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)