If any good can come from the news this week of Glen Campbell’s death, it’s to remind us to appreciate Jimmy Webb.
Among other classics, Webb wrote ‘Wichita Lineman’, and Campbell’s shimmering, aching version of same is unquestionably one of the best records ever made. The two men became closely associated, with Campbell as a sort of head curator of the Jimmy Webb songbook. In response to Campbell’s death, Webb posted a tribute on social media. Here’s the standout line:
“He was my big brother, my protector, my co-culprit, my John crying in the wilderness.”
Well now; that’s worthy of ‘Wichita Lineman’ itself.
Webb’s best songs are shot through with that same cinematic sense of yearning and distance, married to soaring, cathedral-vaulting creative invention. Done well, you get ‘Wichita Lineman’, ‘Galveston’, ‘Up, Up and Away’ and ‘By The Time I Get To Phoenix’. Done less well, you get ‘MacArthur Park’. It’s not much of an overstatement to describe it as one of the most notorious pop singles ever released, and certainly the albatross around Webb’s body of work. He even named his autobiography after its most infamous lyric.
Because Campbell reminds me of Webb, all week ‘MacArthur Park’ has been stuck in my head, and if I’m going down then I’m dragging you all down with me.
‘MacArthur Park’ is a rare Jimmy Webb song whose definitive version isn’t by Glen Campbell but by, of all people, Richard Harris. As Webb has recounted in many interviews since then, Harris was flush with the success of the musical Camelot and wanted to make a pop album — so he summoned Webb to make it for him. The finished product was called A Tramp Shining, and ‘MacArthur Park’ was the track chosen to be its promo single.
‘MacArthur Park’ was a bizarre choice to be a single. For one thing, it’s over 7 minutes long so it’s hardly a radio-friendly cut. But then, ‘MacArthur Park’ is simply a bizarre song in itself. Its sky-scraping ambition —a Jacques Brel-style torch song in four bombastic movements, replete with strings, brass and choir — is fatally undermined by its whimsical lyrics, which are the source of its infamy. The chorus about baking a cake is notorious enough, but there’s also a stinker of a line in the first verse about two lovers “pressed / In love’s hot, fevered iron / Like a striped pair of pants”. ‘Pants’ is right. Any interview I’ve ever read of Webb invariably includes him yet again having to defend this song’s lyrics.
Just as bad is Harris enunciating both syllables of “stri-ped” as if it were Shakespearean blank verse. And the chorus features Harris’s irritating affectation of always calling it “MacArthur’s Park”.
Even getting past the lyrics, its sound has aged badly. Those analogue synths may have been futuristic in 1968 but today they sound like Tupperware. The cheesy uptempo third movement is like a movie car chase set to interpretive dance for a Broadway musical. And unless I’ve taken a wrong turn in the lyrics somewhere, the climactic high-note ending sounds more fitting of Jesus ascending into the choir celestial.
Yet somehow it became a huge worldwide hit and remains a compelling record.
For one thing, it’s harsh to mock a pop songwriter for ambition, especially one in the late ’60s and early ’70s when the medium was in constant flux and innovation. After all, we’ve just had a year of celebrating the story of an alien in an orange mullet who warns Earthlings of impending Armageddon. (I’m referring to David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust here rather than Donald Trump’s Donald Trump.) That could easily have turned out badly. All great creative types have to flirt with ridicule.
Also, Harris plays the song as an actor, ‘reading’ the lines (“stri-ped” and all) and portraying the character. Campbell’s version of ‘MacArthur Park’ doesn’t quite work because Campbell’s rich, deep, suntanned voice isn’t convincing as a lovelorn loser gazing forlornly at cake in the rain. It’s an over-the-top song about the drama of dreary ordinary life, and with his thin, reedy singing voice Harris rises to it.
Finally, ‘MacArthur Park’ has that musical trick Webb also uses in ‘Wichita Lineman’ — up until that closing high note, the melody and chords never quite resolve themselves, so there’s an intriguing air of unsettled feeling. You keep listening to find out where this song is going.
So, from Limerick to L.A., here’s Richard Harris singing ‘MacArthur Park’. Maybe one day Munster rugby fans will start singing this from the terraces of Thomond Park in honour of their most famous local fan:
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