and the girl. He dreams of both; each have the same meaning. There is now a distance and absence caused by war and this has Campbell putting in a singing tour de force, reaching for her and the beach where they used to run, it sends chills down your spine.

These Days (Meet Glen Campbell 2008) is a Jackson Browne tune that has attracted a lot of interest from artists as diverse as Gregg Allman and Nico. Campbell makes it personal; recorded around the time his Alzheimer’s was first diagnosed, he now sings of his rambling coming to an end and wonders if he will see another highway, no more distance and longing, more a reflection. Browne wrote it in the 60s at age sixteen. Campbell transforms it into a lament for a past quickly slipping away.

Rhinestone Cowboy (Rhinestone Cowboy 1975) – the mid-seventies sees a chastened Campbell down and out, riding the trains that are taking the long way. A Larry Weiss song, Campbell came to this while on tour of Australia and felt it summed up his career, at a low ebb after his TV show was cancelled and the hits had dried up. Again, he makes the song personal, singing with the pain of a load of compromising on a road to some kind of horizon and redemption.

In Where’s The Playground Susie (Galveston 1969) he’s leaving, but he’s leaving because he knows that she doesn’t really want him. Jimmy Webb wrote this about Linda Ronstadt’s sister who, unlike Billy Bragg, didn’t need a dictionary to find out the meaning of unrequited. Campbell makes it plain that she’ll be sad “if I don’t stay around”, meaning he will be going, as they are always going in a Webb-Campbell song. This song resonated deeply in Vietnam, touching on the fears of so many of the men fighting that she’d not be there for him when he returned. One of their best.

If You Go Away (Wichita Lineman 1968) is a magnificent take on Jacques Brel’s heartbreaker, with Rod McKuen’s English translation. Campbell knows what to do with the anguish. His take on her going away – which he knows she will – is haunting.

Wichita Lineman (Wichita Lineman 1968) is the apotheosis of Western pop music. Brilliant song writing from Jimmy Webb, pointing us towards that American land and soundscape we all love and desire. Campbell and the Wrecking Crew, superb musicians all, bringing it to life in a way no one could do today, from the semaphore signal organ line to the heart tugging bass guitar plucked solo by Glen. But above all that, it’s his voice, the longing that poured out from the opening line. And no one can sing “And I need you more than want you, and I want you for all time” with the passion and pain of his beautiful voice. Arguably the greatest line in popular music in arguably the greatest song.

 

 

Glen Campbell recorded and released 60 studio albums and 7 live albums between 1962 and 2017. He also lent his vocals to 4 soundtracks for motion pictures. He placed a total of 82 singles on either the Billboard Country Chart, the Billboard Hot 100, or the Adult Contemporary Chart, nine of which peaked at #1 on at least one of those charts (source: Wikipedia).

Glen Campbell (1936-2017)

 

Glen Campbell official website

Glen Campbell discography

The Singles 1962 – 2011

“Rhinestone Cowboy: An Autobiography” by Glen Campbell with Tom Carter (1994)

“Glen Campbell: The Rhinestone Cowboy” (TV documentary Part 1 2013)

Glen Campbell: Country Music Hall of Fame

Glen Campbell biography (iTunes)

Glenn Smith lives in Sydney and teaches high school English, plays very bad guitar with his bass playing son and spends far too much time thinking about The Beatles….

TopperPost #693

5 Comments

  1. Joyce Gibson
    Jan 27, 2018

    A wonderful article about a wonderful artist. The list is quite predictable, but the titans in his catalogue are obvious. I have my Dad to thank for introducing me to him, and for leaving me his albums. I had the good fortune to attend Glen’s last UK show in 2011 and am so glad I did. To hear that voice, undimmed by the Alzheimers, sing Wichita Lineman, was just incredible.

  2. Andrew Shields
    Jan 27, 2018

    Glenn – superb list. Like Joyce, I had the good fortune to see Glen very late in his career and hear that magnificent voice close up. Can’t disagree with your choices but have to dispute the assertion that Glenn sang with ‘a sadness and melancholy that the likes of Merle Haggard and George Jones just can’t match.’ Glenn himself argued that he learned a lot of what he knew as a singer and musician from working as a session man on some of Merle’s great mid-1960s records. As for George, a quick listen to ‘The Window Up Above’ bears out that when it comes to ‘sadness and melancholy’, he leaves most other singers at the starting gates…

  3. David Lewis
    Jan 28, 2018

    So much to discuss in just three or four of these songs. Agreed that Wichita Lineman is about the greatest pop song. As I said on the Bobbie Gentry page, it, Ode to Billie Jo, The Weight and probably one or two others are not only perfect, they push pop into great Art. Those strings. ‘I can hear you through the whine’ and they jump over an octave. Just sublime. And the line: ‘and I need you more than want you – and I want you for all time’. Dylan and Lennon would be too cynical though the influence is there. Bernie Taupin would have over egged the pudding. Joni wouldn’t allow herself to be that vulnerable. Maybe Van Morrison in the right mood. Andrew Shields suggestion of Shane McGowan seems right to me. But none of them did write it anyway.
    Galveston. Set during the war of 1812. Spoke to Vietnam in a way few songs got the actual experience of war. Without politics. He doesn’t argue whether or not the war is justified. Just that he’s there. Which is what I suspect most soldiers actually care about.
    Rhinestone Cowboy. Keith Shackleton: a trigger warning. Larry Weiss also wrote Hi Ho Silver Lining. So two of the great guitarists are linked through song – Jeff Beck and Glenn Campbell. Rhinestone seems like a Jimmy Webb song. Although it’s imagery is Strong ‘nice guys get washed away like the snow in the rain’ it’s not quite as strong as a Webb song. Nonetheless it deserved its place as a standard. Also the Broadway refers to Nashville I think, not New York. But who knows?
    And Phoenix. The worst bus trip ever once you look at the map.

  4. Alex Lifson
    Jan 28, 2018

    Simply put, another great essay!

  5. Peter Viney
    Jan 28, 2018

    I enjoyed it very much. With Glen, it’s right to go for the hits. I do like the Folkswingers album of 12 string guitar stuff. Out of sentimentality, I’d add something from “Ghosts on The Canvas” – Teddy Thompson’s In My Arms is the best song on it, but A Better Place the most moving. See my 2011 review of The Farewell Tour.

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