Some things stay with you forever. In 1972, my dad would sit proudly behind the wheel of a Ford Anglia estate, with a licence plate that read FEG982D. I remember that number, although I don’t know why. The car itself was sky blue, the colour Coventry City Football Club wore, but I only knew that because of the sticker album I had called Soccer Stars In Action. We lived in Norfolk, a region untroubled by top-flight football, and from our humble home in a tiny village called Swanton Morley we would drive across the county most Saturdays to visit relatives in Thetford.
The Anglia dashboard didn’t run to a music player, so on every excursion, back and forth, either myself or my sister would be on the back seat, cradling a cumbersome cassette player on our laps. It was on these journeys that I became acquainted with songs sung by Glen Campbell. Honey Come Back, Dreams Of The Everyday Housewife, Galveston, Gentle On My Mind, By The Time I Get To Phoenix, and a tune which drilled itself into my head like a pencil that knew it was better than any device designed to sharpen it, Wichita Lineman.
“And I need you more than want you, and I want you for all time…”
Glen Campbell is dead, and it’s right that we should mourn him, but please don’t feign surprise. We knew it was coming, and so did he. Diagnosed with Alzheimer’s five years ago, forced to give up his first love of performing to an audience, he nonetheless completed an album earlier this year called Adios, liberally peppered with last chance saloon humour. He traded lines with Willie Nelson on Funny How Time Slips Away, and revisited Fred Neil’s Everybody’s Talkin’, saving his best voice for “only the echoes of my mind.”
Such a sweet voice, but that wasn’t the only arrow in his quiver. Yes, those golden tonsils got him live gigs as a surrogate Beach Boy, but only after Brian Wilson had enlisted him for studio work as a guitarist, a component of the famed Wrecking Crew that also helped Phil Spector make his internal sonic blueprint an aural reality.
But let’s get back to the voice, and how it served as the most perfect conduit for one of popular music’s true geniuses. Jimmy Webb wrote an American road map for Brits, through the songs he fashioned for Glen Campbell – Galveston, Phoenix and Wichita became both real and magical places for boys like me who’d never been closer to America than watching Rita Moreno swish a skirt in West Side Story.
With all that as our primer, we would dig deeper. Then we would hear Glen singing Jimmy’s words on Where’s The Playground, Susie?, and discover that love songs didn’t necessarily have to be about dance/chance/romance or moon/swoon/June. There was this thing called metaphor, and it cracked open the walnut of pop with a cast-iron tuning fork. The game had changed; the stakes were raised. It might not have been Glen’s fork, but he was gripping the handle and knew what to do with it.
There was a bit of a lull in the early ‘70s, no more than a year or three (standard in terms of the 21st century music industry), but he roared back with two songs in particular, though neither from the mighty pen of Jimmy Webb.
You can hunt high and low for a solid couplet, but you won’t find many better than this, kicking off the uplifting preamble Larry Weiss wrote to lead listeners into the anthemic chorus of Rhinestone Cowboy: “There’s been a load of compromisin’ on the road to my horizon.”
Glen followed that awesome hit with Southern Nights, a golden-haired Arkansas boy alerting the wider world to the brilliance of Allen Toussaint. In a similar fashion, it was the Campbell cover of If You Could Read My Mind that introduced me to the persuasively eloquent low-key catalogue of Gordon Lightfoot, and his rendition of Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye kick-started my lifelong love of street corner doo-wop.
Almost all the songs mentioned above featured on 20 Golden Greats, a Number One album of 1976, its impressive chart performance achieved through a brilliant TV ad campaign and a truly striking cover image – heart-shaped vinyl. It was brought to market by EMI the same week the label released Anarchy In The UK by The Sex Pistols. I bought both, but 41 years later you can probably guess which I’ve played the most.
Some things stay with you forever.
Written by Terry Staunton