We are singing the praises of the telephone at the moment here on WMMCM, and so by extension (hah!), we can also sing songs about those who keep the lines of communication open.
Glen Campbell’s “Wichita Lineman” was a number one hit at AC as well as country radio, so we can just slip it into classic rock history, or pop certainly. But we couldn’t do a tribute to telephones and ignore this brief song, one of a number of collaborations between Campbell and songwriter Jimmy Webb.
OK, a working man is going about his job, and “Wichita Lineman” begins with a bit of country music scene-setting:
I am a lineman for the county
And I drive the main roads
Searchin’ in the sun for another overload
And this working man is longing for his beloved as he goes about his lonely day, and he tells us that, using terms suited to his trade. Now doesn’t that sound awful? All condescending and contrived and country-fried?
And yet this happened instead:
I hear you singing in the wires
I can hear it through the whine
And the Wichita lineman
Is still on the line
“I hear you singing in the wires.”
I adore that line; if I were a guy, I’d sing this song just so I could sing that line (and many have). I think it’s one of the great expressions of love in all of pop music, because it is so specific. Doesn’t it give an absolutely clear image of a lineman at the top of a telephone pole, listening on his headset for whatever it is linemen listen for, and dreaming of her as he works?
Sure he’s lonely and tired and wants a bit of a break:
I need a small vacation
But it don’t look like rain
And if it snows, the stretch down south
Won’t ever stand the strain
And that leads him back to thinking of his love, with the most famous lines of this hit song:
And I need you more than want you
And I want you for all time
Just makes you shiver…. but for all that, there’s nothing really overtly sad in the lyrics. It’s all in suggestion, and in the way Campbell sings it. By the standards of today’s country music, the vocal is a bit unsubtle for a ballad, with Campbell putting the ache right out there, especially in the second verse. But it’s a nice balance; this is arranged to pieces, the way country was in the late ’60s, with strings and brass and a lot of electronic twinkling, and an effect at the end that suggests someone has confused a telephone with a telegraph. (Some clever soul realized that the “Morse code” in a way replaces the usual ooh-aah brigade of backup singers; the code spells out “aaaah.”) But the superslick production ends up making a striking and effective contrast to a vocal that comes off as dead honest.
And there’s that guitar solo, too. Brief, nothing fancy, but on a downtuned guitar that manages to suggest phone lines drooping between telephone poles on a long and lonely road.
Just a lovely song, isn’t it?