The Songwriters – Jimmy Webb

It is probably true to say that all songwriters would like, or would have liked, to be stars themselves, singing their creations rather than giving them to other people. But somewhere along the line they decide, or the decision is made for them, that their talent lies in the composing, not the performing.

In Jimmy Webb’s case it took a long time – a fairly long, unsuccessful solo career even after he was an acknowledged great writer, with nary a sign of crossing over from provider to goalscorer.

The 1960s was Webb’s heyday, with a string of hits for Glen Campbell, the Fifth Dimension and others. His material was a mix of pop and country that veered alarmingly close to the  middle of the road but retained some credibility for the more critical, rock-oriented listener, by dint of beautiful melodies and creative, thoughtful lyrics.

His career in music really began in 1966, when the singer/producer Johnny Rivers recorded By The Time I Get To Phoenix, a supreme example of Webb’s craft, with a story that takes us along through a day where the singer leaves his girl, as he has threatened to do many times, and imagines what she is doing at various times while he journeys further and further away. She won’t believe it at first, he thinks, “She’ll laugh when she reads the part that says I’m leaving,” although the realization will grow throughout the day and when he reaches Oklahoma, she’ll find herself in bed and sleepily reaching for him:

“She’ll turn softly and call my name out low
And she’ll cry, just to think I’d really leave her.”

It’s one of those rare songs that does something millions of others could have done but didn’t, and turns a simple “I left her” into a drawn-out song of sorrow, pain and perhaps guilt.

It wasn’t Rivers who had the hit, though, but Glen Campbell, originally a much sought-after session guitarist who grew into a singer, and Jimmy Webb can take much of the credit for his flourishing. Songs of the calibre of Phoenix, Wichita Lineman and Galveston, with  restrained  orchestration and the top-drawer, unsung contributions of his former session buddies, proved a potent mixture.

Webb’s lyrical skill shines again in Wichita Lineman. We’re talking, don’t forget, about an engineer climbing up a telegraph pole to fix a problem with the line, and it is his thoughts that the song is giving us. He’s thinking about his love life, as we all do during our working day. He could do with a holiday but he’s not going to get one because of the weather. The context, the background information, the way it draws us in: this isn’t your average pop song by any means.

A lesser hit but an equally great song is Dreams of the Everyday Housewife, in which Webb – again via Campbell – takes us into the daydreams of an ordinary woman, thinking about how her life has turned out and how it might have been.

The Fifth Dimension benefited from such gems as Up Up And Away, Paper Cup and the underrated Carpet Man, with its depiction of a man badly treated by his girl, the narrator giving him a frank assessment of things he is too blind to see. A different perspective.

All of these were simple, unpretentious pop songs, albeit with a PhD in insight, and in theory should be overshadowed by the neo-psychedelic nightmare that is MacArthur Park, a song that stretched the sensibilities of many a young music fan. It was great, it was exciting, but what was it about? It was about weirdness – it belongs in John Lennon’s yellow psychedelic Rolls Royce along with Lucy in the Sky and Strawberry Fields.

And then, as the Simple Sixties turned into the Troubled Seventies, Webb’s bubble burst and he headed off on that fruitless solo career. And when that failed, he was back being a songwriter, but what does a songwriter do when he’s not having hits? He sits there writing and then he sits there not writing. You can see why they want to be performers – just for something to do.

I’m going to finish not at the end, but somewhere in the middle, with a song Webb wrote about a songwriter friend of his, P. F. Sloan. Here was a strange character with a flair for melody but without what it took to be really successful. Sloan wrote Eve of Destruction and the Herman’s Hermits hit, Must to Avoid, and played guitar on a few things – the acoustic intro to California Dreaming, for instance – but his fame, such as it is, is down to his friend Jimmy Webb and the search for a different angle, a different subject.

This version is by Unicorn, a British band of the late 60s/early 70s whom I saw at the Cellar Club in Guernsey in 1970 or 71 when, for some strange reason, they came to the island for a two-week residency. With those sweet high harmonies it sounds like they wanted to be Crosby Stills and Nash, and they never amounted to much, but, again thanks to Jimmy Webb, they gave at least one person a brilliant little song he’ll never forget.

 

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The wisdom of pop songs – Songs about occupations

The human condition explained in three-minute bursts

Writing a song that’s more than just a close-up of a relationship can require a bit of scene-setting, and just occasionally we get to find out what somebody does for a living.

One of my favourites in this category is Glen Campbell’s 1968 song Wichita Lineman, in which the narrator tells us straight off:

I am a lineman for the county
And I drive the main road
Searching in the sun for another overload

It was written by Jimmy Webb, who was also the man behind By The Time I Get to Phoenix and Macarthur Park, which tells you he put more detail and imagination into his lyrics than most writers.

A lineman is someone who maintains and repairs overhead power lines or telephone lines, and in a rural area that must be lonely work, stuck up a pole in the back of beyond. This is a love song, or rather a song of love and loneliness – it’s certainly not happy, but he’s not complaining about his job, just his personal life.

