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A Man Who Has Nothing In Particular To Recommend Him Discusses All Sorts of Subjects at Random as Though He Knew Everything

Another In The Long List Of Songs I Don’t Like That I Like

I used to play the electric bass, mostly. When anyone asked what instrument I played, I’d say electric bass, and they’d immediately say, “You mean bass guitar?”

No, I mean I play the electric bass. That thing Glen Campbell is playing in the video is a real, live electric bass guitar. It looks like some form of  Fender Bass VI.  It’s an electric guitar tuned down an octave. It sounds like Bonanza.  It’s so rare that I’ve never actually seen a real one in person. It was so rare that Nigel Tufnel didn’t want Marty DiBergi to even look at his Fender VI.

When I was a little kid, Wichita Lineman came right out of the radio whether you wanted it to or not. Every radio station played everything back then. FM hadn’t caught on in cars yet, so there weren’t that many stations, and radio stations grubbed after the same audience by throwing everything popular at the wall. It lent itself to an interesting phenomenon: Songs you hated that you liked.

I wasn’t a teenager yet, but I recognized Wichita Lineman as something for the squares. I wanted to hear Marvin Gaye sing Grapevine, or Hey Jude by the Beatles, or maybe People Got To Be Free, or hear Archie Bell tell us he was going to tighten up that bass, one more time. Instead of those, you’d have to sit through Honey by Bobby Goldsboro, or Judy in Disguise With Glasses, or some Herb Alpert shite.

It didn’t matter if I liked the stuff or not; I had to hear it, so I knew it. Inside and out. Years later, we used to play Stump the Band with our audiences, and we didn’t have much trouble banging out a terrible but recognizable version of most everything. It was banged into our heads all those years ago. Hard.

Considered dispassionately, Wichita Lineman is an amazing piece of work. Soup to nuts, composition to execution. It was even marketed properly — it was on everything all the time.  Jimmy Webb wrote it. It’s just a pop song, I guess. But I write flash fiction, and that’s almost exactly like writing songs. You have to conjure a mood immediately and describe a small story arc without exposition. It’s simple, but not easy. A very difficult knack.

It’s harmonically unusual for a pop song, and very effective at instantly painting an image of intense longing and loneliness in a particular time and place. Everyone involved in its production was a consummate pro. People don’t like to admit it, but popular entertainment can be broken into its component parts, the parts understood, and then produced like a widget. It’s the understanding part that’s difficult.

So Wichita Lineman sucks. But how can you help but love it?

(Also: Wichita Lineman at the Rumford Meteor)

16 Responses

  1. Glen was the consummate delivery man. Webb sucked at rendering it, but his part was no small potatoes, either.

    I've decided that your Flash Fiction is like touching off a line of gunpowder with a cigarette. Much more incendiary than short stories, and more like Heavy Metal than pop music. Maybe not Heavy Metal, but maybe it is like the more melodic few HM songs.

    Anyway, I am a fan.

  2. What's the magic spice in this blue plate special? The long sustain and fade of the world "line."

  3. Hi Expat- It's hard to say. If he's lip-synching, he's really good at it. He really is playing the guitar. I can see him fiddling with the volume knob, turning it up for his solo, and down while he's singing. It was somewhat common back then for singers to appear on variety shows and sing over the original recording with just the vocal track removed. Glen Campbell wouldn't have any problem singing that song live. He was a very accomplished session musician before he became famous in his own right.

    Hi Casey- Many thanks. I'm grateful for your friendship.

    Gerard! Glen's got alzheimers. He may or may not be doing all right, but he'd be the last to know either way.

  4. Gerard,

    True dat on the hook – not to ignore the telegraph key effect in the strings, which is what sold it.

    As to Glen's reaction, I think he signed in as "Anonymous," just above.

  5. I was in the Marines when this came out, and like Sip says, it was played ad-nauseam. It made being away from home even worse.

    ….but now I kind of like to hear it.

  6. Oh man my musical youthhood tracks yours, just ten or so years behind you, I guess. The A.M. purgatory you grew up with just got transmogrified into F.M. purgatory anyplace without a larger city nearby.

    Me, the closest big town was Augusta, Georgia*, which wasn't quite large enough. WBBQ Casey Kasem top-40 land. I knew every tune by heart for years including the ones I hated, which were many. When I found out there were bands like the Replacements, X, R.E.M. (all that early Alternative music), but WBBQ wouldn't play them, I was incensed, enraged. Because by then I was a teenager so I got angry about important stuff.

    Then, like you, I learned, not to love, but to not-hate a lot of that Top-40 garbage**, because some of it was well-wrought garbage.

    *Due to this I promise I have heard The Pina Colada Song ("Augusta Georgia is Just No Place To Be") 50% more times than anyone here.

    **One thing I do miss about Top-40 was that you did encounter pretty serious diversions in musical style, now and then. Segue from say Scorpions to The Commodores.

  7. This is a bunny trail, but please go with me. Since you have an "ear" for the electric bass, can you tell me if the first 30 seconds of the Hollies' "Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress" is played on the electric bass?

    Here is a YouTube video, but I can't tell just by looking.

    I maintain that the first 30 second of "Long Cool Woman … " is the finest 30 seconds in all of Rockdom. I'm wondering if I like the sound so much because it is played on the electric bass.

  8. I love it. I love it the way I love lilacs- 50 weeks out of the year they're ugly, they have a terrible growth habit, they spread and you can't get rid of them, they're overused and even their scientific name, Syringa vulgaris, speaks to their vulgarity. But man doesn't that smell take you back to somewhere in your past, some time you were in love, or when you were young. Don't you just want to take them in to your senses for those 2 weeks a year so you can remember what it was like to be a child in springtime. Ugly god damned things though for 50 weeks.

  9. I'll say this about your flash fiction: not flashy, but well done in an experienced workman's manner. Solid. Stands level. No hammer marks, unless they need to be there. Well finished–not glossy, but it shines.

    (Oh, stop blushing.)

  10. I guess I feel safe enough within the confines of this blog to admit that Wichita Lineman was one of my guilty pleasures.

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