How Glen Campbell’s “Wichita Lineman” Became “The Perfect Imperfect Song”
Dylan Jones’s new book explores Jimmy Webb and Glen Campbell’s legendary song
Some hit songs make sense as hit songs: there’s a great chorus or a memorable guitar solo. Sometimes the right song comes along at the right time and makes chart history. And then there’s “Wichita Lineman,” written by Jimmy Webb for the late Glen Campbell. It was released in late 1968 and offered listeners a host of contrasts: a narrator expressing existential solitude even as warm strings accentuate the melody. In the 50 years since its release in 1968, it’s been covered by artists as varied as R.E.M., James Taylor and Guns N’ Roses — and it helped make both Webb and Campbell famous.
In his new book The Wichita Lineman: Searching in the Sun for the World’s Greatest Unfinished Song, Dylan Jones — whose earlier forays into musical history include books about David Bowie and Jim Morrison — explores why “Wichita Lineman” has endured for so long. Part of it, Jones writes, is due to the chemistry of Webb and Campbell — a classic case of two people with very different demeanors who synced up perfectly when they worked together.
“One was a technician, both vocally and musically, and one was a great interpreter of spirit,” Jones tells InsideHook about Webb and Campbell. “Together they understood each other’s strengths, perhaps knowing that neither of them would have been so successful without the other.”
Both Campbell and Webb came from unorthodox backgrounds. While Campbell is best remembered as a singer and guitarist, he also worked as a session musician for years before becoming famous; Jones’s book chronicles his participation in a number of classic Beach Boys records, and discusses the speculation among Campbell enthusiasts that he can be heard on even more music than what he was credited for. For his part, Webb also eluded easy categorization: an early stint working as a songwriter for Motown Records never quite clicked, despite it being a formative experience for him.
Webb and Campbell’s first clicked when Campbell recorded Webb’s “By the Time I Get to Phoenix.” Jones notes that Webb wasn’t sure how the pairing would work initially, quoting Webb as saying, “There was some kind of a surreal fit between his voice and my songs.”
The success of that song led Campbell to ask Webb to write a song for the album he was working on at the time — an album which would ultimately be titled Wichita Lineman. Campbell gave Webb some specifics — another song about a town, a reference to geography — and Webb began working from there. The demo that Webb sent over to Campbell and producer Al De Lory was not, in Webb’s mind, complete — Webb wanted to add something else to it. As it turns out, he didn’t need to.
At one point in his book, Jones wrote that “Wichita Lineman” is “the perfect imperfect song.” When asked about why this particular collaboration clicked this well, Jones turns philosophical. “This collaboration was all about serendipity,” he says. “They always are.”
While recent years have seen a number of singular collaborations return to the forefront of acclaimed pop music — think of Donald Glover’s Childish Gambino collaborations with Ludwig Göransson, or Dev Hynes’s work with a host of pop stars — the specific circumstances that produced Campbell and Webb seem impossible to replicate.
Webb’s blend of contrary influences and Campbell’s history in the legendary group of session musicians known as the Wrecking Crew both played a huge role in both their solo work and the hits they made together. For Jones, the answer is simple: “No one will ever match them.” His book is a fascinating look at a bygone era of pop — and the unlikely ways a great song can come together.