By contrast, Lee Dorsey’s Working in the Coal Mine, written by Allen Toussaint and originally a hit in 1966, is all about how he’s stuck in this dirty, dangerous job and is too tired to have fun.

One of Paul Simon’s most intriguing lyrics is from the Bridge Over Troubled Water album. So Long Frank Lloyd Wright is about a famous architect, or rather it uses his name. It’s written as to an old friend recently deceased and is daringly close to being a love song. One theory is that Art Garfunkel, who had studied architecture, challenged his master-songwriter partner to write about this man, whom Simon had never heard of. Whatever the truth may be, it’s a beautiful, haunting, wistful piece of music that transcends it subject matter.

Also from the Sixties, as are all the songs so far, is Tim Hardin’s If I Were  A Carpenter, which examines a relationship and speculates if it would have worked if things had been different. It must be uncomfortable listening for any gold-digging woman who has hooked up with a rich man purely for his money. With the roles reversed, he a humble craftsman and she a posh woman, would the attraction have been there?

If gambling can be said to be a career – and professionals do exist – it has certainly been dealt with in song. Most famously, there is Kenny Rogers’ The Gambler. Written by country tunesmith Don Schlitz in the mid 70s, it didn’t reach the global public until Rogers’ version in 1978. It’s about meeting a gambler on a train, and he can’t have been on a good streak because he has to bum a cigarette and a swig of whiskey before he imparts some wisdom about knowing when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em and so on, and then quietly dies.

Less successful but equally catchy was I’m a Gambler, by Lace, which got a lot of airplay in the UK in 1969 but didn’t make the charts. This was written by one of the unsung heroes of the golden era of British pop, Pete Dello, who among other things was the leader of Honeybus and wrote their smash I Can’t Let Maggie Go as well as Do I Still Figure In Your Life. I’m a Gambler was reissued four years later, under a new artist name, Red Herring, but still failed to set the world alight.

Incidentally, Madonna’s song of the same title is nothing like Dello’s little gem. It doesn’t seem to have anything to do with actual gambling either; it’s just Her Royal Highness showing she can talk tough just like a man.

Doctors feature quite heavily as far as being mentioned in song titles is concerned, but closer inspection reveals precious little in the way of detail about surgery, stethoscopes and so on. The Beatles’ Doctor Robert, for instance, is about a drug dealer, while Jackson Browne’s Doctor My Eyes is an imaginary conversation with a medic about the patient’s love life.

The Beatles’ Paul McCartney picked an unlikely object of love and lust in Lovely Rita, where he sings the praises of a traffic warden, even if he does say that her uniform and the bag across her shoulder “made her look a little like a military man”.

Steely Dan’s Doctor Wu is just a playful piece of imagery associated with a… well, it’s very obscure and probably about nothing.

Waitresses get a fair bit of coverage, but again, without detail about the intricacies of carrying plates and clearing tables. Bruce Springsteen mentions one in Sandy (4th of July, Asbury Park), but only as part a confession to his girlfriend, with the assertion that he’s not seeing this waitress anymore because she’s gone off him.

The Human League’s Don’t You Want Me bitches about how the singer rescued the girl from her menial life and now she’s dumped him.

You were working as a waitress in a cocktail bar
When I met you
I picked you out, I shook you up
And turned you around
Turned you into someone new

Well guess what, tough guy? You can’t help people and expect them to spend the rest of their life devoted to you because of it.

Being a pop star, of course, is itself a job, and unsurprisingly the world is full of songs about this, from The Byrds’s So You Wanna Be A Rock’n’Roll Star to Abba’s Thank You For The Music. Along the way there is Superstar, written by Leon Russell and Bonnie Bramlett and recorded by, among others, Rita Coolidge and The Carpenters, each time with the big-voiced girl mooning about the guitarist she wants but can’t have.

Barry Manilow’s monster hit I Write The Songs was actually penned by Bruce Johnston of the Beach Boys. It was featured on an album by The Captain and Tennille and as a single by David Cassidy.

Teachers – now there’s a goldmine for us. A lot of the songs are a bit un-PC in this day and age, from Lulu’s To Sir With Love to The Police’s Don’t Stand So Close To Me, but the student’s crush on the the man standing at the front is a recurring fact of life. Lulu’s question, “What can I give you in return?” is unmitigated, inflammatory flirting requiring a cold bath and a dose of bromide in the teacher’s tea.

So, plenty to choose from but nothing about dentists, chiropractors or roadsweepers. But hang on, gentlemen of the streets: there’s King of the Road, Roger Miller’s early 60s classic about being a poor drifter doing what he can to survive.

Ah, but, two hours of pushin’ broom
Buys an eight by twelve four-bit room

Nothing about estate agents, chefs or bloggers, but maybe there’s hope for all of us.