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The song Bob Dylan called the greatest ever written

by Neil Crossley: The story of Wichita Lineman

Jimmy Webb was driving through the high plains of north-west Oklahoma when the inspiration for his biggest ever song came to him.

It was a scorching summer afternoon and as the Grammy award-winning songwriter drove, vast swathes of grassy landscape stretched for as far as the eye could see. The terrain was flat and featureless, except for telephone poles positioned at the side of the road all the way to the horizon.

Glen Campbell-awaken

In the distance, Webb noticed a man perched near the top of one of these poles. As Webb got closer he could see the man was holding a phone and talking into it. The image of this anonymous lone figure toiling in searing heat in this vast landscape stuck in his mind as he drove on.

Webb knew this utility worker was a ‘lineman’, employed to check the telephone lines. But he began to wonder if the man might actually be talking to his girlfriend far away, and what was going through his mind as he worked in total isolation out on the high plains.

“It was such a curiosity to see a human being perched up there,” he told Blender magazine in 2001, as reported by Michael Hann in the Financial Times, in “an area that’s real flat and remote, almost surreal in its boundless horizons and infinite distances”.

This image would inspire Jimmy Webb to write Wichita Lineman, a haunting, mercurial ballad that would become a massive mainstream hit for country crossover star Glen Campbell. The song, with its sweeping melancholy, is one of the most perfectly realised pop songs of all time. Almost six decades on from its creation, it has a powerful and enduring legacy.

It was February 1968 when Jimmy Webb received a phone call from Glen Campbell, a singer, songwriter and former session guitarist with the ‘Wrecking Crew’, the loose collective of gifted LA session musicians who played on hundreds of Top 40 hits in the 60s and 70s, such as Be My Baby by the Ronettes, You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin by the Righteous Brothers, California Dreamin by The Mamas & the Papas and Good Vibrations by the Beach Boys.

They also played on By the Time I Get To Phoenix, a Jimmy Webb composition that was a hit for Glen Campbell in 1967. When Campbell called up Jimmy Webb in February, 1968, he was midway through recording an album and looking for his first Top Ten hit.

“Do you think you could write us another By The Time I Get to Phoenix?” Campbell asked, according to Neely Tucker at the US Library of Congress. Webb liked a challenge. “Okay,” he said. “Let me see what I can do.”

By then, Webb was living high in the Hollywood Hills, in an old mansion that he shared with numerous friends and a green baby grand piano. He was still basking in the success of Up, Up and Away, his Grammy-award winning song, recorded by the 5th Dimension.

Webb went to his piano and decided that a geographical reference in the title might work again. He recalled the image of the lone telephone worker on that long, lonely stretch of road in Oklahoma. Over the next two hours he sketched out a song and asked Campbell and De Lory to drop by his house that evening to take a listen. “It’s not finished yet,” said Webb as they sat down. “There’s no third verse.”

When Webb played them the song, Campbell was bowled over. He knew in an instant that it was a hit. “When I heard it I cried,” he told BBC Radio 4 in 2011. “…It’s just a masterfully written song.”

Jimmy Webb, 1971

Jimmy Webb in 1971 (Image credit: Getty Images)

At its core, Wichita Lineman is a story of desolation and longing: “I hear you singing in the wire / I can hear you through the whine”. As Neely Tucker of the US Library of Congress puts it, the song “spoke to the human condition, the universal need for love. The imagery about the singing in the wires and searching in the sun for overloads was out of this world”.

The song has just sixteen lines and lasts three minutes and six seconds but it says more in that time than many authors manage in a lifetime. It also includes a couplet that author Dylan Jones, in his acclaimed 2019 book The Wichita Lineman: Searching in the Sun for the World’s Greatest Unfinished Song, calls one of the most exquisite romantic couplets in the history of song: “And I need you more than want you / And I want you for all time”.


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